Stanley Kunitz at 112: Simple Thoughts On A Legacy

"The poet is an embodiment of resistance: resistance against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, against institutional pressures to make everything look and become alike. This is why he is so involved with contraries." (Stanley Kunitz)

I think often about this quote, and how it brilliantly locates the work of the poet in the world. And it's not just the contemporary world (though we clearly face all of these things), but as the noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann often points out, the prophets of Israel were poets who were concerned with these very issues as well. In our secular time we need poets who will open paths of resistance to these social ills, who will make sure that the people have voice and that individual voices are heard.

Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, MA, would have turned 112 today. He was a remarkable human being -- and two-time Poet Laureate (in 1974 and 2000) -- and his life and his legacy are worth remembering. Generous in spirit, he founded the Poets House in New York City and was one of the founders of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, both of which continue to support those engaged in creative work. Kunitz was also deeply committed to intellectual freedom, and his work as editor of the (now-defunct) Wilson Library Bulletin spurred many in that profession to oppose censorship and protect the freedom to read.

Here's a short poem of his that should provide you with a good place to start your reading of his work:


Great events are about to happen.
I have seen migratory birds
in unprecedented numbers
descend on the coastal plain,
picking the margins clean.
My bones are a family in their tent
huddled over a small fire
waiting for the uncertain signal
to resume the long march.

(From his 1985 book Next To Last Things.)

Whenever poets gather the conversation invariably turns to influences - who we're reading, who we want to sound like, whose careers we wish we had. I don't know that I'll ever be remembered as a great poet, or that my poems will survive my generation, but I'd like to be remembered as a generous poet, one who, like Stanley Kunitz, thought about keeping the resistance alive, and giving younger poets a place to work.