An Interview with Stanley Kunitz
We went to Stanley Kunitz’s apartment on the eve of December 28, 2000. My translator, Nazrul Islam Naz—who also translated, “The Long Boat,” of Kunitz just about the same time and published it in Shabdaguchha—came to New York from London and wanted to meet Kunitz. I thought it would also be a great idea to interview him at the same time. So I called and got an okay from Kunitz. He gave us time though he was busy for the Christmas season. Two days before the visit, Nazrul had to go back to London for a family emergency. And since my wife, Naznin Seamon, also a poet, got a little cold, I had to invite Ruksana Rupa, a regular contributor of Shabdaguchha, to be my companion.
I know Manhattan well, but I failed to find his address. Instead of going to W. 12th Street, I went to W. 16th Street and rang the bell for a couple of times. Since we got off the train at the 14th Street stop, we would have to go two blocks south, but I was so excited to see the poet. So, we went two blocks north, instead. We came back to sixth Ave and called Kunitz from a pay phone. He said that the address was okay. So we went back to the same wrong place and came back to sixth Ave one more time and called him again. He mentioned that he already informed his doorman. We went to the same address for the third time and realized that there was no doorman there. As we came back to sixth Ave again and hesitated to call him for the third time, I suddenly looked at the street sign. "Oh, my goodness," just came out of my mouth as I saw that we were standing at the corner of W. 16th Street. Without mentioning anything to Ruksana, who never knew how to find any address in the city, I started walking, as fast as I could, in the opposite direction. She was now running behind me.
When we got to his 2nd-floor apartment, we saw both Kunitz and his wife, Elise Asher, were waiting for us. I gave the bouquet I bought at the corner of 14th Street to Kunitz and explained why Nazrul could not come and introduced Ruksana. We got a very warm welcome.
We were talking about poetry, in general, but the social and political aspect of our lives also reflected in our conversation. And the first few minutes passed by with no tape recorder. At some point, he was mumbling a little and attempting to find out what I was going to ask him. His wife was sitting next to him. Ruksana Rupa sat on the other side of Kunitz with a camera in her hand so that she could take some pictures. My small tape recorder was on a stool midway between Kunitz and me.
Stanley Kunitz: What a . . . ?
Hassanal Abdullah: Actually, what I would like to know is your view about poetry. So I have some questions for you. Though I do have the outline, I would also ask questions in order to give our discussion a little more fluency. . . . I read your poetry and I am very well aware of the richness of it, and I love your poems. I am trying to translate your work, but I find that it is not that easy to translate.
Kunitz: Have you done other translations? Have you done many translations?
Abdullah: Well, I have. I’ve translated Gerald Stern. A few of his poems.
Elise Asher: [Did not hear me. So she asked Kunitz.] Who?
Kunitz: Gerald Stern.
Asher: Oh, Yah!
Abdullah: [Continuing] And I also translated Wislawa Szymborska.
Kunitz: Aha! Szymborska!
Abdullah: But from English. And also Nicanor Parra. [I handed him the paper in which Parra’s work was published in my translation.] Parra’s poetry in Bengali.
Kunitz: [Took it from my hand and said to his wife] It’s printed in Bangladesh. It’s like hieratic.
Asher: It looks pretty. It’s an art. It’s like calligraphy.
Abdullah: [to Asher] Thank you. [to Kunitz] Would you mind telling us about your early days in poetry? How did you start writing? What were the struggles you had?
Kunitz: As you probably know that I was raised in New England in the city of Wooster. And this was an industrial city. It was actually a bad time. Enormously. Wooster was a city where we had a large immigrant population from all parts of the world. And it was interesting in that way, except each little ethnic group stayed in its own part of the city. There was no communication between them, and I hated that as a young person. We thought we were being segregated in each community and we were afraid to walk into the other parts of the city, because we were not welcome, actually. So I learned a lot about the world from that experience. But the great blessing was there for me that at the edge of the city there was a great wood. It was there. So I used to spend whatever time when I was free. I roamed through the wood, and I imagined the Indians, the American Indians, were still there, and I could find the arrowheads and the remains of their pre-historic huts. And so I was born . . . I had no problem. My father killed himself before I was born.
Abdullah: You have said it in you poem, “The Portrait.”
Kunitz: Yes, yes. I have. And I found my comfort in books. I read every book I could lay my hands on. I loved language, the sound of language. To me it was the early age I began writing poems. I read every poet I could lay my hands on. And I was especially into the early English metaphysical poets, like John Donne, and George Herbert, to some extent. That was pretty much my beginning. And I was lucky because among my teachers in the public school of Wooster I found several who were interested in what I was doing, and they encouraged me. They kept saying to me, “You are going to be a poet.” So, I believed them, and I did not want to disappoint them.
Abdullah: Like my mother did it for me. She used to get surprised. She would look at me and ask, "How do you collect all these words to write poetry."
Kunitz: Uh, huh!
Abdullah: Well, they encouraged you to write and you kept on writing. And you started sending poems to magazines. Now, tell us about your feelings when they were rejected or accepted?
Kunitz: I was very lucky. I was accepted at a very early age. In my teens. I was, maybe, eighteen or nineteen years old, when I began to be accepted by the prominent, the best poetry magazine. And I finished with college . . .
Abdullah: What was the name of the prominent poetry magazine at that time?
Kunitz: Poetry magazine.
Abdullah: Oh, Poetry!
Kunitz: Yes. That was the big poetry magazine at that time. But, the best of the literary magazines, general magazine of literature, was The Dial. And Mariane Moore was the editor. She became interested in my work when I was very young. So, I felt very privileged to be published in Dial. And both political journals like The Nation and The New Republic, I don’t know if you know about them, but they had an interest in what I wrote. So I was encouraged at a very early age, and I came to New York in 1928, and I had my first collection of poems in process. Then I plucked up my courage, and I sent my first manuscript out in 1929. The first publisher I sent it to Double Day that was the biggest publisher at that time. And the next thing I knew, I had a telephone call from them. They took my first book of poems . . .
Abdullah: We have a little similarity. I came to New York when I was 23 . . .
Kunitz: Yah. So I felt what a lucky guy I am. They published it in a small edition. I think only 600 copies. It is very rare.
Abdullah: What’s the name of your first book?
Kunitz: Intellectual Things. And, you know, I took that from William Blake that tear is an intellectual thing. But people misunderstood my title. They thought that I was saying that the only thing I was interested in was the intellect, not the emotion. So I was criticized.
Abdullah: Since you’ve mentioned, what do you think about emotion? Should it come to poetry as it comes in, or should it be a little bit polished before getting into poetry?
Kunitz: I believe, the emotional life has the source, the impetuous, that the need for poetry is out of the emotional life more than anything else. And I sometimes feel that the misfortune in the modern world is that poetry has moved out of the theater, out of drama. In early times, that is the great Elizabethan Age dramatic action . . . Shakespeare wrote for the theater for the mass audience. And other poets wrote to celebrate the great national myths of the history of the past, the origins, the gods—what they had to hear through us. In the modern world, poets were independent. They didn’t belong to any corporation or organization. They were individuals. Each one was a different kind of individual. And poetry needs that multiplicity, that diversity; and to me as I look back on it, I think that the academic system took poetry over. It became its master. The first time in history . . .
Abdullah: Do you think it’s bad for us?
Kunitz: Yah. So I think there is a kind of bureaucracy and decorum in the university system that is not right.
Abdullah: You must write poetry this way or that . . .
Kunitz: Well, if your job depends on it, your teaching job, you better be careful. You better not say anything; you better not insult your directors. So . . . and . . . then another aspect of that is those who are masters in the academic world have also become the masters of poetry. And I think that’s a pishpash.
Abdullah: Your first book was published in 1930. You are still writing now in the 21st century. Are you as excited now as much as you were to write poetry at that time?
Kunitz: Well, as a young person, I had divergence, like experience of the world . . . like where did I get my poems? I think I got my poems out of my longing, my desire, my yearning and from older poets of the past from whom I learned how to write. I had no mentors to teach me how to write, as young people today have. They go to regular school to learn how to be a poet. I went into the wood, the field, and that was a big difference. And I still turn. Gardening, to me, is the vocation that I feel happiest about. And we have a place on Cave Cod in Provincetown, you may have heard of it. And I have a great garden there that I am devoted to. Here [New York], I even have a little garden there out in the balcony. So a lot of my imagery and feeling about the world out is of my sense of belonging to the natural world, and to me, that is the great connection that leads me into any concept of what is holy; what is sacred comes to me out of Nature instead of out of church or philosophy. The world that I am in is the world of everyday. And the desire. What I look for is for something universal, something larger than the individual. But it all has to do with human feeling. At the heart of poetry, I believe, at least, the kind of poetry I write, is love itself, love for others and desire—love, desire and of reaching out towards the odd base of our society. Not the special ones, not the privileged ones, but the mass of the people—that’s where one finds one’s sources in one’s poetry.
Abdullah: What is the change in your poetry over the years?
Kunitz: Well, they are within a great change. In the beginning, as I have said before, one has little experience so that the poetry that one writes comes out of a general desire for a language that has a melody too, a rhythm, a beauty in itself. But there is no grasp of the detail connection with others. It comes out that the poetry of a young man has very little texture. It is general in its feelings. It is not experienced. It does not come out of experience. It comes out of thoughts of an abstract beauty that one is driving for. In one’s later life, one is looking for a little detail—it could be anything. You could walk down the street and see a man at the corner begging, let’s say, and you look into his eyes and you see something there that is so hurtful and there you could have two different options: you want to walk away and eliminate it from you sensibility and feeling, and the other option you have—you want to change the world that it will never happen again. What can you do to eliminate the damage that we do?
Abdullah: Would you please tell me about your contemporaries? Tell me about some of the poets you like. And why do you like them?
Kunitz: That’s a large order. Let me explain why? There is a passage of . . . [not clear] in his notes, journal, where he says, in the kingdom of heaven all are equal. He says, it is so with the real poets. I reject the tendency to rank poets. But the critics always want to rank poets. To me, I love the poets, dozens and dozens of them, for who they are what they are, who say what they need to say, who create something that gives me the delight of language. So I don’t look around in order to find flaws, what’s wrong with the poem. I look to find what I can read with pleasure and with meaning . . . to me. And I have been lucky that I have so many friends among the poets. I have tried, during my lifetime, to encourage young poets. And you know about Poets House in New York, which I am the cofounder of. I don’t know if you know about the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. But that is another group of poets and painters, too. Because I feel they are very close together. In Provincetown, the Fine Arts Work Center, we have a community. Every year, we invite ten young emerging poets and fiction writers and ten artists, painters, and sculptors. We choose them out of thousands of applications; because they are gifted and young, there is hope for them. And they come there, we have lodgings for them—we have buildings, which were built over the years. We invite them to come there and do nothing but work. They live there for seven months. And we give them money to live. We have been in existence in Provincetown for over 35 years now, and we turn out two of the prizes. We do not give them instructions. They all live with their peers, with people like them. There are communities. And the sense of community, and the sharing of their work with the others and the poets and the painters communicate with each other. And they are living by the sea, right on the edge of the sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and with the dunes, with the great sand dunes. It’s a perfect environment, and there is nothing else they can do except work. That’s why we call it the Fine Arts Work Center. So in any case, I have taught in the creative writing programs. I spent many years teaching at Columbia in New York. I was lucky, too; I had many fine students who developed into important poets. So I have been lucky in my friendships. My earliest friend in poetry—when I came to New York, even before that when I was living in Pennsylvania—was Theodore Roethke. Do you know any of his work?
Kunitz: He was my earliest poet friend. And I was a dear friend of Robert Lowell and many others I could say. Well, I am very close to Gerald Stern and W. S. Merwin. And so many young people, some of them are my former students like Louise Gluck and Marie Howe. I could name dozens, but it’s a continuing thing. I don’t feel any generational gap. To me, all the poets, the young and the old, the living and the dead, are contemporaries. That’s the important thing. That’s the most important thing.
Abdullah: Since you’ve mentioned Robert Lowell, tell us a little about his sonnets.
Kunitz: . . . the Elizabethan sonnet is definitely of tighter in its form. But I don’t think that’s either the great asset or great deficit. It depends on who is doing it. Sometimes, the sonnet in the hands of some poets seems too artificial or too formal. It is open in Lowell.
Abdullah: What about its texture? You said you were enlightened in the beauty of language. Now, whenever a poem is translated into another language, the texture and the beauty of the language is changed, as Robert Frost said, "Poetry is what is lost in translation." And . . .
Kunitz: Well, I have done quite a bit of translations as you know. And you cannot, obviously, translate the sounds of the original poems. But you can texture its sense, but not word for word, because there are no equivalences in each language. Each language has its own texture and its own music. You try to create a poem in your own language that has its own music. That would be a different kind of music. But, it has to have the sense, the meanings as close as you can make those meanings. You also have to have enough freedom of action to recompose the ingredients of the poem into another linguistic structure. It’s not that easy.
Abdullah: Are you implying that the translator has to be the poet of both languages?
Kunitz: No. You don’t need to be an expert of the original language in which it’s written in. In the case of my translation from Russian for example, my Russian is very limited and amateurish, I would say. But when I worked with poems in the original Russian, I have been lucky enough to have friends and scholars who can help me with the text. For example, the roots of the words; that is, the roots have gone deeper than the word itself in its contemporary sense; that drags its own meaning along with it into the present. A scholar can help you with that. And when you’ve got that information and you feel enriched by that information. It gives you some depth in the language that you could not possibly have unless you are born with some background in that other language. So, I think in the modern world where there is so much interchange between different nations, different languages and between different cultures, that gives you a free world to translate. You can translate from any language if you want to and if you have the right connection.
Abdullah: So you do not believe that poetry is what is lost in translation?
Kunitz: I think some poems get enriched in translation. It’s possible. It’s possible. It’s conceivable.
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Shabdaguchha, A Journal of Poetry, Published in New York, Edited by Hassanal Abdullah.