Thursday, April 30, 2015

Heaven for Stanley

The first time I went to one of Stanley Kunitz's birthday parties, he was just turning 90. I was sent by a magazine to write about the event, which was held on the waterfront deck of a painter, and attended by all Provincetown's older and serious artists. It truly did feel like the bohemians of another era were going strong, there in the sun, downing martinis, delighted to be in attendance. I knew Stanley just a little then; our friendship had just begun when we'd given a reading together for the National Seashore. He and his wife Elise had been warm advocates for my work, and Stanley obviously loved giving emotional support and guidance to younger poets he admired. I think I was 40 then, but compared to 90, I appeared to be a young poet indeed.

One of the reasons the magazine had sent me was that they thought this birthday party was probably his last. In fact, every time Stanley gave a reading during the decade to follow it felt like an occasion; audiences were moved by this small man striding up to the podium, and how his rather quavery voice became steady and strong as he read Touch Me, The Portrait, Route Six, The Layers, and so many other poems people knew and loved. I had the good fortune to introduce him a number of times in those years -- at the Sunken Garden in Connecticut, where he was magisterial, and at the Dia Foundation Space in Chelsea, a reading of spellbinding intimacy. I'll  never forget reading with him at New York is Book Country, an outdoor fair in Manhattan. Fifth Avenue in midtown had been closed for the occasion, and we were to read on an elevated wooden platform. When we arrived, Julia Child was being interviewed on stage -- was she a little in her cups? Then I read and then, dwarfed by the huge towers around him, there was this 95 year old man in a body that seemed both delicate and vital at once, and for a while he owned that city: I am not yet done with my changes.

All in all I went to ten of Stanley's birthday parties, nine of them in the house in the far west end of town, up on the  slope before the last of Cape Cod trails down into a spiral arm of sand. I wrote a poem after the party for his 98th year. And now the wonderful students, faculty and staff at Moses Brown School in Providence, RI, had made this video version.  I'm hugely moved by it: how it calls back Stanley and that party, and how the poem, something I've made of my time with him, appears in the mouths of all these people, each a distinct and lovely self. It's a metaphor for the life of poetry, how it enters, if we're lucky, many ears, many mouths. Stanley and I are spoken here. We have new company in the world. We're enlarged.

I'm reading on Friday, May 1 (tomorrow!) at Moses Brown, for the students in the daytime, and for the public at 7. If you're anywhere nearby, you're invited.


Anonymous said...

This is so wonderful. I first read Stanley K. as an undergraduate in the last century, encountering him in Anthony Ostroff's Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. To read a poet respond to analysis of his or her work was a gift to a young aspiring writer and when that poet was Stanley Kunitz talking about the origins and so forth of "Father and Son" -- well, if this was poetry, I wanted it, I would die for it, I couldn't imagine any other life. And he's been a constant companion, his work on my desk so I can dip in at any hour of the day or night and read of that child on the roof, his mother's pears, "the white ignorant hollow" of his father's face. Still the chill running up and down my spine, still the sense that here was holiness. Thank you for this post.

Mark Doty said...

Thank you, Theresa -- a terrific comment. I'm so curious about that sense of 'holiness' you describe in Stanle's work. Where does that arise in the poem, do you think, what produces that feeling? Something to do with his emotional engagement in the present moment (even when that moment is a contemplation of the past). Something to do with a lack of barrier between him and the present, as if, when he went to write, Stanley was all there, all in it... I'm not saying this well, but groping for something. I heard him read so many times during the last decade of his life, and every time I could see how readers responded with such energy to this quality of presence, or emotional clarity. Whatever that energetic current was!

Anonymous said...

I think it was the sacramental nature of the language, its sense of having coming from a dark and ancient well. (Not putting this well, I know, but somehow when a poet writes,as he did,
"I lived on a hill that had too many rooms;
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear...”
you understand that this is beyond religion.) There's something of this is your Deep Lane, I have to say.

Mark Doty said...

The first three lines of that startling quotation could well have been the epigraph for Deeo Lane.

My garden slopes upward, as it's a narrow little piece of land that slices perpendicularly into the very tail end of the Ronkonkoma Moraine, the spine of otherwise very flat Long Island. It isn't a steep slope, but it gives the place its character: how the wind comes down over the lane in a storm, how fog comes up from the low-lying land in shrouds. How when you're up toward the top you can look across the top of the house to the treetops across the road. I have the feeling that the source of my poems is indeed underground here, in the dark, among what moves, grows, lives or doesn't there. When I'm here I write in a small square studio halfway up the slope, and sometimes I can almost feel the energy of the place moving in eddies across the threshold, as if toward me.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark

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Hope to hear back from you. My email is if you do see this and would like to contact me back.

Thank you

Lee Francis