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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Number 20: Stanley Kunitz "The Portrait"

The Portrait
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

--Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: Six weeks before Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was born, his father walked to a public park in Worcester, Massachusetts, sat down and killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. His father's clothing business was bankrupted, at the time, thanks to a partner's mismanagement/theft.

Kunitz's mother managed to take care of her family (Kunitz had two older sisters) and eventually remarried, but when Kunitz was 14, the stepfather died, too. His sisters married early and died young.

Kunitz went to Harvard where he studied and lectured with the English department. He graduated summa cum laude with a master's degree. He had thought he would be given a lectureship but was told (in 1926) that the department felt that some students would feel "resentful" (interesting euphemism) at being taught English by a Jew. Kunitz said it was "a cruel and wanton rejection.”

Kunitz's life seems to be marked with an extraordinary gentle patience, from his teaching career to his poetry to his life-long love affair with gardening(which is legendary.) He was a steadfast cultivator who waited and waited and watched everything eventually blossom in his life- a complete reverse of his father.

After college Kunitz worked as a reporter for the Worcester Times and as an editor for the H.W. Wilson Co. in New York. He was a C.O. during WWII and served as a noncombatant. After the war he subsequently was offered teaching jobs starting at Bennington in Vermont and ending with Columbia University, where he taught for 22 years. (The poet, Theodore Roethke had Kunitz hired at Bennington; Roethke was going through one of his sad breakdowns when he was teaching there and told the college he'd leave IF they hired Kunitz. So, it's a tale of friendship and how fearful universities are of mental illness.)

Kunitz published his first book of poetry in 1925 but had trouble finding a publisher for the second; Selected Poems: 1928-1959. He finally found a publisher after a bit of struggle- the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. If all these struggles seem a bit vexing to you, they should. If graduating summa cum laude from Harvard can't get you a teaching job and if nobody at a publishing house can recognize Pulitzer prize potential poetry what the hell does that say about poetry and merit in this country? I'm mad just writing about it. Kunitz kept his patience.

Okay, I'll simmer down and talk about this poem, so gently told on the surface. There's a lot of slow painful burning going on in this poem. Kunitz's mother still burns with a passion, at the time he finds the picture of his birth-father, passion of anger, betrayal and maybe something else "locked in her deepest cabinet." Kunitz's cheek still burns from the slap his mother gave him, burns with hurt, curiosity for the father with the "brave mustache" he never knew, burns with hurt for his mother, and sadness, among other things. (
Just a side note: Carbolic acid, by the way, still burns the esophagus and stomach for weeks after the poison is taken- long after the body is dead. Most Jewish burials require rapid burial- the body is not embalmed.) A rapid slap and a slow burn- and it hurts. One wonders how much Kunitz looked like his father, too. Lots of things to slowly wonder about in this poem.

Kunitz's poetry is often deceptively airy, like this. It breathes by itself but does not crowd you. It patiently waits for you to discover its mysteries. There's a lot of Jungian imagery going on with much of Kunitz's work.

Kunitz believed, since it has relatively little monetary value, that poetry is the last form of uncorrupted art. I heartily agree with this. I don't believe this will be changing any time soon.

Kunitz lived to be 101 and won loads of awards and deep respect in the last 40 years of his life. His tombstone reads "He loved the earth so much, he wanted to stay forever."

Heres' a nice Kunitz quote: "Poetry emerges out of the mystery and secrecy of being, It is the occult and passionate grammar of a life.''

You can find more Kunitz here:

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