Autumn 2000

Sharing Fortune Cookies
With Stanley Kunitz

This isn't the first time that Stanley Kunitz - winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, National Book Award, National Medal of Arts (need we go on) - has been named Poet Laureate for the United States. There are forty individuals on the list, if you count the non-sequential "repeats" by Kunitz and Robert Penn Warren, since the title (originally "Consultant to the Library of Congress) was established and bestowed on Joseph Auslander in 1937.

Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize, it should be noted, in a decade when Ginsberg, Kerouac and the Beats were turning popular culture inside out. His calm wit and sheer intelligence was a transcendant feature on the literary landscape of the crumbling Eisenhower 50s. By the mid-1970s, our culture had gone through so many inside out-ings it was a relief to turn back to Kunitz, as the Library did, by naming him Consultant from 1974-76.

He was a venerable figure twenty five years ago - not just for his own work, but for his critical influence as an editor and teacher - and as he approaches the century mark, Kunitz continues to command love and respect.

There is an honorific element to a position that, over the years, has been occupied by the likes of Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, Anthony Hecht, Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and William Stafford.

But in its reconstituted form as "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry" beginning in 1986, we have seen the Library of Congress position energized under the hand of people like Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, Mona Van Duyn, Rita Dove, Robert Hass, and most recently Robert Pinsky, who held the position for an unprecedented three terms.

No mere throwback to the Roosevelt/Depression WPA effort to create jobs for artists, no mere laurel to toss at our nation's essentially under-rewarded poetry masters, the Poet Laureate's position has emerged as a more potent force in the hands of several of those who were so named in the 1990s. We think of the bully-pulpit work of Joseph Brodsky (are there still any books of poetry in hotel room dresser drawers?), and the particularly intensive effort of Robert Pinsky (was Pinsky the only three-peat?) to infuse poetry into popular American culture, and hope that the 90-something year old Kunitz will take his cue from them in terms of action and advocacy.

Kunitz (he was born July 29, 1905) has amply demonstrated that being a nonogenerian is no barrier to his continuing the activism of his predecessors. Meeting over some Chinese food after his appearance at the United Nations for a presentation of selected works in translation (that would be translations into Polish, in fact - Passing Through, translated by Adam Szyper, Cross Cultural Communications, 1998), Kunitz showed the same energy attacking his stir-fried noodles as he had been devoting to work on his forthcoming collection from Norton.

Kunitz has understandably cut back on some of his appearances - cracking open some fortune cookies after dinner, the new dean of American Poetry acknowledged he wouldn't be coming to Dodge this year because he had outlived the people he would have wanted to see. But when and where he does appear, his presence continues to lend grace and heft to the proceedings.

One would not have been surprised, on the evening of our Chinese dinner, if the assortment of would-be Pulitzer Prize winners, several-generations wide, flat-out neglected to consult their fortune cookies. It had been a distinctly long and somewhat grueling night at the UN, but afterwards a renewed Kunitz led a determined charge on foot through the streets of Mayor Giuiliani's resurgent New York City as a passel of junior poets scrambled along, debating every move. "Should we take a taxi? Is that a good restaurant to go to? Is this the way to the restaurant? Do we have everybody? Who don't we have?" Kunitz, oblivious to any hint of indecision, would have none of it.

Then, having successfully shepherded them to dinner, Kunitz held court into the evening, and well past the time that waiters lose all pretence of solicitousness, and begin checking their watches anxiously and glancing back and forth between the last patrons of the evening and in the direction of the door. Through it all, our new American Poet Laureate held sway, undeterred and uninterruptible.

We may hope that Stanley Kunitz attacks his new position for the Library of Congress with the same dash and determination.




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