Remembering Stanley Kunitz

by Genine Lentine



Suffused with gratitude for the privilege of working with Stanley over these six years, my mind has been crowding with all I’d like to honor in him: his intrepid grace, his profound quality of attention, his extraordinary capacity for listening, his curiosity, his talent for renewal, his sense of play, on and on. Where to start?

But now, a “traffic entrance,” to borrow a recent Stanleylocution.

Since waking this morning, the word scout has been nudging me insistently. Like so many of the words I’ve been using in talking about Stanley all week––daredevil stunts, gamble, gambol, nimble, wrangler––this word belongs to a lexicon of risk, pointing to Stanley’s endowment with what Yeats called “radical innocence.” Whatever he encountered, he approached as new.

Scout. Something in that initial consonant cluster wanted resolution; suddenly I was curious to trace its origins. And indeed, what I found draws together so much of what I’ve been trying to express. The word comes from the Latin auscultare,“to listen,” maintaining that meaning through Old French escouter (now, of course, �couter in modern French), and then by Middle English, it drops its first syllable to scoute and broadens its sensory provenance to “an act of watching.” Further along the way, a functional shift occurs to “one who watches.”

I loved finding these acts of attention embedded in this word. In Stanley, the confluence of attention and action reached full embodiment: Stanley as founder, activist, mentor, reader, translator, critic, gardener, inventor, and, of course, poet. Aren’t these all, in some way, forms of listening? One translation of the Sanskrit name for Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is “one who listens to the cries of the world.”

Reading my poems to Stanley, I came to know listen as a transitive verb. His listening changed the poem. The first time Stanley read a poem of mine, in Provincetown in the summer of 2000, I was cleaning his kitchen floor––I was hired first to clean his house––and he was sitting in the living room, in front of the tall windows open onto the garden. The house had been closed all winter, so I was scouring out corners and under counters with a brush. This was no quick once-over with a mop. I’d glance into the living room: still reading. Oceanic silence. His only movement the occasional turning of a page. Elise had seen the poem earlier, and she kept saying, “Darling, isn’t Genine’s poem strange?!” I cleaned the whole floor while he read. Granted, it was a long poem, nine pages or so, but still, such luxuriant attention to my work was unprecedented. On my knees in the kitchen, I knew I’d found my way to the right place.

Over that summer, I became Stanley’s assistant and moved to New York to work there with him that fall. In the beginning, I brought poems to him tentatively, not wanting to impose on his time and attention, but as we finished a day’s work, he’d often ask, “Don’t you have a new poem?” Sitting with him in his study as he read, my own instincts and awareness seemed to sharpen in the field of his listenership. His comments always helped me see something I hadn’t seen before, always incited me to try to say more than I’d managed to say. Whether explicit or implicit, always this question: “Who are you and what’s eating you?” I told him once, “Nothing I say scares you.” He replied, “Hardly!”

In that first year, especially, I didn’t just have the sense that Stanley listened to my poems. He did nothing less than listen them into being. Listen them out of whatever self-imposed or self-perpetuated censure I’d been enforcing. Scouting out the poem inside the poem. Or, more to the point, in his phrase, “the person who would write the poems.”

And his listening struck the perfect balance of opening and offering while not intruding. Having experienced that, it felt possible to internalize both the permission and the fine-pointed resistance he’d provided: as with all true teachers, he did not cultivate dependence. And as Jane Hirshfield writes in her own remembrance of Stanley, this sense of a transformative reception extended even to a poem already completed.

In this last year, as Stanley’s awareness grew more diffuse, I’ve had the strong sense of Stanley doing another kind of scouting in the act of reading aloud. Reading aloud was something we’d always done, either in the course of preparing a talk, or in working on The Wild Braid, or as time allowed, as a way of ending the afternoon’s work. But in this last year, reading aloud assumed a central role. Reading was a direct path “home.” Over and over I noticed this phenomenon: wherever he may have been as he set out along of the syntax of a sentence, a rope bridge strung above a rushing current, he could find his way “back.” As he read, his energy would shift palpably, his presence becoming more saturated, coming into a clear coalescence of what could be called “self.” He’d sit up straighter in his chair, his breathing clearing with each word, and there he was, full force: that voice, his trademark acuity subtly registering in his nuanced intonation, pacing, gestures, and pauses. I don’t know what the physiological process was, but I imagine the brittled synapses restored to their suppleness in the act of reading. I picture the sparks leaping across the axons as he found his rhythm.

Last summer, we read most of Moby Dick aloud. Frequently, visiting friends would take turns reading. One afternoon we were on the screened porch, several hundred pages in, on chapter 44, “The Chart,” which describes how whales find their way around the “unhooped oceans of the planet.” It was Stanley’s turn, and as he read, the wind started picking up for a late afternoon storm. Stanley read on, undeterred––indeed, spurred, “. . . the Sperm Whales, guided by some infallible instinct––say, rather, secret intelligence from the Deity—mostly swim in veins, as they are called; continuing their way along a given ocean-line with such undeviating exactitude, that no ship ever sailed her course, by any chart, with one tithe of such marvelous precision.” As he read, I had such a strong sense that this was exactly what he was doing, navigating the current of the articulated breath.

In six years of working with Stanley, I saw him manifest this “infallible instinct” in so many ways. I wasn’t with him when he died, but I am grateful to the caregiver who worked with Stanley that night, a woman of exceptional kindness, appropriately named Joy, for relating to me this moment from a few hours before his death. She said he’d had his eyes open for a while after midnight and that around 1:00 he “called [her] over with his hands.” “Mr. Kunitz, is everything alright?” she asked, standing over him, and he drew her closer and kissed her cheek. Then, he rested his head back on the pillow, raised his two hands gave her the thumbs up. The gesture of someone setting forth into the unknown, curious to meet it, game. The advance scout.