By CRAIG D'OOGE
Few people get to hear their own eulogy, yet alone deliver it. But on Oct. 12, the Library's new 95-year-old poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz (left), at times seemed to be doing just that.
He opened the reading by announcing that he was worried about the young man who wrote the poem he was about to read. The poem was called "Vita Nova" and he wrote it when he was 23. He had reread it the night before, he said, with a "bit of surprise and some dismay."
"I began to worry about the young man who wrote it," he said. "He seemed so alone and vulnerable, yet so proud and enthralled with the conviction of his destiny. I think he needs an older friend, a mentor, to show him the way. I'd like to volunteer, but I guess it is too late."
The poem could be described as "Shakespearean." The poet vows to step out of daily life and henceforth dedicate himself to eternity. It is the kind of vow only a young person would make. The last stanza:
Moon of the soul, accompany me now,
Shine on the colosseums of my sense,
Be in the tabernacles of my brow.
My dark will make, reflecting from your stones,
The single beam of all my life intense.
Granted, reflection and self-assessment come naturally to old age, but Stanley Kunitz seems to have been born a 95-year-old man. Understanding his relationship to himself and the universe has been the task of what, soon, will constitute a lifetime. But this predilection also has provided a creative tool. As he writes at the beginning of his recently published Collected Poems, "Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once."
It is apparent from his early poems that at one time he believed that the power of intellect alone could resolve that tension. However, in the more or less chronological selection of poems he read during his appearance, the development of a different line of thought could be traced.
Sometimes it seemed as though someone else had joined him in the effort, someone younger but with an uncanny resemblance to the poet himself. The fact that one of those younger "Stanley Kunitzes" had already been appointed to the poet's post at the Library of Congress once before, from 1974 to 1976, enhanced the impression that this was, in manner of speaking, actually a group reading.
An unborn Stanley Kunitz was summoned for the next selection, "The Portrait." Mr. Kunitz told the audience the poem was about a cloud that hung over his childhood, something it took him 30 years to write about. Six weeks before he was born, his father killed himself by swallowing carbolic acid in a public park. The poem describes an incident where, as a child, he discovered his father's portrait in the attic and his mother "ripped it into shreds" and "slapped me hard." It ends, "In my sixty-fourth year/I can feel my cheek/ still burning."
He revisited his childhood again in reading "Lamplighter: 1914," a poem that amalgamates nostalgia, fantasy and history in the image of his boyhood self, standing on the wheels of a horse-driven buggy, pretending to light gas lamps on the back roads of a small town in Massachusetts. It is not often one finds oneself in the presence of a man who once drove a buggy and remembers Sarajevo, the first time around.
"The Old Darned Man," a prose poem he read next, shared the same theme as a poem he read later in the evening, "The Wellfleet Whale." Although this latter poem is about a completely different subject, a battered and sick whale that beached itself on Cape Cod, "The Old Darned Man" shows the same fascination with a romantic, damaged being that the world, and perhaps the universe itself, has betrayed. The story is straight out of the New England gothic tradition of Hawthorne or O. Henry. With his own marriage in tatters, the poet is drawn to write about a ragged itinerant tinker who wandered into his yard, dressed in a wedding coat mended so many times that it looks like a crazy quilt. As it turns out, the tinker was left standing at the altar, abandoned by his bride. He has walked the country mending pots ever since. The Old Darned Man, as he is known locally, is an augur of disasters to come in the poet's own life.
Autumn, Mr. Kunitz told the audience, has always been a significant season for him, and a number of the poems he chose to read ("The End of Summer," "The Round" and "Touch Me") were set at this melancholy turning point. Back when he was 79, he declared in "Passing Through" that "... Maybe/it's time for me to practice/growing old. The way I look at it, I'm passing through a phase:/gradually I'm changing to a word."
For many poets, this would be enough. But "Touch Me," the final poem of the evening, showed that Mr. Kunitz has uncovered another truth during his extended autumnal years. As he writes at the beginning of his Collected Poems, "At my age, after you're done -- or ruefully think you're done -- with the nagging anxieties and complications of your youth, what is there left for you to confront but the great simplicities?"
The poem, and the reading, concluded with the lines that have become a kind of signature piece for the Library's twice laureled poet, now no longer in the autumn, but in a kind of Indian summer of his life:
Darling, do you remember
The man you married? Touch me,
Remind me who I am.
Finally, the mentor shows the way.
Mr. D'Ooge is media director in the Public Affairs Office.