Roll Over, Sophocles-Kunitz Is Now Oldest Poet Ever

The first thing you notice in Stanley Kunitz’s studio in his Cape Cod house is not the greenish Hermes 3000 typewriter, nor the narrow cot in the corner, nor even the long shelf of poetry that lines the wall. These are ordinary objects to be found in any writer’s study. What makes Mr. Kunitz’s room extraordinary is an unframed, slightly yellowing poster of Arthur Rimbaud.

Perhaps it’s normal for a poet to decorate his studio with the face of a great precursor. But Mr. Kunitz’s choice of inspiration is a little odd. Rimbaud, the great French visionary, wrote Une Saison en Enfer and Les Illuminations when he was a teenager, then retired from poetry at 19. He is, famously, the youngest of the great verse writers. Mr. Kunitz, on the other hand, is 94 and quite possibly in the prime of his career. In fact, he may be old enough to earn an even stranger title: the oldest working poet in the history of literature.

This is no exaggeration. For who are the masters who wrote very late into life? There’s Thomas Hardy, who died at 88. Robert Frost won his third Pulitzer Prize at age 63, but died at 89. Wordsworth, famed elder statesman of the Romantics?Deadat80. Among the indestructible prose writers, Victor Hugo passed away at 83 and Tolstoy died at 82. Mr. Kunitz’s only real competition maybe Sophocles–but according to the most reliable dates we have, Sophocles didn’t live past 90. Stanley Kunitz turned 90 way back in 1995.

Asked about his relationship to those poets and writers, Mr. Kunitz said, “Those are masters for me. I think I’ve at least been true to their spirit, but I would not claim equality–it would be arrogant and insufferable!” He was in his study. He paused to drink from a tall glass of gin and tonic. “I’m a little uncertain how I feel about it. I think longevity is a great virtue, and to live long and to keep one’s energy and ardor alive is, I think, unusual to say the least. So I can understand the attention. But I don’t think my poems are any better because I’m 94, though it makes them a little rarer.”

His age may not necessarily ensure the quality of his verse, but it has certainly not diminished it. Most poets acquainted with Mr. Kunitz’s poetry confirm that his work of the past two decades is his strongest. One of his closest friends, and fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, the poet Galway Kinnell, said: “There are precocial poets and there are altricial poets. Some, the precocial, are hatched completely formed, but others are altricial: They are unformed. They don’t have feathers. They have to mature a long time before they can fly. There are two classes in the bird kingdom as there are in the kingdom of poets. Stanley developed very slowly. His potential was there, but it was no Saison en Enfer . You see, the Rimbauds were Faustian. They made a bargain with

the devil: Give me 10 years of great and shocking poetry and then I’ll die. But Stanley made no such pact. He’s worked with other poets to dispel the Faustian nightmare that broods over every poet.”

Mr. Kunitz’s strategy, according to Mr. Kinnell, is to age by not aging at all. “Some poets, like Wordsworth, became complacent, sure of his powers, a true adult in the negative sense of the word. He lost what Stanley has never lost–a childlike attitude to reality, where he could be continually surprised and taken aback, and in which he could grow.”

An afternoon spent with Mr. Kunitz at his summer home in Provincetown, Mass., confirms Mr. Kinnell’s theories. Mr. Kunitz spends most of the year in Manhattan, where he and his wife, the painter Elise Asher, live on West 12th Street. But every June, and since 1962, when he bought the house from the town madam, poet and painter come to this cape, where Mr. Kunitz is known more for his flowers and plants than for his age or his verse. He spends every morning tending his garden, a maze of lacecap hydrangeas, crape myrtles, indigo plants and guara, among hundreds of other species. In the garden, he is never old: digging soil, marveling at a hummingbird, ordering rows of plants as if they were poetic lines.

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1905, shortly after the suicide of his father. After studying at Harvard, he came to New York in 1928 and worked for the publisher H.W. Wilson. He published his first book of verse, Intellectual Things , in 1930. He spent several years on a 100-acre farm in Connecticut, then three years in the U.S. Army. In 1945, Mr. Kunitz received a Guggenheim fellowship. He hadn’t even applied; Marianne Moore, who had published his work in The Dial , had sponsored him. He taught at Bennington College for a few years and then met Ms. Asher, whom he married in 1958. While other writers of his generation hit upon something in the 1920’s Jazz Age or during the Depression, Mr. Kunitz felt more at home among the artists of the 50’s.

“They became our closest friends: Rothko, Kline, Motherwell and the rest of them. For most of the year we lived in the Village on 12th Street. Elise and I were living in one of the old brownstones. The Abstract Expressionist painters were mainly the people we saw. Everyone was just beginning a career. There was a sense of great friendship, a lot of dancing and drinking. It was, I’m sure, one of the great periods in American history.”

Only in the 50’s, when Mr. Kunitz himself was in his 50’s, did his career gather force. His Selected Poems, 1928-1958 won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1959. In the years that followed came the Bollingen Prize and other awards. His acclaimed collection The Testing-Tree was published in 1971, Next-to-Last Things in 1985 and, most recently, Passing Through , which won a 1995 National Book Award for the then-90-year-old poet. Along the way, he has been editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a professor at Columbia and the first official state poet of New York. In the past two decades, he has devoted much of his time to two organizations he helped found: the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and Poets House in Manhattan. The latter, a SoHo loft space and 35,000-volume library, sponsors readings, organizes programs and encourages community among New York poets.

Mr. Kunitz is not the sort who believes artists should shutter themselves away from society and one another. “There are poets like him, and like Ginsberg, who have a genius of generosity,” explained Jason Shinder, another poet who splits his year between New York and Provincetown. “They let people enter their lives.” Indeed, one of Mr. Kunitz’s favorite phrases–taken from Keats, who alongside Blake, Hopkins and Herrick is one of his great masters–is “negative capability,” which denotes the poet’s ability to flow into everyone and everything. Or, as Galway Kinnell explained it, “Rilke said, ‘There is an ancient enmity between our lives and the great works we do.’ Stanley believes in an ancient collaboration between our lives and the works we do.”

At his Cape Cod home, Mr. Kunitz said, “What recurs over and over again in my poems, and what is usually at the core of a poem, is the search for renewal. I think that explains a whole lot about my survival.” Mr. Kunitz’s verse, especially the more recent poems collected in Passing Through , is also masterfully cadent. He laments that “so many of the poets of the current generation don’t really hear poetry. They think of it as something on the page. It’s a dead music if it’s any music at all.”

Does his advancing age diminish the aural or visceral experience of his poetry?

“Well, my hearing is obviously not as good as it was, and I’m sensitive to that. My vision used to be miraculous and now it’s only fair. But my basic sense as a poet, and as a human being, is the sense of touch. And that doesn’t fail me at all; I feel it just as strong today, or even stronger.”

He was asked if the older brain works differently in conceiving a poem.

“There is a difference. In youth, your glands write your poems for you in a steady rush and ejaculation. My early poems were delivered to me every morning like the daily newspaper. But that doesn’t happen anymore. In age, the poems lie buried under the debris of the life. And you have to dig for them. It’s a laborious process, and it takes courage.”

“Are you reluctant to have people raise the subject of your age?”

“Well, I joke about it, but I’m aware that it’s an unusual aspect of my existence. I’ve grown so used to it. At the beginning I resisted it, and a couple of years ago, the Sunday Times magazine did a piece about the ‘geriatrics': artists and scientists and so forth. I didn’t want to be in it, and I didn’t write a piece for it, because I don’t think it’s a unique category. I don’t think it stands alone. I feel that my associations are mostly with the young and not with the old. So therefore I don’t want to be classified as a ‘geriatric poet.'”

Even if that awful phrase puts you in the company of Sophocles, Michelangelo and Hardy?

“Well, those you mentioned all lived to just about 90. So I’m much older than they were. But, you know, there’s something pathetic about Hardy. When he was working on his later poems, Winter Words , he wrote a preface in which he celebrated his 89th year. At least that was his intention. But when he came to write it down, he couldn’t bear to write ’89,’ so he left it blank. And the book was published just after he died. I suppose he thought it was inviting disaster to write down the year.”

Stanley Kunitz avoids such superstitions, and with a little luck he should be able to maintain his fearlessness well into the next century. He still has two books left in a three-book contract with his publisher.