Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kunitz & Spark Appreciations

Stanley Kunitz RIP
KunitzLast week former award-winning poet, editor, journalist and teacher Stanley Kunitz died of pneumonia, at the age of 100, in Manhattan. A longtime resident of New York and summer denizen of Provincetown, he had been writing and publishing his unadorned, carefully crafted poetry for nearly three quarters of a century, and had received numerous prizes over the years, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and the National Book Award in 1995, at the age of 90, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. He is a writer of whom it can be said, as was the case for Elizabeth Bishop, that quality more than compensated for lack of quantity. Kunitz also gained renown as an editor, particularly during his supervision of the Yale Younger Poet's Prize series from 1969 through 1977, and as a teacher, at Columbia, Bennington, New School, Rutgers, Yale, Princeton, and many other institutions, including the invaluable Poets House in New York and the esteemed Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, both of which he helped found. Among his former students are some of the major contemporary poets in America, including Louise Glück and Carolyn Kizer.

For a long time, I paid little attention to Kunitz's work; I'd read a few of his poems in high school and college, but they made little impression. They lacked the sort of flash and verbal exuberance, or formal novelty, that I'd grown attracted to, and I assumed that he was a relic of another era like some of his contemporaries, who were then still alive. My thoughts about his work changed, however, when I was teaching 7th and 8th grade students in during the 1995-1996 school year. Another poet I was working with brought in one of Kunitz's most famous poems, "The Portrait," which I'd never seen before. I scanned the poem and was struck silent: the restraint and simplicity of the language belied the powerful emotions contained in it, and I thought to myself, this poet has gotten through to something very profound, something not only painful and barely expressible inside himself but to me too; I was 29 then and struggling to deal with my feelings about my own father. I even felt tears welling up, which I didn't want the students to see, but they perceived something was up, and asked to hear the poem, so I read it to them, my voice quavering. They were less shaken up by it than I was, but appraised it as "very good," and as part of their exercise proceeded to write their own poems that dealt with painful situations they'd encountered with their parents. Ah, the genius of children! Here is the poem:

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.

Copyright © Stanley Kunitz

And I can still hear Louise Glück tearing up as she read poems to Kunitz at a tribute reading at NYU almost ten years ago; at his best, he has this capacity to capture with his plainspoke and precise language aspects of life that are so elemental, and universal.

An Op-Art piece on Kunitz by Lauren Redniss (from the Provincetown Times) Kunitz Op-Ed Art

The New York Times's obituary for Kunitz, by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, is excellent.

Muriel Spark RIP
SparkA little over a month ago, one of the truly original and prolific English-language fiction writers of the 20th century passed away: Muriel Spark. A native of Scotland and longtime resident of Italy, Spark is probably best known for her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, about an unethical schoolteacher whose ideas, detached from practicality, morality and history, lead her students--her "girrrls"--to tragic outcomes. The novel became a successful play and then a 1969 a film, which included Maggie Smith's riveting, Academy Award-winning performance. But she wrote over 20 others, as well as short stories, poems, literary studies, biographies, and journalism. Her novels the bizarre but compelling debut The Comforters (1957), which she published at the age of 39, after a divorce and a nervous breakdown caused by a diet pill addition; in the text itself, a young woman suffers auditory hallucinations, which include hearing someone typing the very novel she's in; her tart, taut sendup of Watergate, set in a convent, The Abbess of Crewe (1974); her exploration of fakery and a real, unsolved murder involving a noted British aristocrat, the delectable Aiding and Abetting (2000); and final novel, which idiosyncratically took apart the creative writing program experience, The Finishing School (2004).

Spark's novels show a mastery of irony, a sometimes startling ability to command authority through the most apparently simple syntax and statement, and an overriding preoccupation with evil. What provokes it, she seemed to be asking again and again, how much does it depend on context, and don't all humans have a capacity for it? Despite her adult conversion to Roman Catholicism, she seemed to pose questions of ethics unlinked to simple or easy Christian nostrums. Take for example Miss Brodie's persistent unorthodoxy, which we might champion over the stifling traditionalism and conventions of the girl's school in which she found herself; and yet her fascination with power, which resulted in a magnetic, exultant power over her young charges, approximated a kind of evil as she played unintentionally dangerous, and in the case of one girl, ultimately deadly games with their lives. Another aspect of this interest in the darker side of human existence was Spark's repeated exploration of masks and the multiple identities they foster and make possible. But she also examined the lies and deceptions the required to be maintained, and how they could and can ultimately and utterly alter what we consider to be (the) real. In Aiding and Abetting, the reader begins to see that no one is who she says she is, though we by the end of the novel, we can't really be sure; who is Lucky, or the person who claims to be Lucky? Can we even believe Spark herself? She playing with the "truthiness" of fiction, among other things, long before it was noteworthy.

The Guardian's Unlimited's obituary, by Jenny Turner, gives Spark her due.

Random Photo

Lower Manhattan, from Hoboken station platform

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