Let a thousand voices bloom

Stanley Kunitz is more than America's newest poet laureate. He is one of poetry's most eloquent ambassadors. In his 90s, his gaze is fixed firmly on the future.

Mr. Kunitz is a gracious, humble man whose achievements speak for themselves. He has published 11 books of poetry (his "Collected Poems" was released this month). He has won poetry's biggest prizes - including a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and a Bollingen. And he has been a teacher and mentor to generations of young writers.

But Kunitz, like the elaborate garden he nurtures each summer, is not finished blooming. Far from it. He still spends his nights cultivating poems. And he has two ideas for how he, as poet laureate, can cultivate poetry in this country.

First, he wants to improve the way poetry is taught in public schools. Too often, he says, poetry is taught by teachers who either don't care enough about the art or who have artificial conceptions of what makes a poem.

"Poetry is not prosody," Kunitz says. "It is not technique. Poetry is born out of revelation to one's self of the meaning of your own life."

Teachers, he says, must express this to their students. They must talk about poems that have touched them.

But this is not enough. The poets in the schools program must also be revitalized. One of Kunitz's ideas is to involve the public-library system. He envisions local libraries hosting conferences on poetry for high school students. Poets would also meet with students to discuss poems that have been written during the school year. Kunitz cites the Poets House program in New York as a model for every American city.

His second goal as the nation's top poet will be to stress the importance of minority poets. Kunitz would like to bring "those who represent the mass of American society" and "those who haven't been heard" to the capital to read.

This, he believes, is a way to encourage people who feel marginalized in society to follow their aspirations. "Poetry is not an elitist activity at all," he says. "Poetry springs out of general human needs and desires at every level."

Kunitz, whose own work has a simple elegance, sees great value in the innovations of slam and hip-hop poets. "The various and diverse populations of the earth contribute to mainstream poetry," he says, "and this contribution needs to occur generation after generation in order to invigorate the tradition itself." Otherwise, "certain styles, techniques, even meanings tend to consolidate and perpetuate."

This kind of evolution, he believes, must occur within individuals as well. "Your life itself is the medium which you are transforming," he says. "The first great task of the aspiring poet - the task of the imagination - is to create the self that will write the poems."

The poet's life, he explains, is a process of transformation. "One must build a new image of self, out of which comes new styles, new leaps in one's work."

For Kunitz, one of his transformations has been the change from tighter, more formal language in his earlier work to a simpler diction, which he employs today. That shift "enabled me to write more intimately and to penetrate into new areas of experience, new areas of memory, that a more formal style more or less excluded."

One thing that has not changed over the years, however, are some of his basic themes. Kunitz fans love his work for its exploration of the natural world, its compassion for all creatures, and its struggle to understand the world's wrongs and the injustice of mortality.

"Poetry is an exploration of one's deepest feelings and motivations," he says, "Poetry aspires to impinge on the sacred."

Kunitz, who lives in New York City and Provincetown, Mass, is a master teacher and cultivator. He taught at Columbia for many years, and he helped found the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. But if he could help the public understand one thing about poetry, what would it be?

"That language is the greatest of all human achievements," he answers without hesitation.

"And one could argue that poetry is the supreme level of language. If you really want to know what people felt, it is to poetry that we must turn. Poetry is part of the record of the great human endeavor to move toward a civilization that provides freedom, justice, and opportunity for everyone."

Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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