There they were, two men I highly esteemed, at each other’s metaphorical throats. And poets yet.
In 1979 I found myself at Port Townsend, Washington, for seven days. It was the annual Centrum summer poetry workshop / conference. I choose to be part of a small class headed by Stanley Kunitz. He was a mere 74 at the time, practically middle age for him. Kunitz was twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, first in 1974 and again in 2000 when he was 95. He died at age 101.
He was the most eloquent essayist I have ever read, writing about poetry. His erudition was vast and almost casual as it elevated his conversation. In the group Kunitz presided with a gentle authority. His criticism was constructive, severe at times, yet never personal. His voice seemed to carry the entire canon of Western literature with some Basho and Lao Tse thrown in.
In my private meeting with him I presented a poem (since lost) with some trepidation. He read it carefully and his response puzzles me to this day, in its ambiguity. He said, This poem cannot be improved upon. I’ll never know if he meant it was so good not to tamper with it or so bad it was beyond repair. As I recall I just thanked him and ran off.
In the room next door to the Stanley Kunitz workshop was another one of my heroes, William Stafford. He had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1970. It wasn’t so much Stafford’s language that impressed me, it was his approach to poetry as if it issued directly from his being. Every morning, at dawn, Stafford walked a few miles and out of that came three poems. They were raw and immediate. He was a man without guile. His embrace of the world was especially non-judgmental. Most remarkable was the way he responded to the poems of others.
I attended one session in his group to witness an interchange I’ve never seen before or since. When students read their work to the class Stafford’s rule was: No Praise, No Blame. He was able to work with the poet to guide that person in becoming his own best critic. It was transformational. He believed that all of us are poets with the innate authority to express our art. That unique voice belongs to us; it only needs to be fully relied upon and released. No external authority figure needed.
A poem without secrets lies dead on the page. These are the words of Stanley Kunitz. I believe this is true of all art. There is a mystery to our being. Words dance around that inviolate core. We offer a glimpse which can describe but not explain its secrets.
One evening I was to meet with William Stafford in the dining hall for a private meeting. I arrived to see these two highly evolved souls shouting at each other across the room. It was a sight I would gladly have missed. I didn’t catch their point of contention. When Stafford greeted me, we left. I didn’t have the courage to ask about their disagreement. Maybe that falls under the heading of the eternal mystery. Even saints have pushable buttons. I had the profound experience of both men; clearly there were differences.
Stafford was probably the least combative person I’ve ever known, He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Kunitz was a lifetime gardener. He regarded his plants as little allegories representing the fierce will to survive. His poetry was an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence.
Maybe Stanley Kunitz took offense with the unpolished spontaneity of Stafford’s work. Or perhaps Stafford took exception to the position Kunitz assumed as arbiter which (he may have felt) robbed the poet of his own creative impulses. Or could it be they were at odds over the spiciness of the day’s soup?