October 1 - 2000: Provincetown's Stanley Kunitz named America's Poet Laureate

Author of "The Wellfleet Whale" praised
Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz.

2000: Stanley Kunitz named Poet Laureate

He takes office next week

On this day in 2000, Provincetown's Stanley Kunitz (July 29, 1905-May 14, 2006) was about to don the poet's laurel.  The New York Times story about Kunitz began  :   and you can see and hear him reading his poem "Touch Me" on PBS here;

God, Man and Whale

Stanley Kunitz's collected poems show his work all of a piece

Next week, Stanley Kunitz will take office as poet laureate of the United States. In July, he turned 95. His ''Collected Poems'' affirms his stature as perhaps the most distinguished living American poet. It's been a long haul for Kunitz....

He divides his time between New York and Provincetown, where he maintains an elaborate terraced garden that often insinuates itself into his work....

"The Wellfleet Whale"

What makes this collection of a lifetime's work so valuable is the way it allows us to perceive the interconnectedness of all Kunitz has written. Each poem stands alone, but each also enriches the others. Take, for an example, ''The Wellfleet Whale,'' perhaps Kunitz's best-known poem, see the complete poem below. On the surface, it's a simple account of an actual event, the beaching and death of a whale on Cape Cod. Only on rereading do we notice the undercurrents of meaning, and then the many interconnections with other Kunitz poems...

Read the complete review here.

Listen to him reading his poem "Touch Me" on PBS here.

The Wellfleet Whale

You have your language too,
an eerie medley of clicks
and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls,
whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
it’s like furniture being smashed,
or the creaking of a mossy door,
sounds that all melt into a liquid
song with endless variations,
as if to compensate
for the vast loneliness of the sea.
Sometimes a disembodied voice
breaks in, as if from distant reefs,
and it’s as much as one can bear
to listen to its long mournful cry,
a sorrow without name, both more
and less than human. It drags
across the ear like a record
running down.

No wind. No waves. No clouds.
Only the whisper of the tide,
as it withdrew, stroking the shore,
a lazy drift of gulls overhead,
and tiny points of light
bubbling in the channel.
It was the tag-end of summer.
From the harbor’s mouth
you coasted into sight,
flashing news of your advent,
the crescent of your dorsal fin
clipping the diamonded surface.
We cheered at the sign of your greatness
when the black barrel of your head
erupted, ramming the water,
and you flowered for us
in the jet of your spouting.

All the afternoon you swam
tirelessly round the bay,
with such an easy motion,
the slightest downbeat of your tail,
an almost imperceptible
undulation of your flippers,
you seemed like something poured,
not driven; you seemed
to marry grace with power.
And when you bounded into air,
slapping your flukes,
we thrilled to look upon
pure energy incarnate
as nobility of form.
You seemed to ask of us
not sympathy, or love,
or understanding,
but awe and wonder.

That night we watched you
swimming in the moon.
Your back was molten silver.
We guessed your silent passage
by the phosphorescence in your wake.
At dawn we found you stranded on the rocks.

There came a boy and a man
and yet other men running, and two
schoolgirls in yellow halters
and a housewife bedecked
with curlers, and whole families in beach
buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
The tide was almost out.
We could walk around you,
as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
crushed by your own weight,
collapsing into yourself,
your flippers and your flukes
quivering, your blowhole
spasmodically bubbling, roaring.

In the pit of your gaping mouth
You bared your fringe work of baleen,
a thicket of horned bristles.
When the Curator of Mammals
arrived from Boston
to take samples of your blood
you were already oozing from below.
Somebody had carved his initials
in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
had peeled off strips of your skin,
a membrane thin as paper.
You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
The gulls had been picking at you.
The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.

What drew us to the magnet of your dying?
You made a bond between us,
the keepers of the nightfall watch,
who gathered in a ring around you,
boozing in the bonfire light.
Toward dawn we shared with you
your hour of desolation,
the huge lingering passion
of your unearthly outcry,
as you swung your blind head
toward us and laboriously opened
a bloodshot, glistening eye,
in which we swam with terror and recognition.

Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,
you brought with you the myth
of another country, dimly remembered,
where flying reptiles
lumbered over the steaming marshes
and trumpeting thunder lizards
wallowed in the reeds.
While empires rose and fell on land,
your nation breasted the open main,
rocked in the consoling rhythm
of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged

head-down through zones of colored twilight
to scour the bottom of the dark?
You ranged the North Atlantic track
from Port-of-Spain to Baffin Bay,
edging between the ice-floes
through the fat of summer,
lob-tailing, breaching, sounding,
grazing in the pastures of the sea
on krill-rich orange plankton
crackling with life.
You prowled down the continental shelf,
guided by the sun and stars
and the taste of alluvial silt
on your way southward
to the warm lagoons,
the tropic of desire,
where the lovers lie belly to belly
in he rub and nuzzle of their sporting;
and you turned, like a god in exile,
out of your wide primeval element,
delivered to the mercy of time.
Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.


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