Whether toiling in his garden or poring over the morning newspaper, Stanley Kunitz brings perspective to life's ordinary and extraordinary events.
Refusing to depersonalize and tsk-tsk away war, revolution and death, or take for granted the daily miracles of planting, the award-winning writer draws connections between the self and the world, perceiving struggle as tests of the human spirit.
"I deal with universal concerns based on personal experiences," he said. "A poem tells us what it feels like to be alive at any given moment in our history."
Mr. Kunitz will share his writings based on those perspectives in a poetry reading sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) at 8 p.m. today at Howard Community College.
During the one-hour program, he will read from "The Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928-1978," "Next-to-Last Things," published in 1985, and some of his more recent writings.
As he did 10 years ago, Mr. Kunitz will also tape an edition of HoCoPoLitSo's cable television program, "The Writing Life," with Gregory Orr, professor of English and director of the master of fine arts program at the University of Virginia. The program will air next month.
Mr. Kunitz's work, which spans more than six decades, reflects, in addition to his personal struggles, the turbulence of a country that experienced the Depression, war and defiance.
But neither his subject matter nor his style fall within the literary mainstream.
"There are different schools of poetry and Stanley's works are outside that, no matter where he's been in poetry," said Mr. Orr, who will introduce Mr. Kunitz at the reading.
"Though he's been writing and publishing for more than 60 years, he's never been in fashion of poetry. He writes a passionate, personal lyric."
A self-proclaimed existentialist, Mr. Kunitz's writings "deal with the connections between the self and the world," said the 88-year-old poet. "There's a give and take and the poet is caught in the traffic between the two. That offers me the opportunity to write about anything outside of the self.
"For example, when I'm involved in my garden, my thought is pleasure, and that lends to other thoughts which have to do with the self -- such as growing old. One has to make a connection between the pleasure and, for example, sense of mortality. It's a process and a poem recalls that whole process," Mr. Kunitz said.
"Or poems often come from a reaction to the day's news. The sense of being an individual is involved with issues that concern humanity. What happens in Somalia, Bosnia or Haiti affects one's inner self, too," he said. "The poet has a duty as a witness of history to report the truth about humanity in our time."
Mr. Kunitz points out that because America "is not a poetry-loving culture" and "the main drive is money and power," it is the poet who stands on the fringe.
"The poet is trying to incorporate the concepts of democracy and humanity," he said. "It's admirable for anyone to be passionate and express hope of improving the moral quality of our society."
While Mr. Kunitz's work often deals with life's underbelly, it also expresses optimism.
"He writes about death, trauma and loss, and it's not morbid. Quite the opposite -- it's celebratory. His poems register the encounter and struggle of the spirit with these forces," said Mr. Orr, who studied under Mr. Kunitz 25 years ago at Columbia University's School of the Arts graduate program in New York.
"He writes poems in which the individual self confronts painful adversity and mysteries," Mr. Orr said. "Even so, they manage to celebrate survival and the struggle."
Mr. Orr points to "An Old Cracked Time," a poem by Mr. Kunitz that illustrates the elder poet's philosophy and own sense of nonconformity:
"I dance for the joy of surviving by the edge of the road."
Said Mr. Orr, "There Stanley is, by the margin."
A recipient of numerous awards throughout his career, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for "Selected Poems," Mr. Kunitz was awarded the National Medal of Arts for poetry by President Clinton last month in a ceremony on the White House lawn that also recognized the achievements of authors William Styron and Arthur Miller.
Mr. Kunitz, who lives in Greenwich Village in New York with his second wife, Elise Asher, owns a home on Cape Cod, where he gardens.
"His garden is legendary," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, president and executive director of HoCoPoLitSo. "Photographers from the New York Times regularly take pictures."
The child of poor Jewish immigrants, he was born in 1905 in Worcester, Mass.
His father committed suicide and his stepfather died when Mr. Kunitz was 14.
Despite hardships, he graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and attended Harvard University on a scholarship, although quotas severely limited the number of Jewish students.
But he was denied an assistant teaching position at the university because, as he was told, "Anglo-Saxon students would resent being taught English by a Jew."
Disappointed, he returned to Worcester, where he worked as a reporter at the Worcester Telegram, becoming its Sunday features editor.
Mr. Kunitz later moved to New York, working as an editor and writer of reference books. He translated the works of Russian poets and later became the editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, launching the literary careers of several writers, including poet Carolyn Forche, who read last month at HoCoPoLitSo, and a young Gregory Orr.
At age 60, he became a senior professor at Columbia University, a position he held for about 20 years.
"He is one of the greatest poetry teachers I've encountered in 30 years," said Mr. Orr, who wrote "Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to 20th Century American Poetry."
Mr. Kunitz studied with British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and knew personally the acclaimed artists of his generation -- including poets Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell and e.e. cummings, and painter Mark Rothko -- writing about them in his anecdotal "A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly."
"He's a wonderful essayist and every one is worth reading," Ms. Kennedy said. "Each paragraph has something special."
In 1975, during his two-year tenure as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, or poet laureate, he read for HoCoPoLitSo, which had entered its second year. He also met with students from eight county high schools to talk poetry and critique their work.
During his tenure in Washington, "he was very accessible," Ms. Kennedy said.
"He was interested in the young poets and always encouraged them," she said. "He won people's respect and affection."
The venerable writer is also considered to be an entertaining reader.
One of Ms. Kennedy's favorite readings by Mr. Kunitz is "A Blessing of Women," a critique of a folk art exhibit he wrote in poetry form.
She recalls a commentary by poet Adrienne Rich about the dynamics of poetry reading.
"Adrienne said there's an electricity that goes back and forth between reader and audience," said Ms. Kennedy.
"The electricity we remember from 'A Blessing of Women' has lasted for us almost 20 years," she said.