Saturday, September 29, 2012

Upcoming: Dead Poets Remembrance Day, 2012

Next weekend is Dead Poets Remembrance Day.  And since an online schedule lists me as a reader (, and a click on my name leads to my blog, I am reposting a report I wrote about a segment of last year's Dead Poets Remembrance Day, i.e. it is such a literary event that I want something "literary" to be what anyone is led to who clicks on my name.

This year I will be reading a passage, which I deem poetic, about the Merrimack River from Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, which, in my humble opinion, is his finest accomplishment.

But by far the most exciting aspect of this year's Remembrance events will be our return to the boyhood home of Stanley Kunitz. I am beside myself once again ... wondering how that guy who is the me whom I am standing next to gets to be so lucky.


Dead Poets Remembrance Day - Part III (Stanley Kunitz) (Oct. 11, 2011)

Mount Hope Cemetery; Worcester, Massachusetts

And so, after the round-robin recitations of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems at her grave in Worcester's Hope Cemetery, and then going to a far corner of that cemetery to see the gravestone of the mother and stepfather of the great poet Stanley Kunitz, as well as the grave of his father, we got into our cars and made our amazingly many-turns way to what was the boyhood home of Kunitz during his formative years.

The house has a beautiful story. In 1979 a couple named Carol and Greg were looking for a home to buy. They found a stucco house which, despite its run-down condition, appealed to them. They bought it. They planned and began the necessary repairs and updates. Then, on an autumn day in 1985, returning home from a day of apple-picking, they saw a few people standing out front staring up at the house. They recognized one of them to the the city's favorite-poet son ... Carol or Greg had attended a couple readings Kunitz had given in Worcester ... not that they were "poetry lovers" but more, rather, out of a general support of culture.

Kunitz had made a few earlier efforts to find his boyhood home but had not been successful; what with whole neighborhoods having been razed to make room for all those Interstate-Somethings now criss-crossing Worcester, he, already nearing eighty, was unable to get his bearings; further, he had to consider that perhaps his old home simply did not exist anymore, had been in one of those neighborhoods bulldozed and hauled to a landfill.

Greg and Carol invited Stanley, his wife, and their companions into their home. Stanley immediately confirmed that it was indeed the house he, along with his mother, his stepfather, and his two older sisters, had moved into in 1919, when the house was newly built. The visit must have flooded his mind with memories but none seems to have been more poignant than that which came when he stepped out back and saw a thriving pear tree. He and his mother -- she directing, he digging and lifting -- had, some sixty-five-or-so years earlier, planted that very tree.

When that fall's pears were harvested Greg and Carol sent a package to Stanley at his winter home in Greenwich Village; they were to do so every autumn for the remainder of Stanley's life.

My Mother's Pears

Plump, green-gold, Worcester's pride,
     transported through autumn skies
           in a box marked HANDLE WITH CARE

sleep eighteen Bartlett pears,
     hand-picked and polished and packed
          for deposit at my door,

each in its crinkled nest
     with a stub of stem attached
          and a single bright leaf like a flag.

A smaller than usual crop,
     but still enough to share with me,
          as always at harvest time.

These strangers are my friends
     whose kindness blesses the house
          my mother built at the edge of town

beyond the last trolley-stop
     when the century was young, and she
         proposed, for her children's sake,

to marry again, not knowing how soon
     the windows would grow dark
          and the velvet drapes come down.

Rubble accumulates in the yard,
     workmen are hammering on the roof,
          I am standing knee-deep in dirt

with a shovel in my hand.
     Mother has wrapped a kerchief round her head,
          her glasses glint in the sun.

When my sisters appear on the scene,
     gangly and softly tittering,
          she waves them back into the house

to fetch us pails of water,
     and they slip out of our sight
          in their matching middy blouses.

I summon up all my strength
     to set the pear tree in the ground,
          unwinding its burlap shroud.

It is taller than I.  "Make room
     for the roots!" my mother cries,
          "Dig the hole deeper."


When Walter Skold (founder and head of Dead Poets Society) and I, along with three wonderfully knowledgeable members of the Worcester Poetry Society, step into the living room of Stanley Kunitz's boyhood home I feel immediately awash in a particular spirituality which I am not accustomed to; I am by no means certain that I can enclose it within the usual mundanity of my existence, don't know if I can come up with a comfortable fit. "I lack the art to decipher it," as Kunitz wrote (about a different subject) in a line in his poem "The Layers". 

When introduced to Carol, our hostess, I see in her eyes a soulful dance of warmth and welcome; it is clear that she is pleased to share with us poetry-lovers the part of Stanley Kunitz which resides in her history and which resides in her heart.  Through her, I can feel the presence of Stanley Kunitz, and I recognize that it is that which is the particular spirituality I am feeling; and now, recognizing it for what it is, I am comfortable with it. It isextremely moving. We pilgrims, en route, had just passed the very ballpark of "The Testing-Tree" where I could never hope to play. (Small for his age -- and, indeed, a tiny man -- he's implying that he'd never be chosen for a team.) Further, we were just blocks from the park where, some six weeks before the poet's birth, his father had committed suicide (there's no certainty of why he ended his life, though "a business setback" is sometimes mentioned, but, really, no one today knows.)

I never met Stanley Kunitz -- I saw him here and there in Provincetown when I lived there for twelve years, and where he had a summer home with its famous terraced garden, but I did not then know his poems and his biography. Later, enchanted with his poems, I imagined that I could see in his eyes a terrible far away look that had the tint of sadness; it was as if he were pondering the sort of question that will never be answered: How could you not have wished to stick around for another six weeks or so in order that you could meet me, your first-born son? I've also imagined that this is the very sort of question that could impel one to become a poet.

Stanley Kunitz

(This isn't an exactly fair sentiment on my part; there are a thousand pictures of Kunitz with eyes expressful of joy and other appealing connotations.)

Stanley's mother, Yetta, married again; her new husband, Mark Dine (related, I forget just how, to the pop-artist Jim Dine) was a good and kind-hearted stepfather to Stanley. Shortly after the family had moved into the house we are visiting, Mark Dine died of a massive heart attack while hanging drapes at the front window .. velvetdrapes one can imagine from the image in "My Mother's Pears".

Glancing around, I think, too, that I have never seen such a beautifully appointed and beautifully furnished home; it turns out that once Greg and Carol learned that this had once been Kunitz's boyhood home they decided to furbish and furnish it to accord with that era. There are the hardwood floors and the woodwork, glistening -- when the light hits them just so -- with high varnish; there are leaded and patterned window panes; there are arches; there is a set of sumptuously upholstered throne-like chairs; there is a baby grand piano which Greg and Carol found in Newport once they'd learned (perhaps from Kunitz's poem "Three Floors" in which 'a sister ... played Warum on the baby grand') that Yetta Dine had a piano -- and, Carol says, when they were castoring theirs about the room, wondering what would be the best place for it to be put, Stanley happened to telephone and told them exactly where his mother had placed her baby grand; and in the kitchen, where we were served coffee and cookies, an exquisite collection of antique baskets hangs here, there, and everywhere; and over there in that corner is Stanley Kunitz's very own white-painted high chair, discovered in the basement, and gleefully confirmed by Kunitz himself to have been his very own; throughout the house the walls are adorned with handsomely framed photos of Kunitz and other family members, as well as certain of his poems, including an early typewritten draft, slightly different from the final version, of "My Mother's Pears"; there's even a framed letter or two written to Carol and Greg in the poet's hand.

But it was out back that, for the third time since entering the house, my eyes welled with tears. I asked to be permitted to touch the famous tree. I reached out and cradled some low leafs within my palm; I meant this as a gesture of sympathy to a tree that had loved Stanley as much as he had treasured it. And now here comes a fact: in 2006, the year of Stanley Kunitz's May death, this tree wept. One by one it dropped, like tears, its immature fruits, to the ground.Trees know.

There would be no autumn harvest that year.
So, yes, Carol and Greg, in a labor of love -- often excruciating labor, stripping layers and layers of paint from an eternity of surfaces -- yes, they turned the house into a museum dedicated to Stanley Kunitz. It is said that once the two had met Stanley, they adopted him, and he adopted them. Kunitz was eighty when they met; who would have imagined that twenty years of friendship would ensue .. who would suppose that there would be twenty parcels of pearstransported through autumn skies .. and, who could possibly have imagined, even with tears and joy being, as they are, the yin and yang of life, who could possibly have imagined that Greg, who loved performing as the docent of this museum, and who, according to a magazine article I read, was "blessed with the gift of gab and a unique sense of humor" .. yes, who could have imagined that he would die from a massive heart attack himself, at the age of just fifty-eight, two and a half years after the death of Kunitz at one hundred and one, and a hundred and two years after the massive heart attack which killed, in the same house, Stanley's kind and good stepfather?

How can such tragedy and heartache be borne? We are merely humans. Carol, a young widow, merely a human .. yes, how does one go on?

"I can't go on. I must go on," says a Samuel Beckett character. When Carol had seen through the shock and the grief and the tears and learned to bear the pall woven of terrible heartache, she said, in essence, that the house felt sad and that she couldn't allow that it remain so. With assistance from the Worcester County Poetry Association, a docent program was developed; there now are close to ten docents, any one of whom may lead small groups through the house at certain advertised times of the year.
Provincetown Cemetery; Provincetown, Mass.
So it was an immensely rich series of events to celebrate Dead Poets Remembrance Day. Thanks Walter Skold. Thanks Raffael de Gruttola for addressing the crowd and reciting Kerouac haiku at his grave in Lowell. Thanks to those members of the Worcester County Poets Association who were so informative at Mount Hope Cemetery and also were such excellent co-docents at the boyhood home of Stanley Kunitz. And last, but in no way least, thanks Carol -- your soul, and that of Greg, have enriched my own beyond measure.

May all be richly blessed!
Ephemera #1: At birth, Stanley was given the name of his father, Solomon; it was changed to Stanley when he was five or six; inasmuch as Yetta seems to have had only bitter memories of Stanley's father, it is easy to imagine why the name was changed, but not easy to knowwhy.

Ephemera #2: The Worcester County Poetry Association keeps a wonderful website, a page of which has many pictures of Stanley Kunitz, his boyhood home, and associated information.  Check it out at:


  1. Geo...have you ANY idea of how much I'd like to be in the USA next weekend!!!!!!!!!!!! If more readers are required..I can pretend to be there..'n if I may...Sylvia Plath's "Wuthering Heights"

    But they only dissolve and dissolve
    Like a series of promises

    goosebumps as I recall that poem...

    enjoy the reading Mr Geo...oh to be there :-)

  2. "Wurthering Heights" is a great one! And whenever I think of Kunitz's boyhood home, I think, someday, somehow, Joan needs to see this! Full report ahead!

    1. Will joyously focus on a trip to said home...

      Isn't language an amazing we all write our dialogue...

      'n Sylvia...oh how she moved the alphabet around...

      am giving her a hug ...'n sending her love...