I see a note on top of the front desk from Stanley Kunitz asking me to visit him in his suite when the opportunity permits itself. I love my visits to the guest’s suites. Each is the inspirational creation of the owner. Most contain furniture and artifacts from the guest’s own era, but some like Picasso’s suite are decorated and adorned with objects de art from more modern periods. Because Stanley is a gardener as well as a renowned poet, his suite is surrounded by gardens, ponds, and forests. “Nature is a great inspiration,” he always says.
I walk up the brass and marble stairway, through the library, and down the long hallway to reach Stanley’s suite. A note on the front door says, “Please come in. I am either in the garden or the study. Make yourself at home.” I pass through the vailed doorway and enter the suite. I head for his study as he always has a warm fire and a decanter of brandy awaiting his guests. I love the smell of his books, some neatly lining the many shelves, others scattered around the room, others in small stacks haphazardly organized around the sun lit study. His desk is filled with notes and papers, a half glass of brandy, and a few books by other poets.
I look out the garden door and wave to Stanley to notify him of my arrival. He waves back. I walk across the room to his roll top desk where he keeps the brandy and pour a decent amount into a snifter. Then I walk over near the fireplace and sit down to relax in his green chair while he completes his work in the garden. It was most likely a combination of the late night with Simone, the warmth of the fire, and the sips of brandy that caused me to drift off until I heard Stanley’s voice.
“I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like eleemosynary or phantasmagoria – some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly my thought in the beginning was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn’t consider living without it.”
“Language is important to both of us Stanley. We need to communicate. Words allow us to do that so we have a common image to go along with the word.”
“The problem with many words Socrates is they present different images depending upon the culture of the people where they are used. The images of poetry are almost all universal. The images of my childhood. The deaths of my father and stepfather are events I thought could only happen to me, but we all experience loss. Poetry speaks to the common everyday experiences we all share. The losses, the joys, and the frustrations of life. Poetry incorporates and transcends words. That is why I am a poet.”
I respond. “The poet says, ‘Unless you have felt it, you cannot truly understand it,’ and the philosopher says, ‘Unless you understand it, you cannot truly feel it.’ Do you agree with this statement Stanley?”
“I do not know Socrates. I could imagine an emotion, like fear, occurring so suddenly in life that the mind may not have time to identify it first. Fear, however, in the hands of a poet stimulates both the heart and the mind simultaneously. Think of Poe’s poem The Raven. My heart beats fast each time I read it when there is nothing to personally fear. Do the words generate the emotion of fear in this case or do the words aid in the understanding of the fear? Does the mind just go along?
“I studied psychology, philosophy and poetry so that I might better understand some of these connections between words, feelings, and thoughts but I do not know if I am any closer to that understanding. Perhaps we might raise this question with Carl and Sigmund one evening over dinner.”
“That should prove to be a lively discussion,” laughs Stanley. “You, Socrates, have the mind of the philosopher and the heart and patience of the poet.
“That is true my friend. My discipline is philosophy but I think of myself as more of a poet. I think all poets are philosophers but not all philosophers are poets.”
“I,” replies Stanley, “have the mind of the poet and the heart of the philosopher. We each go about in the performance of our daily activities with these two angels guiding us from different perspectives. The philosophers in us wonder endlessly in the garden, thinking, contemplating, rationalizing the thoughts in our heads while our poets take notice of the scent of the wisteria blooming on the trellis above us, the buzzing of the honey bees, and the heavy burden of the sunflower trying to hold its head erect.”
“Yes, we are both or should I say all three, poet, philosopher and psychologist.”
“That would explain some of my life’s complications,” says Stanley. “Maybe I enjoy not-being as much as being who I am. Maybe it’s time for me to practice growing old. The way I look at it, I’m passing through a phase Socrates: gradually I’m changing into a word. Whatever you choose to claim of me is always yours; nothing is truly mine except my name. I only borrowed this dust.”
“Yes Stanley,” I reply. “Stardust.”
The Gate Keeper Of Inspiration: Chapter Eight — James Baldwin will be published on Sunday, September 30, 2018.
Cover Art “Aries” by Emilee Petersmark.