Master of the whale-roads,let the white wings of the gullsspread out their cover.You have become like us,disgraced and mortal.
Thus wrote Stanley Kunitz, the current and tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, about coming eye-to-eye with a beached finback whale just before it died on Cape Cod in 1966. The lines are the last in the five-part "The Wellfleet Whale," one of Kunitz's better known works, written in 1981 and first read that year at Harvard as the Phi Beta Kappa poem. The poem is among the jewels to be found in Kunitz's 1995 National Book Award Winner Passing Through: the Later Poems New and Selected (W. W. Norton, paperback, $12), which was published when he was 90.
Kunitz began writing poetry at an early age, and he shows no signs of stopping. Indeed, at age 92, he signed three book contracts with his publisher, W. W. Norton, and he was 95 when he became Poet Laureate last October at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. His life--he was born in 1905 in Worcester, Massachusetts--is a lesson in reality therapy. After graduating from Harvard in 1927, he worked as an editor and served in the military, avoiding the ivory tower until age 40. He has since held many academic positions, including teaching at Bennington and Columbia, but has refused tenure because he wanted to remain a poet who taught occasionally instead of a professor who wrote poetry.
Kunitz works in his Provincetown, Massachusetts, garden by day and writes poetry at night, firmly grounded in both soil and words.