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STANLEY KUNITZ (1905– 2006)

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard. During World War II he served in the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army. He taught for many years at Columbia University, where his students revered him. As judge of the Yale Younger Poets series he chose the first books of Robert Hass and Carolyn Forché. In 2000, at the age of 95, Kunitz succeeded Robert Pinsky in a one-year stint as the nation’s poet laureate.

Three Small Parables for My Poet Friends
I
Certain saurian species, notably the skink, are capable of shedding their tails in self-defense when threatened. The detached appendage diverts attention to itself by taking on a life of its own and thrashing furiously about. As soon as the stalking wildcat pounces on the wriggler, snatching it up from the sand to bite and maul it, the free lizard scampers off. A new tail begins to grow in place of the one that has been sacrificed.

II
The larva of the tortoise beetle has the neat habit of collecting its droppings and exfoliated skin into a little packet that it carries over its back when it is out in the open. If it were not for this fecal shield, it would lie naked before its enemies.

III
Among the Bedouins, the beggar poets of the desert are held in contempt because of their greed, their thievery and venality. Everyone in the scattered encampments knows that poems of praise can be bought, even by the worst of scoundrels, for food or money. Furthermore, these wandering minstrels are notorious for stealing the ideas, lines, and even whole songs of others. Often the recitation is interrupted by the shouts of the squatters around the campfire: “Thou liest. Thou stolest it from So-and-so!” When the poet tries to defend himself, calling for witnesses to vouch for his probity or, in extremity, appealing to Allah, his hearers hoot him down, crying, “Kassad, kaddab! A poet is a liar.”

1985


From the Oxford Book of American Poetry..

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