Literary Treasures: Stanley Kunitz and “The Portrait”

The following is a guest post by David Sutton, producer of the Poetvision video series (1988-1990). It is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

The loss of the father is part of the cornerstone on which Stanley Kunitz built his poetry, an endeavor that evolved over nine decades. One of Kunitz’s poems, “The Portrait,” recalls a powerful encounter between the young Kunitz and his mother.

Among the many people who have been profoundly moved by Kunitz’s poem was a young African American public high school student in Philadelphia. Listening to Kunitz’s words gave him the courage to talk to his teacher about the loss of his father to suicide, an event that previously he had kept hidden due to a sense of shame and painful abandonment.

The student had encountered the poem through Poetvision, a series of videotapes of contemporary American poets that Rohm and Haas Company created in conjunction with the School District of Philadelphia. (Kunitz reads “The Portrait” at the 16:46 mark in the above Poetvision video.)

In 1988, an event was held at Philadelphia Central High School on October 6 to commemorate the first year of production of the Poetvision series and the opening of a new section of the school’s library. Stanley Kunitz was invited to participate in this as well as the young man who had been so moved by Stanley’s poem.

A photo of Larry Wilson, CEO of Rohm and Haas Company; David Sutton, Producer of Poetvision Series and Rohm and Haas employee; Stanley Kunitz; and Constance Clayton, Superintendent of School District of Philadelphia, Central High School Library. Photo taken October 6, 1988.

From left to right: Larry Wilson, CEO of Rohm and Haas Company; David Sutton, Producer of Poetvision Series and Rohm and Haas employee; Stanley Kunitz; and Constance Clayton, Superintendent of School District of Philadelphia, Central High School Library, October 6, 1988. Photo courtesy of David Sutton.

I personally contributed to the drama of the event by having lunch with Stanley near the Rohm and Haas Company offices at 6th and Market Street and, failing to attend to the passage of time, as I sat mesmerized by Stanley. When I realized the hour, I panicked and drove the 6.5 miles to Central High School like Gene Hackman in the French Connection. I kept asking Stanley if he was OK with my Hollywood stunt driver performance, and he bravely told me that he was fine; meantime, he was either whispering or praying “Slow down.”

We made it safely, though late. The program itself went fine despite the delay. It was especially poignant to witness the encounter between Stanley and the young man to whom “The Portrait” had spoken so powerfully. Contrary to W.H. Auden, poetry can make something happen. It can connect people and awake emotions that allow them to experience and share the full measure of their humanity.

Stanley would have been thrilled that this blog is being issued on April 23, the birth and death dates of William Shakespeare, whom he worshipped and, echoing Coleridge, called myriad minded.

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