Stanley Kunitz: On Teaching in the University
When I was about to receive my masters degree from Harvard, I assumed that I could stay on as a teaching assistant if I wanted to, not because I was already a poet but because of my scholarship record. As it turned out, I did not stay on; I was told indirectly through the head of the English Department that Anglo-Saxons would resent being taught English by a Jew, even by a Jew with a summa cum laude. That shook my world. It seemed to me such a cruel and wanton rejection that I turned away from academic life completely. After I left Harvard, I had no real contact with universities for almost twenty years: worked on a newspaper, farmed, free-lanced, edited publications.
Then something completely fortuitous happened. In 1945 I was in the Army my third year and wretched for various reasons. I was a conscientious objector who had accepted service on the premise that I would not bear arms, but the Army refused to acknowledge the terms of our agreement a nightmare from beginning to end. Out of nowhere I received a wire from Bennington College offering me a position on the English faculty as soon as I was discharged. Of course I snatched it. One needs a revolution every few years, and in my circumstances this seemed heaven-sent. I knew that [Theodore] Roethke was at Bennington, but I didnt know that he had been through a violent manic episode one of his worst. They wanted to ease him out, but he was being difficult about it. Finally, he told them he would leave quietly on one condition: hire Kunitz. So thats how I began teaching.
I suppose my personal experience is involved with my feelings about poets in the university. On the whole I think its stultifying for young poets to leap immediately into the academic life. They would be better off tasting the rigors of a less regulated existence. I was over forty when I began to teach, and I am grateful now for the difficult years of my preparation.
from Michael Ryan, "Interview with Stanley Kunitz" (originally published in The Iowa Review 5:2 [Spring 1974), rep. in Joe David Bellamy, ed. American Poets Observed: Poets On Their Work (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984), 148-149.
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