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Stanley Kunitz: On Teaching in the University

… When I was about to receive my master’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s how I began teaching.

I suppose my personal experience is involved with my feelings about poets in the university. On the whole I think it’s 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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