Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



October 2016

“Learning is the world’s best and cheapest mood-enhancer. Side effects include possible injury from jumping up and down when the brain makes a new connection.”



Massasoit, Metacom and Stanley Kunitz

Dear Reader,

Whenever I begin a new project, I try to weigh the work load on one platform of the scale and what I stand to learn on the other. A good outcome would be if these two are balanced. In the course of preparing a 5 ninety-minute classes for the W.I.S.E. program here in Worcester, I ended up with a joyful imbalance, learning much more than expected. Here is the course description:

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) and Worcester: “Make Room for the Roots!”
Worcester-born Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz’s poems dance artfully between memory and imagination. This course offers participants an opportunity to discuss Kunitz’s poems as they relate to the city, where themes of love and loss, rebirth and transformation took root. One session will meet at his boyhood home, designated as a Literary Landmark (, where we will meet with Carol Stockmal, friend of Stanley Kunitz.

The reason the scale was tipped in favor of new learning was simple. For the first time, I would be presenting Stanley Kuntiz’s biography directly through 14 selected “Worcester” poems. I would be asking Stanley to “step in” by sharing relevant quotations about events in his life, images he had chosen to use, and comments on his recurring themes. I also decided to open up boxes full of documents I have gathered during my research since 2009. I passed around pages in clear sheet protectors, so that participants could see what I was referring to. “An Old Cracked Tune” discussion came to life with a copy of Kunitz’s birth certificate. In “Father and Son,” he refers to his boyhood home at 4 Woodford Street (“The house, the stucco one you built,/ we lost”). Here was a photograph of it, AND, by the way, Carol Stockmal, the owner/curator, has graciously agreed to let us spend one of our classes there!

I asked participants to imagine a “virtual Stanley” in the classroom and shared a well-known newspaper photograph of him wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap. I borrowed my husband’s cap to put on whenever I read Stanley’s words. It was a gimmick, but the need to keep saying “quote-end quote” disappeared. And, it was fun! It was theater! I believe that Stanley would have approved. A fisherman’s cap, a CD with him reading some of the poems, copies of the poems, and a ton of carefully selected research put Stanley in a chair near us.

But what about Massasoit, Metacom and Stanley Kunitz? What follows is the moment that tipped the scale for me in favor of new learning vs. preparation. Learning is the world’s best and cheapest mood-enhancer. Side effects include possible injury from jumping up and down when the brain makes a new connection.

“The Testing-Tree” is a four-part dramatic lyric journey through time, beginning on “tribal Providence Hill,” traveling back to colonial times, and ending up in an anguished dreamscape. The reader trails the speaker in his search for identity, his search for his lost father, his search for his lost house. It is a very visual poem, and in the spirit of the dramatic lyric, should be performed as well as read.

I had read “The Testing-Tree” dozens of times, always pursued by a nagging question: Why did Kunitz choose to follow “straight-backed Massasoit” into the woods, when there are dozens of American Indians he could have chosen? I knew there was literary criticism available, but I never took the time to do more than dip into it. Until I prepped for this class.

In Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry, Gregory Orr wrote that Massasoit was the “primitive Spirit Father… In 1675, King Philip [Massasoit’s son, Metacom] led an Indian alliance against the encroaching settlers; to follow Massasoit’s steps is to become an heroic son…if the son identifies with a transpersonal, imagined father and son (Massasoit and King Philip) he might be saved and gain access to what he longs for; if he identifies with his personal father then he will in some mysterious and disastrous way share his fate [suicide]” (pages, 237, 231, 238).

This only made me more curious about Massasoit. Yes, to Wikipedia I went and then to The Oxford Companion to United States History. The first thing that struck me was the fact that Massasoit’s tribe lived in what is now Warren, Rhode Island, not far from Worcester, the setting for “The Testing-Tree.” Massasoit was a peaceful chief, who was recognized by the English colonial government because he saved the Plymouth colonists from starvation. Stronger than a primitive father-figure, could he be considered one of the fathers of our country? It might be argued that if that Plymouth colony failed, then another would have been established, so Massasoit’s good deeds are less important.

But I disagree, and I think that Stanley Kunitz, who wandered the woods not too far from the site of Massasoit’s beneficence, might have been seeking a contrasting father-son model and chose exactly the right pair. Massasoit’s son, who became Chief Metacom, was given a Christian name by the colonists: King Philip. In 1675-1676, he led a war against the encroaching settlers. “King Philip’s War [was] one of the bloodiest in American history, relative to population size” (page 422). It was bloodier than our Civil War.

What does that say about Kunitz and his legacy as son of a “good” father? Since he never knew his father, he was left to mythologize him and imagine heroic deeds. In section 4, his mother’s “minatory finger points” at him. She is saying that Kunitz can craft all the heroic legends he wants, but he had better be careful not to end up like his father: a suicide. It was a heavy burden for a child, and one that he could not put down, even on his death bed. Further reading: “Stanley’s Mouth,” a poem by Sharon Olds.