Tag Archives: Stanley Kunitz

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born…”

All I have to offer today is a little problem of pronoun reference.

I knew what my student meant, and so did my student; but the pronoun ambiguity made the sentence memorable nevertheless.

Someone who commits suicide six months before he is born must be a self-aborting fetus, an embryo with a death wish, an humunculus who knows it’s a jungle out there and wants no part of it. That this same someone can already be a father is quite a feat; maybe he feels there’s nothing more to do with his life?

The sentence is a bit longer, and a bit funnier:

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born, which had a large influence on his writing.”

So, this paternal zygote is already a writer? Or perhaps he would have been a writer had he actually been born and then, um, learned to write. Death would put quite a crimp in an authorial career, to be sure: all his future writing would be, of necessity, non-writing.

Of course this cold-hearted and irreverent fantasy is all in the mind of the reader. My student was writing about the poet Stanley Kunitz, whose life was haunted by the suicide, in a public park, of his father some six months before Stanley’s birth and his mother’s subsequent implacable grief. His life, some months more than a century long, wasn’t easy, but he rose to importance and fame, and made a significant impact on American poetry both with his writing and with his nurturing attention to other writers. His poem “The Portrait” speaks of the suicide:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek 
still burning.

This kind of quiet pain is what my student was trying to talk about. A case of poor pronoun reference was the instrument of her undoing.