On Stanley Kunitz and the Fine Arts Work Center


Arts & Culture

The Fine Arts Work Center.


When my wife and I first started dating, the poet Stanley Kunitz, one of the founders of the Fine Arts Work Center, visited her in a dream. She told him about our budding romance, and he said, with all the brightness and benevolence one would expect, “That’s wonderful! Wonderful!” (We later named our spaniel after him, though he turned out to be more like Stan Laurel than Stanley Kunitz.) That Stanley Kunitz might travel through the weird ether of dreams seems not wholly far-fetched. He believed in the necessary work done by the secret, sleeping self, busy “tunneling the purple sea,” as he puts it in an early poem. That belief was at the bedrock of his poetry and his teaching, and it continues to shape the institutions that he helped create, Poets House in New York City and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in particular.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Fine Arts Work Center. At its heart is its fellowship program, which from October to May each year hosts ten artists and ten writers in the early stages of their careers. Fellows are given a monthly stipend and a place to live and work. The Work Center also holds a robust summer program of workshops, readings, and artist talks, as well as online classes all year round. It is, as the name suggests, a place to work and was built, fittingly, on the site of a former lumberyard. 

Stanley Kunitz first visited the “brine-spiked air” of Provincetown in the early thirties, driving there on a whim in his Ford Model A from his farm in Connecticut. “I loved the contours of the land and the immanence of the sea and the great sky,” he said, “so that was my original impression.” It was another twenty years and three marriages, however, before he returned to the Cape. In 1958, he and his third wife, the painter Elise Asher, began spending summers there, renting a dilapidated shack on the beach that had previously been the studio of the painter Blanche Lazzell. Their house became a gathering place for their friends, many of them painters, including Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell. The Fine Arts Work Center, which opened in the fall of 1968, was a more formal expression of that informal community.

By that time, Provincetown had been drawing artists and writers for well over half a century. The landscape painter and portraitist Charles Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in 1898, and on his first visit to the Cape, Kunitz stumbled across Hawthorne and a group of his students on the beach painting the seascape. In the thirties, the mantle was passed from Hawthorne to Hans Hofmann, the German émigré and painter. Hofmann set up his own school in Provincetown, an outpost of the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, which he started in Greenwich Village in 1934.

The idea for a work center had been floating around for thirty years and in several different cities. In the thirties, the architect Eliel Saarinen, then president of Cranbrook Academy, frustrated, I imagine, by the pettiness and recalcitrance of institutional life, began thinking about a place devoted not to higher learning but to what he called creative learning. It would be unaffiliated, neither requiring nor granting degrees, a kind of unschooled school, its looseness of structure and lack of hierarchy allowing, Saarinen said, for “the freedom and flexibility of action that our institutions sadly want.”

Albert Christ-Janer, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum at the time, took that idea with him to the University of Chicago and then to New York University, trying and failing in both places to raise the money for it. Then, in the sixties, Richard Florsheim, who had worked under Christ-Janer at Chicago, was serving on the Artists Advisory Committee of the Provincetown Academy of Living Arts (PALA), a community organization that had been tasked with revitalizing the outer Cape. Florsheim suggested an arts center modeled closely on Saarinen’s vision, something between a community and an institution, an affiliation of artists working independently but in association. The idea took hold, and the Fine Arts Work Center was born.

Kunitz had spent the first three decades of his writing career in relative isolation, first on his farm in Connecticut, where his closest friends were a family of owls he had coaxed into his attic, and then in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the late fifties, which were also his late fifties—he was born in 1905—he moved to Greenwich Village and to Provincetown, “with its vast seascapes, the glorious Cape light, the air that flows in from the sea, and a community of deeply engaged artists.” Provincetown transformed Kunitz’s poetry. In 1971, he published The Testing-Tree, a watershed in his career. After forty years of rhyme, fixed stanzas, abstraction—his first book, published in 1930, is titled Intellectual Things—Kunitz arrived at an open style seemingly free of artifice but bolstered by deep technique, the fruit of a long apprenticeship. There is a new urgency to these poems. It’s like he has his thumb and forefinger on the taproot, but instead of yanking it out of the ground, he’s climbing down it, again and again. “What’s best in me lives underground / rooting and digging, itching for wings.” The poet seems to gather up his words for these poems from whatever is scattered about, whatever’s been plucked, weeded, clipped. He has found not just his form and measure but also his kin and his correlatives: grass, robins, chipmunks, mulch.

Stanley Kunitz is a hero of mine. He’s also something of a prophet. (His student Lucie Brock-Broido titled her poem in tribute to him “The Illuminated Kunitz.”) What could this gentle man with his evening martinis and his green thumb have to do with the ravings of the Old Testament prophets? The prophet is an intermediary between the people and their god. He works through dreams, visions, revelations. Kunitz didn’t believe in God, at least not in any conventional sense. He was a Romantic and a modern; his gods were nature and art. It is between them and us that he serves as intermediary—in his poems, certainly, as in these late lines of “Touch Me” about a host of crickets “trilling / underfoot”:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.

—but also in the institutions he helped build. In July, the Fine Arts Work Center will hold dozens of workshops; host readings by Ada Limón and Sophie Cabot Black, among many others; and celebrate Ai Weiwei with an exhibition and party. There will be conversations, music, insight, and revelation as people gather every day and most nights to inch toward something new. That makes me hopeful.

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday at the Fine Arts Work Center, reciting the late Stanley Kunitz poem “The Round” in the Stanley Kunitz Common Room.

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees …

The poem goes on to narrate the poet’s journey from his garden to his desk in the “semi-dark” of his basement, “with nothing for a view /to tempt me / but a bloated compost heap.” There, he sets again to the strange work of turning his life into art.

Why? A thousand reasons, though these days I like this one. Here’s Kunitz at the very end of his life: “When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself.”


Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of Riddles, Etc. (The Song Cave, 2017). His poems, essays, and translations have appeared on NPR and in the New York Times Magazine, Literary Hub, and Seneca Review. He teaches at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.