Documentary records life of poet Stanley Kunitz

By  Pamela  H.  Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2008

The wife of filmmaker Tobe Carey has observed that projects have a way of finding her husband.

The story of “Stanley’s House” proves her point.

Carey grew up in Worcester, and, as many people know, so did the late Stanley Kunitz, who for a time served as the nation’s poet laureate.

Five years ago, Carey was reading an article in The New Yorker magazine about reservoirs and happened to flip to a story about Kunitz. Carey was not familiar with the poet, but the article caught his attention, and he soon learned that Kunitz had been born and raised in Worcester.

“My hometown!” Carey recalled thinking.

He read further and learned that Kunitz had lived at 4 Woodford St., the same house Carey had called home from the time he was 5 until he left for college.

“I fell off my chair,” Carey said by telephone from his home in the Hudson Valley.

The discovery set Carey on a path that resulted in his making an hourlong documentary about Kunitz and 4 Woodford St. Its present owners, Greg and Carol Stockmal, are carefully restoring the house to its appearance at the time Kunitz lived there in the 1920s. Over time, the Stockmals came to know Kunitz well.

“A lot of projects you get sick of looking at it,” said Carey, who has made more than 20 films. “All the way through this project, I was in love with it.”

To mark National Poetry Month, the Worcester County Poetry Association is hosting four presentations of “Stanley’s House,” starting on Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Worcester Senior Center at 128 Providence St. Several showings will include presentations by the filmmaker; all will involve discussions of Kunitz and his poetry.

Kunitz wrote a number of poems about his life in Worcester, among them “The Portrait,” “Three Floors,” “The Magic Curtain” and “My Mother’s Pears,” which he dedicated to the Stockmals. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, president of the WCPA, said the film portrays a real sense of interconnectedness between the families.

“One of the most wonderful things about the film is that you can see the house where some of the poems took place,” Sweeney said. “Tobe gathered a lot of recordings of Stanley reading aloud.”

When Carey first got the idea of making the documentary, he wrote to Kunitz but did not hear back. He waited awhile and then called Kunitz at his Manhattan apartment.

“He remembered my letter,” Carey said. “We spoke for 45 minutes. He encouraged me to go ahead.”

Carey filmed Kunitz four days before his death at 100 years of age, on May 14, 2006.

“He was frail, but still mentally sharp,” Carey said. “He read four poems for us and was quite robust in his readings.”

Kunitz is one of several celebrated poets who once lived in Worcester, among them Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara. Sweeney, who is a professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, said they are all wonderful – but there is something special about Kunitz.

“His poetry is very direct and emotionally intense, and yet very pared down at the same time,” Sweeney said. “Kunitz is the only one who has a fair number of poems set in Worcester.”

To mark National Poetry Month last year, the WCPA showed “Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place.” The association is seeking ways to keep poetry alive in Worcester County.

“One of the best ways to do that is to find new ways of helping people connect with poetry,” Sweeney said, adding that the films are one way of doing that.

“Stanley’s House” includes archival photographs, clips of old movies and other historical material that bring the time, place and people alive. “The film would be interesting to people who like local history or architecture or grew up in Worcester and are interested in old houses and gardens,” Sweeney said.

Carey, meanwhile, is planning to enter “Stanley’s House” in film festivals and will distribute copies to high schools, poetry associations and colleges and universities. He is president of Willow Mixed Media and is often commissioned to make films for nonprofit organizations. “Stanley’s House” was a labor of love.

“It was a sweat equity project,” he said. “I am very pleased with the way it came out.”