Haunted since early childhood by the murky impressions he had of his dead father, Kunitz often wrote about father-son relationships. Perhaps his most familiar poem is “Father and Son,” published originally in Passport to the War and frequently anthologized. In the poem, a son quests after his lost father but, after catching up with him, finds him inarticulate. The son tells his father his story of loss and longing. The father, dead, can offer the son nothing, his face a “white ignorant hollow.” This is Kunitz’s image of his own father, whose fleeting image, as an anonymous face in a photograph, had been ripped from young Stanley’s hand by his irate mother.
Kunitz is a careful poet. His poetic production until the early 1970’s consisted of only three volumes. The first, Intellectual Things, suggested the poet’s potential but revealed that he had not yet fully grasped the technique of writing the kind of poetry that is usually adjudged the work of an accomplished artist. The fifty poems in this early collection were, according to Kunitz, attempts on his part to demonstrate that intellect and emotion are too closely interconnected ever to exist independently.
The strongest and most telling poem in Intellectual Things is “Vita Nuova,” a work influenced by Kunitz’s reading of Dante Alighieri. This poem, traditionally formal in its versification, has a first-person narrator who is closely akin to Kunitz himself. The poem depends upon concrete nouns and forceful verbs, eschewing adjectives, adverbs, and qualifiers. Its twenty lines, divided into four stanzas of equal length, are in pentameter and have a consistent, if at times stilted, ababb rhyme scheme.
In the fourteen years between Intellectual Things and Passport to the War, Kunitz matured considerably. Yet this second collection was not large; about half of its poems had appeared originally in his first volume. Many of the new poems, however, were dynamic and had been revised to the point that they were impeccable technically. World War II spurred Kunitz into producing these poems, many of which concern the consequences facing a world that has become mechanized to the point that mass destruction of human beings—indeed, of civilization—is possible, perhaps imminent.
In many of the poems of this second volume, Kunitz is so caught up in the horror of his subject that he sometimes seems to be overreacting. At the time of publication, his work seemed almost hysterical, yet the clarity of his vision has been vindicated by a world that has moved at a dizzying clip toward the looming dangers to which he pointed in the early 1940’s. The war poems in this volume use language precisely and effectively, and Kunitz sometimes resorts to distorting his imagery to heighten the impact of his warnings.
In this collection, however, Kunitz’s verse is still formal and traditional. He experiments, particularly in the collection’s often-cited “Father and Son,” with the dream narrative, a poetic form that reflects Kunitz’s own hazy glimmerings of a father he was forced from earliest childhood to create in his imagination.
Selected Poems, 1928-1958 contains the poems that appeared in Passport to the War, along with two from Intellectual Things that had not been reproduced in his 1944 collection. The poems are arranged carefully, lending this volume, like his two earlier ones, an inherent logic.
It is Kunitz the seasoned editor who, after writing the poems, concentrated on arranging them in as effective a format as he could. The volume begins with a love poem (largely concerning emotion) and ends with a poem about poetry (concerning the merging of emotion and intellect, a recurring theme of Kunitz’s writing).
In the three volumes to 1958, Kunitz writes in measured cadences, frequently adopting the formalism of the Metaphysical poets, for whom he had considerable appreciation and whose poetically formal ranks he had joined. The public had to wait thirteen years for his next collection, The Testing-Tree, which contains twenty-three new poems and seven translations. In this volume, the new Kunitz begins to be evident. Gone is the formality of his first three books of verse. He now uses lines of irregular length—some quite short—and writes in free or blank verse. The tone of his writing is that of one who has, in some curious way, been liberated. The intensity of youth has given way to the mellowness that sometimes comes in middle age.
In this volume, Kunitz appears to have laid to rest some of the ghosts that had haunted him. He suggested as much in the year that The Testing-Tree was published. He was invited to his native Worcester to participate in the Worcester Poetry Festival, returning there, quite apprehensively, for the first time since he had left to live in New York. When he returned from that adventure, he wrote “The Testing-Tree,” the title poem for his forthcoming volume. In doing so, he perhaps came to grips with many of the demons of his past, thereby freeing himself, in terms of both his emotions and his poetic technique, from much that had earlier constrained him artistically.
The Testing-Tree marked a turning point both in the quantity of Kunitz’s output and in his poetic technique. During the following fourteen years, he produced three volumes of new poetry, one volume of essays and poems, and one volume of essays, a remarkable advance for someone whose first three books took twenty-eight years to complete. By the time he published The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, Kunitz had begun to write longer poems. The sixteen new works in this volume are longer than the poems he had previously written, and some, like “The Layers,” which consists of forty-four abbreviated lines, are printed as a single stanza.
A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations
First published: 1975
Type of work: Essays
In these prose pieces, which date as far back as the 1940’s, Kunitz analyzes his world, his poetry, and some of his literary colleagues.
Perhaps feeling the pressure of having reached the biblically allotted three score and ten years of age, Kunitz felt the need to provide some organized record of his reflections about the world in which he lives. In 1975, still active in literary circles, teaching regularly, and fulfilling his duties as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, he compiled this collection of his essays, reviews, and conversations. What might have been an incoherent whole, a ragtag gathering of past writing, in this instance is a coherent and cohesive presentation of the intellectual growth of a gifted, intelligent artist. As in the collections of his poems, where Kunitz imposes a controlling framework often without regard to chronology, so in this selection of his prose work has he paid careful attention to the overall arrangement of what he offers his readers.
It is important to note this detail, because if there is one consistent thread in Kunitz’s artistic life, it is his concern with ordering information. He has shown himself to be keenly aware of the workings of human intelligence, demonstrating in his critical and biographical writings about such poets as William Blake, John Keats, and William Butler Yeats and of such nonliterary geniuses as Albert Einstein that high levels of imagination do not function in linear, sequential ways. A toss of the intellectual dice leaves ideas scattered and inchoate. It is the work of high intellect to gather disparate snips of information and rearrange them into meaningful form. Such is the task of the highest level of writers and scientists. Knowing facts is not enough; imposing a...
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