Stanley (Jasspon) Kunitz 1905–2006
American poet, essayist, editor, translator, and journalist.
Hailing from the generation of poets that came of age under the influence of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, Kunitz is considered an important, if somewhat critically neglected, voice in contemporary American poetry. He exercised a subtle influence on such major poets as Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell, and has provided encouragement to hundreds of younger poets as well. Kunitz's career is generally divided into two phases. While his early poetry collections, including Intellectual Things (1930) and Passport to the War (1944), earned him a reputation as a technically accomplished metaphysical poet, his later work, beginning with The Testing-Tree (1971), showed Kunitz writing a simpler, more emotional poetry that embraced the physical world. Although Kunitz has always been admired by his peers, especially since the publication of Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (1958), which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1959, the classification of his work into two, easily defined categories and his reputation as a "poet's poet" have tended to deter critical interest in his work. While Kunitz's style changed over the years, the subjects of his poems have remained constant. He is known for his sensitive exploration of such themes as the simultaneity of life and death, the search for the lost father, love, generation and decline, and the movement from the unknown to the known. Consistently praised for his skillful craftsmanship, Kunitz incorporates the rhythms of natural speech in his poetry and displays a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Kunitz was the third and last child of Russian-Jewish parents. His father, Solomon, a dress manufacturer, committed suicide just months before his birth, and his mother, Yetta, who took over the family business, would not allow Kunitz to mention his father's name. Kunitz received B.A. and M.A. degrees from Harvard, where he was recognized as a promising poet and awarded the coveted Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry. In 1927, when Kunitz was denied a teaching appointment at Harvard because of the school administration's concerns about his religious ancestry, he rejected the academic life as a profession but continued writing poetry in private. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Worcester Telegram before beginning a long association with the W. H. Wilson Publishing Company of New York, where he served as editor of the Wilson Library
Bulletin from 1928 until 1943 and worked on eight biographical dictionaries about famous authors between 1931 and 1980. In the late 1920s, Kunitz contributed poems to a variety of magazines, including the Dial, the Nation, and the New Republic, and by early 1929, his first collection, Intellectual Things, was accepted by the largest publishing house in the country, Doubleday, Doran. While most of the reviews of Intellectual Things and Kunitz's second collection of poems, Passport to the War, were complimentary, it was not until the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems, 1928-1958 that Kunitz began to elicit any substantial critical attention. In 1946, as a result of his friendship with Roethke, Kunitz began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, and he continued to teach at a number of American colleges, including Yale and Columbia, until 1985. In the 1960s and 1970s Kunitz also gained recognition for his translations of the works of several Russian poets, among them Anna Akhmatova, Andrei Voznesensky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In addition, he became well known as an advocate of poetry and the arts; he directed the YM-YWCA Poetry Workshop in New York, was general editor of the prestigious "Yale Series of Younger Poets," headed the poetry section at the Library of Congress, and traveled as a cultural exchange lecturer to Poland, Israel, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, and the former Soviet Union.
Kunitz's early poetry collections, Intellectual Things, Passport to the War, and Selected Poems, 1928-1958, earned him a reputation as an intellectual poet. Reflecting Kunitz's admiration for the English metaphysical poets John Donne and William Blake, these intricate poems, rich in metaphor and allusion, were recognized more for their craft than their substance. The Testing-Tree, with its conversational tone, looser forms, and shorter lines, marked a departure to a simpler, more open style. In a Publishers Weekly article, Kunitz commented on his two styles: "My early poems were very intricate, dense and formal…. They were written in conventional metrics and had a very strong beat to the line…. In my late poems I've learned to depend on a simplicity that seems almost nonpoetic on the surface, but has reverberations within that keep it intense and alive…." Elsewhere he remarked, "Since my Selected Poems I have been moving toward a more open style, based on natural speech rhythms. The Testing-Tree embodied my search for a transparency of language and vision. Maybe age itself compels me to embrace the great simplicities, as I struggle to free myself from the knots and complications, the hang-ups, of my youth. I keep trying to improve my controls over language, so that I won't have to tell lies." The change in Kunitz's style is reflected in his treatment of his most common themes. As critics have noted, Kunitz has been more inclined to expose his feelings in his later work, particularly with regard to the suicide of his father. Such poems as "The Portrait," "Open the Gate," and "Father and Son," which concern a son's quest for his father, show Kunitz to be more willing to confront his personal trauma than in his earlier verse. Critics have also focused on Kunitz's interest in the idea of the simultaneity of life and death, which Kunitz described as "a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry." Kunitz's exploration of such serious themes has prompted critics to applaud his courage and to describe him as a risk taker, although they also note that his tone is more optimistic in such later collections as Next-to-Last Things (1985) and Passing Through (1996).
The highly crafted nature of Kunitz's initial works stalled critical attention, and it was not until he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that critics began to take any significant interest in his poetry. Still, academic critics have been much less receptive to Kunitz than his peers. For many years the standard critical view was that Kunitz was too imitative, lacking any recognizable style of his own. As this argument runs, in his early works Kunitz was a derivative practitioner of the modernist-metaphysical mode, and in his later works he switched to the confessional mode made popular by such poets as Lowell and John Berryman. In addition, Kunitz's poetry has not achieved the wide readership many believe it merits, largely because of his reputation as a "poet's poet," which he earned because of his technical virtuosity and his work as an ambassador of his art. Most critics have preferred the later work to the earlier, and in recent years Kunitz has been consistently praised for the power and intensity of his lyric poems, while continuing to be admired for his meticulous attention to the subtleties of sound and sense. Kunitz has also continued to be recognized by his peers as an important voice in contemporary American poetry. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1984, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1987, and, in the same year, the Walt Whitman award citation of merit, with designation as State Poet of New York.
Intellectual Things 1930
Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems 1944
Selected Poems, 1928-1958 1958
The Testing-Tree: Poems 1971
The Coat without a Seam: Sixty Poems, 1930-1972 1974
The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940-1970 1974
The Lincoln Relics 1978
Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928-1978 1979
The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems 1983
Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (poetry and essays) 1985
Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected 1996
Other Major Works
Living Authors: A Book of Biographies [editor, as Dilly Tante] (biography) 1931
Authors Today and Yesterday: A Companion Volume to "Living Authors" [editor, with Howard Haycraft and Wilbur C. Hadden] (biography) 1933
British Authors of the Nineteenth Century [editor, with Howard Haycraft] (biography) 1936
American Authors, 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature [editor, with Howard Haycraft] (biography) 1938
Twentieth-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature [editor, with Howard Haycraft] (biography) 1942
British Authors before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary [editor, with Howard Haycraft] (biography) 1952
European Authors, 1000-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of European Literature [editor, with Vineta Colby] (biography) 1967
Poems of Akhmatova [editor and translator, with Max Hayward] (poetry) 1973
Robert Lowell: Poet of Terribilita (lecture) 1974
Story under Full Sail [translator, from the poetry of Andrei Voznesensky] (poetry) 1974
A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations (essays and conversations) 1975
World Authors, 1970-1975 [editor, with John Wakeman] (biography) 1980
The Essential Blake [editor] (poetry) 1987
SOURCE: "Prelude to Adventure," in Poetry, Vol. 36, No. 4, July, 1930, pp. 218-23.
[In the following review of Intellectual Things, the critic states that Kunitz shows promise as a poet, praises his gift for melody but cautions him against stylization.]
Enough of the probing seriousness and curiosity of a keen poetic intelligence is exhibited in [Intellectual Things] to warrant a considerable confidence in the talents of the author, and in his future work. With a public career little more than a year old, he has issued a collection marked by unquestionable faults and insecurities, but one in which a trait of real lyric individuality emerges....
(The entire section is 880 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Passport to the War, in The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1944, p. 26.
[In the following review of Passport to the War, Schorer comments that Kunitz's "'metaphysical' style" has become less imitative since the publication of his first volume of poetry.]
[Stanley Kunitz] made a … cautious selection of influences and, from the beginning, showed himself to be a first-rate rather than a second-rate poet by integrating those influences with his own vision of experience to produce what may be called a style. Half of his present book. [Passport to the War] consists of selections from his first book, Intellectual Things...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
SOURCE: "The Thirty Years' War," in Poetry, Vol. 93, No. 3, December, 1958, pp. 174-78.
[In the following essay, Wagoner predicts that the publication of Selected Poems, 1928-1958 will bring an end to critical neglect of Kunitz's poetry.]
One of the most depressing literary curiosities of the past three decades has been the neglect of Stanley Kunitz's poetry. His earlier books—Intellectual Things (1930) and Passport to the War (1944)—received uniformly high praise from reviewers (for the single exception, see his poem "A Choice of Weapons," but serious critical attention appeared to stop there. Now, at last, the Selected Poems 1928-1958...
(The entire section is 1270 words.)
SOURCE: "The Generation of Auden," in Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: A Study of Prosody from Thomas Hardy to Robert Lowell, University of Michigan Press, 1965, pp. 279-82.
[In the following excerpt, Gross focuses on meter and sound in Kunitz's poetry, praising him for his technical accomplishments.]
… Kunitz' acknowledged masters are Donne, Baudelaire, and Eliot. He pays each the formal compliment of allusion or translation; in the blank-verse poem "The Class Will Come to Order" a celebrated line from The Relique,
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone
appears in witty paraphrase:
(The entire section is 765 words.)
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz: An Introductory Essay," in Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 38-58.
[In the following essay, Hagstrum identifies major themes in Kunitz's poetry and traces the development of his technique, examining poems from Intellectual Things, Passport to the War, and Selected Poems, 1928-1958.]
Stanley Kunitz provides his readers with the excitement, rarely encountered in modern poetry, of exploring both the guilty and the joyful recesses of the personality. Of guilt alone, we have perhaps had more than our share, and the pilgrimage from sin to salvation has become—who would have believed it a generation...
(The entire section is 4824 words.)
SOURCE: "Man with a Leaf in His Head," in Nation, Vol. 213, No. 8, September 20, 1971, pp. 250-51.
[Praising the artistry and maturity of The Testing-Tree, Moss considers some of Kunitz's major themes, including the opposition of life and death, the search for the unknown father, religion, and nature.]
In his Selected Poems, published in 1958, Stanley Kunitz gave us some dozen poems that are likely to guide people guided by poetry, as long as English is read. He has "suffered the twentieth century," confronted tragic experience, given it form—in the course of the poems, triumphed over it. Now we have thirty additional poems. I have spent a month with...
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SOURCE: "'Imagine Wrestling with an Angel': An Interview with Stanley Kunitz," in Salmagundi, No. 22/23, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 71-83.
[In the following interview, which is an edited transcript of a public interview conducted at Skidmore College in April, 1972, Kunitz discusses, among other subjects, trends in contemporary poetry, the process of composing verse, the function of poetry, the work of up-and-coming poets, his influences, and the practice of labeling poets.]
[Boyers]: Whenever I go and visit people who are interested in poetry, there seems to be constant reference to Stanley Kunitz as the "poets' poet." Have you heard yourself described in this way?...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928–1978, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 131–50.
[Cotter reviews Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928–1978, briefly remarking on Kunitz's poetic development.]
[In The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, Kunitz] arranges his poems in reverse chronological order, but the strategem cannot hide the nature of his poetic development. His early poems launch a direct assault on the Self, using myth ("For Proserpine"), rhetoric ("O Sion of my heart"), and melancholy ("I wept for my youth") as the traditional arsenal for one's siege. No wonder Kunitz decided not to begin his book with...
(The entire section is 377 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928–1978, in American Poetry Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, July/August, 1980, pp. 36–41.
[Orr explores what he identifies as Kunitz's major theme: the son's quest for the father.]
If Stanley Kunitz is a major poet, then he must have a major theme. What is that theme? Something that for the moment I'll call "the son's quest for the father." As all authentic major themes of this century must, it represents a fusion of personal crisis with an impersonal, universal significance. For the process of fusing personal and impersonal, the phrase Kunitz uses in relation to his own work is "to convert life into legend." I would...
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SOURCE: "The Layers," in Ironwood, Vol. 24, Fall, 1984, pp. 71-4.
[In the following essay, Kunitz discusses poetic imagination and explains the genesis of his poem "The Abduction."]
A few months ago a graduate student at a Midwestern university sent me an elaborate commentary on an early poem of mine, requesting my seal of approval for his interpretation. Since I could scarcely recall the lines in question—they had been produced in my twenties—I needed first of all to reacquaint myself with them, almost as if they had been written by a stranger. Something quite disturbing happened to me. As I began to read, the apparent subject-matter crumbled away, and what I...
(The entire section is 1622 words.)
SOURCE: An interview with Stanley Kunitz, in The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 193-209.
[In the following excerpt from his interview with Stitt, which occurred on May 3, 1990, Kunitz discusses his childhood, his education, his early aspirations to be a poet, the publication of his first book, his relationship with Theodore Roethke, and the physicality of language.]
[Stitt]: What sort of childhood did you have?
[Kunitz]: As I look back on it, my main impression is of how lonely I was. Aside from school, where of course I did have a degree of companionship, it was a childhood without much company outside the household...
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SOURCE: "A Visionary Poet at Ninety," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 277, No. 6, pp. 113-16, 118-20.
[In the following excerpt from a review of Passing Through, Barber marvels at Kunitz's "exemplary resilience" and "inexhaustible " curiosity.]
Here, in a trim volume that nobody could wish shorter, [Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected], is virtually the entire windfall of Kunitz's "later" poetry: the selected contents of The Testing-Tree (1971), "The Layers" (the constellation of new poems that led off his 1979 edition of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz), and Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (1985), along with nine...
(The entire section is 722 words.)