Kunitz, Stanley 1905–2006
An American poet, editor, essayist, translator, and journalist, Kunitz was a critically neglected but important voice in contemporary poetry. His work is skillfully crafted, incorporating the rhythms of natural speech, and evidencing a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases. Often considered metaphysical, his is an intensely personal poetry, exploring the mystery of self and the intricacies of time. Kunitz won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for Selected Poems, 1928–1958. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
[That sophisticated craftsman, Stanley Kunitz] can commence a lyric with a couplet that might have been composed by one of the metaphysicals: "Lovers relentlessly contend to be / Superior in their identity:". Elsewhere he manipulates a parenthesis with the skill of Cummings, introduces the subliminal imagery of Roethke, sets down public ignominy in a witty shorthand similar to Auden's. But his poems would not be mistaken for theirs. In one, written "for money, rage, and love", on the theft of his wallet in a Roman tram, he speaks of wearing his heart "less Roman than baroque", and indeed, he does not shrink from a grand extravagance of language. He is concerned with the perennial themes of sexual love, death, and the self, and he is also alert to the shames of the century in which he explores these themes. There is a wide range in his work…. Like other inquisitors of the soul, Kunitz sometimes deals in obliquities and opacities. They are redeemed by the energy, by the anguished and pitiless honesty with which he confronts his life and whatever we share of it. (pp. 238-39)
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.
[A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly] represents the varied interests of a poet who first came to public attention with the traditionally thin volume of verse, Intellectual Things, in the 1920s. It has a freshness and a "kind of order, kind of folly" treatment of many contemporary events that is rarely found in a collection of previously published essays, random speeches, and remarks made for "occasional" situations. As a principal participant in the development of American verse since the twenties, [Kunitz] is obviously very knowledgeable about all significant trends since that time, and is also au courant with new poetic activities here and abroad….
Kunitz "keeps" himself contemporary in a way few older poets do, by reading and following younger writers…. Kunitz may be the only poet of his generation who truly knows what is going on among young poets, and his choices are worth considering….
All the Kunitz explorations, whether describing visits back to his roots in Worcester, Massachusetts, or discussing his views of contemporary painters (he has extremely close ties to the world of visual arts), seem interconnected in the "manifold tissue" of his deep humanistic understanding. In "Sister Arts," for example, he demonstrates the possibilities and the actual relationships that have existed between poets and painters through the years. He has no fear in dealing with a subject difficult to generalize about, and often, in the process, transforms his subject matter with brilliant insights and discoveries.
Taken together, this most readable collection represents a testament to one of our best poets, who realizes that "in the midst of this random and absurd universe, one must begin by affirming the value of one's own existence; but that the affirmation must not be too glib or too cheaply won; it must rise out of the wrestling with all that denies it, to the very point of negation." In his ability to affirm the value of his own existence and to share his views in a solidly organized volume of prose, Kunitz has amply demonstrated that he continues to move, as he stated recently, "toward a more expansive universe" and that he proposes to "take more risks" than ever before. (p. 598)
William F. Claire, in The American Scholar (copyright © 1976 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1976.
For nearly half a century Mr. Kunitz has been giving us poems remarkable for their compactness and force. Now, in his seventieth year, he presents us with [A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly,] a collection of prose pieces which—being drawn from many times and many publications—might seem superficially to be too disparate to cohere an an organic whole, constituting one more bibliographically useful but experientially unsatisfying potpourri. But Mr. Kunitz is not a superficial writer, and he deserves more than a superficial response. "All the arts join in testifying that the order that interests the modern imagination is not a sequential order," he writes in his study of Keats. That is true, and it is another way of saying what many of his contemporaries have forgotten: that the invalidation of chronology is not the invalidation of order itself. Mr. Kunitz has many of the old fashioned virtues, one of which (increasingly uncommon in an age infatuated with fragmentation) is consistency. Through all the particulars of this volume, a uniform quality of mind pervades—a quality marked by reasonableness, sensitivity, lucidity, and balance. One thinks inevitably of Aristotle's Magnanimous Man, of Camus' homme du midi. His materials he has arranged into associative groups which, like the stanzas of a poem, proceed processionally from one to the next. Just as in a poem we almost invariably have favorite passages, favorite isolatable lines, individual readers will no doubt find their sympathies unequally distributed among the components of this book…. Yet the volume, for all its diversity, is one. It is made so by Mr. Kunitz's persistent conceptualization of the nature of art, and by the tough and...
(The entire section is 705 words.)