Study Guide

Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz Essay - Kunitz, Stanley (Vol. 148)

Kunitz, Stanley (Vol. 148)

Introduction

Stanley Kunitz 1905-2006

(Full name Stanley Jasspon Kunitz; has also written under the pseudonym Dilly Tante) American poet, editor, essayist, translator, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Kunitz's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 11, and 14.

Revered as an elder statesman of American poetry, Kunitz produced a distinguished body of work that spans generations and won acclaim for its virtuosity and insight. Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (1958), the National Book Award for Passing Through (1995), and, at age ninety-five, was named poet laureate of the United States beginning in 2000. Kunitz is well-known for the nonconformity of his style, and critics seldom draw direct comparisons between him and his contemporaries, although they do note his relationship with his protégé Theodore Roethke. In the 1930s and 1940s, while the experimental verse of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound enjoyed wide popularity, Kunitz's work reflected the dense formalism of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert. Kunitz's verse has gradually become less autobiographical and formal over the years, evolving by the 1970s into a poetic style that combines metric complexity with lucid form.

Biographical Information

Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, several weeks after his father, Soloman, committed suicide. This event haunted Kunitz in his formative years and it informs much of his early poetry, which focuses on themes of death and orphanhood. Raised by his mother, Yetta Jasspon Kunitz, a Lithuanian immigrant and entrepreneur who took over the family business, Kunitz's childhood was marked by his love of reading. His literary and academic prowess allowed him to obtain a scholarship to Harvard, where his poetic and linguistic talents were recognized and encouraged. After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in 1926 and earning a master's degree in English, Kunitz worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in Worcester, Massachusetts. One of his first positions after college involved editing the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who was executed in the United States with Nicola Sacco in 1927 under the charge of anarchy. Kunitz's efforts to prevent what many perceived as an unjust execution were unsuccessful, and this experience contributed to his lifelong advocacy of political freedom. Kunitz later forged a successful career as an editor of literary reference works while working for the H. W. Wilson Company in New York. He inaugurated two important series of reference books: the Wilson Library Bulletin and the Authors Biographical Series. Following the publication of his collection Intellectual Things (1930), Kunitz gradually focused his attention on writing poetry, but remained a working editor and translator for most of his career. Kunitz also held the position of poetry professor at Bennington College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York, the University of Washington, and Queens College, New York. Though he eschewed the confinement of an academic career, Kunitz has been recognized as an important mentor for many poets, notably Roethke and Louise Glück. He served as general editor of the “Yale Series of Younger Poets,” published by Yale University Press, from 1969 to 1977. During World War II, Kunitz was drafted, although his identification as a nonaffiliated pacifist excused him from active duty. He is a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a community that sponsors young artists and writers. Kunitz's impact on the artistic community was honored by the publication of A Celebration of Stanley Kunitz on His Eightieth Birthday (1986), a volume of poems, essays and letters edited by Stanley Moss.

Major Works

Kunitz's early poetry collections, Intellectual Things, Passport to the War (1944) 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 (1971), with its conversational tone, loose form, and short lines, marked a departure to a simpler, more open style for Kunitz. 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. …” The change in Kunitz's style was reflected in his treatment of his most major recurring themes. Critics have noted that Kunitz has been more inclined to expose his personal feelings in his later work, particularly with regard to the suicide of his father. Poems such as “The Portrait,” “Open the Gate,” and “Father and Son”—which focus on a son's quest to know his father—show Kunitz to be more willing to confront his personal trauma than he was in his earlier verse. Critics have also focused on Kunitz's interest in the narrow balance between life and death, which Kunitz describes as “a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry.” Kunitz's exploration of such serious themes has drawn acclaim from several critics, although many note that his tone has become more optimistic in his later collections such as Next-to-Last Things (1985) and Passing Through.

Critical Reception

Critics have overwhelmingly praised Kunitz's poetry, calling him “difficult” and “obtuse” at times, but these terms are used approvingly. The critical reverence for Kunitz's poetry often emphasizes the characteristic mysterious nature of his verse. In 1930, William Rose Benét found Intellectual Things “modern and yet very old, intricate and metaphysical and yet undeniably full of the true seer.” Many recent critics suggest that Kunitz's poetry has improved over time, although he is still primarily placed within a generation of older poets. According to Jay Parini, “the restraints of [Kunitz's] art combine with a fierce dedication to clarity and intellectual grace to assure him of a place among the essential poets of his generation, which includes Roethke, [Robert] Lowell, [W. H] Auden, and [Richard] Eberhart.” However, Kunitz's initial works prompted scant 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, general critical consensus held that Kunitz was too imitative, lacking any recognizable style of his own. Many reviewers felt that 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 recent years, Kunitz has been 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 continued to be recognized by his peers as an important voice in contemporary American poetry.

Principal Works

Intellectual Things (poetry) 1930

Living Authors: A Book of Biographies [editor; as Dilly Tante] (nonfiction) 1931

Authors Today and Yesterday: A Companion Volume to “Living Authors” [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1933

The Junior Book of Authors: An Introduction to the Lives of Writers and Illustrators for Young Readers [editor; with Howard Haycraft; revised edition, 1951] (nonfiction) 1934

British Authors of the Nineteenth Century [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1936

American Authors, 1600–1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1938

Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Howard Haycraft; first supplement, 1955; with Vineta Colby] (nonfiction) 1942

Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems (poetry) 1944

British Authors before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Howard Haycraft] (nonfiction) 1952

Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (poetry) 1958

European Authors, 1000–1900: A Biographical Dictionary [editor; with Vineta Colby] (nonfiction) 1967

The Testing-Tree (poetry) 1971

Poems of Anna Akhmatova [translator; with Max Hayward] (poetry) 1973

The Coat without a Seam: Sixty Poems, 1930–1972 (poetry) 1974

The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940–1970 (poetry) 1974

A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations (essays and interviews) 1975

The Lincoln Relics (poetry) 1978

The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (poetry) 1979

The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems (poetry) 1983

Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (poetry and essays) 1985

Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected (poetry) 1995

The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (poetry) 2000

Criticism

Stanley Kunitz with Cynthia Davis (interview date 1972)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,”1 in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 1–14.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1972, Kunitz discusses his formative influences and approach to writing poetry, his artistic development and changing existential and mythopoetic concerns, and his views on the significance of poetry and the place of the poet in contemporary society.]

[Davis:] Mr. Kunitz, you said once to a group of students studying your poetry that no one has the “right answers” in interpretation, and that after it's published the poem belongs as much to them as to you. Are you generally reluctant to...

(The entire section is 4744 words.)

Robert Weisberg (essay date Spring 1975)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: The Stubborn Middle Way,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 49–73.

[In the following essay, Weisberg provides an overview of Kunitz's artistic development and poetic style, drawing attention to his metaphysical concerns, creative vision, and the influence of T. S. Eliot and W. A. Auden.]

“The easiest poet to neglect is one who resists classification.”1 Had he spoken of himself, Stanley Kunitz might rather have said that we neglect the poet who becomes classified too early and too narrowly. Since a brief, if sympathetic, article by Jean Hagstrum in 1958,2 Kunitz's impressive canon has...

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Andrew Motion (review date 2 November 1979)

SOURCE: “Dazzling,” in New Statesman, November 2, 1979, pp. 686–87.

[In the following review of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, Motion finds shortcomings in Kunitz's early work, though cites redeeming qualities in his later poetry.]

[W. B.] Yeats is usually cited as the exception who proves the rule that most poets, after peaking somewhere in their 30s, steadily deteriorate as they get older. And Yeats, it seems, is mainly responsible for making Stanley Kunitz another such odd-man-out. If the early work in The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 is anything to go by, its author's development was severely retarded by admiration for...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Vernon Young (review date 22 November 1979)

SOURCE: “It Makes You Wonder,” in New York Review of Books, November 22, 1979, pp. 39–41.

[In the following review, Young provides an overview of Kunitz's literary contributions and analysis of several exemplary poems from The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978.]

While some poets can be read exclusively in their poems, without our having recourse to anything else written by them, or without our knowing anything of their biography, this is not the case with Stanley Kunitz. Mr. Kunitz has been for many years of a long life a busy man of letters; his achievements as editor, teacher, reviewer, and translator are worthy ones. Yet these are, perhaps, less dramatic...

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Alan Brownjohn (review date April 1980)

SOURCE: “Contour Lines,” in Encounter, Vol. LIV, No. 4, April, 1980, pp. 62–66.

[In the following excerpt, Brownjohn offers a positive assessment of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978.]

It's been easy for English readers to tell which selected American poets have been most influential on this side of the Atlantic in recent years; harder to know who they have been selected from. There is (there almost always has been) a dearth of good, explanatory anthologies, even those with axes to grind; so the map of present-day American poetry is difficult to draw. Its two poles are clearly marked, because they are the places at which English poets leaning...

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Peter Stitt (review date September 1980)

SOURCE: “The Ineluctable Signature of Stanley Kunitz,” in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVI, No. 6, September, 1980, pp. 347–51.

[In the following review of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, Stitt argues that Kunitz's greatest strength lies in his high-minded rhetorical style, rather than the “middle” or “low” style associated with confessional poetry and Kunitz's professed democratic sympathies.]

Although Stanley Kunitz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his Selected Poems, he is best known for the revolution in his style which occurred with the poems of The Testing-Tree, published in 1971. Robert Lowell (echoing virtually all the...

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Cynthia A. Davis (essay date Spring 1981)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz and the Transubstantial World,” in Literary Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 413–26.

[In the following essay, Davis provides an overview of Kunitz's poetic development in Intellectual Things, Passport to the War, The Testing-Tree, Selected Poems, and The Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Davis refutes the view of Kunitz as a derivative poet, drawing attention to his recurring archetypal images, technical skill, and effort to mediate between personal experience and universal myth.]

Stanley Kunitz once said, “The originality of any poet consists to a considerable degree in finding those key images which forever haunt him,...

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Gregory Orr (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Introduction: Life into Legend,” in Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 1–48.

[In the following essay, Orr provides an analysis of the recurring images and personal symbolism in Kunitz's poetry, drawing particular attention to the significance of legend, quest, and parent-child motifs related to the poet's search for self-identity and meaning.]

When Stanley Kunitz' magnificent fourth book of poems, The Testing-Tree, was published in 1971, it was hailed by Robert Lowell on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. As Kunitz' books make their appearance, it seems inevitable that he will...

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James Idema (review date 22 December 1985)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz Shares ‘Next-to-Last’ Poems, Essays with Readers,” in Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1985, p. 39.

[In the following review, Idema offers a favorable assessment of Next-to-Last Things.]

There is an appropriateness, somehow, in turning to Next-to-Last Things in this, the waning of the year. It is that kind of book. Portrait of the artist as an old man. One pictures the 80–year-old poet rummaging among the scraps of his late harvest, musing over what to reject, what to save, fretting over a word or phrase that at the moment seems somehow vagrant, smiling to himself at the felicitousness of “Seedcorn and Windfall” under which he...

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Thomas D'Evelyn (essay date 6 March 1987)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: ‘American Freethinker,’” in Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1987, p. B2.

[In the following essay, D'Evelyn provides an overview of Kunitz's career and discusses the poem “Day of Foreboding” from Next-to-Last Things.]

Put aside the Pulitzer Prize (1959). Put aside the years as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the praise for his translations from Andrei Voznesensky and Anna Akhmatova, the prestige of editing the “Yale Series of Younger Poets,” the election to the 50–member American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, the years spent in the echoing...

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Elizabeth Kastor (essay date 12 May 1987)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz: The Poetic Adversary,” in Washington Post, May 12, 1987, pp. D1, D6.

[In the following essay, Kastor presents an overview of Kunitz's career and accomplishments, and reports Kunitz's comments on his work and the role of the poet.]

Stanley Kunitz has always written deep into the night and through to morning and, when desperate publishers plead for an overdue essay from the 81–year-old poet, as they lately have been, the nights grow even longer. Over the last three, he has slept less than six hours. “The world's quiet then,” says Kunitz. “I feel that splendid isolation, which is fructifying, replenishing.”

And he...

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Calvin Bedient (review date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: “The Wild Braid of Creation,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVI, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 137–49.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient discusses aspects of “strangeness” and the imagery of animals and elements in Next-to-Last Things.]

In poetry strangeness is essential, whether of word, figure, or development. It is inseparable from the intense concentration that justifies special linear and rhythmic dispositions of language; these dispositions, in turn, cast an eclipse-strange light back on the words. Prose is daylight, poetry entering or emerging from the dark of the moon. …

I have written as if strangeness ought to be potent in...

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Stanley Kunitz with Peter Stitt (interview date 1990)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,” in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 193–209.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1990, Kunitz discusses his early life, formative experiences, education, beginnings as a poet, literary relationships, and his approach to writing and experiencing poetry.]

Stanley Kunitz, who will turn eighty-seven on July 29, 1992, is the reigning dean of American poets. Not only is he still writing, but he is writing as well today as he ever has, as is evident from the new poem, “Chariot,” published below. The third child of Solomon Z. Kunitz and Yetta Helen Jasspon, Stanley Kunitz was born and raised in...

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Michael Ryan (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Life between Scylla and Charybdis,” in Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, edited by Stanley Moss, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, pp. 128–36.

[In the following essay, Ryan offers an analysis of Kunitz's poem “My Sisters” and discusses Kunitz's views on the social, moral, and personal significance of poetry.]

The life of a poet is crystallized in his work, that's how you know him.

—Stanley Kunitz

This is one of the poems by Stanley Kunitz I love the most:

“MY SISTERS”

Who whispered, souls have shapes?
So has the wind, I...

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Susan Mitchell (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “A Visit to the Poet's Studio,” in Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, edited by Stanley Moss, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, pp. 144–54.

[In the following essay, Mitchell reflects on the organic processes, universal revelations, and “ecstatic” voice in Kunitz's poetry, particularly that in Next-to-Last Things.]

A couple of months ago during a long night of insomnia that seemed the price paid for my recent dislocation from New England to South Florida, I reread Dante's Vita Nuova and Stanley Kunitz's Next-to-Last Things (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985). It was not only the fact that, once again, I was starting my life over that...

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Phoebe Pettingell (review date 9–23 October 1995)

SOURCE: “Survivors' Stories,” in New Leader, October 9–23, 1995, pp. 14–15.

[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]

Stanley Kunitz has proved to be the survivor of his generation of poets. Born the same decade as Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, and Robert Penn Warren, Kunitz continues, at 90, to flourish as a writer. To mark his latest chronological milestone, Norton has published his ninth collection of verse, Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. The book brims with the enthusiasm and energy we have come to expect from its author. True, Kunitz’ themes can be dark. He views many...

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A. V. Christie (review date 31 December 1995)

SOURCE: “The Poems of Stanley Kunitz Confront ‘The Great Simplicities,’” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 31, 1995, p. 4.

[In the following review, Christie offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]

Yes, lately we've been intrigued by a poetry infused with the postmodern, by its skeptical deconstructions and complexities. But how it refreshes and affirms to reconnect with a voice, an aesthetic, that risks caring.

“What is there left to confront but the great simplicities? I never tire of birdsong and sky and weather. … I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world,” states Stanley Kunitz in the...

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Stanley Kunitz with Bill Moyers (interview date 1995)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz,” in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, by Bill Moyers, edited by James Haba, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 239–55.

[In the following interview, Kunitz discusses formative events in his life and career, his approach to writing poetry, the origin of several of his poems, and the significance of poetry for the artist and society.]

Stanley Kunitz begins his ninetieth year with a new collection of luminous, life-affirming poems. Still wrestling with basic themes—“the world's wrongs and the injustice of time”—and still joyfully rearranging the sounds of language as he does the flowers in his garden, Kunitz has received nearly every honor...

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David Yezzi (review date 1996)

SOURCE: “To Turn Again,” in Parnassus, Vol. 21, Nos. 1–2, 1996, pp. 215–29.

[In the following positive review of Passing Through, Yezzi provides an analysis of recurring “key images” and archetypes in Kunitz's poetry and comments favorably on Kunitz's effort to construct a “personal mythology.”]

When asked by Christopher Busa in The Paris Review interview if he felt differently about translating the poems of Baudelaire, whom he could never know personally, than about translating the work of various contemporary poets, Stanley Kunitz replied “I know Baudelaire too.” Taken literally, Kunitz's contention might set a more speculative...

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Judith Kitchen (review date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “The Ladybug and the Universe,” in Georgia Review, Vol. L, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 386–403.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen comments on the task of the reviewer and offers a favorable evaluation of Passing Through, including close readings of two poems, “Three Floors” and “Touch Me,” from the volume.]

Every Sunday morning we watch CBS's Sunday Morning. Well, almost every Sunday morning. With The New York Times waiting, I wait, somewhat impatiently, for the final minute of the show—that minute where Charles Kuralt used to say, “I leave you now near Omaha, on the banks of the Missouri,” and the camera would simply sit...

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John Taylor (review date February 1997)

SOURCE: “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXIX, No. 4, February, 1997, pp. 291–93.

[In the following review, Taylor offers a positive assessment of Passing Through.]

This selection displays once again Stanley Kunitz's remarkable range and subtlety. Adding nine recent poems to work originally printed in The Testing-Tree (1971), Next-to-Last Things (1985) and “The Layers” (which appeared in the acclaimed 1979 edition of his collected poetry), Kunitz passes from retrospective appraisals of personal tragedy (“My mother never forgave my father / for killing himself … that spring / when I was waiting to be born”) to haunting metaphysical...

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Stanley Kunitz with Gary Pacernick (interview date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Fall, 1997, pp. 646–54.

[In the following interview, Kunitz comments on his life, work, creative inspiration, Jewish heritage, and the significance of poetry.]

On Tuesday, December 5, 1995, I interviewed Stanley Kunitz in his spacious Greenwich Village apartment, crammed with books and plants and works of art. He had just returned from a reading in Cambridge, but had found time while on the train to write some answers to my questions and referred to these texts during the interview. In the spring of 1997 we had a follow-up discussion that led to a number of revisions and...

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Fred Moramarco and William Sullivan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Lost Worlds: Midcentury Revisions of Modernism,” in Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Twayne, 1998, pp. 1–36.

[In the following excerpt, Moramarco and Sullivan discuss the historical context of mid-twentieth-century American poetry and provide an overview of Kunitz's literary career, thematic preoccupations, and the development of his poetic style.]

“O world so far away! O my lost world!”

—Theodore Roethke, “Otto”

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”

—Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers”

Major midcentury poets like Randall...

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Linton Weeks (essay date 29 July 2000)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kunitz, 95, Becomes Poet Laureate for a New Century,” in Washington Post, July 29, 2000, pp. C1, C5.

[In the following essay, Weeks provides an overview of Kunitz's literary career and poetry upon his appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States.]

Stanley Kunitz, who once said that all poetry is born of love, is the country's newest poet laureate. And its oldest. He turns 95 today. The formal announcement will be made Monday by James Billington, Librarian of Congress.

“In my work, at this age,” said Kunitz from his summer house in Provincetown, Mass., “this is gratifying and astonishing. I must say, I was not prepared...

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