Kunitz, Stanley (Vol. 148)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]...
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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 explain your poems?
[Kunitz:] I often don't really know what a poem means, in rational terms. There are so many currents that flow into the poem, of which the poet himself can't be totally aware. Years after you have written a poem, you come back to it and find something you didn't know was there. Sometimes, I grant, a poet can be helpful about a specific image or an obscure portion of his poem.
Do you think it's helpful to talk about the circumstances that led to your writing a poem?
If they can be recalled, they may, in some cases, prove illuminating. But, as a general rule, the poem ought to have released itself from the circumstances of its origin.
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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 aroused no critical interest. Instead, he has been dubiously honored, by almost universal agreement, as a strange phenomenon called the “poet's poet,” and the only recent study of him, by Marjorie Perloff in the Iowa Review, explicitly sustains this official view.3 In what sense is Kunitz “the poet's poet”? The title first assumes that his verse is of minor interest in itself, but that his literary relationships as peer and mentor have merited him a grateful, if condescending, nod from the historians of contemporary poetry. More specifically, the title has generally implied fixed critical views of the nature of his verse. In his early work as represented in Selected Poems he is a skillful but derivative...
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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 Innisfree and its environs. In recent years, however, he's stopped winding himself in ‘the bright thread of a dream,’ and turned his back on myth kitties. The first third of the book—it's arranged in reverse chronology—is consistently unillusioned and contains the rewards of half a century's effort to establish a durably sincere style and poetic personality.
But even while discovering his greatest strengths as a pragmatic realist, Kunitz is tormented by some aspects of his original romanticism. Inflated rhetoric and exaggerated self-consciousness are still liable to compromise him when he writes with an entirely straight face. He's obviously aware of this problem himself—‘I am not what I was,’ he says in ‘The...
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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 qualifications for fame than having died young or become a political activist or written a manifesto denouncing all American poets influenced by T. S. Eliot.
To report that Mr. Kunitz has published five volumes of poems (the present one includes new poems which he calls “The Layers”), that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1928–1958 collection, that he has been Consultant to the Library of Congress, lectured at several universities, and ably translated poems by Akhmatova and Voznesensky: all this, though it locates him for those who are casual readers of poetry and endows his name with intellectual respectability, is, in some sense, inadequate.
Stanley Kunitz is not a monumental poet, nor is he...
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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 towards the United States have been most eager to cluster: around the “avant-garde” at one end and the “academic,” “Europeanised” poets at the other. (The categories are gross simplifications, but they have been only too usable for English poets—and they do in fact relate quite plausibly to that basic division into redskins and palefaces.) But the land between the poles is wide and indistinct, a terrain where vaguely respected names appear like distant cities, too shadowy for their age, geography or customs to be made out with any certainty.
The best we get is occasional shafts of light on this scene, often in the form of guilty reminders of what we have allowed ourselves to miss. Stanley Kunitz's collected poems...
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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 criticism devoted to Kunitz since that time) praised the volume for reflecting what he called “the drift of the age,” a movement away from tortured formality towards prosaic relaxation, away from metaphor and indirection towards clarity, the literal truth, Kunitz himself explained the change in this way: “A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style—for a low style, even, though that may be outside my range.” The statement correctly assumes that the voice of a poem ought in some way to reflect the personality of the poet; the style, after all, is the man.
I think we have a generally accurate notion of the kind of man Stanley...
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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, which make him different from others.”1 The recent publication of The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978 (Little, Brown and Company, 1979) offers the opportunity to trace those images in development throughout Kunitz's long career, to find the obsessions that produce them, and to judge them in the context of the poetry as a whole. Almost all of his published poems appear here, beginning with new poems in the opening section, “The Layers,” and moving back in time through sections corresponding to his four previous American volumes.2 The new poems themselves strike a retrospective note: “The Knot” opens the volume with description of a reappearing knothole, “Obstinate bud, / sticky with life,” and the...
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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 be generally accorded that status which he has long since earned in the eyes of fellow poets—that of a major poet of the dramatic lyric. Yet the immediate chorus of praise and the excitement in the literary world that greeted The Testing-Tree's appearance was followed by the relative critical neglect that has persistently haunted Kunitz' achievement as a poet.
Kunitz writes sparingly—on the average his books have appeared at fourteen-year intervals. In his words, he writes “only those poems that must be written, that force themselves into being.” As a result, the transitional poems often don't get written, and each poem can represent, or appear to represent, a new departure. But transitional poems are...
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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 groups the lesser pieces at the end, reluctant finally to let anything go. The penultimate title of the book rings wistful. It seems to say, I'm not quite finished.
“To a poet of my age,” he writes, “each new poem presents itself in a double aspect, as a separate entity demanding to be perfected and, conversely, as an extension of the lifework, to which it is joined by invisible psychic filaments. In this latter aspect, all the poems of a lifetime can be said to add up to a single poem … one that is never satisfied with itself, never finished.”
There is beauty and wisdom in this modest book, although its ultimate success may be measured by how many readers it sends to the bookstores in search of...
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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 classrooms of major universities.
Put aside the generations of poets he has survived, especially the tormented one identified with his friend Robert Lowell. Put aside the still-fresh laurels of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, awarded him last month, along with New York State's Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets.
“Great events are about to happen. …” So begins a little poem from Stanley Kunitz's most recent book, Next-to-Last Things (the Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1985). As poems go, it's a modest-looking thing, almost archaic-sounding, maybe a translation from Old English. It helps put things into perspective.
In a way, Kunitz always goes with the flow: traditional...
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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 does somehow manage to look replenished by those nights filled with writing, nights that have, over the last six decades, made him a dean of the poetic scene and won him the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and, this year, the Bollingen Prize. He will read at the Folger Shakespeare Library tonight at 8.
Isolation has been a constant in Kunitz's life, from a lonely childhood, scarred by his father's suicide just before Kunitz's birth and spent in a house where birthdays were not celebrated and “I would not admit I cared / that my friends were given parties,” to the years writing in the isolation of the country, through decades of little popular or critical recognition. And if for the last several decades he has received...
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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 poetry—both strong and fertile. What of the authority of Stanley Kunitz, who seems to imply otherwise when he asks what at his age (the date was 1977, when he was seventy-two) is “left for you to confront but the great simplicities. … I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world”?
The thirteen poems in Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (more strictly, twelve poems, for the prose piece “Tumbling of Worms” should not be passed off as a poem) are “natural” seeming enough for artifacts, and fairly luminous, deep, and spare. And the strangest, “The Abduction,” is an early work. Nonetheless all the poems...
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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 Worcester, Massachusetts. He earned his B.A. from Harvard in 1926 and his M.A. in 1927; at his first graduation, he won the coveted Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry, was awarded highest honors, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, Kunitz worked briefly for the Worcester Telegram and then, from 1928 to 1943, served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin. His first book, Intellectual Things (1930), was praised both for its “fresh utterance” and for its “intricate and metaphysical” style. From 1943 to 1945 Kunitz served in the Air Transport Command of the United States Army, and in 1944 he published his second volume, Passport to the War.
A Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in...
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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.
This is one of the poems by Stanley Kunitz I love the most:
Who whispered, souls have shapes? So has the wind, I say. But I don't know, I only feel things blow.
I had two sisters once with long black hair who walked apart from me and wrote the history of tears. Their story's faded with their names, but the candlelight they carried, like dancers in a dream, still flickers on their gowns as they bend over me to comfort my night-fears.
Let nothing grieve you, Sarah and Sophia. Shush, shush, my dears, now and forever.
The poem is beyond comment, or underneath it, at least in the language of criticism, which is “a kind of translation,” as Eudora Welty says, “like a headphone we can clamp on at the U.N. when they are speaking the Arabian tongue.” “My Sisters” resists this translation exceptionally...
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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 returned me to Dante and, for that matter, to Kunitz whose poems bear witness to his own powerful drive for spiritual renewal and transformation. I chose these writers because I had read them so often I knew they would give me an alternative to geographic place: they were a familiar intellectual soil I was already rooted in and a soil made all the more hospitable by my own numerous underlings, asterisks, personal jottings penciled in margins. Here, said each marking, was a place I had stopped and thought and dreamed before. As I settled into that long reading, first one, then the other book spread open in my lap, the night itself opened up around me. Nights in South Florida, I was to learn that night, are not really dark, but different...
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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 subjects with irony, sometimes outright skepticism, occasionally outrage. What most impresses itself on the reader, however, is his imagination: perpetually curious, eager for fresh revelation. In “The Round,” he confesses, “I can scarcely wait for tomorrow when a new life begins for me, / as it does each day. …”
Passing Through opens with Kunitz’ brief affirmation of the craft he has practiced for seven decades: “In an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts,” he writes, “the [poet] ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing.” Against the widespread belief that literature is merely self-referential, and “poetry makes nothing...
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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 opening comments to his Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected.
Winner of this year's National Book Award, Passing Through is Kunitz's ninth collection and coincides with the celebration of his 90th birthday. Leave the metadiscourse to some other generation, Kunitz is “in league with that ounce of heart / pounding in my palm” (“Robin Redbreast”).
The volume brings together most of Kunitz's best poems from the later years and includes several new poems that engage with his abiding themes: time's legacies, nature and loss. He here displays the kind of intelligence and precision that hone the lyric moment. Throughout the wide sweep of years we see this rare lyric sensibility at...
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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 bestowed upon a poet, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and appointments as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now called poet laureate) and poet laureate of New York. He was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Massachusetts, and of Poets House in New York City. He is also a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
[Moyers:] Do you remember the first time you truly experienced words, somehow, as part of your being?
[Kunitz:] I used to go out into the woods behind our house in Worcester, Massachusetts, and shout words, any words that came to me, preferably long ones, just because the sound of them excited me. “Eleemosynary,” I recall, was one of...
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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 imagination to flights of wild conjecture. (“All poets are contemporaries,” he has said.) Think of the possible combinations of acquaintance that such time travel would allow. What species of exquisite naughtiness could Hart Crane and John Wilmot hatch, left to their own devices in the Ramble in Central Park? Allen Ginsberg would not think it strange to see Garcia Lorca pricing summer fruit or Whitman pawing the ground chuck in the fluorescence of a Berkeley grocery. Mightn't Ovid have benefited from Archibald MacLeish's diplomatic acumen in helping to grease his return to Rome from Tomis on the Black Sea? Literary gatherings would take on added luster: “Wystan, I'd like you to meet Quintus Horatius Flaccus—Oh, I see you're already...
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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 there, looking at the long sweep of the river on a clear day in November with the sun lowering itself in the west. Then, a goose or two would come into the range of the lens, followed by more until the screen was filled with geese wheeling and banking, skein upon skein threading themselves through each other, the air filled with yelping as they came in to land. Or else he'd say, “I leave you in the mountains of Vermont,” and the camera would start up close, focused on ice melting, so that a drop would slowly form, take on solidity and weight, tug at its own surface tension, elongate, then drop to the stream below—over and over, the accumulated shedding of winter until, finally, the camera would carefully pull back, and we'd see a...
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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 allegories, such as his anthropomorphic portrayal, in “King of the River,” of a salmon almost consciously longing for metamorphosis and transcendence. Connecting many of these otherwise disparate poems are compelling themes of innocence and love—the loss of both, the search for both. Time and again the poet depicts himself, family members, acquaintances, even the Acropolic caryatids and the mummy of Ramses the Second (as in the ironic, erudite “Signs and Portents”), striving to recover states of purity or harmony.
No poem summarizes this endeavor better than the moving final one, “Touch Me,” in which an aged narrator—Kunitz was born in 1905—kneels “to the crickets trilling / underfoot as if about / to burst...
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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 additions.
Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 and has won many honors for his poetry, including the Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Lenore Marshall Prizes, and most recently the National Book Award for Passing Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. In 1993, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton at a White House ceremony.
[Pacernick:] Stanley, you have said to Bill Moyers that “poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world.” Can you elaborate, especially about what makes it such a life-enhancing activity?
[Kunitz:] The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme...
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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 Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Stanley Kunitz, born in the first two decades of the twentieth century and at the center stage of poetry by the fifties, inherited the heaviest of burdens. Not only did they work in the shadows of their towering predecessors—T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams, who were still publishing important work—but they were not free to carry out the modernist creed of making poetry new. By now classical modernists such as Allen Tate and New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom had already defined modern poetry and restricted both its vision and its aesthetic practices. Modern poetry, they believed, should acknowledge human...
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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 for that call.”
The nonagenarian is the 10th laureate in an impressive succession. He follows in the wake of Robert Penn Warren, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, Rita Dove and Robert Hass. Robert Pinsky has been poet laureate for the last three years.
In a statement, Billington said that Kunitz “continues to be a mentor and model for several generations of poets, and he brings uniquely to the office of poet laureate a full lifetime of commitment to poetry.”
Kunitz has been writing verse for a long time. His first poem appeared in 1930, the same year that T. S. Eliot published “Ash Wednesday.” I've forgotten many of those early poems,” Kunitz admitted. But he remembers others...
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Barber, David. Review of Passing Through, by Stanley Kunitz. Atlantic Monthly 277, No. 6 (June 1996): 113.
Barber provides an overview of Kunitz's literary career and the development of his poetry.
Dove, Rita. “Poet's Choice.” Washington Post Book World (1 October 2000): 12.
Dove lauds Kunitz's appointment as Poet Laureate and extols the vitality and eloquence of his poetry.
Flint, R. W. Review of Next-to-Last Things, by Stanley Kunitz. New York Times Book Review (6 April 1986): 24.
Flint offers a generally positive review of Next-to-Last Things.
Geeslin, Campbell. Review of Next-to-Last Things, by Stanley Kunitz. People Weekly (13 January 1986): 14.
Geeslin offers a brief positive assessment of Next-to-Last Things.
Glück, Louise. “On Stanley Kunitz.” American Poetry Review 14, No. 5 (September–October 1985): 27–28.
Glück relates her personal debt to Kunitz, who served as her teacher and an indispensable mentor during her formative years.
Kunitz, Stanley with Leslie Kelen. “Stanley Kunitz: An Interview by Leslie Kelen.” American Poetry Review 27, No. 2 (March–April 1998): 49–55.
In this interview, which...
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