Slowly but surely, Stanley Kunitz has become a major voice, an eminence, almost the presiding spirit, of American poetry in the twentieth century. When his first book appeared (Intellectual Things, 1930), writers such as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound were in early middle age. Although he claims that such writers had little standing when he was an apprentice poet, it was in part through their works that Kunitz absorbed the early modernist spirit. Perhaps through Eliot, or perhaps from his own reading during his bachelor’s and master’s programs at Harvard University, Kunitz had become enamored with the metaphysical poets. The play of intellect characteristic of the metaphysicals found its way into his work and, one might argue, informs the title of that first volume. Yet Kunitz rejected what he considered Eliot’s emotional sterility and championed a more personal and passionate art. No doubt this stance explains his preference for William Butler Yeats. While the impact of his reading marks Kunitz’s early, somewhat difficult, ornamented style—a style refined in his second volume, Passport to the War (1944)—the poems of Kunitz’s maturity have a plainer finish. They are less showy, but more truly profound.
In his earlier work Kunitz is a traditional versifier, somewhat akin to the poets of the pre-Eliot generation—Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), for example. Like his good friend and contemporary Theodore Roethke, Kunitz makes an important transition from traditional to free verse, but he seems more comfortable as a free-verse poet than Roethke ever did.
That transition took place between Kunitz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning third volume, Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (1959), and his next collection,The Testing-Tree (1971). By this time truly an elder, Kunitz remade himself into a contemporary of much younger poets. The new style of Stanley Kunitz is accurately described by Marie Hénault (in her Stanley Kunitz, 1980): “free meters; syntactic relaxation; at times elimination of punctuation; the dropping of conventional line capitalization; and often the lack of stanzaic structure and rhyme.” Moreover, the later Kunitz employs a tougher, less poetic diction.
Early or late, Kunitz is hard to pin down. He has been a father figure to other poets since Selected Poems, and this image was enhanced by his reputation as a scholar that derived from his editorship of various literary reference tomes, such as Twentieth Century Authors (1942). Furthermore, Kunitz served for many years as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, putting himself in the position of sanctioning young writers. Kunitz’s prefaces to these collections (most of them prepared in the early 1970’s) were usually the first and often the best short appreciations of poets (such as Robert Hass and Peter Klappert) who went on to further acclaim. As consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1974-1976), Kunitz was a perfect fit for cultural leadership. An active mentor to aspiring poets in workshops at Columbia University and elsewhere, he has founded no school or tradition. His gift as a critic and teacher has been to recognize diversity and the individual voice.
Selections from The Testing-Tree make up more than a third of the present volume. Other sections include poems written after The Testing-Tree and first brought together in The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978 (1979), poems from Next-to-Last Things (1985), and nine new poems not previously collected. Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected, then, may be thought of as balancing Selected Poems by presenting the best (or at least the author’s favorite) poems written since that prize-winning collection. It is the definitive “later” Kunitz.
An important part of Kunitz’s career during the mid-1970’s included bringing the work of European writers, primarily Russian writers, to English audiences. His translations of Anna Akhmatova, Andrei Voznesensky, and Ivan Drach each resulted in a book. Passing Throughcontains two translations of Osip Mandelstam, three of Akhmatova, and one each from Aba Stolzenberg and Giuseppe Ungaretti. To Kunitz, it would seem, such translations hold a value equivalent to that of his original work, and thus he includes them among his own poems. In his essay “On Translating Akhmatova” (found in A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, 1975), Kunitz argues that though “translation is usually regarded as a secondary act of creation,” the major translation efforts (such as George Chapman’s Homer, 1598-1611, and Edward...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)