Stanley Kunitz Biography

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226259-Kunitz.jpg Stanley Kunitz Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The suicide of Solomon Z. Kunitz, a dress manufacturer, before the birth of his third child, Stanley, haunted Stanley Kunitz throughout his life. Stanley’s mother, Yetta Helen Jasspon, was remarried to Mark Dine when Stanley was eight; Dine died six years later. Yetta tried to expunge the memory of her first husband from her household, igniting Stanley’s curiosity about his father. Once when the young boy found a picture of Solomon, Yetta snatched it and slapped him for having it.

In 1922, Kunitz, valedictorian of his class at Worcester Classical High School, won a scholarship to Harvard University. Having been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he received a bachelor’s degree in English, summa cum laude, from Harvard in 1926. He received a master’s degree in 1927.

At this point, Kunitz, recipient of the prestigious Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry in 1926, hoped to teach at Harvard. The head of Harvard’s English department intimated to him, however, that despite Kunitz’s outstanding qualifications—which included the appearance of his poems in some of the nation’s best literary publications—Harvard undergraduates would resent being taught by a Jew. This disappointment turned Kunitz from the academic world.

Forced to earn a living, he worked for the Worcester Telegram before becoming an editor for the H. W. Wilson Company in 1928; this association lasted for more than forty years. Kunitz was editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin from 1928 until 1942, when he left Wilson temporarily to serve in the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant.

Upon his postwar separation from the Army, Kunitz received a Guggenheim Fellowship, giving him a year to write. Two collections of his verse, Intellectual Things (1930) and Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems (1944), had already won for their author recognition in the literary world, although he was equally well known for books he had edited or coedited in his position at Wilson, among them Living Authors: A Book of Biographies (1931); Authors Today and...

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Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kunitz’s poetry to 1958 was partly an apprenticeship for what lay ahead. During the first three decades of his literary activity, he wrote meticulously crafted verse, consciously employing the poetic conventions and conceits of classical poetry from the Elizabethans to the Romantics. As he matured, he read and frequently interacted personally with living poets, from William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot to Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. He finally burst the formal stylistic bonds that had constrained his earlier work and became a modern poet, even though he never tested the experimental extremes of modernism as Eliot and Ezra Pound did.

Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

While a scholarship student at Harvard University, Stanley Kunitz won a prize for a poem anticipating his acknowledged themes of time and mutability. Critics speculate that Kunitz’s thematic preoccupations stem from an event that occurred weeks before his birth: his father’s suicide. Kunitz suffered a further blow at the age of fourteen when his beloved stepfather died.

Significantly, the dramatized “I”—the protagonist throughout Kunitz’s poetry—is the ever-questing self, determined to survive against the odds “the hurt/ Which is unanswerable [and] fill[s] the brow/ with early death.” The basis of Kunitz’s work is personal, but he is not a poet of the confessional school. He intends his poetry to be a vehicle that transforms private themes and events into legend. That is, the poetry is meant to give the particular and the personal a universal dimension. “All the essential details of the poem are true as dreams are,” Kunitz explains in his commentary on “Father and Son.”

The “I” in “Father and Son” pursues his ghostly father across a dreamscape. His face a “white ignorant hollow,” the figure remains to the end wordless, incapable of imparting knowledge. Kunitz characteristically sounds the note of bitterness against family and tradition in his early poetry. “Let sons learn from their lipless fathers how/ Man enters hell,” he declares in “For the World Is Flesh.”

With World War II, during which, as a conscientious objector, he took a noncombatant role, Kunitz appears to have reforged links with his Jewish immigrant heritage. In “Reflection by a Mailbox,” then-current horrors in Adolf Hitler’s Europe precipitate an imaginative journey backward through time to the pogroms that brought his parents from Russia to America. The discovery of Russian poetry, which he began to translate, also revived ancestral ties. “Journal for My Daughter,” occasioned by Kunitz’s divorce in 1958, marks a major development toward reconciliation in his work, as he confronts his own parental responsibility for a child’s suffering.

Kunitz’s love of the natural world, traced to his boyhood solace in exploring the woods and fields surrounding his home, has remained a source of renewal, evident particularly in the expansive perspective of his later poetry. Recognition has included the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1959 for Selected Poems, 1928-1958, designations as Library of Congress consultant on poetry from 1974 to 1976 and, in 1987, State Poet of New York.