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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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.
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