Stanley Kunitz Stanley Kunitz American Literature Analysis

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Stanley Kunitz American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Haunted since early childhood by the murky impressions he had of his dead father, Kunitz often wrote about father-son relationships. Perhaps his most familiar poem is “Father and Son,” published originally in Passport to the War and frequently anthologized. In the poem, a son quests after his lost father but, after catching up with him, finds him inarticulate. The son tells his father his story of loss and longing. The father, dead, can offer the son nothing, his face a “white ignorant hollow.” This is Kunitz’s image of his own father, whose fleeting image, as an anonymous face in a photograph, had been ripped from young Stanley’s hand by his irate mother.

Kunitz is a careful poet. His poetic production until the early 1970’s consisted of only three volumes. The first, Intellectual Things, suggested the poet’s potential but revealed that he had not yet fully grasped the technique of writing the kind of poetry that is usually adjudged the work of an accomplished artist. The fifty poems in this early collection were, according to Kunitz, attempts on his part to demonstrate that intellect and emotion are too closely interconnected ever to exist independently.

The strongest and most telling poem in Intellectual Things is “Vita Nuova,” a work influenced by Kunitz’s reading of Dante Alighieri. This poem, traditionally formal in its versification, has a first-person narrator who is closely akin to Kunitz himself. The poem depends upon concrete nouns and forceful verbs, eschewing adjectives, adverbs, and qualifiers. Its twenty lines, divided into four stanzas of equal length, are in pentameter and have a consistent, if at times stilted, ababb rhyme scheme.

In the fourteen years between Intellectual Things and Passport to the War, Kunitz matured considerably. Yet this second collection was not large; about half of its poems had appeared originally in his first volume. Many of the new poems, however, were dynamic and had been revised to the point that they were impeccable technically. World War II spurred Kunitz into producing these poems, many of which concern the consequences facing a world that has become mechanized to the point that mass destruction of human beings—indeed, of civilization—is possible, perhaps imminent.

In many of the poems of this second volume, Kunitz is so caught up in the horror of his subject that he sometimes seems to be overreacting. At the time of publication, his work seemed almost hysterical, yet the clarity of his vision has been vindicated by a world that has moved at a dizzying clip toward the looming dangers to which he pointed in the early 1940’s. The war poems in this volume use language precisely and effectively, and Kunitz sometimes resorts to distorting his imagery to heighten the impact of his warnings.

In this collection, however, Kunitz’s verse is still formal and traditional. He experiments, particularly in the collection’s often-cited “Father and Son,” with the dream narrative, a poetic form that reflects Kunitz’s own hazy glimmerings of a father he was forced from earliest childhood to create in his imagination.

Selected Poems, 1928-1958 contains the poems that appeared in Passport to the War, along with two from Intellectual Things that had not been reproduced in his 1944 collection. The poems are arranged carefully, lending this volume, like his two earlier ones, an inherent logic.

It is Kunitz the seasoned editor who, after writing the poems, concentrated on arranging them in as effective a format as he could. The volume begins with a love poem (largely concerning emotion) and ends with a poem about poetry (concerning the merging of emotion and intellect, a recurring theme of Kunitz’s writing).

In the three volumes to 1958, Kunitz writes in measured cadences, frequently adopting the formalism of the Metaphysical poets, for whom he had considerable appreciation and whose poetically formal ranks he had joined. The public had to wait thirteen years for his next collection, The...

(The entire section is 3,212 words.)