Stanley Kunitz Kunitz, Stanley J(asspon) (Vol. 6)

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Kunitz, Stanley J(asspon) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kunitz, Stanley J(asspon) 1905–

Kunitz, an American poet, editor, and translator, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and head of the poetry section at the Library of Congress, is generally considered a brilliant, albeit neglected, metaphysical poet. Among the poets he has translated from the Russian are Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Voznesensky, and Yevtushenko. His Selected Poems 1928–1958 was published in 1958. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

[Stanley] Kunitz is about as far from the imagist as it is possible to be in this time and place, and this arises directly out of the fact that all his landscapes are internal, his wars are internal, his characters are internal. He has been, so far as I can tell, from the beginning true to those themes which are his, rather than to those which are merely fashionable. The flagrant prosperity of the 'twenties, depression, war, his life has spanned them all, and, excepting a few poems here and there, his central theme has been a persistent search for a unity of self. He seeks upward to the nourishment of a divine air, downward to a firm and nourishing human community.

Robert Beloof, 'Father and Son,' in the symposium "On Stanley Kunitz," in New World Writing, No. 20, J. B. Lippincott, 1962, pp. 196-206.

I have read through the "Selected Poems" many times and at intervals, marking fine lines with a pencil…. The more ambitious poems are mostly in the toughest and densest style of the thirties and forties, and have the heroic concentration used forcibly by Allen Tate, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, William Empson, some of Auden and Roethke. Kunitz stands with the fiercest and most musical. Sometimes I find when I have worried out his deep meanings, the surface will again grow troubled. Sometimes I could not even follow the poet's clear voice in the auditorium—but who can follow poetry-readings, even his own? What remains is the passionate gnarl. The slow, clinging fog and the stark bang of syllables are not in Kunitz but mostly in the reader's mind.

"The Testing-Tree" throws away the once redoubtable armor. All is unencumbered and trustful. One reads from cover to cover with the ease of reading good prose fiction, reads with such fresh confidence that even Kunitz's versions of Osip Mandelstam, darkest of the realistic masters, seem as open as Whitman. Kunitz's straightforwardness is partly technical. His favorite meter is a four-beat line, or shorter; his measure is varied iambic. He moves from the slack of his conversation to stern alarms.

The former style is not forgotten, but its primal themes have come down from the attic. One fears at first for the victim of the cutting. May not his bones show too rawly? Where is this nakedness heading? Many writers manage to go by express to nothing. Yet the abundance keeps rolling up, accretions of memory, skills of the buffeting years. The themes are great ones: a boy's child-play, a man's life, the gladiatorial fight with time. (p. 1)

He has a faith in craft I find foreign. It is like a cloud, yet seems precise as motions of a bricklayer. Not the hot, polemical mannerism of any school, but old traditions worn debonnairly. Not a rule book, but a virtue, long practice, the mother of conscious and unconscious certainty….

His book looks back 60 years. I don't know of another in prose or verse that gives in a few pages the impression of a large autobiography. (p. 18)

Robert Lowell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 21, 1971.

"The Testing-Tree" is Kunitz's first book since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Selected Poems" of 1958. At 65 he is elegiac, tough, wistful, proud of having lived a life of sensibility, but manfully guilty of the domesticated havoc that any human life triggers. Like most poets his age, he has pulled the ripcord to end his youthful free fall and is floating to earth with the sun shining through his chute. In the "Selected Poems" he had said: "We are not souls but systems"; now he...

(The entire section is 2,665 words.)