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

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 sees the power of spirit everywhere, from the salmon leaping upstream, thrashing out a whole life in two weeks of brute courage. to his suicided artist friend Mark Rothko "trapped in his monumental void," to the pastor Bonhoeffer, who "with costly grace" martyred himself in an attempt to kill Hitler.

The strength of this book is in its balance between profit and loss, joy and pain, life and death. (p. 114)

Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1971.

In his Selected Poems, published in 1958, Stanley Kunitz gave us some dozen poems that are likely to guide people guided by poetry, as long as English is read. He has "suffered the twentieth century," confronted tragic experience, given it form—in the course of the poems, triumphed over it. [In The Testing-Tree] we have thirty additional poems. I have spent a month with The Testing-Tree in my pocket or within reach, blessed and tortured by its artistry. The new book brings a new open style; complications have been made apparently simple. When passionless, open simplicity is the crab grass of our literature, Kunitz's poems often begin with the naked truth. The new style faces that exacting passion.

In The Testing-Tree Kunitz's language ruthlessly prods the wounds of his life. His primordial curse is the suicide of his father before his birth. The poems take us into the sacred woods and houses of his 66 years, illuminate the images that have haunted him. Yet nowhere in the fiber of this book is there a thread of malice, anger, hatred, envy, pique; not a sneer, not a "sidelong pickerel smile," nor does Kunitz turn the other cheek. What he has managed is to turn the "conscience kind." In a time when literature seems to edge us toward suicide, or lead us into hell, Kunitz stands with Roethke on "the terrible threshold" and says, "I dance for the joy of surviving."

Call The Testing-Tree an ocean, take a stand along the shore, and a wave of change or counterchange will send you sprawling. But caution be damned. It is not Kunitz's sense of personal measure that leads: it is hallucination, apparition, that draws him and the reader to a state beyond reason.

Drawn deep into the underground of selfhood, Kunitz must "find, create in the past in order to become fully alive in the present." Is there another poet so haunted by the unknown? In a letter, referring to himself as a character in The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote: "'… he saw certain things which he who thence descends cannot relate'; and he tells the reason, saying 'that the intellect is so engulfed' in the very thing for which it longs,… 'that memory cannot follow.'" I believe this is the territory Kunitz has staked out for himself. Where it is God for whom Dante longed, Kunitz, by some process for which the poem itself is the verb, searches for secret reality and the meaning of the unknown father. He moves from the known to the unknown to the unknowable—not necessarily in that order.

Kunitz's poetry keeps a watchful eye on the 20th century. Of the thirty poems in The Testing-Tree, twelve clearly show a mind "engaged in history," and may be read as "parables for our time." History enters a number of poems where ideally and lifelessly it might have been excluded—for example, in the gentlest of love poems for his daughter. Nothing Kunitz has ever written in any way touching on history contradicts the findings of "Night Letter" among the Selected Poems: that history, no matter how dreadful or dreary, is a history of the human heart. He is among a bare handful of poets we have who can think in poetry….

The Kunitz dialogue, an explosion of opposites conceiving knowledge, is the molten core of the book. (p. 250)

Kunitz has given us some of the great religious poems of our century. He is so personal in his spiritual attention (I struck out devotion) that to discuss his religion seems more of an affront than a service. He sees himself as a stranger. The sense of exile, which runs through the grain of his work, is a poet's exile, but it is also a Jew's….

Kunitz, now in his mid-60s, has found his way. His self, poetry and nature are worked with as one consubstantive stuff. This accomplishment, so simply presented in "King of the River" and "The Mulch," should occasion a national holiday. He has become a mulch, a protector locked into nature. He is "a man with a leaf in his head." The leaf is both growing and memorized. (p. 251)

Stanley Moss, "Man with a Leaf in His Head," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), September 20, 1971, pp. 250-51.

The Testing-Tree, Kunitz's first book in the thirteen years since the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems, resounds with the upheaval of a spiritual recluse coming back to the world, to voice, after a long self-banishment: the voice surprised at its own return from muteness with intense shocks of awakening like those of a body amazed to have exhumed itself from a premature burial. It is the body of a sixty-four-year-old ghostly stranger he sees mirrored in his collegiate daughter's eyes…. (p. 82)

Kunitz is so powerfully drawn to the imagination of estrangement into that "deeper dark"—"What's best in me lives underground,/rooting and digging, itching for wings"—it is a marvel that he ever returns from exile….

Despite a recurrent impulse to regain his lost affiliation with the community of mavericks by joining his daughter in the youth movement …, he is an incorrigible loner, and part of him must always hang back: "Demonstrations in the streets./I am there not there,/ever uneasy in a crowd." He knows his repatriations must always be partial, incomplete. He is fatally condemned, and perhaps secretly blessed, to a life-stance poised halfway between exile and return, between banishment and inheritance. (p. 84)

There are a handful of masterful poems in this book, but the collection taken as a whole lacks body. Too many pages, I feel, are given over to translations from the Russian poets which are scattered, rather arbitrarily, over three of the book's four sections. "Hand-rolled Cigarettes," after Yevtushenko, is a splendid political spoof on the Russian custom of rolling cigarettes by hand in old newspapers; the charming mixture of humor and political allusion is rendered with gusto in Kunitz's crisp rhythmical quatrains. But the other translations are written in a bland colorless style, lacking the vivacity, say, of Lowell's Imitations. The source seems to dominate overmuch both the voice and vision of the English versions. Kunitz's own unique human personality is too well hidden. One gathers from the quiet austerity of tone that the poems are diligently faithful to the originals, and a whole volume of these vignettes, which we are told is soon to be published, will clearly be an engrossing and readable book. The abiding clarity and restraint of his style, spread out over an ample range of selections, will enhance the majesty and dignity of the Russians. (p. 85)

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1971.

Stanley Kunitz has always been a fine and quiet singer….

The control of meter, the making of perfectly expressive rhythm out of meter, is one of his great gifts. His free lines, too, are supple and always a function of the action and the voice of the poem. Kunitz is a master of his craft, and … The Testing-Tree … should amplify this well-deserved reputation for excellence. His eye on marriage and children and the natural world is wide and keen; unfooled, he goes on singing the pleasure of surviving in the world….

["An Old Cracked Tune" is] a perfect poem, and Testing-Tree has a dozen such accomplishments: "Around Pastor Bonhoeffer," "Robin Redbreast," "After the Last Dynasty," to name three more—and the translations of Yevtushenko, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova are pleasures as well. (p. 40)

James Whitehead, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 18, 1971.

What [The Testing-Tree] lacks in size it more than makes up for in the depth of its feeling, the ripeness of its wisdom, and the variety of experiences it encompasses. Kunitz now dispenses with rhyme and other traditional trappings in order to stand naked before the reader in poem after poem. There are no posturings, no frills, no strained images. The allusiveness is accessible, the vocabulary plain, the humanity pervasive….

Surely, despite its grim themes, the reader of this book experiences joy; it is the exhilaration which comes of having difficult truths enunciated. (pp. 40-1)

Aaron Kramer, in Mediterranean Review (© copyright 1971 by Robert DeMaria), Winter, 1972.

Stanley Kunitz, now nearing "the end of my sixth decade," is our senior statesman of poetry. The careful editing and ordering of [A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, a] collection of critical essays, some dating from as early as the '40s, reflects his passionate discipline. It serves his reputation well. Two theoretical threads run through his approach to poetry: the participation of the individual in the style of the age (our own sensibility, as he proposes, corresponds to the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg—a poetry of process instead of fact) and the quest for selfhood. Analyzing one of his own poems, he remarks on "the symbolic extensibility of plain facts"—and he always straddles that wiggly line between literal readings and the poet's inalienable right to be hermetic. He's impatient with the avant-garde establishment in the arts, but enormously respectful and genuinely kind to his fellows: painter Mark Rothko, best friend Roethke, and—in a notable interview—Robert Lowell…. Kunitz's 1957 early warning assessment of Berryman and a wicked review of the letters of Wallace Stevens, "The Vice President of Insurance," [also included in this collection, are distinguished] and dignified criticism, as befits the poet. (p. 546)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), May 1, 1975.

Reading the first two sections of [The Terrible Threshold], I was constantly reminded of one of Pound's strictures. "Naturally your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning." Stanley Kunitz has great rhythmical skills; but so often the welter of device occludes the poem's meaning and, worse, there is a tendency to surreal effects that removes meaning all together…. [I find] disturbing … the apparent lack of humanity in some of these poems. (p. 62)

For example in The Economist's Song …, apart from the overtones of Eliot, [he] shows a lack of humanity in comparing the unemployed with rats, there is no irony, only abuse. It is this lack of concern that weakens so many otherwise skilful poems; instead of being impressed with their skill, I am made aware of the tricks and coldness. Sometimes this very skill with rhyme and clever puns produces the same cold effect, it is not distance between poet and poem, but a lack of involvement with the subject. There are also biological difficulties, again the result of a clever image clouding meaning 'blood grown proud' (Open the Gates), 'And the two join hands, and dance/On either side of her skin' (When the Light Falls). [In one] of the more successful poems …, Among the Gods,… the surreal tendency heightens the tension and the long vowels drive the rhythm; but above all the meaning stands unimpeded, not cluttered with too much imagery, nor is the poem's movement stilted by heavy end rhymes, that in other poems have distorted sound and meaning.

The final section 'Next to Last Things' is a change for the better, the rhythmic skill is there, but controlled, the emotional flatness of the first two sections is replaced by concern and the use of a more colloquial language removes the taint of the 'poetic' that strained the credibility of other poems. (pp. 62-3)

Roland John, in Agenda (copyright 1975 by Agenda), Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1975.