Stanley Kunitz Kunitz, Stanley J(asspon) (Vol. 14) - Essay

A.J.M. Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Passport to the War] is a sincere and sound achievement. It is the work of a talented craftsman, with a sharp and elegant mind, and it concerns itself with the most significant problem of the modern world—the murderous and efficient mechanization of our environment that has invaded and corrupted the mind itself. This problem is implicit everywhere in Mr. Kunitz's poems, where under the pressure of our failure, energies that might have been concentrated upon the service of humanity or the love of God are dissipated in frustration and hysteria. This is the inescapable theme of serious modern poetry, and the war gives it the immediacy of an explosion. "How shall we uncreate that lawless energy?" is the question forced on us as we stand with Mr. Kunitz

in the center of that man's madness,
Deep in his trauma, as in the crater of a wound.

And the lawless energy, we realize, is not that of the enemy alone, but that of the undirected forces of mechanization and "progress" that the western world, and especially the Anglo-American world has lived by for nearly two centuries.

"In the destructive element immerse" has been the practical wisdom forced upon this poet, but the method, which has the virtues of necessity and honesty, has also its nullifying weaknesses. Mr. Kunitz is intensely sensitive, intelligent to the point of scepticism, and so agonizingly aware of the pity and horror at the base of the modern dilemma that he has been thrown off balance and has come to the point of making his most effective...

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John Ciardi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have carried some of [Stanley Kunitz's poems] in my head for twenty years, and they still ring there in delight. Listen to the opening lines of "Deciduous Branch":

        Winter, that coils in the thickets now,
        Will glide from the fields; the swinging rain
        Be knotted with flowers; on every bough
        A bird will meditate again.

How sweetly the usual word slips fresh into the line—coils, glide, swinging, knotted, meditate—and how sweetly the rhythm sways the thought alive! Such lines are not only in the purest lyric tradition of English poetry, but do honor to that tradition. To be sure, Kunitz is not always that immediately clear. He is a poet of intellectual passions. At times one must labor to follow the subtleties of his perception. The point is that the labor will not be in vain. Kunitz is certainly the most neglected good poet of the last quarter-century.

John Ciardi, "Poetry: 'SR's' Quarterly Roundup," in Saturday Review (entire issue copyright 1958 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. XLI, No. 39, September 27, 1958, p. 18.

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Kunitz is, after thirty years' writing, brought to us [in Selected Poems: 1928–1958] with rich plaudits from his fellow-American poets. He is indeed a big poet, given to traditional poses and metres, but holding them both with muscular professional skill. He is a rift-loader, a maker of weighted lines, elaborating complex figures with golden-mouth magniloquence. He will frankly use the big word, the large statement qualified only by the cleanness of its expression. 'I suffer the twentieth century,' he says, sardonically converting his suffering into pleasure before the hypocrite lecteur. There is variety here, and a rather Gravesian humour—note a splendid maledictory poem on a Roman pickpocket. But the central position is stilt-jack Yeatsian:

                   Imagination makes
                   Out of what stuff it can
                   An action fit
                   For a more heroic stage
                   Than body ever walked on.

It is good to feel such power nakedly used.

Frank Kermode, "Matters of Life and Death," in The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 203, No. 6838, July 17, 1959, p. 81.∗

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even if change were not so prominent among his themes, the reader of Kunitz's life work [in "The Poems of Stanley Kunitz: 1928–1978"] would have to be aware of changes time has wrought upon his style. From his first book, "Intellectual Things" (1930) through the "Selected Poems" (1958) … Kunitz pursued a style that even for those times was formidably ornate. His rhythms and diction harked back to the Elizabethan sonneteers and the Jacobean dramatists. In the 1960's he altered his style decisively, eschewing grand effects and writing in a language both contemporary and determinedly direct, as if in penitence for having earlier dallied with rhetorical convolutions. (p. 1)

I suspect that [Robert Lowell's "Life Studies" served as a potent example] to Kunitz, for his poems in "The Testing-Tree" (1971) and after, besides being metrically relaxed, are frequently given to autobiography and anecdote with something of Lowell's calculated casualness.

It is hard to imagine a reader liking early and later Kunitz equally well; and one can conceive of a reader who would not much care for either. To some tastes the earlier work must seem hopelessly over-upholstered. To others, the newer, pared-down poems must reflect a drab, Danish-modern esthetic that is just now beginning to seem as dated as iambic pentameter seemed to the 60's. I think it could be said, not so much in complaint as in description, that Kunitz has rarely mastered a middle style….

[This] poetry is very evidently aware of its precedents in theme and tone. Aside from the Renaissance precursors I have mentioned, one can discern Yeats and Blake in the background of several of the earlier poems. One thinks also of Theodore Roethke, who became Kunitz's friend and enthusiastic reader in the 1930's…....

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Harry Marten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Stanley Kunitz is] forthright in facing and communicating the hopes and hazards of man's right knowledge [in The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978]. "A poet," he tells us, "needs to keep his wilderness alive inside him," seeking his "darkest Africa." The pursuit of dangerous places takes Kunitz through several poetic incarnations. His verses go from dense and highly figured to almost transparently clear. The Platonic abstractions of a young man experiencing mostly Intellectual Things—as Kunitz aptly titled his first volume—mature into poems firmly fastened to the realities of our day. Kunitz relies increasingly on a mix of memory and immediate observation to trigger his poetic discoveries. He perceives universals in minute particulars, and his loving attention to detail is telling….

The verses can seem relentlessly grim…. Yet Kunitz offers "Signs and Portents" of both pain and possibility. Throughout the volume we explore with him the depths of his own being, and find there, even in "darkest night" when the poet "roamed the wreckage," the promise of life energies renewed….

While Kunitz's art has changed with the years, his preoccupations and themes have not. The epigraph for his first book marked the path clearly: "For the tear is an intellectual thing." Mind and emotion cannot be separated whatever the difficulties of their interweaving.

Harry Marten, "Warren and Kunitz: Poets in the American Grain," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), September 30, 1979, p. 10.∗