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

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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 case against the evils of the time by illustrating them himself. Many of the war poems succumb in language and imagery to the violence, distortion, and hysteria that are the symptoms of their (and our) illness. They are the poems of a sick man in a sick world. (pp. 165-66)

"The staunchless word, my language of the wound" is the way Mr. Kunitz speaks of his poetry. The clinical themes and neurotic imagery may well be inescapable and perhaps are justified by their intensity; but they have a special danger, which is not lessened when the Grand Guignol manner is repeated in poem after poem. Specifically, the danger is that the horror and pity, which ought to be felt as universal, may seem only individual and eccentric…. [The] validity of the poet's tortured sense of the evil of the modern world is jeopardized (though certainly not destroyed) by the frankness with which the source of so much of it is shown to be in personal ill-adjustment. Sometimes the poet is betrayed into self-pity. "The burden of the personal" is a heavy one, and it contains much that isn't worth carrying, but Mr. Kunitz knows only too well that it cannot be laid down. (p. 166)

To risk a generalization, one would say that under the stress of the war and the long preliminary period of disintegration Mr. Kunitz has not been able to avoid developing the personal elements of distortion found in the more mannered of the early pieces. Many of the poems, early and late, are built on a scheme of simultaneously poeticizing language and distorting imagery to convey an intense experience. But we are seduced or distracted by the conceits so that we do not realize, or do not care, that the experience is not being defined and therefore not faced…. It is good to see that in one or two lyrics at the end of the group of war poems Mr. Kunitz has recaptured the clarity, strength, and suppleness that characterized such fine poems as the early Change, Promise Me and The Words of the Preacher…. The final poem in Part I of Passport to the War ranks with [The Words of the Preacher] as one of the great lyrics of our time. (pp. 167-68)

A.J.M. Smith, "Language of the Wound," in Poetry (© 1944 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. LXIV, No. III, June, 1944, pp. 165-68.

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...

(The entire section is 1,991 words.)