Stanley (Jasspon) Kunitz 1905–2006
American poet, essayist, editor, translator, and journalist.
Hailing from the generation of poets that came of age under the influence of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, Kunitz is considered an important, if somewhat critically neglected, voice in contemporary American poetry. He exercised a subtle influence on such major poets as Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell, and has provided encouragement to hundreds of younger poets as well. Kunitz's career is generally divided into two phases. While his early poetry collections, including Intellectual Things (1930) and Passport to the War (1944), earned him a reputation as a technically accomplished metaphysical poet, his later work, beginning with The Testing-Tree (1971), showed Kunitz writing a simpler, more emotional poetry that embraced the physical world. Although Kunitz has always been admired by his peers, especially since the publication of Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (1958), which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1959, the classification of his work into two, easily defined categories and his reputation as a "poet's poet" have tended to deter critical interest in his work. While Kunitz's style changed over the years, the subjects of his poems have remained constant. He is known for his sensitive exploration of such themes as the simultaneity of life and death, the search for the lost father, love, generation and decline, and the movement from the unknown to the known. Consistently praised for his skillful craftsmanship, Kunitz incorporates the rhythms of natural speech in his poetry and displays a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Kunitz was the third and last child of Russian-Jewish parents. His father, Solomon, a dress manufacturer, committed suicide just months before his birth, and his mother, Yetta, who took over the family business, would not allow Kunitz to mention his father's name. Kunitz received B.A. and M.A. degrees from Harvard, where he was recognized as a promising poet and awarded the coveted Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry. In 1927, when Kunitz was denied a teaching appointment at Harvard because of the school administration's concerns about his religious ancestry, he rejected the academic life as a profession but continued writing poetry in private. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Worcester Telegram before beginning a long association with the W. H. Wilson Publishing Company of New York, where he served as editor of the Wilson Library
Bulletin from 1928 until 1943 and worked on eight biographical dictionaries about famous authors between 1931 and 1980. In the late 1920s, Kunitz contributed poems to a variety of magazines, including the Dial, the Nation, and the New Republic, and by early 1929, his first collection, Intellectual Things, was accepted by the largest publishing house in the country, Doubleday, Doran. While most of the reviews of Intellectual Things and Kunitz's second collection of poems, Passport to the War, were complimentary, it was not until the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems, 1928-1958 that Kunitz began to elicit any substantial critical attention. In 1946, as a result of his friendship with Roethke, Kunitz began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, and he continued to teach at a number of American colleges, including Yale and Columbia, until 1985. In the 1960s and 1970s Kunitz also gained recognition for his translations of the works of several Russian poets, among them Anna Akhmatova, Andrei Voznesensky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In addition, he became well known as an advocate of poetry and the arts; he directed the YM-YWCA Poetry Workshop in New York, was general editor of the prestigious "Yale Series of Younger Poets," headed the poetry section at the Library of Congress, and traveled as a cultural exchange lecturer to Poland, Israel, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, and the former Soviet Union.
Kunitz's early poetry collections, Intellectual Things, Passport to the War, and Selected Poems, 1928-1958, earned him a reputation as an intellectual poet. Reflecting Kunitz's admiration for the English metaphysical poets John Donne and William Blake, these intricate poems, rich in metaphor and allusion, were recognized more for their craft than their substance. The Testing-Tree, with its conversational tone, looser forms, and shorter lines, marked a departure to a simpler, more open style. In a Publishers Weekly article, Kunitz commented on his two styles: "My early poems were very intricate, dense and formal…. They were written in conventional metrics and had a very strong beat to the line…. In my late poems I've learned to depend on a simplicity that seems almost nonpoetic on the surface, but has reverberations within that keep it intense and alive…." Elsewhere he remarked, "Since my Selected Poems I have been moving toward a more open style, based on natural speech rhythms. The Testing-Tree embodied my search for a transparency of language and vision. Maybe age itself compels me to embrace the great simplicities, as I struggle to free myself from the knots and complications, the hang-ups, of my youth. I keep trying to improve my controls over language, so that I won't have to tell lies." The change in Kunitz's style is reflected in his treatment of his most common themes. As critics have noted, Kunitz has been more inclined to expose his feelings in his later work, particularly with regard to the suicide of his father. Such poems as "The Portrait," "Open the Gate," and "Father and Son," which concern a son's quest for his father, show Kunitz to be more willing to confront his personal trauma than in his earlier verse. Critics have also focused on Kunitz's interest in the idea of the simultaneity of life and death, which Kunitz described as "a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry." Kunitz's exploration of such serious themes has prompted critics to applaud his courage and to describe him as a risk taker, although they also note that his tone is more optimistic in such later collections as Next-to-Last Things (1985) and Passing Through (1996).
The highly crafted nature of Kunitz's initial works stalled critical attention, and it was not until he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that critics began to take any significant interest in his poetry. Still, academic critics have been much less receptive to Kunitz than his peers. For many years the standard critical view was that Kunitz was too imitative, lacking any recognizable style of his own. As this argument runs, in his early works Kunitz was a derivative practitioner of the modernist-metaphysical mode, and in his later works he switched to the confessional mode made popular by such poets as Lowell and John Berryman. In addition, Kunitz's poetry has not achieved the wide readership many believe it merits, largely because of his reputation as a "poet's poet," which he earned because of his technical virtuosity and his work as an ambassador of his art. Most critics have preferred the later work to the earlier, and in recent years Kunitz has been consistently praised for the power and intensity of his lyric poems, while continuing to be admired for his meticulous attention to the subtleties of sound and sense. Kunitz has also continued to be recognized by his peers as an important voice in contemporary American poetry. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1984, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1987, and, in the same year, the Walt Whitman award citation of merit, with designation as State Poet of New York.