Stanley Kunitz

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Kunitz, Stanley 1905–2006

An American poet, editor, essayist, translator, and journalist, Kunitz was a critically neglected but important voice in contemporary poetry. His work is skillfully crafted, incorporating the rhythms of natural speech, and evidencing a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases. Often considered metaphysical, his is an intensely personal poetry, exploring the mystery of self and the intricacies of time. Kunitz won a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for Selected Poems, 1928–1958. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

Babette Deutsch

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[That sophisticated craftsman, Stanley Kunitz] can commence a lyric with a couplet that might have been composed by one of the metaphysicals: "Lovers relentlessly contend to be / Superior in their identity:". Elsewhere he manipulates a parenthesis with the skill of Cummings, introduces the subliminal imagery of Roethke, sets down public ignominy in a witty shorthand similar to Auden's. But his poems would not be mistaken for theirs. In one, written "for money, rage, and love", on the theft of his wallet in a Roman tram, he speaks of wearing his heart "less Roman than baroque", and indeed, he does not shrink from a grand extravagance of language. He is concerned with the perennial themes of sexual love, death, and the self, and he is also alert to the shames of the century in which he explores these themes. There is a wide range in his work…. Like other inquisitors of the soul, Kunitz sometimes deals in obliquities and opacities. They are redeemed by the energy, by the anguished and pitiless honesty with which he confronts his life and whatever we share of it. (pp. 238-39)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.

William F. Claire

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[A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly] represents the varied interests of a poet who first came to public attention with the traditionally thin volume of verse, Intellectual Things, in the 1920s. It has a freshness and a "kind of order, kind of folly" treatment of many contemporary events that is rarely found in a collection of previously published essays, random speeches, and remarks made for "occasional" situations. As a principal participant in the development of American verse since the twenties, [Kunitz] is obviously very knowledgeable about all significant trends since that time, and is also au courant with new poetic activities here and abroad….

Kunitz "keeps" himself contemporary in a way few older poets do, by reading and following younger writers…. Kunitz may be the only poet of his generation who truly knows what is going on among young poets, and his choices are worth considering….

All the Kunitz explorations, whether describing visits back to his roots in Worcester, Massachusetts, or discussing his views of contemporary painters (he has extremely close ties to the world of visual arts), seem interconnected in the "manifold tissue" of his deep humanistic understanding. In "Sister Arts," for example, he demonstrates the possibilities and the actual relationships that have existed between poets and painters through the years. He has no fear in dealing with a subject difficult to generalize about, and often, in the process, transforms his subject matter with brilliant insights and discoveries.

Taken together, this most readable collection represents a testament to one of our best poets, who realizes that "in the midst of this random and absurd universe, one must begin by affirming the value of one's own existence; but that the affirmation must not be too glib or too cheaply won; it must rise out of the wrestling with all that denies it, to the very point of...

(This entire section contains 388 words.)

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negation." In his ability to affirm the value of his own existence and to share his views in a solidly organized volume of prose, Kunitz has amply demonstrated that he continues to move, as he stated recently, "toward a more expansive universe" and that he proposes to "take more risks" than ever before. (p. 598)

William F. Claire, in The American Scholar (copyright © 1976 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1976.

Richard Vine

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For nearly half a century Mr. Kunitz has been giving us poems remarkable for their compactness and force. Now, in his seventieth year, he presents us with [A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly,] a collection of prose pieces which—being drawn from many times and many publications—might seem superficially to be too disparate to cohere an an organic whole, constituting one more bibliographically useful but experientially unsatisfying potpourri. But Mr. Kunitz is not a superficial writer, and he deserves more than a superficial response. "All the arts join in testifying that the order that interests the modern imagination is not a sequential order," he writes in his study of Keats. That is true, and it is another way of saying what many of his contemporaries have forgotten: that the invalidation of chronology is not the invalidation of order itself. Mr. Kunitz has many of the old fashioned virtues, one of which (increasingly uncommon in an age infatuated with fragmentation) is consistency. Through all the particulars of this volume, a uniform quality of mind pervades—a quality marked by reasonableness, sensitivity, lucidity, and balance. One thinks inevitably of Aristotle's Magnanimous Man, of Camus' homme du midi. His materials he has arranged into associative groups which, like the stanzas of a poem, proceed processionally from one to the next. Just as in a poem we almost invariably have favorite passages, favorite isolatable lines, individual readers will no doubt find their sympathies unequally distributed among the components of this book…. Yet the volume, for all its diversity, is one. It is made so by Mr. Kunitz's persistent conceptualization of the nature of art, and by the tough and unfailing elegance of his style.

I have chosen for the title of this piece a phrase from one of Mr. Kunitz's own poems ("Sotto Voce") because it seems to me to express the essence both of the unity of this particular volume, and of the author's aesthetic in general. Beneath the surface variety, the subject and substance of Mr. Kunitz's work (probably of all poets) is the grace of language itself—grace in every sense of the term. Both the order and the folly are the word.

The book begins with a collection of observations on the nature and state of our knowledge about the physical universe, and ends with a collection of observations on the nature and state of art. The bracketing is by no means gratuitous. Between our objective situation (or what we perceive our objective situation to be) and our ability to make order out of it, subsists all that we do and think, all, finally, that we are. (p. 120)

Mr. Kunitz's aesthetic-ethical judgments … are myriad. Their most fundamental common factor is the indissolubility of artistic being and moral being, as manifested jointly in style…. Mr. Kunitz's judgments are like a researcher's measurements: careful and concise, candid without malice, infused with sympathy and concern but resolutely disinterested. He does not seek to awe us with esoteric interpretations or idiosyncratic opinions. He wishes only to be succinct and correct—an undertaking more rare and more difficult than we like to admit. A poet is, first and last, one who sees more finely than his fellows. In his criticism as in his verse, Stanley Kunitz is a genuine poet.

Only in some of his more bardic theoretical remarks, when too far removed from a concrete and immediate subject, does Mr. Kunitz occasionally sin in the direction of mellifluous but vacuous grace…. Conversely, when writing of his craft as he knows it and practices it, Mr. Kunitz never errs. It is no doubt a judgment of our age that we find good sense astounding. Mr. Kunitz has it, and to an astonishing degree. He says a great many things which, in this late frantic hour of our art, need desperately once again to be said—which is to say of course that they need desperately once again to be heard…. The spirit by which Kunitz's book is informed—the spirit of simple truthfulness, lucidity, and compassion—will survive to perpetually generate new works and new voices out of its ache. (pp. 121-23)

Richard Vine, "The Language That Saves", in Salmagundi (copyright © 1977 by Skidmore College), Winter, 1977, pp. 117-23.


Kunitz, Stanley (Jasspon)


Kunitz, Stanley (Vol. 148)