Stanley Kunitz 1905-2006
(Full name Stanley Jasspon Kunitz; has also written under the pseudonym Dilly Tante) American poet, editor, essayist, translator, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Kunitz's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 11, and 14.
Revered as an elder statesman of American poetry, Kunitz produced a distinguished body of work that spans generations and won acclaim for its virtuosity and insight. Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems, 1928–1958 (1958), the National Book Award for Passing Through (1995), and, at age ninety-five, was named poet laureate of the United States beginning in 2000. Kunitz is well-known for the nonconformity of his style, and critics seldom draw direct comparisons between him and his contemporaries, although they do note his relationship with his protégé Theodore Roethke. In the 1930s and 1940s, while the experimental verse of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound enjoyed wide popularity, Kunitz's work reflected the dense formalism of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert. Kunitz's verse has gradually become less autobiographical and formal over the years, evolving by the 1970s into a poetic style that combines metric complexity with lucid form.
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, several weeks after his father, Soloman, committed suicide. This event haunted Kunitz in his formative years and it informs much of his early poetry, which focuses on themes of death and orphanhood. Raised by his mother, Yetta Jasspon Kunitz, a Lithuanian immigrant and entrepreneur who took over the family business, Kunitz's childhood was marked by his love of reading. His literary and academic prowess allowed him to obtain a scholarship to Harvard, where his poetic and linguistic talents were recognized and encouraged. After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in 1926 and earning a master's degree in English, Kunitz worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in Worcester, Massachusetts. One of his first positions after college involved editing the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who was executed in the United States with Nicola Sacco in 1927 under the charge of anarchy. Kunitz's efforts to prevent what many perceived as an unjust execution were unsuccessful, and this experience contributed to his lifelong advocacy of political freedom. Kunitz later forged a successful career as an editor of literary reference works while working for the H. W. Wilson Company in New York. He inaugurated two important series of reference books: the Wilson Library Bulletin and the Authors Biographical Series. Following the publication of his collection Intellectual Things (1930), Kunitz gradually focused his attention on writing poetry, but remained a working editor and translator for most of his career. Kunitz also held the position of poetry professor at Bennington College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York, the University of Washington, and Queens College, New York. Though he eschewed the confinement of an academic career, Kunitz has been recognized as an important mentor for many poets, notably Roethke and Louise Glück. He served as general editor of the “Yale Series of Younger Poets,” published by Yale University Press, from 1969 to 1977. During World War II, Kunitz was drafted, although his identification as a nonaffiliated pacifist excused him from active duty. He is a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a community that sponsors young artists and writers. Kunitz's impact on the artistic community was honored by the publication of A Celebration of Stanley Kunitz on His Eightieth Birthday (1986), a volume of poems, essays and letters edited by Stanley Moss.
Kunitz's early poetry collections, Intellectual Things, Passport to the War (1944) 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 (1971), with its conversational tone, loose form, and short lines, marked a departure to a simpler, more open style for Kunitz. 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. …” The change in Kunitz's style was reflected in his treatment of his most major recurring themes. Critics have noted that Kunitz has been more inclined to expose his personal feelings in his later work, particularly with regard to the suicide of his father. Poems such as “The Portrait,” “Open the Gate,” and “Father and Son”—which focus on a son's quest to know his father—show Kunitz to be more willing to confront his personal trauma than he was in his earlier verse. Critics have also focused on Kunitz's interest in the narrow balance between life and death, which Kunitz describes as “a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry.” Kunitz's exploration of such serious themes has drawn acclaim from several critics, although many note that his tone has become more optimistic in his later collections such as Next-to-Last Things (1985) and Passing Through.
Critics have overwhelmingly praised Kunitz's poetry, calling him “difficult” and “obtuse” at times, but these terms are used approvingly. The critical reverence for Kunitz's poetry often emphasizes the characteristic mysterious nature of his verse. In 1930, William Rose Benét found Intellectual Things “modern and yet very old, intricate and metaphysical and yet undeniably full of the true seer.” Many recent critics suggest that Kunitz's poetry has improved over time, although he is still primarily placed within a generation of older poets. According to Jay Parini, “the restraints of [Kunitz's] art combine with a fierce dedication to clarity and intellectual grace to assure him of a place among the essential poets of his generation, which includes Roethke, [Robert] Lowell, [W. H] Auden, and [Richard] Eberhart.” However, Kunitz's initial works prompted scant 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, general critical consensus held that Kunitz was too imitative, lacking any recognizable style of his own. Many reviewers felt that 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 recent years, Kunitz has been 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 continued to be recognized by his peers as an important voice in contemporary American poetry.