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Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

 

American poet, editor, essayist, translator, whose career spanned nearly 80 years. Kunitz became 10th poet laureate at the age of 95, succeeding Robert Pinsky. Kunitz's first collection of verse appeared in 1930. He wrote in conversational tone of such complex themes as the work of a poet, loss, time, and the chaos of inner life. Kunitz's self-scrutinies in the realm of the soul are discerning and touching but calmly restrained: "If I could cry, I'd cry, / but I'm too old to be / anybody's child." Kunitz’s poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 1955 his selected poems, Passing Through, won the National Book Award. "The poem comes in the form of a blessing," he once remarked, "like the rapture breaking through on the mind."

"How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, "The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it's strange, from where she goes."

(from 'Father and Son')

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Family tragedies shadowed Kunitz's early life: his father, Solomon Z. Kunitz, committed suicide in a public park a few weeks before his son's birth. The prosperous dress-manufacturing business, that his parents operated, was discovered to be bankrupt. His mother, Yetta Helen (Jasspon), an immigrant from Lithuania, opened a dry-goods shop to support her family. She refused to talk about her late husband and "locked his name / in her deepest cabinet". When Kunitz was 14, his stepfather, Mark Dine, died. Kunitz sisters married and died young. The theme of lost father frequently appeared in Kunitz's poetry. 'The Portrait' opens with the lines "My mother never forgave my father/ for killing himself" and 'Father and Son' from Kunitz's second collection explored a son's grief at the loss of his father. Love and loss and traumas haunt also the life of the next generation, as in 'Journal for My Daughter': "You say you had a father once: / his name was absence. / He left, but did not let you go." (from The Testing-Tree, 1971)

Kunitz was educated at Worcester Classical Highschool. There he became enthralled by the poetry of Robert Herrick (1591-1674), whom Swinburne praised as "the greatest song-writer ever born of English race". Other writers who inspired him during these years were John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, and William Blake, whose devotion to inner visions Kunitz has much shared. "Poetry emerges out of the mystery and secrecy of being,'' he has said. ''It is the occult and passionate grammar of a life.''

Kunitz won a scholarship to Harvard, and graduated summa cum laude in 1926, at the age of 22. Because of his Jewish background, he was told indirectly that he could not continue as an assistant at the English Department; "Anglo-Saxons would resent being taught English by a Jew." Kunitz left Harward and then worked as a reporter, editor, and later unsuccessfully as a small farmer during the Depression. He also spent some time in Europe, editing the Wilson Library Bulletin from abroad.

While working as an editor he contributed poems to such magazines as Poetry, The Dial, The Nation, The New Republic, and Commonweal. In 1927 Kunitz tried to find publisher for Bartolomeo Vanzetti's letters –Vanzetti, an anarchist, had been convicted and sentenced to the electric chair with Nicola Sacco after a controversial murder trial. Kunitz's first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930. Its metaphysical explorations of "the vast, uncharted reaches of the inner world", as one critic wrote, did not fit in the main currents of modernism, and Kunitz kept a hiatus of fourteen years before he published his next collection. During the 1930s and early 1940s Kunitz co-edited for The H.W. Wilson Company a series of biographical reference books about authors – the series is still among the best in its field.

In 1944 Kunitz published Passport to the War, which contains one of his most famous poems, 'Father and Son'. In this highly individual collection Kunitz did not court his critics with its boldy imaginative use of language and social and political themes. Like his first book, it did not awake attention of the literary establishment. It was not until 1958 when Kunitz gained acclaim with Selected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

"I keep trying to improve my control over language, so that I won't have to tell lies." (Kunitz in Contemporary Poets, 1975)

Regarding his religious background, Kunitz defined himself as a freethinker rather than an atheist, saying once that "Moses and Jesus and Lao-tse have all instructed me. And all the prophets as well, from Isaiah to Blake." During World War II Kunitz was a conscientious objector.  He had wished to join the Medical Corps, but eventually he served three years in the army as kitchen porter or digging latrinens largely in North Carolina, where he also edited an Army news magazine and wrote for the Air Transport Commant. "A combination of pneumonia, scarlet fever, and just downright humiliation almost did me in," Kunitz later recalled. In 1945 he was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant. He spent a year in Santa Fe on a Guggengeim grant and began his teaching career at Bennington College, where he replaced his close friend, the poet Theodore Roethke who suffered from a bout of manic depression. Since then Kunitz held many teaching posts, among others in Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, the New School for Social Research, and Columbia University in the graduate writing program.

In the early 1960s Kunitz saw the state of American poetry higher than it ever has been, and called it a "Silver Age." Compared to British poets their American colleagues took more risks, but the Beat poets according to Kunitz managed only produce squeals and bleats after Allen Ginsberg's Howl. He was not particularly enthusiastic about experimental poetry as such – "A writer is experimental or dead. Most of the writers, however, who insist on labelling themselves in capital letters as experimental are merely betraying their insecurity." (from 'Poetry's Silver Age' in Writing in America, ed. by John Fischer and Robert B. Silvers, 1962)

You have your language too,
an eerie medley of clicks
and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls.

(from 'The Wellfleet Whale')

Kuniz travelled in several countries in Europe and Africa on lecture and reading tours. In 1967 Kunitz visited the Soviet Union, travelling from Moscow to Tbilisi. This journey inspired him to translate poems from such Russian writers as Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Andrei Voznesensky.

Kunitz's several literary awards include the Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship, Harriet Monroe Award, and Ford Foundation Award. In 1993 he received the National Medal of the Arts in 1993 and in 1999 an 'In Celebration of Writers' award from Poets & Writers. At the age of ninety, he won a National Book Award. Kunitz was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He served as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress in the mid-1970s and in the 1980s he was the first State Poet of New York. In 1968 Kunitz founded in Provincetown the Fine Arts Work Center, a resident community of American artists and writers. With Elizabeth Kray he founded in 1985 Poets House on Spring Street in SoHo.

Kunitz was married three times. In 1930, he married Helen Pearce, a poet. They restored in Wormwood Hill, Connecticut a farmhouse which was destroyed by a tornado. After the divorce in 1937 he never saw her again. Two years later he married Eleanor Evans, an actress. With her Kunitz raised chickens and planted trees in New Hope, Pennsylvania. From 1958 he was married to the painter Elise Asher, who died in 2004. For her Kunitz's wrote one of his most moving lines in 'Touch Me' (1995): "Darling, do you remember / the man you married? Touch me, / remind me who I am." For a long period Kunitz divided his time between Greenwich Village and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was occupied by his 2,000-square-foot terraced garden facing the bay. The garden was a subject of many of Kunitz's poems, and it became also a source of renewal for him after a cardiac irregularities and exhaustion in 2003. Kunitz died of pneumonia on May 14, 2006, at his home in Manhattan. His last book was The Wild Braid (2005), a collection of essays and conversations.

For further reading: The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin & Stanley Kunitz by Jeanne Braham (2007); To Stanley Kunitz With Love: From Poet Friends for His 96th Birthday, ed. by Stanley Moss (2001); Interviews and Encounters With Stanley Kunitz by S. Kunitz (1990); A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz: On His Eightieth Birthday by Stanley Moss (1986); Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry by Gregory Orr (1985); Stanley Kunitz by Marie Henault (1980); Contemporary Poets, ed. by James Vinson (1975); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975)

Selected works:

  • Intellectual Things, 1930
  • Living Authors, 1931 (editor, as Dilly Tante, with Howard Haycraft and W.C. Hadden)
  • Authors Today and Yesterday, 1933 (editor, with H. Haycraft and W.C. Hadden)
  • The Junior Book of Authors, 1934 (editor, with H. Haycraft)
  • British Authors of the Nineteeth Century, 1936 (editor, with H. Haycraft)
  • American Authors 1600-1900, 1938 (editor, with H. Haycraft)
  • Twentieth Century Authors, 1942 (editor, with H. Haycraft)
  • Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems, 1944
  • British Authors Before 1800, 1952 (editor, with H. Haycraft)
  • Twentieth Century Authors, 1955 (editor)
  • Selected Poems 1928-1958, 1958 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Poems of John Keats, 1964 (editor, with Vineta Colby)
  • Antiworld, by Andrei Voznesensky, 1966 (translator, with others)
  • European Authors 1000-1900, 1967 (editor, with Vineta Colby)
  • Antiworld and the Fifth Ace, 1967 (translator, with others)
  • The Yale Series of Younger Poets, 1969-77 (editor)
  • The Testing-Tree, 1971
  • Stolen Apples, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1972 (translator, with others)
  • Poems of Akhmatova, 1973 (editor and translator, with Max Hayward)
  • The Terrible Treshold, Selected Poems 1940-1970, 1974
  • Story under Full Sail by Andrei Voznesensky, 1974 (translator)
  • The Coat Without a Seam, Sixty Poems 1930-1972, 1974
  • A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, 1975
  • The Lincoln Relics, 1978
  • Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach, 1978 (co-translator)
  • The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928-1978, 1979
  • The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems, 1983
  • Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays, 1985
  • The Essential Blake, 1987 (editor)
  • The Ageless Spirit, 1992
  • Passing Through: The Later Poems New and Selected, 1995 (The National Book Award in Poetry)
  • The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 2000
  • The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, 2005 (with Genine Lentine, Marnie Crawford Samuelson)

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