Archive for the ‘Poetry & Poetics’ Category

Stanley Kunitz

September 23, 2011

Stanley Kunitz has been a relatively recent find of mine, and I’m grateful to the UK’s Poetry Archive for publishing this information and featuring some of his voluminous work:

Poetry Archive – Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz [1905-2006] is a towering figure in American poetry, not just by dint of his longevity, but for the fact that he was still producing some of his finest work well into his nineties. His vitality and continuing relevance was recognised when he was made the US Poet Laureate at the age of 95.

[I find this appointment remarkable and brave.  I do hope that the UK Laureate-appointers will show equal bravery and good taste by appointing someone not in the first flush of youth when Carol Ann Duffy (an excellent choice) decides to step aside.]

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to a Jewish immigrant family. His childhood was overshadowed by the suicide of his father in a public park six weeks before Kunitz was born.

Kunitz showed early promise as a scholar, winning a place to study English at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude in 1926, gaining his masters a year later. When it was intimated that his Jewish background would make it impossible to secure a teaching position there, Kunitz turned his back on academia in disgust, becoming a reporter for the Worcester Telegram and then an editor for H W Wilson and Company in New York.

[It may be hard for us in 2011 to accept that such prejudice against Jews, in fact against anyone not a WASP and male, was so prevalent so relatively recently.]

At the outbreak of World War II he registered as a conscientious objector and served as a non-combatant in the US Army.

Following his discharge, Kunitz began a teaching career which was to last for the rest of his professional life, and included stints at Bennington College, New York State Teachers’ College, University of Washington, Queens College, Brandeis, Vassar, Yale, Rutgers and twenty two years at Columbia University.

Through his teaching and his increasing impact as a poet, Kunitz became an important influence and mentor to more than one generation of American poets including Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Louise Gluck, Mark Doty and Carolyn Kizer.

He was a tireless ambassador for poetry, founding the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Mass, and the Poets’ House in Manhattan.

His first two marriages ended in divorce, but his third, to the painter Elise Asher, endured until her death two years before his own. Together they divided their time between Provincetown, where Kunitz established a famous coastal garden, and New York. He died at his home in Manhattan in 2006 at the age of a hundred.

By the time of his death Kunitz had long been considered one of the most distinguished poets in America.

It didn’t start out that way, with his first two books languishing in relative obscurity:

Intellectual Things [1930] and Passport to the War [1944] are both written in a style which owes more to English metaphysical poets such as Herbert and Donne, than movements in American poetry at the time. Combining densely wrought formal structures and complex ideas they nevertheless, in the words of the critic David Berber, were “humming with a cathartic energy” which set them apart.

They won admiration from some quarters but Kunitz seemed destined to remain something of a poet’s poet.

All that changed with the publication, fourteen years later, of Selected Poems 1928-1958 which presented new work alongside selections from his earlier collections, and which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

If Selected Poems was a turning point in his reputation, it was his next collection, The Testing Tree [1971] which marked a startling change in style from baroque formality to a plainer, more austere language.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Lowell described the shift memorably: “The smoke has blown off. The old Delphic voice has learned to speak ‘words that cats and dogs can understand.’” It was a direction Kunitz was to pursue for the rest of his career, commenting in a late interview that “as a young poet I looked for what Keats called ‘a fine excess’, but as an old poet I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion.”

Alongside the sparer style was a greater intimacy of subject matter with many of the poems in The Testing Tree probing the repercussions of his father’s death.

And yet, for all the sense of departure, there remains from his earlier work a focus on moments of insight and rapture which distinguishes these poems from the purely confessional mode. It’s this consistent belief in the poet’s vocation as, in Kunitz’s own words, “a form of spiritual testimony…the telling of the stories of the soul” that underpins his writing life.

Publishing infrequently and only what he considered essential over the next thirty years, Kunitz refined this voice of “astringent grandeur” [David Berber], in collections such as Next-to-Last-Things: New Poems and Essays [1985] and Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected [1995].

His last book, a collection of essays entitled The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden [2005] mused on coming close to death, while also celebrating his passion for gardening.

Kunitz’s unapologetic seriousness which made no concessions to literary trends and fashions, brought him increasing plaudits: his many honours include the National Book Award for Passing Through, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Ford Foundation Grant, a National Medal of the Arts, the Bollingen Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, Harvard’s Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Shelley Memorial Award and a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.


It astonishes me that so fine a poet and one so long-lived and recognised in his own country does not feature in school anthologies in the UK, and is not at all a “household name” over here.  Mind you, I suspect that the same applies to UK poets in America, although the “field” seems far more open in North America than in the British Isles (with honourable exceptions such as Carcanet and Bloodaxe as well as one or two magazines).

On the BBC News just now has been an item about a piece of space junk which is about to charge through Earth’s atmosphere, and which may end up ploughing into Britain.  In its honour, here is one of my favourite poems by Stanley Kunitz:


Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

Stanley Kunitz, “Halley’s Comet” from The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Stanley Kunitz.

Source: The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000)