At the age of 95, Stanley Kunitz (born 1905) became the oldest person ever to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States. One of the finest American poets of the Twentieth Century, Kunitz produced only 12 books in more than 70 years, but the quality of his work remained consistent. Kunitz has earned many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Bollingen Prize in Poetry.
Haunted by his Father's Death
Stanley Jasspon Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on July 29, 1905. He was raised in a Lithuanian Jewish household in a working-class community, the son of Solomon Kunitz, a dressmaker, and Yetta Helen (Jasspon) Kunitz. His father killed himself shortly before Stanley was born "by drinking carbolic acid in a park," according to People magazine's William Plummer. Kunitz spent a lonely childhood. Birthdays were not celebrated in his house and his father's death was a taboo topic. Nevertheless, the tragic event visited Kunitz in his dreams, and later, as an adult, he grappled with the loss in his poems. The poem "End of Summer" evokes the event: "Bolt upright in my bed that night/ I saw my father flying;/ the wind was walking on my neck,/ the windowpanes were crying." In a later volume, The Testing Tree: Poems, published in 1971, Kunitz "ruthlessly prods wounds," according to Stanley Moss of the Nation. "His primordial curse is the suicide of his father before his birth. The poems take us into the sacred woods and houses of his 66 years, illuminate the images that have haunted him."
Despite his depressing home life, Kunitz excelled at school. He was class valedictorian at Worcester Classical High School and won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he studied under the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and rubbed shoulders with the future head of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 1926, Kunitz graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and enrolled in a doctoral degree program. He wanted to teach at Harvard, but anti-Semitic attitudes in the Ivy League proved to be an obstacle, and he dropped out after completing the requirements for his master's degree.
Kunitz took a newspaper job at The Worcester Telegram. The highlight of his journalism career was covering the 1921 trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists convicted of robbing and killing a Boston shoe factory paymaster and his guard. After the trial ended, Kunitz went to New York seeking a publisher for Vanzetti's letters. Though he failed to interest any editors in the project, he wound up staying in the city.
Early Success as Poet
Eventually, he moved to a farmhouse in Connecticut, where he wrote poetry and edited reference books for the H.W. Wilson publishing house. He was editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin and co-editor of Twentieth Century Authors. Around this time, his poems started appearing in some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the United States, including the Dial, New Republic, Poetry, and Commonweal.
In 1930, at the age of 25, Kunitz published his first book of poems, Intellectual Things. Kunitz's early poems reflect an opaque style influenced by English metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert. He later adopted a simpler style, more accessible to readers. His next book of verse, Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems, published fourteen years later, likewise garnered critical praise. The poems in this volume reflected Kunitz's attempt to work out his anger on the page. "I had to address the trauma of my childhood and resolve it," he later told Plummer.
In 1959, Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for his third book Selected Poems, 1928-1958. His next book, The Testing Tree: Poems, published in 1971, marked a significant departure from his earlier work. Poet Robert Lowell compared the two books in the New York Times Book Review by saying that the two volumes "are landmarks of the old and new style. The smoke has blown off. The old Delphic voice has learned to speak 'words that cats and dogs can understand."'
Other volumes by Kunitz include The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940-70 and The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems, which appeared in 1983. The lengthy title poem of the latter volume recalled the beaching and death of a whale near his Provincetown, Massachusetts, home. Marie Henault in the Dictionary of Literary Biography called it "an austere and ambitious philosophic poem. … Its first-person-plural speaker gives the poem an elevated tone that allows the whale to become 'like a god in exile/ … delivered to the mercy of time. … "'
Expressed Political Views
Kunitz maintained a status as a conscientious objector during World War II, but he was drafted anyway and served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. He was not forced to fight on the front lines but was assigned the task of cleaning bathrooms. Eventually, he rose to the rank of sergeant, but Kunitz never forgot his early humiliation. It took 20 years, but Kunitz finally got his revenge on the military. In 1965, he and fellow poet Lowell organized a Vietnam War protest that turned the White House Arts Festival into what Kunitz proudly termed "a passionate fiasco."
Kunitz's anti-government attitudes seeped into his poetry. From 1974 to 1976, Kunitz served as a poetry consultant in the Library of Congress's Poetry Office. His poem "The Lincoln Relics," which he wrote during those years, reflects his disdain for the U.S. government: "Mr. President/ In this Imperial City,/ awash in gossip and power,/ where marble eats marble/ and your office has been defiled,/ I saw piranhas darting/ between the rose-veined columns, avid to strip the flesh/ from the Republic's bones./ Has no one told you/ how the slow blood leaks/ from your secret wound?"
Kunitz believes the poet's role is to "demonstrate the power of the solitary conscience," as he told Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Kastor. "It's a terrible power to entrust to people who are not spiritually great, that's all there is to it," Kunitz said of government officials. "You see it in the callousness, self-aggrandizement, insensitivity to the plight of the poor. In the general level of ethical conduct, the state has become an abomination."
In 1945, Kunitz won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, and a year later took his first teaching post at Bennington College in Vermont. During the 1950s and 1960s, he taught at several other institutions, including the New School for Social Research in New York, Brandeis University, the University of Washington, and Columbia University. From his early brush with anti-Semitism at Harvard, he went on to teach at Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. But rather than settling on one campus, Kunitz preferred to do short-term stints. He thought that accepting a long-term commitment would stifle his creativity. "I never accepted tenure," he explained in an interview in the Boston Globe, "because I recognized that it would be fatal for me to be a professor who wrote poetry rather than a poet who had a job in the academy."
Through his writing and teaching, Kunitz amassed a group of proteges and friends that reads like a Who's Who of Twentieth Century poetry. His closest friends included Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Allen Ginsberg solicited Kunitz's comments before publishing "Howl," the Beat poem that defined a generation. Kunitz taught or advised well-known poets such as Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, Louise Gluck, and Robert Hass.
Kunitz's mentoring extended to the visual arts. He interacted with painters Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko and married artist Elise Asher on June 21, 1958. Each had one daughter from a previous marriage. The couple divided time between New York and Provincetown, where Kunitz ran Fine Arts Work Center, a colony for young poets and artists he founded in 1968.
In 2000, Kunitz was appointed to be the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, the highest literary honor in America. In explaining the selection, Librarian of Congress James Billington said Kunitz "continues to be a mentor and model for several generations of poets, and he brings uniquely to the office of poet laureate a full lifetime of commitment to poetry." Literary critics applauded the choice. "What sets Kunitz apart from most people," observed Henry Taylor in the Washington Post, "is his level of emotional intensity that historically has been difficult to maintain as one ages." The job requires recipients to give a reading at the start of their tenure, deliver an essay at the end, and help organize the library's literary programs. "It's a wonderful selection," Atlantic poetry editor Peter Davison told the Boston Globe. "Stanley is going to hold the office as a symbol of dedication to a life in poetry."
Despite his lofty achievements, Kunitz always maintained a solid grounding. Gardening became a lifelong passion for Kunitz and provided inspiration for his poetry. He tried his hand at farming twice in his life, first in Connecticut, then in Pennsylvania. The success of his 2,000 square-foot garden in the front yard of his Provincetown home is one of his proudest achievements.
Kunitz explained his fascination with nature to Contemporary Authors: "One of my feelings about working the land is that I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection. Every spring I feel that. I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil." Indeed, he told the Boston Globe that gardening refreshed his spirit and prepared him for writing: "To conquer a piece of earth," Kunitz said, "an area of earth, and make it as beautiful as one can dream of it being: That is art, too. A man cannot be separated from the earth. I come out of the garden every day feeling, oh, inspired in a way that one needs in order to convert the daily-ness of the life into something greater than that little life itself."
Henault, Marie, Stanley Kunitz, Twayne, 1980.
Newsmakers, Issue 2, The Gale Group, 2001.
Boston Globe, August 27, 2000.
Nation, September 20, 1971.
New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1971.
People, October 30, 2000, p. 159.
Washington Post, May 12, 1987; July 29, 2000; October 1, 2000;June 21, 2001.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001. □