Authors: Stanley Kunitz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet, translator, and editor

July 29, 1905

Worcester, Massachusetts

May 14, 2006

New York, New York


The contribution of Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (KYEWN-ihts) to literature can be divided into his careers as a poet and translator, as an editor of reference books, and as a mentor to other American poets. Kunitz accumulated a steady record of honors and awards while teaching at more than a dozen colleges and universities. From 1967 to 1977, he edited the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and he served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress from 1974 to 1976. In 1970, he was named one of the twelve chancellors of the Academy of American Poets; in 1985, he was named president of the Poets House in New York City. Kunitz’s influence on American poetry can be seen in the 1976 volume A Celebration of Stanley Kunitz on His Eightieth Birthday, which contains poetry and tributes by fellow poets Richard Wilbur, Gregory Orr, David Ignatow, Olga Broumas, Kenneth Koch, and others. In 2000, at the age of ninety-five, he was named poet laureate of the United States. {$I[AN]9810001700} {$I[A]Kunitz, Stanley} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kunitz, Stanley} {$I[tim]1905;Kunitz, Stanley}

Stanley Kunitz

(Library of Congress)

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, Kunitz graduated from Harvard University. He published his first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, in 1930, the same year as his first marriage. Ironically and sadly, the event that had the most influence on Kunitz’s poetry was the suicide of his father six weeks before the writer was born. When he was fourteen, moreover, his stepfather died; perhaps as a result, he wrote much poetry in which quests for a father and for identity figure prominently. He also showed an early interest in the use of symbols related to home, family, loss, and love. Intellectual Things is written with a careful balance of allusions to religion, philosophy, drama, and earlier poetry, mixed with circumstances from Kunitz’s own life on the themes of death and the search for the father. Later, Kunitz developed the idea of “key images”—a term he employed to describe the universal image patterns he used in his poetry that retained their personal significances to him as a poet as well.

After obtaining his master’s degree from Harvard, Kunitz worked for the H. W. Wilson publishing company in New York until he was called to serve in World War II. He created and edited The Wilson Library Bulletin, for which he wrote a column. The reference books he wrote with coeditor Howard Haycraft became standard texts. Kunitz also edited the military newsmagazine Ten Minute Break while he was in the Army as a conscientious objector (1943 to 1945). In 1946, at the end of his service, Kunitz took a teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont, replacing the poet Robert Lowell. Following his year in Vermont, Kunitz arranged a variety of part-time teaching posts, mostly at East Coast colleges.

In 1937, Kunitz was divorced from Helen Pearce, his first wife, whom he had married in 1930. In 1939 he married Eleanor Evans. With his second wife, Kunitz had one daughter. They divorced in 1958; that same year, he married the painter Elise Asher.

In 1941, Kunitz began winning awards for his poetry. In 1944, he published Passport to the War, which continues the theme of the son’s search for the father but broadens to include pieces on the war. Central to this collection is the poem “Father and Son,” which is representative of much of Kunitz’s verse. In 1959, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry. In 1963, Kunitz accepted a lecturer’s position with Columbia University in New York, a post he held in conjunction with visiting lectureships at Yale University in 1976 and Princeton University in 1977. In 1976, he also toured West Africa, giving poetry readings and lectures. Throughout his career, Kunitz continued to edit reference books on authors for the Wilson company.

In 1967, Kunitz was one of several writers who translated Andrei Voznesensky’s Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace. In 1973, he published his well-regarded translation Poems of Akhmatova with Max Hayward, who read the poems to him, as Kunitz had little facility in Russian. Then, as Kunitz later described the translating process, Hayward and he would review the prose translations Hayward wrote, and Kunitz would create a new poem in English that was faithful to Akhmatova’s original work. From this experience, Kunitz noted, he gained insight into how to use clear, direct language to create depth in poetry that is satisfying to both the writer and the reader.

Kunitz’s The Testing-Tree was a departure from his previous work in that it features unrhymed verse with differing line lengths. While he writes about identity, love, and loss in this collection, Kunitz also introduces an examination of the role of memory and the function of the imagination in poetry. He also addresses several of the poems to his daughter, enabling him to write about his own role as a father and to connect his evaluation with other themes in his work. In 1979, he published The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, a collection arranged in reverse chronological order that includes new poetry under the title “The Layers.”

In 1985, Next-to-Last Things was issued. An interesting collection of miscellaneous poetry and prose, it includes an illuminating memoir written by Kunitz’s mother in 1951, a year before her death at eighty-six. In 1987, Kunitz won two major awards for poetry, the Bollingen Prize and the Walt Whitman Award. In recognition of his lifetime achievement, Kunitz was chosen as the first New York State Poet, for the term from 1987 to 1989. In 1993, Kunitz’s collected interviews, which had first appeared in a variety of poetry magazines, were published in book form. In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented Kunitz with a National Medal of Arts. Kunitz’s next volume of poems, Passing Through, received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1995. In 1998, Kunitz received the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. In 2000, coincident with his appointment as poet laureate of the United States, The Collected Poems appeared; it was the first complete collection of Kunitz’s verse since the The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978. This chronologically arranged volume draws on all the earlier ones, showing readers the full range of Kunitz’s work.

Kunitz died in 2006, at the age of one hundred. He was predeceased by Asher, who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two. His survivors included his daughter, Gretchen Kunitz; his stepdaughter, Babette Becker; two grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

Author Works Poetry: Intellectual Things, 1930 Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems, 1944 Selected Poems, 1928–1958, 1958 The Testing-Tree: Poems, 1971 The Coat Without a Seam: Sixty Poems, 1930–1972, 1974 The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940–1970, 1974 The Lincoln Relics, 1978 The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928–1978, 1979 The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems, 1983 Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected, 1995 The Collected Poems, 2000 Translations: Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace, 1967 (with others; of Andrei Voznesensky’s poetry) Stolen Apples, 1971 (with others; of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry) Poems of Akhmatova, 1973 (with Max Hayward; of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry) Story Under Full Sail, 1974 (of Voznesensky’s poetry) Orchard Lamps, 1978 (of Ivan Drach’s poetry) Nonfiction: A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, 1975 Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, 1993 (Stanley Moss, editor) The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, 2005 Conversations with Stanley Kunitz, 2013 Edited Texts: Living Authors: A Book of Biographies, 1931 Authors Today and Yesterday: A Companion Volume to “Living Authors,” 1933 (with Howard Haycraft and Wilbur C. Hadden) The Junior Book of Authors, 1934, 2d edition 1951 (with Haycraft) British Authors of the Nineteenth Century, 1936 (with Haycraft) American Authors, 1600–1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature, 1938 (with Haycraft) Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, 1942, 7th edition 1973 (with Haycraft) British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary, 1952 (with Haycraft) Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, First Supplement, 1955, 7th edition 1990 (with Vineta Colby) Poems of John Keats, 1964 European Authors, 1000–1900: A Biographical Dictionary of European Literature, 1967 (with Colby) Contemporary Poetry in America, 1973 Selections, University & College Poetry Prizes, 1973–78, 1980 The Essential Blake, 1987 The Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early and Late (with David Ignatow) Miscellaneous: Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays, 1985 Bibliography Barber, David. “A Visionary Poet at Ninety.” The Atlantic Monthly 277, no. 6 (June, 1996): 113–120. This article includes a biographical survey and a brief review of some of the poet’s earlier works before turning to a heartfelt appreciation of Passing Through. Barber names Kunitz a “visionary” and sees his poetry as “transfiguring.” Campbell, Robert. “God, Man, and Whale: Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Poems Show His Work Is All of a Piece.” The New York Times Book Review 150 (October 1, 2000): 16. This review of Kunitz’s poems, collected and published in his ninety-fifth year, offers comments about the broad spectrum of this poet’s writing over seven decades. One of the most insightful brief overviews of Kunitz in print. Henault, Marie. Stanley Kunitz. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A good introduction to Kunitz for the beginning reader. Presents biographical detail and criticism of his poetry, discussing his themes, form, and techniques, and the “interior logics” of his poems. A sympathetic study lamenting the fact that Kunitz has not received the wide critical recognition he deserves. Kunitz, Stanley. “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz.” Interview by Peter Stitt. The Gettysburg Review 5, no. 2 (Spring, 1992): 193–209. Offers a transcript of a 1990 interview and features a new poem, “The Chariot,” with commentary by Kunitz. Kunitz, Stanley. “Translating Anna Akhmatova: A Conversation with Stanley Kunitz.” Interview by Daniel Weissbort. In Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth, edited by Weissbort. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. An explanation of the history of the translation project, with a discussion of the methods employed by Kunitz and Max Hayward. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Stanley Kunitz, Poet Laureate, Dies at 100.” The New York Times, 16 May 2006, Accessed 22 Sept. 2017. Kunitz’s obituary. Lowell, Robert. “On Stanley Kunitz’s ‘Father and Son.’” In The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic, edited by Anthony Ostroff. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. Analyzes “Father and Son” and takes issue with a number of images in this poem, such as an orange being “nailed.” Despite his unfavorable response, Lowell acknowledges that Kunitz has “never published an unfinished and unfelt poem.” Orr, Gregory. Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. A full-length criticism of Kunitz, noting that love and art are the two ways in which this poet seeks his identity. Discusses the key image, which Orr maintains is the single most important element in Kunitz’s work. The chapter on The Testing-Tree is particularly recommended. Plummer, William. “New Beginnings: At Ninety-five, Fledgling Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz Finds Fresh Wood.” People Weekly 54 (October 30, 2000): 159–160. Written for a popular audience, this overview of Kunitz’s life and work emphasizes that the poet has continued to grow. An excellent, humane assessment of a life of creative endeavor. Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Poets. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980. The entry on Kunitz, by Michael True, examines his poetry as it retraces the “myth of the lost father.” Cites his devotion to craft and the high standards he strove to maintain throughout his work. Notes Kunitz’s earlier works as being more intellectual and his later ones as being more oriented toward feelings. Weisberg, Robert. “Stanley Kunitz: The Stubborn Middle Way.” Modern Poetry Studies 6 (Spring, 1975): 49–57. In this sympathetic article, Weisberg laments that Kunitz’s “impressive” canon has aroused little critical interest. In discussing Selected Poems, 1928–1958, however, he criticizes Kunitz for being a “reincarnation of John Donne” but praises “The Words of the Preacher” for the energy that his other metaphysical lyrics lack. Includes an analysis of The Testing-Tree.

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