Stanley Kunitz

Twice US poet laureate who was esteemed as a distinctive metaphysical voice in American poetry
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The Independent Online

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz, poet, teacher and gardener: born Worcester, Massachusetts 29 July 1905; Professor of Literature, Bennington College 1946-49; Lecturer, New School for Social Research, New York 1950-58; Director, Poetry Workshop, Poetry Center, New York 1958-62; Lecturer, Columbia University 1963-66, Adjunct Professor 1967-85; Poetry Consultant, Library of Congress 1974-76, Honorary Consultant in American Letters 1976-82, Poet Laureate 2000-01; married 1930 Helen Pearce (marriage dissolved 1937), 1939 Eleanor Evans (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1958), 1958 Elise Asher (died 2004); died New York 14 May 2006.

"It's strange, but give him time. A hundred years or so. He's a patient man. He won't mind waiting." So said W.H. Auden about the reputation of the American poet Stanley Kunitz, who indeed lived to 100 and found himself esteemed as a distinctive metaphysical voice.

He was not a remote aesthete, but Kunitz kept himself at a certain distance from literary shenanigans and found a particular stimulus in the celebrated garden he created at his summer home on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He relished that good talk and food which made him a fine teacher, but not for him academia's machinations. Far more stimulating to him was the quest for knowledge.

Stanley Kunitz's parents were immigrants from Lithuania. Only after some years did he learn that, owing to business trouble and perhaps another woman, his father, Solomon, had killed himself by drinking carbolic acid in a public park six weeks before Stanley's birth in Worcester, Massachussetts in July 1905. His mother, Yetta, a seamstress, was 40 when he was born. He said of her;

There were two strong wills in that household, hers and mine, so that our natural tensions were magnified. We held each other at a distance. She was the most competent woman I have ever known.

His two sisters died young and his stepfather, an encouraging, civilised man, died in 1919.

Solomon Kunitz had left a good library, bringing the young Stanley an early taste for 19th-century Russian authors. At school at Worcester Classical High, the present of a collected Wordsworth, as well as Robert Herrick read aloud, gave him a relish for poetry, fortified by a dozen books a week from the local library. There, he began to write light verse and edited a magazine. At Harvard, from 1923 to 1927, he was an early enthusiast for Gerard Manley Hopkins and continually read William Blake. Adept at tennis, he was also a violinist, playing under Walter Piston in the Pierian Sodality, as the Harvard orchestra was named.

In 1926 Kunitz won the Garrison Medal for Poetry, for a "dreadful" poem about John Harvard. He also wrote an unpublished novel, and expected to become a Harvard teaching assistant until he was told that Anglo-Saxons would resent being taught English by a Jew.

Disgusted, he left for the Worcester Telegram, where he worked in various sections and was a reporter on the protracted Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, the injustice of which, under Judge Webster Thayer, so riled Kunitz that he left the paper and took with him to New York the letters by Sacco which he had been given. He was unable to interest publishers. Well-nigh centless, he was taken on by the H.W. Wilson Company to edit reference books, which he could do without being embroiled in the office life for which he had a distaste.

Meanwhile, his poems were accepted in magazines such as The Dial; its editor, the poet Marianne Moore, said, "I do admire them. We shall be so happy to publish them." Kunitz travelled in Italy and France in 1929 and returned to publish a first volume of poetry Intellectual Things (1930), its title taken from Blake. Although well-reviewed, its print-run of 500 copies met the national demand.

Kunitz was never in a rush to publish and might set poems aside for a year. Writing from midnight to dawn, he lived on four hours' sleep. And that despite the demands in the early Thirties of running a 100-acre Connecticut farm with his wife, another poet and a great beauty, Helen Pearce, whom he had married in 1930. They restored the farmhouse, grew herbs and vegetables, and ploughed with oxen. And then a tornado destroyed it.

They moved to a stone house at New Hope, Pennsylvania, which one day brought a startling visitor, the hulking Theodore Roethke, soon to publish poetry himself, who had read and admired Kunitz's work. He recited two poems aloud on the doorstep. Their ensuing friendship was mutually beneficial, Roethke bringing Kunitz some of those metropolitan connections to which his nature was more immediately attuned, and their talk was a support during the breakdown of Kunitz's marriage (after the divorce, his wife disappeared and he never heard from her again).

In 1938 Kunitz married again, to Eleanor Evans, but a happy time was soon blighted by war, when he was drafted at 38. As a pacifist, he wished to join the Medical Corps but his papers were lost and he spent three years going from camp to camp as kitchen porter or digging latrines. Pneumonia, scarlet fever and brutish officers added to such misery that he was scarcely aware of the appearance of his second book, Passport to the War, in 1944. It did, however, prompt Marianne Moore to secure him the Guggenheim award, a surprise on his discharge.

In 1946, Bennington College in Vermont was keen to relieve Roethke of his post and he agreed to go if Kunitz replaced him. So began a series of teaching posts around the United States. While in New York, Kunitz, a reluctant city-dweller, found that a small garden reconciled him to living in Greenwich Village, from where he and his wife regularly retreated to Cape Cod. A decade on, in 1958, they divorced, and he married a painter, Elise Asher. This brought friendship with such people as Mark Rothko and Philip Guston (Kunitz himself painted and sculpted).

That year, his Selected Poems won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was not until 1971 that the next, The Testing-Tree, appeared. By then he had returned to Worcester and also to his roots, by working, with Max Hayward, on translations of Anna Akhmatova. In 1974-76 he became poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (the precursor to the post of poet laureate). He would serve a second term in 2000-01.

A collected edition of Kunitz's work appeared in 1978, including new poems; in 1985 came Next-to-Last Things, a seemingly accurate title, which was followed by Passing Through (1995). Always working, a few weeks before his 100th birthday in 2005, he brought out The Wild Braid, an illustrated account - in conversation, poetry and photographs - of his garden.

He likened gardening to creating a poem, and one can regard his work from all periods side by side, as an oak by a flower. He spoke of creating myth, but his was a tangible world, increasingly so, and his lines became shorter, he explained,

since my natural span of breath seems to be three beats. It seems to me so natural now that I scarcely ever feel the need for a longer line. Sometimes I keep a little clock going when people talk to me and I notice they are speaking in trimeters. Back in the Elizabethan Age I'd have heard pentameters.

A 1990s poem, "The Snakes of September", uses 31 lines to describe his eventually espying the snakes which had been rustling in his garden all summer long: now,

defiant of the curse

that spoiled another garden,

they are upon a spruce,

dangling head-down, entwined

in a brazen love-knot.

I put out my hand and stroke

the fine, dry grit of their skins.

After all,

we are partners in this land,

co-signers of a covenant.

At my touch the wild

braid of creation

trembles.

His eye for nature is there in that last sentence, analysis of which could fill a page. Equally miraculous is a racoon who drags a dog's head below water, fatally; and, early on, a waltzing mouse in Connecticut is not so far from a long, late account of a beached whale who, at the end,

laboriously opened

a bloodshot, glistening eye,

in which we swam with terror and recognition.

Kunitz's unforced meditative spirit often had recourse to his troubled upbringing and wide reading but, despite never escaping doubt, he achieves content amidst it, although yet alert to dangerous spirits, as in the Forties' "Careless Love": "Who have been lonely once / Are comforted by their guns."

Auden was right. Kunitz, by 100, had achieved a collected volume of scarcely 300 pages, in which one finds so much more than many others' bulky summations. As Kunitz concluded in "Passing Through" (from the 19 95 collection):

. . . gradually I'm changing to a word.

Whatever you choose to claim

of me is always yours;

nothing is truly mine

except my name. I only

borrowed this dust.

Christopher Hawtree

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