Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz

(Source: Library of Congress)
Born: July 29, 1905
Died: May 14, 2006


Stanley Kunitz was born with poetry flowing through his veins. His love of words, and interest in writing was clear in his youth in Worcester;

I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like" eleemosynary" or "phantasmagoria" -- some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly my thought in the... in the beginning was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn't consider living without it.

With his first book published before the age of thirty, and more than twenty other books published within the last 75 years, Stanley Kunitz could easily be called one of America’s greatest and most influential poets.

Born on July 29, 1905 in Worcester, Massachusetts Kunitz was no stranger to tragedy. His father’s public suicide just weeks six before his birth overshadowed most of his life. In his poetry it can be seen that he felt a longing for his father. The poem ‘Father and Son’ from Passport to the War illustrates this theme: “At the water's edge, where the smothering ferns lifted/ Their arms, "Father!" I cried, "Return! You know/ The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;/ No trace, I promise, will remain.” The effect of his father’s death on his mother is seen most directly in ‘The Portrait’.

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,

Kunitz attended the Worcester Classical High School, and it was there that he discovered and was influenced by such great poets as Robert Herrick, John Yeats, William Butler, and William Blake. Kunitz then was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, and graduated summa cum laude in 1926. After graduation he was indirectly told that due to his Jewish background he could not continue working in the English Department. This hurt him, and although he worked at many schools, including Yale, Princeton, Bennington College, and Columbia University, he was never able to settle at any one institution.

For several years after college Kunitz worked for the H. W. Wilson Company in New York as an editor of the Weekly Library Bulletin. During this time he began work on a series of biographical dictionaries of American and English authors with Howard Haycraft. These volumes where published between the years of 1931 and 1952. Also, in 1930, while working as an editor Kunitz’s first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, was published. Unfortunately, this book was barely recognized and thus Kunitz did not publish his next book, Passport to the War: A Selection of Poems, until 1944, which again was looked down upon by critics. During this time he did, however, have many of his poems published in several magazines. In 1958 Kunitz’s luck with the literary world would change when he received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems.

Though Kunitz was a conscientious objector during World War II he did serve in the United States Army for three years as a non-combatant and was discharged in 1945 with the rank of staff sergeant. It wasn’t until after the war that Kunitz finally took a teaching position at Bennington College. However, when offered tenure he turned it down because he preferred to be "a poet who works as a professor rather than a professor who writes poetry."

In 1967 a visit to Russia inspired him to begin translating poems from Russian to English. Some of the poets he translated were Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Andrei Voznesensky. His other ventures around the world took him to several countries in Europe and Africa.

Kunitz has been considered a great mentor to young poets. In 1985 he started the Poet’s House in New York City. Poet’s House is a “literary center and poetry archive – a collection and meeting place that invites poets and the public to step into the living tradition of poetry.” It houses a 40,000 volume library of poetry and hosts many public readings and lectures every year. Kunitz was also an editor for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a group dedicated to publishing the poetry of younger poets. He also founded the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Since the publishing of his first collection in 1930 Kunitz’s acclaim as a poet has grown by leaps and bounds. Since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, Kunitz has been awarded the Bollingen Prize, the National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship, the Harriet Monroe Award, the Ford Foundation Award, the National Medal of the Arts in 1993, an ‘In Celebration of Writers’ award from Poets & Writers in 1999 , a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, a Harvard's Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and recently in his home town of Worcester he was awarded the Massachusetts Book Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Possibly one of the greatest honors Kunitz has received in his life came in 2000 when he was offered the position of United States Poet Laureate.

Stanley Kunitz is now splits his time between his homes in Greenwich Village, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts with his wife, where he spends many hours a day in his garden. He continues to write poetry even now in his 90’s because he simply refuses to grow old.





Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.

In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps--
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life--
after the trials of summer.
— from 'The Testing Tree 'by Stanley Kunitz