Stanley Kunitz

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Stanley Kunitz
BornStanley Jasspon Kunitz
(1905-07-29)July 29, 1905
Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedMay 14, 2006(2006-05-14) (aged 100)
New York City, U.S.
Alma materHarvard College
Notable awards
  • Helen Pearce (1930–1937; divorced)
  • Elanor Evans (1937–1958; divorced)
  • Elise Asher (1958–2004; her death)

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (/ˈkjuːnɪts/; July 29, 1905 – May 14, 2006) was an American poet. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress twice, first in 1974 and then again in 2000.[1]


Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children, to Yetta Helen (née Jasspon) and Solomon Z. Kunitz,[2] both of Jewish Russian Lithuanian descent.[3]

His father, a dressmaker of Russian Jewish heritage,[3] committed suicide in a public park six weeks before Stanley was born.[4] After going bankrupt, he went to Elm Park in Worcester,[5] and drank carbolic acid.[6] Carbolic Acid is extremely dangerous; however, it gives a delayed death. His mother removed every trace of Kunitz's father from the household.[4] The death of his father would be a powerful influence of his life.[7]

Kunitz and his two older sisters, Sarah and Sophia, were raised by his mother, who had made her way from Yashwen, Kovno, Lithuania by herself in 1890,[8] and opened a dry goods store.[9] Yetta remarried Mark Dine in 1912. Yetta and Mark filed for bankruptcy in 1912 and then were indicted by the U.S. District Court for concealing assets. They pleaded guilty and turned over USD$10,500 to the trustees.[10] Mark Dine died when Kunitz was fourteen,[2] when, while hanging curtains, he suffered a heart attack.[11]

At fifteen, Kunitz moved out of the house and became a butcher's assistant.[2] Later he got a job as a cub reporter on The Worcester Telegram, where he would continue working during his summer vacations from college.[2]

Kunitz graduated summa cum laude in 1926 from Harvard College with an English major and a philosophy minor,[2] and then earned a master's degree in English from Harvard the following year. He wanted to continue his studies for a doctorate degree, but was told by the university that the Anglo-Saxon students would not like to be taught by a Jew.[2]

After Harvard, he worked as a reporter for The Worcester Telegram, and as editor for the H. W. Wilson Company in New York City. He then founded and edited Wilson Library Bulletin and started the Author Biographical Studies.[2] Kunitz married Helen Pearce in 1930;[2] they divorced in 1937.[12] In 1935 he moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania and befriended Theodore Roethke.[12] He married Eleanor Evans in 1939; they had a daughter Gretchen in 1950.[12] Kunitz divorced Eleanor in 1958.[13]

At Wilson Company, Kunitz served as co-editor for Twentieth Century Authors, among other reference works. In 1931, as Dilly Tante, he edited Living Authors, a Book of Biographies. His poems began to appear in Poetry, Commonweal, The New Republic, The Nation, and The Dial.

During World War II, he was drafted into the Army in 1943 as a conscientious objector, and after undergoing basic training three times, served as a noncombatant at Gravely Point, Washington in the Air Transport Command in charge of information and education. He refused a commission and was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.[12]

After the war, he began a peripatetic teaching career at Bennington College (1946–1949), taking over from Roethke.[12] He subsequently taught at the State University of New York at Potsdam (then the New York State Teachers College at Potsdam) as a full professor (1949–1950; summer sessions through 1954), the New School for Social Research (lecturer; 1950-1957), the University of Washington (visiting professor; 1955-1956), Queens College (visiting professor; 1956–1957), Brandeis University (poet-in-residence; 1958-1959) and Columbia University (lecturer in the School of General Studies; 1963–1966) before spending 18 years as an adjunct professor of writing at Columbia's School of the Arts (1967–1985). Throughout this period, he also held visiting appointments at Yale University (1970), Rutgers University–Camden (1974), Princeton University (1978) and Vassar College (1981).[14]

After his divorce from Eleanor, he married the painter and poet Elise Asher in 1958.[15] His marriage to Asher led to friendships with artists like Philip Guston and Mark Rothko.[13]

Kunitz's poetry won wide praise for its profundity and quality. He was the New York State Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1989.[16] He continued to write and publish until his centenary year, as late as 2005. Many consider that his poetry's symbolism is influenced significantly by the work of Carl Jung. Kunitz influenced many 20th-century poets, including James Wright, Mark Doty, Louise Glück, Joan Hutton Landis, and Carolyn Kizer.

For most of his life, Kunitz divided his time between New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. He enjoyed gardening and maintained one of the most impressive seaside gardens in Provincetown. There he also founded Fine Arts Work Center, where he was a mainstay of the literary community, as he was of Poets House in Manhattan.

He was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience award in Sherborn, Massachusetts in October 1998 for his contribution to the liberation of the human spirit through his poetry.[17]

He died in 2006 at his home in Manhattan.[18] He had previously come close to death, and reflected on the experience in his last book, a collection of essays, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden.


Kunitz's first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930. His second volume of poems, Passport to the War, was published fourteen years later; the book went largely unnoticed, although it featured some of Kunitz's best-known poems, and soon fell out of print. Kunitz's confidence was not in the best of shape when, in 1959, he had trouble finding a publisher for his third book, Selected Poems: 1928-1958. Despite this unflattering experience, the book, eventually published by Little Brown, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

The Testing-Tree (excerpt)

In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.

~ Stanley Kunitz

His next volume of poems would not appear until 1971, but Kunitz remained busy through the 1960s editing reference books and translating Russian poets. When twelve years later The Testing Tree appeared, Kunitz's style was radically transformed from the highly intellectual and philosophical musings of his earlier work to more deeply personal yet disciplined narratives; moreover, his lines shifted from iambic pentameter to a freer prosody based on instinct and breath—usually resulting in shorter stressed lines of three or four beats.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, he became one of the most treasured and distinctive voices in American poetry. His collection Passing Through: The Later Poems won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1995.[19] Kunitz received many other honors, including a National Medal of Arts, the Bollingen Prize for a lifetime achievement in poetry, the Robert Frost Medal, and Harvard's Centennial Medal. He served two terms as Consultant on Poetry for the Library of Congress (the precursor title to Poet Laureate), one term as Poet Laureate of the United States, and one term as the State Poet of New York. He founded the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City. Kunitz also acted as a judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition.

Library Bill of Rights[edit]

Kunitz served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin from 1928 to 1943. An outspoken critic of censorship, in his capacity as editor, he targeted his criticism at librarians who did not actively oppose it. He published an article in 1938 by Bernard Berelson entitled "The Myth of Library Impartiality". This article led Forrest Spaulding and the Des Moines Public Library to draft the Library Bill of Rights, which was later adopted by the American Library Association and continues to serve as the cornerstone document on intellectual freedom in libraries.[20][21]

Awards and honors[edit]



  • The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (2005)
  • The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000)
  • Passing Through, The Later Poems, New and Selected (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995) —winner of the National Book Award[19]
  • Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays (1985)
  • The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems
  • The Terrible Threshold
  • The Coat without a Seam
  • The Poems of Stanley Kunitz (1928–1978) (1978)
  • The Testing-Tree (1971)
  • Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (1958)
  • Passport to the War (1944)
  • Intellectual Things (1930)

Other writing and interviews[edit]

  • Conversations with Stanley Kunitz (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, Literary Conversations Series, 11/2013), Edited by Kent P. Ljungquist
  • A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations
  • Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1995), Edited by Stanley Moss

As editor, translator, or co-translator[edit]


  1. ^ "Poet Laureate Timeline: 1971-1980". Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Orr, Gregory (1985), Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, p. xxvii, ISBN 978-0-231-05234-4
  3. ^ a b Kimmelman, Burt; Temple Cone & Randall Huff (2008). The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry: 1900 to the Present. Facts On File. p. 323. ISBN 978-0-8160-6950-7.
  4. ^ a b Braham, Jeanne (2007). The Light Within the Light. David R. Godine Publisher. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-56792-316-2.
  5. ^ Williamson, Chet (June 3, 2010), "A Poetic Structure", Worcester Mag, Holden Landmark Corporation
  6. ^ Davison, Peter (1994). The Fading Smile. Knopf. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-679-40658-7.
  7. ^ Harrison, Sue (May 18, 2006). "Farewell, Stanley: Former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz dies at 100". Proviencetown Banner. GateHouse Media.
  8. ^ Feingold, Norma & Nancy Sadick (1983). Water Street: World Within a World. Worcester Historical Museum. p. 17.
  9. ^ Magill, Frank Northen (1992). Critical Survey of Poetry: English Language Series. Salem Press. p. 1881. ISBN 978-0-89356-838-2.
  10. ^ "Creditors Get Property". Boston Evening Transcript. June 28, 1912. p. 6.
  11. ^ Goodyear, Dana (September 1, 2003), "Profiles: THE GARDENER", The New Yorker, vol. 79, no. 21–28, p. 107
  12. ^ a b c d e Orr. p.xxviii.
  13. ^ a b Orr. p.xxix.
  14. ^ "Marquis Biographies Online".
  15. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (March 13, 2004), "Elise Asher, 92, Painter-Poet Who Blended Images and Words", The New York Times
  16. ^ "New York". US State Poets Laureate. Library of Congress. Retrieved May 8, 2012.
  17. ^ The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Recipients List Archived 2009-02-14 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (May 16, 2006). "Stanley Kunitz, Poet Laureate, Dies at 100". The New York Times.
  19. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1995". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
    (With acceptance speech by Kunitz and essay by Megan Snyder-Camp from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  20. ^ McCook, Kathleen de la Peña (2011). Introduction to Public Librarianship, pp. 62-63.
  21. ^ Lingo, M. (2003). Forbidden fruit: The banning of 'The Grapes of Wrath' in the Kern County Free Library. Libraries & Culture, 4, 351. doi:10.2307/25549126

External links[edit]