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Stanley Kunitz Biography | Poet

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Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (July 29, 1905 – May 14, 2006) was a noted American poet of Lithuanian descent who served two years (1974–1976) as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the modern Poet Laureate program), and served another year as United States Poet Laureate in 2000.


Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. He was raised by his Lithuanian-Jewish mother, Yetta Helen Jasspon, and stepfather, Mark Dine, who died when Kunitz was 14. His father, Solomon Z. Kunitz, a dressmaker, committed suicide six weeks before Kunitz was born.

Kunitz graduated summa cum laude in 1926 from Harvard College and earned a master's degree in English from Harvard the following year. After Harvard, he worked as a reporter for The Worcester Telegram, and as editor for the H.W. Wilson Company in New York City until he was drafted in 1943. He served in the US Army during World War II. Although a conscientious objector, Kunitz served as a non-combatant and was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant. After the war, he began a teaching career at Bennington College, New York State Teachers College in Potsdam, New York, New School for Social Research, University of Washington, Queens College, Vassar, Brandeis, Yale, Rutgers, and a 22-year stint at Columbia University.

At Wilson Company, Kunitz served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin and 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.

Kunitz's poetry has won praise from all circles as being profound and well written. He continued to write and publish as late as 2005, at the age of 100. Many believe his poetry's symbolism is influenced significantly by the work of Carl Jung. Kunitz was an influence on many 20th century poets, including James Wright, Louise Gluck, and Carolyn Kizer.

His marriages to poet Helen Pearce and actress Eleanor Evans ended in divorce. His third wife, artist Elise Asher, died in 2004. Kunitz divided his time between New York City, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts for most of his life. He enjoyed gardening and maintained one of the most impressive seaside gardens in Provincetown. He was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was a mainstay of the literary community, and of Poets House in Manhattan. He died in 2006 at his home in Manhattan. 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.


His first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930. His second volum of poems, "Passport to the War," was published forteen years later when the author was fighting on the European front in World War II. Although it featured some of the author's best-known poems, the book went largely unnoticed 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. 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 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, three-four stressed lines. 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 in 1995. 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. He judged for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. He was considered by many observers to be the most distinguished and accomplished poet in the United States at the time of his death in 2006.

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