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Pulitzer-Winning Poet Stanley Kunitz Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Stanley Kunitz, 100, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of far-ranging style and influence and who twice was U.S. poet laureate, died May 14 at his home in New York City. The cause of death was reported to be pneumonia.

In about a dozen books, Mr. Kunitz's literary approach veered over the decades from metaphysical sonnets about love and loss to stark ruminations on his father's suicide. Gradually, he learned to "strip the water out of my poems" and acknowledge the benefits of a simpler, more intense approach.

Thematically, he spoke of rebirths and questing. He was fascinated by the ongoing tussle between life and death. "The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that dialogue," he once said. "It is a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry."

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz was born in Worcester, Mass., on July 29, 1905. His father, a dress manufacturer whose business went bankrupt, committed suicide by swallowing carbolic acid in a public park. Later, his stepfather died prematurely, from a heart attack while hanging draperies.

His mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, opened a dry-goods store to support her son and his two toddler sisters. In his poem "The Portrait," he wrote of his mother's stoic reaction to losing her first husband, Mr. Kunitz's father:

She locked his name

in her deepest cabinet

and would not let him out

though I could hear him thumping.

When I came down from the attic

with the pastel portrait in my hand

of a long-lipped stranger

with a brave moustache

and deep brown level eyes,

she ripped it into shreds

without a single word

and slapped me hard.

In my sixty-fourth year

I can feel my cheek

still burning.

A high school class valedictorian, Mr. Kunitz won a scholarship to Harvard University. After graduating summa cum laude in 1926, he received a master's degree in English the next year and wanted to stay on as a professorial assistant. He was told that Jews were unwelcome, lest they make white Anglo-Saxon students feel inferior.

He took a reporting job on the Worcester Telegram and covered the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In the newsroom, Mr. Kunitz earned the nickname "Sacco" for his denunciations of the trial judge, Webster Thayer.

In 1930, his first book, "Intellectual Things," was accepted by a young Doubleday editor named Ogden Nash who marked Mr. Kunitz for promise. Mr. Kunitz took the title from a William Blake line ("For a tear is an intellectual thing"), and his homage to Blake, John Donne and other English metaphysical poets made him distinct from more-lyrical American contemporaries.

One poem called "Promise Me" reads in part:

Only, when loosening clothes, you lean

Out of your window sleepily,

And with luxurious lidded mien

Sniff at the bitter dark -- dear she,

Think somewhat gentle of, between

Love ended and beginning, me.

Championed by the eminent critic William Rose Benet, Mr. Kunitz remained obscure to the general public even as he won occasional awards from poetry magazines.

He found work in New York for the H.W. Wilson publishing company, editing biographical reference books. Using the pen name Dilly Tante, he also became a columnist for the influential Wilson Library Bulletin.

One column in 1936 denounced racial segregation at libraries and was not appreciated by his employer.

"Old Mr. Wilson was disturbed that especially the Southern libraries would stop buying the Wilson company books," he told a publication of the American Library Association last year. "I had to persuade him that I had no intention of changing and if he wanted me to continue my editorial work, he would have to be reconciled to changes."

A pacifist, and in his late thirties, he was drafted by the Army during World War II. He dug latrines on a mostly black base in North Carolina. Aghast that so many fellow soldiers couldn't say why they were fighting, he rethought his politics and started a magazine to explain it all. He said he "realized the war had to be fought, to end the horrible possibility of the fascists taking over."

In later years, he later voiced contempt for the Vietnam War, U.S. support for right-leaning juntas in Central America and the U.S.-led war against Iraq. "The poet can't change anything," he said, "but the poet can demonstrate the power of the solitary conscience."

After his military discharge, he received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for creative writing and began a succession of teaching duties at colleges throughout the Northeast. He was an adjunct professor at Columbia University from 1967 to 1985. He also was a founder of Poets House, a New York-based poetry library, and of a long-term artists' residency program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.

His reputation was drastically enhanced when he received the Pulitzer for "Selected Poems: 1928-1958" (1958), a volume he said three publishers initially refused to read and five more rejected. In the Saturday Review, poet John Ciardi wrote, "At times one must labor to follow the subtleties of his perception. The point is that the labor will not be in vain."

At the time, Mr. Kunitz replied to repeated criticisms of the density of his work: "A poet cannot concern himself with being fair to the reader. Time will tell. All poems contain a degree of mystery, as poetry is a discovery of one's hidden self. . . . Poetry is not concerned with communication; it has roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting."

Thirteen years passed before his next book, "The Testing-Tree" (1971), which had a marked shift in tone. An admirer, poet Robert Lowell, wrote, "The old Delphic voice has learned to speak 'words that cats and dogs can understand.' "

"The Testing-Tree" focused on his feelings toward his father. It also spoke of the limits in pursuing the unknowable.

From 1974 to 1976, Mr. Kunitz was the Library of Congress's consultant on poetry, the precursor title to poet laureate. In 2000, he succeeded Robert Pinsky and became the 10th Poet Laureate of the United States.

Mr. Kunitz was regarded as a mentor to many poets, including two future poet laureates, Louise Gluck and Robert Hass, as well as Sylvia Plath.

"Essentially," he once said, "what I try to do is to help each person rediscover the poet within himself. I say 'rediscover,' because I am convinced that it is a universal human attribute to want to play with words, to beat out rhythms, to fashion images, to tell a story, to construct forms."

He added: "The key is always in his possession: what prevents him from using it is mainly inertia, the stultification of the senses as a result of our one-sided educational conditioning and the fear of being made ridiculous or ashamed by the exposure of his feelings."

His collection "Passing Through" (1995) won a National Book Award. He was also a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts and the Yale University library's prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry.

In his 100th year, he published "The Wild Braid," a collection of poems, photographs and ruminations on gardening.

Early in his adult life, Mr. Kunitz spent time on a 100-acre herb farm in Connecticut, which was destroyed when a tornado blew through.

He remained a passionate gardener, once saying, "It's the way things are: death and life inextricably bound to each other. One of my feelings about working the land is that I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection. Every spring I feel that. I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil."

His marriages to poet Helen Pearce Kunitz and actress Eleanor Evans Kunitz ended in divorces. For many years, he was an absentee father to the daughter he had with his second wife. He said his writing complicated his relationships.

His third wife, painter and poet Elise Asher, whom he married in 1958, died in 2004. She illustrated some of her husband's books.

Survivors include a daughter from his second marriage, Dr. Gretchen Kunitz of Orinda, Calif.; a stepdaughter, Dr. Babette Becker of Manhattan; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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