Two-time U.S. poet laureate Stanley Kunitz died at 100 on this date in 2006. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard in the late 1920s, served in the armed forces as a non-combatant conscientious objector during World War II, and began a teaching career afterwards that included a 22-year stint at Columbia University. His father, a suicide at 39 before Kunitz was born, weighs heavily in his poetry, although his mother, a dress designer and manufacturer, “obliterated every trace of him,” Kunitz said. Poet Laureate of New York State from 1987 to ’89, Kunitz won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1959 collection, Selected Poems: 1928-1958, and a National Book Award in 1995. Other honors include the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and Harvard’s Centennial Medal. “Perhaps the willful absence of his father disposed Kunitz to be a paternal figure to young poets,” wrote Robert Pinsky in an obituary in Slate. “In my generation, he helped foster Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Michael Ryan, and Olga Broumas, to name only a few. Younger poets who predeceased him, including Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, brought him books and manuscripts. In his devotion to the urgent, high calling of the poet, as embodied by Blake, Hopkins, Keats, he was a fiery son as well as a steady elder.” To see Kunitz reading “Touch Me” at age 95, see below.
“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.” —Stanley Kunitz
Way back when, there was a Midwesterner in one of my writing groups, he was actually from Ohio, who wore green sweaters with large deer heads dancing across his chest. He was a graceful and unexpected writer whose sentences were different from what you might imagine if you were to look at him. He was also a young father with a graduate-school wife, so he went to H&R Block for training and then announced to us all, poor writers, that he would do our taxes. I said yes.
We met in his small apartment on 116th and Broadway. He asked for my receipts. Although I had none, I have always been a creative writer, so I improvised.
When I got a very official envelope some months later saying You Are Being Audited, I called him for help, and I could hear him sweating on his end of the phone. He agreed to come with me to the IRS, but I knew that he was nervous, reluctant, afraid, and not an accountant. So I stayed up all night with my roommate Harry, devising a plan. I would type a list (yes, on a typewriter) of my dream library, all of the books I’d buy if I could buy anything, starting with Zola and working my way backwards through the alphabet. I’d give this list to the auditor. And that’s what happened. [click to continue…]
The author of 17 novels and 17 volumes of poetry so far, Marge Piercy was born in Detroit, Michigan on this date in 1936. Her writing has spanned several genres, from science fiction (Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976, and He, She and It, 1991) to revolutionary fiction (Dance the Eagle to Sleep, 1970, and Vida, 1980), always with a focus on women’s lives, shifting sexual identities, and feminist consciousness as a salvational force for humanity. Piercy’s poetry includes The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems With a Jewish Theme, 1999, which has lent passages to several modern Jewish prayerbooks. She was the first member of her family to attend college (University of Michigan) and became an activist in Students for a Democratic Society and the feminist and environmentalist movements. Along with Howard Fast and Grace Paley, Piercy is probably the best-selling writer of political fiction in our lifetimes. She lives in Cape Cod and runs Leapfrog Press with her writer husband, Ira Wood.
“Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.” —Marge Piercy
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud died in Manhattan at 71 on this date in 1986. Malamud was the author of eight novels and sixty-five published short stories. He grew up in an immigrant household in Brooklyn, with “no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall,” he said. Malamud began writing fiction as a young man, but it was not until the reality of the Holocaust leaked into American culture that he began writing in earnest. His first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, was awarded the National Book Award in 1959, and his 1966 novel about the anti-Semitic Beilis Trial in Russia, The Fixer, established him alongside Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as one of the three principals of American Jewish literature (in English). Malamud taught creative writing for many years at Bennington College in Vermont. His fiction explored — sometimes in a Yiddish accent — the anguish and loneliness of modern life as well as the redemptive capacity of love and the irrepressible power of conscience. “Life,” he once wrote, “is a tragedy full of joy.” For a fine Blog-Shmog article by Marek Breiger about Malamud’s literary significance, click here. For a Blog-Shmog article by Leonard Lehrman about musical treatments of Malamud’s work, click here.
“I try to see the Jew as a symbol of the tragic experience of man existentially. I try to see the Jew as universal man. Every man is a Jew though he may not know it. The Jewish drama is prototypic, a symbol of the fight for existence in the highest possible human terms. Jewish history is God’s gift of drama.”—Bernard Malamud
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of entry into the world of one of the most cultivated, worldly, charming, loved, and ultimately saddest Jews of the 20th century, Charles Swann, the main character in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which was published at the author’s expense in [...]
Charles Silberman, who wrote best-sellers on criminal justice, education, race relations, and the status of the American Jewish community, died in Sarasota, Florida at 86 on this date in 2011. In Crisis in Black and White (1964), he reviewed America’s history of slavery and racial oppression and traced its effects on the lives and psychology [...]
by Cecil Bloom Women’s role in the 19th century was seen by most people, women as well as men, as mainly a domestic one, but it is an interesting phenomenon that while there were few females in public life – certainly in political life – a number achieved fame in the literary field, including a [...]
Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, a long-suffering Soviet dissident who was expelled from the USSR in 1972, died at 55 on this date in 1996. Brodsky, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991, was a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad and worked in hospitals, in a ship’s boiler room, and on geological expeditions [...]
“Correspondence” or Correspondence? It’s a sad truth that nevermore will we have access to the drafts of great novels, since almost all are now written on computers, which swallow up the old once it’s revised. Nor will we ever again have the likes of the five thick volumes of Flaubert’s correspondence, or the twenty of [...]
Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes — for The Executioner’s Song, 1980, and Armies of the Night, 1968 — Norman Mailer died at 84 on this date in 2007. He burst onto the American literary scene at the age of 25 with his best-selling military novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948. More than most [...]