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May 14: Stanley Kunitz

May 14, 2013

98442-004-22655485-1Two-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