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The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz Hardcover – October, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Stanley Kunitz's collected poems are an unassailable argument for age, experience, and impassioned observation. At 95, America's 10th poet laureate has many decades' worth of work under his belt, and his lyrics form a fine self-portrait even as they track his evolution toward the spare and simple. Kunitz's later poetry seems to effortlessly fuse feeling and form. With considerable wit, he sees into the life of things: a brook or a bird, a squirrel or a salmon is very much a part of nature, but it is also infinitely more, as anyone lucky enough to have read "King of the River," "The Snakes of September," and "The Wellfleet Whale" knows.

Kunitz's "Reflections," which preface his Collected Poems, offer several modest credos. In one, he writes, "I like to think that it is the poet's love of particulars, the things of this world, that leads him to universals." And his work is ample proof that what Kunitz likes to think is right! In "Robin Redbreast," for instance, the poet--living in an empty house that will soon be his no longer and facing nothing but blank pages--rescues a bird from some belligerent jays:

It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.
Alas, a moment's complacency at his own good deed comes to a quick end. There is no need for the poet to drive home his point--he merely provides the tragic image of an old bullet hole in the robin's head, through which he catches a glimpse of "the cold flash of the blue / unappeasable sky." Yet Kunitz did not arrive at this level without effort, and much of the pleasure of this volume lies in witnessing the growth of the poet's mind. In his first collection, Intellectual Things (1930), the young artist seems to have spent a good deal of time luxuriating in the early Yeats, displaying a sweet tooth for allegory and archaic inversion. Perhaps thinking himself "a fierce young crier / Of poems," the youthful Kunitz pursued the sublime a little too relentlessly. His second book, Passport to the War (1944), is radically different, full of darkness and repudiation, its realities and anger very close to the surface. But it really isn't until The Testing-Tree, where family comes to the fore and influence is no longer cause for anxiety, that the poet finds his voice--one that has yet to desert him.

Several of Kunitz's finest, and most desolate, poems explore his father's suicide, which took place before he was born. Others, on Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder, celebrate creation in the face of immense difficulty. And there are poems, too, of resistance: this generous collection includes translations of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Blok, as well as his own "Around Pastor Bonhoeffer," which commemorates the pacifist cleric who was part of the plot to kill Hitler. Throughout there are also love songs--to nature and women. "Route Six" makes one wonder why there isn't an official term for a poem celebrating an enduring marriage--an epithalamium with, as they say, legs. After a quarrel, Kunitz suggests to his wife that they head for the Cape, taking with them those passions "that flare past understanding":

we can stow them in the rear
along with ziggurats of luggage
and Celia, our transcendental cat,
past-mistress of all languages,
including Hottentot and silence.
In "The Layers," the poet asks point-blank: "How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?" Reconciliation, Kunitz knows, isn't possible, but his work proves that the raptures of love and art are a strong consolation. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

Widely, deeply and deservedly admired, Kunitz celebrates his 95th birthday with his first comprehensive collection in decades. Kunitz's oeuvre divides neatly in half. The first half, written before the 1960s, consists of elaborately stylized, neo-Metaphysical odes and lyrics, variously evocative of Blake, Yeats, Hart Crane and Allen Tate: "Engaged in exquisite analysis/ Of passionate destruction, lovers kiss;// In furious involvement they would make/ A double meaning single." Long out of print, these earlier poems won Kunitz a Pulitzer for his 1958 Selected. His current reputation rests justly on his very different, clearer, more obviously personal late poemsAcontemporary monuments of visionary clarity and understated wisdom, cast in long sentences and in short free-verse lines. These entirely convincing worksAmany of which are found in 1995's National Book Award-winning, Passing Through, a new-and-selectedAreflect on justice, politics and the Vietnam War; on parenthood, divorce and happy remarriage; and (as one might expect) on advancing age. They also bring Kunitz face to face with a cast of remarkable ghostsAamong them Dante; Roman gladiators; prehistoric Americans' "earth-faced chorus of the lost"; Abe Lincoln; Jewish mystics; "the larva of the tortoise beetle"; a bevy of outsider artists; and the poet's father, who died when Kunitz was young. One lyric revisits the poet's childhood dream: "Bolt upright in my bed that night/ I saw my father flying;/ the wind was walking on my neck/ the windowpanes were crying." Other poems examine inland Massachusetts (where Kunitz grew up) and Cape Cod (where he lives); several translate the Russian modernists Mandelstam and Akhmatova. Concise and deeply affecting, the later Kunitz is easy to love, but hard to describe, since his craft consists so much in hard thought and hard-won simplicity. His works of the last few decades are permanent things; readers without Passing Through should pick up this more permanent collection. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (October 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393050300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393050301
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,034,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A lifetime magnum opus and a must-have volume of mastercrafted verse that stirs heart, mind and soul. Here is what former publisher Henry Holt had to say in 1945: "In recent years, Stanley Kunitz has become recognized as one of the most original and thoughtful of our newer poets. His work is not simple, but mature, directly spoken and vigorous." The same could be said now 55 years later. Here is a morsel to whet the appetite:
An agitation of the air, A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field Amid the stubble and the stones Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue, A hawk broke from his cloudless tower, The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew That part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows Order their populations forth, And a cruel wind blows.
Older than Thomas Hardy (87) or Robert Frost (88) when still writing and publishing quality poetry (now 95 and counting), this is over half a century of incredible textures, tones, colors,imagery, metaphor, soulful expression in stirring lines making what Yeats called "words set to life's music". If this doesn't light your fire, go find your wood!
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These 'Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz' were put together when the poet was ninety- five years old. He now is approaching one - hundred and his birthday will be celebrated this year, also with another collection of his poetry.

There are many reasons for wanting to read such a collection. First of all, it is interesting to see what a person has done in the course of a lifetime of work. As I understand it Kunitz evolved in style from a complex Blakean kind of writing to a more mature and simple style in which personal elements and reflections play a stronger part. Secondly, it is interesting to understand the accumulated ' wisdom' not simply in relation to his own literary craft but also about life and love in general. It is also interesting to see the kind of universes and worlds a person explores in their lifetime, in Kunitz's case these are of course many of the giants of English poetry, but his interests are also in activities like gardening,Jewish mystics, Russian poets of this century, and of course the passions of romantic love.

I think that there is something also here which is especially admirable. Faithfulness to the task, the dedication and the ability to work through many years, is a triumph of the human spirit.

This gives an added dimension to the enjoyment of the poetry.
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I would say that this is not "lightweight" poetry and sometimes its rather obscure. I will never read his poems just once. His use of language is pure magic. Sometimes I get lost listening to myself read it rather than even try to "figure it out". Other times, I'm transported by the imagery he conjures. All in all, its challenging and demanding. There are moments of fireworks and moments of despair. Its everything life offers if we are brave enough to face it.
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At the grand age of 95, Kunitz was appointed the 10th Poet Laureate of the United States. This was his second appointment to the post. He was a poet who was both immensely productive and intensely engaged in the writing and promoting of poetry throughout his long life. I found one of the more notable aspects of his life’s work to be in his belief that “The most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once.” In reading the collected poems that theme is alive and present. He once revealed in the New York Times: "The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that dialogue. It is a rather terrifying thought that is at the root of much of my poetry." In the first poem of this collection – “Change”—I saw a clear example of Kunitz’s belief that all of life is about dying, the two are interchangeable. The poem is haunting in its emptiness: “Becoming, never being, till/Becoming as a being still.” (p.17)
His work includes numerous variations on this more essential theme -- the descent into death, rebirth, and the quest of life. I sensed, as I moved through the decades of Kunitz’s poetry that he no longer relied solely on themes of transcendence over the physical, but moved on towards an acceptance of the reality of human limitations, turning a kinder and more compassionate eye on his world. This is evident in his moving portrayals of love and loss. Love is often more the memory of love, desired and appreciated, but gone. This does fit with his philosophy of life is about dying, not the present moment, but the inert and unchangeable past. This is no more evident than in the elegance of “Tristia.” “I made myself an expert in farewells/by studying laments; the nightfall of a woman’s hair.
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Kunitz is a great poet to whom I was only recently introduced His poems are eminently humane with a delicate sensibility. I read several of his poems now each and savor each. Such lines from the Poem Goose Pond as these below are are a wonderful conclusion to a meditative poem on what what must have been a place where an older man reflects on himself as a boy though the prism of Goose Pond. And it rhymes where the rhymes are natural and never forced.
He meets his childhood beating back
To find what furies made him man.
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