By DONNA URSCHEL
Stanley Kunitz, 100, who twice served as Poet Laureate, from 1974 to 1976, when the position was called Consultant in Poetry, and from 2000 to 2001, died May 14 at his home in Manhattan.
Kunitz, a well-known and beloved poet, founded the Poets House, a literary center and poetry archive in New York City, and the Fine Arts Work Center, a long-term artists' residency program in Provincetown, Mass.
Grace Cavalieri, a playwright, poet and producer of the radio series "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" said, "Stanley Kunitz changed our understanding about poetry by the risk and courage he displayed in combining the heart and the intellect. His epigraph for his first book was 'For the tear is an intellectual thing.' This influence goes beyond the page. It's a spiritual leadership that has changed America's conversation about poetry forever."
His first book, "Intellectual Things," was published in 1930. He also wrote "Selected Poems, 1928-1958," which won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize, and "Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected," which won the 1995 National Book Award. Additional honors include the National Medal of the Arts in 1993, presented to him by President Clinton, and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1987. In 2005, he published his 11th book, "The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden," a mix of prose, poetry, conversation and photographs.
Kunitz, throughout his life, mentored many young writers and enjoyed talking to young poets about their work. The Washington Post, in its article of appreciation for Kunitz, referred to him as "a surrogate father of poets."
Jennifer Rutland, special assistant in the Library's Poetry and Literature Center, said she first met Kunitz in 1974, when he arrived to occupy the Chair of Poetry for the first time. "Whenever I was around Stanley, it was as though the air was infused with his huge spirit: he had a great peaceful center, and was able to infect others with his passionate investment in our world, our imaginations and dreams, our lives and history. I remember his appreciation of the ineffable sweetness of life; he taught me to treasure it."
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Mass., on July 29, 1905. Several weeks before his birth, his father committed suicide by swallowing acid in a park. Through his poetry, Kunitz had grappled with the tragedy and its ramifications in his life.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
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
Kunitz graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in 1926 and a master's in 1927. He worked at a newspaper, edited reference books at a publishing house and taught at many colleges throughout the Northeast. From 1967 to 1985, he taught in the graduate writing program at Columbia University.
His first two marriages, to poet Helen Pearce Kunitz and to actress Eleanor Evans Kunitz, ended in divorce. Kunitz was married to his third wife, painter and poet Elise Asher, for 46 years. She died in 2004. 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.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.