It Makes You Wonder

Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai

by Yehuda Amichai
Harper & Row, 88 pp., $9.95

While some poets can be read exclusively in their poems, without our having recourse to anything else written by them, or without our knowing anything of their biography, this is not the case with Stanley Kunitz. Mr. Kunitz has been for many years of a long life a busy man of letters; his achievements as editor, teacher, reviewer, and translator are worthy ones. Yet these are, perhaps, less dramatic qualifications for fame than having died young or become a political activist or written a manifesto denouncing all American poets influenced by T.S. Eliot.

To report that Mr. Kunitz has published five volumes of poems (the present one includes new poems which he calls “The Layers”), that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1928-1958 collection, that he has been Consultant to the Library of Congress, lectured at several universities, and ably translated poems by Akhmatova and Voznesensky: all this, though it locates him for those who are casual readers of poetry and endows his name with intellectual respectability, is, in some sense, inadequate.

Stanley Kunitz is not a monumental poet, nor is he a spectacular one; he is notable for his intelligence, and intelligence tends to wait a longer time for recognition or acquires it within a relatively limited circle. If Mr. Kunitz had never written a poem, he would be a hero in my books for having been the co-editor of Twentieth Century Authors, a reference work I have hunted in vain to buy since I first discovered it on the shelves of the Royal Library in Stockholm. An encyclopedic record of its subject, crammed with personal histories frequently supplied by the authors represented, it has refreshing critical estimates that support or challenge the reputations enshrined. There is no publication to replace it, no other biographical dictionary known to me which is at the same time so copious, anecdotal, and judicious. These volumes are not listed on the credits page of the book under review, perhaps because Mr. Kunitz himself may not value them as highly as I do.

Among his other valuable contributions, in my opinion, are certain short reviews which are included in a book of his essays and conversations entitled A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (Little, Brown, 1975). These are seldom longer than six pages, sometimes only three; they are a relief from much of the exegetical pomposity around us. In small compass Kunitz manages to capture the qualities of, among others, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Randall Jarrell, and, above all, Theodore Roethke, whose work he has since written about with strong insight.

The record stands, honorable and useful. If there have been moments, either in his verse or in his prose, when Mr. Kunitz has appeared to prefer the consuming blaze to the measured view, he has confessed, sooner or later, that such has not been his fate, save within the domain of metaphor:

Formal verse is a highly selective medium. A high style…

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