He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to a Jewish immigrant family. His childhood was overshadowed by the suicide of his father in a public park six weeks before Kunitz was born. Kunitz showed early promise as a scholar, winning a place to study English at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude in 1926, gaining his masters a year later. When it was intimated that his Jewish background would make it impossible to secure a teaching position there, Kunitz turned his back on academia in disgust, becoming a reporter for the Worcester Telegram and then an editor for H W Wilson and Company in New York.
At the outbreak of World War II he registered as a conscientious objector and served as a non-combatant in the US Army. Following his discharge, Kunitz began a teaching career which was to last for the rest of his professional life, and included stints at Bennington College, New York State Teachers College, University of Washington, Queens College, Brandeis, Vassar, Yale, Rutgers and twenty two years at Columbia University. Through his teaching and his increasing impact as a poet, Kunitz became an important influence and mentor to more than one generation of American poets including Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Louise Gluck, Mark Doty and Carolyn Kizer. He was a tireless ambassador for poetry, founding the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Mass, and the Poets House in Manhattan. His first two marriages ended in divorce, but his third, to the painter Elise Asher, endured until her death two years before his own. Together they divided their time between Provincetown, where Kunitz established a famous coastal garden, and New York. He died at his home in Manhattan in 2006 at the age of a hundred.
By the time of his death Kunitz had long been considered one of the most distinguished poets in America. It didn’t start out that way, with his first two books languishing in relative obscurity: Intellectual Things  and Passport to the War  are both written in a style which owes more to English metaphysical poets such as Herbert and Donne, than movements in American poetry at the time. Combining densely wrought formal structures and complex ideas they nevertheless, in the words of the critic David Berber, were “humming with a cathartic energy” which set them apart. They won admiration from some quarters but Kunitz seemed destined to remain something of a poet’s poet.
All that changed with the publication, fourteen years later, of Selected Poems 1928-1958 which presented new work alongside selections from his earlier collections, and which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. If Selected Poems was a turning point in his reputation, it was his next collection, The Testing Tree  which marked a startling change in style from baroque formality to a plainer, more austere language. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Lowell described the shift memorably: “The smoke has blown off. The old Delphic voice has learned to speak ‘words that cats and dogs can understand.’” It was a direction Kunitz was to pursue for the rest of his career, commenting in a late interview that “as a young poet I looked for what Keats called ‘a fine excess’, but as an old poet I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion.”
Alongside the sparer style was a greater intimacy of subject mater with many of the poems in The Testing Tree probing the repercussions of his father’s death. And yet, for all the sense of departure, there remains from his earlier work a focus on moments of insight and rapture which distinguishes these poems from the purely confessional mode. It’s this consistent belief in the poet’s vocation as, in Kunitz’s own words, “a form of spiritual testimony…the telling of the stories of the soul” that underpins his writing life. Publishing infrequently and only what he considered essential over the next thirty years, Kunitz refined this voice of “astringent grandeur” [David Berber], in collections such as Next-to-Last-Things: New Poems and Essays  and Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected . His last book, a collection of essays entitled The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden  mused on coming close to death, while also celebrating his passion for gardening.
Kunitz’s unapologetic seriousness which made no concessions to literary trends and fashions, brought him increasing plaudits: his many honours include the National Book Award for Passing Through, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Ford Foundation Grant, a National Medal of the Arts, the Bollingen Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, Harvard’s Centennial Medal, the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Shelley Memorial Award and a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The poems you can listen to here all come from the later half of his career. Characteristically they move from the knowable world of memory and the senses opening out into metaphysical speculation: “What do we know/ beyond the rapture and the dread?” he asks at the end of ‘The Abduction’. They explore his abiding preoccupation with the simultaneity of life and death, nowhere more movingly than in ‘Touch Me’ the last poem in his Collected Poems published in 2000 which ends: “Darling, do you remember/ the man you married? Touch me,/ remind me who I am.”
This selection also demonstrates Kunitz’s innate musicality, something which he saw as central to his creative process: “I write my poems for the ear…The pitch and tempo and tonalities of a poem are elements of its organic life. A poem is as much a voice as it is a system of verbal signs.” This recording, made towards the end of his life, is a moving testament to this conviction – reading slowly and deliberately, Kunitz brings out the measured almost biblical rhythms of the poems, while also including flashes of humour and delight.
The recording is from the Library of Congress, 2001.