Stanley Kunitz: Revelation and Transcendence

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One of the most important elements of the stichic (i.e. single-stanza, free-verse) poem is development. One of the most important elements of personal narrative is the ability to touch upon the universal. Stanley Kunitz is an expert at delivering the kind of compact, essential revelations and strong finish to make the experience of reading his stichic poems memorable. He also chooses powerful allegories that make his personal narratives transcendent. Consider “The Portrait”:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
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
still burning.

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Thank You, Anna Akhmatova

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I have been making my way though the poems of Anna Akhmatova tonight — a birthday gift from two Russian-speaking friends. The translation is by Stanley Kunitz. How incredible that such a gifted, sensitive poet survived Stalinism. After reading one of her devastating poems aloud, my wife commented that it seems as though she realizes there is no time left to say anything but what matters most. And say it well.

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