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Editor's essay. Stanley Kunitz: `American freethinker'

PUT aside the Pulitzer Prize (1959). Put aside the years as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the praise for his translations from Andrei Voznesensky and Anna Akhmaova, the prestige of editing the ``Yale Series of Younger Poets,'' the election to the 50-member American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, the years spent in the echoing classrooms of major universities. Put aside the generations of poets he has survived, especially the tormented one identified with his friend Robert Lowell. Put aside the still-fresh laurels of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, awarded him last month, along with New York State's Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets.

``Great events are about to happen....'' So begins a little poem from Stanley Kunitz's most recent book, ``Next-to-last Things'' (the Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1985). As poems go, it's a modest-looking thing, almost archaic-sounding, maybe a translation from Old English. It helps put things into perspective.

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In a way, Kunitz always goes with the flow: traditional forms in the early poetry, when they were popular; looser-looking ones since the '60s.

In a way, Kunitz had to go with the flow. After graduating summa cum laude and winning prizes and taking his master's from Harvard (he says he apprenticed with Alfred North Whitehead), he was denied a teaching position because ``Anglo-Saxons would resent being taught English by a Jew.'' He went home - Worcester, Mass. - and became a reporter on the Worcester Telegram.

After the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and executions, he quit and carried Vanzetti's letters to New York in search of a publisher. The Red scare made it impossible. He got a job editing literary biographies, was married and moved to the country, was drafted (a non-affiliated pacifist), and didn't teach his first class, at Bennington College, Vt., until 1946. So Kunitz is not a creature of the academy.

Recently he discussed the origins of a poem he published in 1944. It's called ``Fathers and Sons.'' It's about the way sons turn away from fathers, toward their own futures. He doesn't mention the fact that his father committed suicide in a public park some months before he was born. He says, ``I had no intimation then that the theme that had been given to me would soon be haunting the imagination of a whole generation of poets.'' He goes through some sample poems, then turns back to Homer for ``a more constructive archetype.'' The modesty (``the theme that had been given to me'') and the long view are typical.

Kunitz's intellectual independence goes back to his mother. She was, he says, ``one of the pioneer businesswomen, a dress designer and manufacturer.'' He does not recall being kissed by her during his childhood. He never doubted her ``fierce pride'' in his academic and literary accomplishments. Her heroes were Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell.

Kunitz calls himself ``an American freethinker.''

Kunitz's recent poems at their best are like pieces of driftwood. Shaped by enormous impersonal forces, they seem to have been deposited on the page, stripped and worn, polished by wind, sun, water, rock, time: by history, intellectual and natural.

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In ``Day of Foreboding,'' the laconic style is deceptive. The rhythmic flatness - a waste to an English ear - gains sculptural relief by the brevity and wholeness of each line.

At closer range, ``unprecedented'' is comic-tragic: That's where, after the thick irony of the opening, the poem takes off. The gnomic line ``My bones are a family in their tent'' may recall Kunitz's early love of Yeats. But it stands alone, and has been nicely prepared for by the word ``picked''!

``Uncertain'' - flat, again - is almost dogmatic. Still, it's the climax. The emotion of the poem crests there, to break and withdraw in the last line, the short line made almost infinitely long, and quite moving, by the little word ``long.''

This is more than Kunitz's fabled skill. This is wisdom, bleached of transcendentalism, yet drenched in ``transformation and transcendence,'' which Kunitz calls the ``two infallible touchstones of the poetic art.''

``Day of Foreboding'' puts his long, not uneventful life in perspective by turning toward the future.

Like other poems in ``Next-to-last Things,'' it makes me think of that old saw Hamlet quotes: ``the readiness is all.'' Day of Foreboding By Stanley Kunitz Great events are about to happen. I have seen migratory birds in unprecedented numbers descend on the coastal plain, picking the margins clean. My bones are a family in their tent huddled over a small fire waiting for the uncertain signal to resume the long march. - 30 -{et

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