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Poetry Moment: Stanley Kunitz sets us adrift from 2020

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Stanley Kunitz, the lauded poet who read and wrote and gardened until he was 100 years old, spoke truth about the world—that while we’re in the midst of being alive, we’re also on the path to our graves.

“The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue,” Kunitz wrote.

This week’s Poetry Moment captures Kunitz, at age 88, reading “The Long Boat,” his poem about a Viking funeral ritual of setting the dead on a boat and sending it adrift. He visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences during the term of his second national poet laureate appointment and recorded an interview and reading.

In Norse mythology, boats represented the Vikings’ life at sea, so the dead were sometimes placed on ships and sent out to sea, or buried in grave mounds shaped like ships, outlined in stones.

At the end of a year replete with mourning, this poem seems apropos.

“The Long Boat” hovers on the perimeter between life and death, touching on what is precious about life and also what is inevitable, even peaceful, about death. By beginning with the boat leaving the shore, and speaking in the voice of the dead man, the poem allows readers to feel great nostalgia and reluctance on leaving the world of the living, but also the contentment of slipping into death. The Viking’s burial ship is also his cradle, rocked by the waves.

Kunitz, who won the Pulitzer at age 54 and a National Book Award for work published when he was 90, said he believed the secrets to his longevity were writing poetry, being curious, digging in his garden, and drinking martinis. But it’s through his writing that readers understand the deep beliefs he held about the importance of poetry, but also the sacred nature of life.

“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth,” Kunitz wrote in his preface to Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”


Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

For reference only:
The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

From Passing Through, 1995.

Photo credit:
“Oseberg Ship III” by A.Davey
Caption: In 1904, just a year before poet Stanley Kunitz was born, this Viking burial ship was discovered in a burial mound with two female skeletons and ritual funeral goods on board. It dates from before the year 800. The oak ship is displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway.
Art credit:
“On Stanley Kunitz” by ChrisL_AK is licensed under Creative Commons.

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