It’s the poet’s job to figure out what’s happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a certain shape, that have a chance of lasting.
– Galway Kinnell, in an interview with Elizabeth Lund, The Christian Science Monitor Online, about his then-unfinished poem, “When the Towers Fell,” October 25, 2001
This past Tuesday, October 28th, Galway Kinnell passed away at his home in Vermont at the age of 87. The Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award winner, who also served as poet laureate for the state of Vermont from 1989 to 1993, succumbed to leukemia. When the news hit, I stopped what I was doing to read moving eulogies about this giant of a poet. Admittedly, I knew more of him and his reputation than I had read of his poems. He was a professor at NYU – he retired in 2011 – when I applied and was accepted into NYU’s creative writing program back in 1988. I didn’t go, though I had desperately wanted to, because I had no money, coming off of two years as a volunteer in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. The only programs I could consider were the ones that were going to pay my way through graduate school either through a teaching or research assistantship. I chose Syracuse, and more so because of the friendships I forged I am grateful for my time there.
That said, when I read that NYU’s creative writing students receive various fellowships, teaching positions, and stipends, I felt I had missed out. I thought about how different my life would have been had I gone to NYU with financial assistance. E.L. Doctorow was the head of the faculty for fiction and Kinnell for poetry. Had I attended NYU, I would have gone to Kinnell’s readings. I would have been surrounded by intimate interpreters and been privy to backstories only available to those around him. I would have had a deeper connection to the praise heaped upon the fallen poet. Instead, I felt as if I were standing outside a gate, looking in.
I listened to recordings of him reciting his poems, particularly one of his well-known poems, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” about his then-young son, Fergus. While I was drawn to the vivid images of the boy crashing his parents’ post-intimacy and nestling in between his parents, I was touched by the music of his words and how they shaped those moments that conveyed such love for this tiny being:
In the half darkness we look at each other
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body–
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again to our arms.
Only poetry has that power, yes?
Kinnell was immersed in life. He supported the antiwar movement, civil rights, environmental causes, and freedom of expression in repressive countries. In 1963, he worked for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, which was also actively supporting the farm workers’ struggles during the grape strikes in Delano in the 1960s). He traveled to Louisiana to help register blacks to vote, an act that landed him in jail. He felt that the job of poets was to “bear witness,” and he did so as a participant, not an observer. Kinnell once said, “To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” Plain-spoken, big-hearted, Kinnell, not surprisingly, was an admirer, a follower, of Walt Whitman. He forged his own way with poetry, and he embraced what was before him. He embraced everything.
While I’ll never have the opportunity to meet him or hear him read in person, it’s never too late to start reading the work of someone whom I should have been reading more deeply, whom I should have been reading at all. We are all immersed in a world that is spinning much too fast. We ourselves are spinning, forced to choose among objects enormous and imperceptible that are swirling around us, coming in and out of our sight, every waking moment: what among the trillion things out there will I allow to matter in my life? What am I missing when I blink or turn my head?
Is it the irony or the saving grace of death – that he will no longer shape words or recite them in his deep and solemn voice but with the news of his passing I have discovered his words as if new, will trace his connection between himself and the world, between all of us and the world, and because of that exploration his poems will sing in my head, become a part of my memory, for years to come?
I have always intended to live forever;
but not until now, to live now. The moment
I have done one or the other, I here swear,
no one will have to drag me, I’ll come
but never will I agree to burn my words.
(from “The Seekonk Woods“)
Rest in peace, Galway Kinnell.