THE POWER OF WORDS
I've had the good fortune to have met many wonderful poets through the years, including John Hollander, Stanley Kunitz, Sharon Olds, Howard Nemerov, Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky, Paul Auster, Richard Wilbur, and many others, but I will always have a special place in my memory for Galway Kinnell, a bigger-than-life wordsmith with a wonderful voice and a charismatic presence.
Galway died of Leukemia ten days ago-at the age of 87. He had a good run. Upon meeting him, you would have thought Galway Kinnell was a big Irishman, but in fact he was born in the States (Providence, Rhode Island) in 1927. His dad was a Scot and his mother was Irish, so his predilection for language and its music was pretty much guaranteed. He was drawn to the mystical rhythms of Poe and Dickinson and whatever verses from the King James Bible were intoned from the pulpit in the Congregational Church of his childhood.
Following his graduation from Princeton, he took an M.A. from Rochester and won a Fulbright to study abroad. He did a shift in the Navy too. He traveled extensively as a young man, often caught up in fighting for one cause or another. For instance he went down to Louisiana in the early Sixties to register African-Americans to vote. Shortly thereafter he joined other writers to protest America's sorry involvement in Vietnam. He tried pretty much everything. He was a field worker in the South as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality. He taught English in Iran. He ran an adult education program in Chicago. Galway had a long academic career, teaching poetry, translating the poems of other poets (he loved the works of Rilke and Villon), and running the creative writing program at NYU. I first met Galway in the late 1980s at the second Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village, NJ. I think the photo I took below was recorded in the little church by the water at that venue on that day.
Galway recited many of his poems from memory. Once in awhile he'd have to check one of his many poetry collections, but he was mostly on target. Of course, his fans often knew their favorite Kinnell poems by heart anyway. Those included "St. Francis and the Sow", "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps", "Oatmeal", and "The Bear". He couldn't really depart comfortably if he hadn't presented these poems as gifts to the audience. I stayed after to talk to him that morning and got the germ of an idea that he would be the key figure in a poetry festival I had wanted to put together back in my old school district. Below is a recitation of "The Bear" by a much younger Kinnell:
It took a few years to finally secure funding and the support of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, but I got my festival off the ground. I visited Kinnell at his NYU apartment in the Village and had a pleasant conversation with him and his wife. We set up the itinerary for his visit, and I answered any of his concerns to his satisfaction. The day turned out to be sublime. He was most gracious with the students, and I set him up with a group of teachers for a lesson on the teaching of poetry. Six other area poets joined us that day, and it proved to be among the most productive and memorable days in the experience of many of my students. All seven poets read that day, with Galway taking the final spot. A number of the visiting poets said that the opportunity to read and work with Galway drew them there in the first place. Below are photos of Kinnell, one of which shows him with some vaguely familiar teacher.
I saw Galway a number of times throughout the 90s. I've introduced his work to countless students. There is a terrific video of a performance he shared with Sharon Olds (the featured poet for my second festival) at Waterloo one night. Both of them loved to write about sex, more as a life-force than anything else, and so they traded brief excerpts from their sex poems that night. Back and forth they went, creating some sort of erotic tennis match with words and images, each trying to score winners (so to speak). Here is one of those poems: "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps":
Galway published his Collected Poems in 1982, and for that anthology he took home both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He won many other awards in his career, but becoming the State Poet of Vermont, where he had resided for many years was probably near the top. Below is a video of him reading"Oatmeal". He's not quite the bear of a man he once was, but he still captivates the audience with his wit and insight.
There was a very insightful obituary of Galway in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/books/galway-kinnell-poet-who-went-his-own-way-dies-at-87.html?_r=0 I will miss his presence in the world of poetry. He was a man generous of spirit. One who knew how to enjoy life, both the earthy and the erotic, the sacred and the profane. As exemplified by his brief poem on "Blackberry Eating":
Rest in peace, Galway.
Below: Some Galway to lift your spirits.