Poet Galway Kinnell passed away on October 28, 2014. We asked a number of poets and critics to reflect on his life and his work.
— The Editors
ONE OF THE FIRST encounters I ever had with contemporary poetry was with Galway Kinnell’s poem “The Night” in his 1994 collection, Imperfect Thirst. I was a freshman in college and I wrote poems furiously but still in a kind of secret, although I was beginning to have friends who were interested in poetry. I had two: Sarah and Steve, and sometimes they would come over to my dorm room to hang out and read poems. It was a lucky break when one night Sarah brought over the book and read a few poems and then said, oh oh you must hear this one, and the poem was “The Night.”
The poem is one of a completely sublime sexual encounter. Two lovers are talking and sharing their thoughts and feelings and then the scene erupts in lovemaking, a kind of slippery embrace, where they resemble wet amphibians or babies in all of the best ways, where the woman “glisses smooth and shining/ as the lower lip of a baby tantalizing its gruel bowl/ with lengthening and shortening dangles of drool” and they both are “cackling” in “chaotic rattles,/ like a straw suddenly sucking the bottom,” until finally “the glue joining body and soul does not ache.” Theirs is an immortal love and by the end of the poem, they are the universal lovers, an emblem of true love, “lying on this bed since before the earth began.”
After Sarah read us the poem, I must have looked dumbfounded, because when she said, I know, don’t we all want a love like that, I agreed vehemently, shaking my head all around. As I look back, in many ways, I have searched my whole life since for just this exact scene, in both the real life and in poetry. Galway Kinnell was one of those poets who made both the ideal real and the ideal poem — the impossible — seem possible. It’s hard to believe a poet like this could be gone already. He will be missed.
— Dorothea Lasky
Roughly 25 years ago, while still a college student, on my monthly visit to the Grolier Poetry Bookstore in Cambridge, I ran across a copy of When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone by Galway Kinnell. I could only afford to pick up one book that day, and the storeowner told me if I were to going to buy one new book of poetry, it should be that one. I bought it, and read it that evening. What I remember most was feeling that this poetry arose from a deeply genuine person. I have read that book of poetry many times since then. I went on to one by one seek out Kinnell’s other books. Kinnell’s poems often skirted that ground between darkness and gratitude, but I came to love his poems because they reminded me that no matter how beautiful the exterior world, the interior world was just as important, many times more important.
I never met Galway Kinnell in person. I had the chance to do so once at a reading in New York. I sat and listened to the man. And afterward, he was swarmed by admirers wanting books signed, to talk, et cetera. After the reading, I sat and watched him signing and talking, and when the line diminished, when I should have gotten up and walked down to tell the man how much his work meant to me, I saw in his face a kind of relief that the line was ending. Instead of joining the line, I walked out into the New York night happy just to have heard the man read his poems aloud. That voice. I hear it every time I read his poems.
— C. Dale Young
The Book of Nightmares
In some professor’s office, I eyed the corpse-man on the cover, two lines raying out from his mouth stoppered by human-headed bird-souls. Galway Kinnell, the cover said, The Book of Nightmares. Inevitably a copy of it ended up in my dorm room; inevitably, it kept traveling with me: the same copy, 30 years old and beat to shit, that I opened this morning upon news that Galway had died.
When I first read it, at 19, it seemed a book of myths, archetypal and chthonic. I’d read “The Shoes of Wandering” over and over, lingering over the moment where the Crone holds up the speaker’s “crystal skull to the moon,” passing his “shoulder bones / across the Aquarian stars,” saying, “poor fool, / poor forked branch / of Applewood, you will feel all your bones / break / over the holy waters you will never drink.”
Fifteen years later, getting ready to teach it for the first time, I was shocked by how dated the poems seemed: those “Aquarian stars” a 1970s tell. It was 1999 and a lot of us were in the vivid sway of language poetics, the resurgent wave of the New York School. The Wall had fallen and The Towers still stood; nothing seemed more trapped in time than the poetry of Deep Image, which in “The Book of Nightmares” meant bears in rain and a section devoted to the forever burning corpse of Viet Nam. I felt, too, some chagrin, because between first reading the book at 19 and reading it at 34, I’d had the incredible fortune to study with Galway in the graduate writing program at NYU. I learned more about teaching workshop as a student in Galway’s classes than in any mandatory TA practicum. He was an incredibly astute and empathic workshop leader, with an uncanny capacity to offer praise without coddling, criticism without cruelty. His teaching, at least to me, seemed egoless and exact and kind.
At semester’s end, Galway and Sharon Olds would take the poetry students into the country: a long weekend to write and workshop and talk about poetry, and make big dinners and drink a lot of red wine. One night someone got up the courage to ask Galway how it had felt to write “The Book of Nightmares.” I’ll never forget the look on his face as he said, with feeling, “That — was pure poetry, it wrote itself —” He looked stricken, and awed, and strangely sad, like the Muse of that book — why? — had not stayed.
Reading the book again this morning, I’m struck by how aware the speaker is, through the violent love he feels for his newborn daughter, that corruption thrives everywhere, unstoppable. He bequeaths to her, in poem after poem, the wisdom that the tension between love and death powers the world. Love will try to suck the rot from a fingernail; necks broken, we will try to hold up our heads with our hands. This is the eternal stuff of poetry, beyond the particulars of literary history and fashion. In his writing and his teaching, Galway brought the brute truths and the beauty — which is why you should “open / this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.”
— Dana Levin
In ’68 or ’9, I attended a reading at the Unitarian Church in Isla Vista, near UCSB. I went with Kenneth Rexroth. Galway Kinnell said he was “premiering a new poem from the current Poetry magazine,” and read “The Bear.” Also remember “Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond” and his anti-war and pro-civil rights comments. I was a Vet in college, deeply anti-war and also involved in civil rights. I ran for California Assembly in ’68. Then Phil Levine got up and said, “I sometimes hate this country for what it does to us.” And he read a “new poem,” “They Feed They Lion.” It was an evening featuring David Ray’s and Bly’s group, Poets Against the War in Vietnam. Memorable night.
— Sam Hamill
Galways Kinnell’s poetry has taught me to look toward the goodness of the self — that we each have in us a self that deserves to be praised, to be rallied, to be again and again helped up, despite the bad we might do or suffer. His poems remind me of the limits and possibilities of my life, of the cathedralesque bodies we have been gifted with to kneel in, to beg in, to be lost in, to fail in, to be exalted in day after day.
I first read Kinnell’s poem “Wait” on a bus swaying a road silhouetted with olive trees at the tail end of a trip from Çannakale to Akçay, after losing a Turkish league basketball game in Istanbul. We lost badly. We lost the whole season. During that life, I thought everything was about basketball, including this poem.
The game of basketball offered me a tenderness that might be surprising to some, especially considering the ways I broke my body and my mind for it, considering the dangerous balance of confidence and humility I learned to rein in and control, considering how I was never there to play but to win. Yet the game was a space where I never aimed for perfection, where my imperfection was what made me good. Turnovers, caught screens, and missed shots, fueled every steal I picked, every jumper I nailed, every pass I threaded that led to a bucket. The exhaustion I drove my body toward was what allowed me to appreciate my luck in this body, to marvel at the hourly miracle of it. All this was a type of tenderness, the tenderness of appreciating of loving the self and all the moments it fills or is filled with. This world knows how to break us, and as a result, we have a hard time forgiving ourselves the losings that make us. We don’t often allow ourselves this simple act: recognition of how hard it is to exist in whatever ways we manage that existence, recognition of the commitment it takes to be always failing and always trying to win a minute, an hour, a jumper, a poem, never mind a day or a week.
Today this poem (as most of his poems do) offers me something similar to what it did back in Turkey on that bus in that I am allowed to begin again, each time with the possibility for goodness just at my fingertips. Goodness is waiting in old gloves that are forever remade lovely, that make us remember our own beautiful hands. Even while I know these same hands are capable of holding dark things, of dropping or letting slip things made of light, I am given permission to see my own hands newly. Whether I see them as wonderfilled or empty and open for the next wondrous thing, what a luckiness to see myself new and deserving of a goodness that might be on the other side.
We have been taught a thing is ugly or beautiful, empty or full, but I am learning what Kinnell’s poetry has been saying to me, a thing is always both ugly and beautiful, always empty and full. “The need / for the new love is faithfulness to the old,” he says, and suddenly I am given permission to be good, to be always better no matter what bad I have done or will do. I am free to do the next best thing, to accept my losings as lucky gracious things for what good they might bring.
— Natalie Diaz
All day the news of Galway Kinnell’s death has seeped into my tiny office like a sneaky yellow animal grief. It is not the grief of losing a loved one. It is not the grief of losing a hand I’ve held intimately, or in desire. It is the grief that comes at first slowly and then stubbornly nuzzles at my feet so I notice, because I am ignoring it, because I feel undeserving of this cold yellow thing that surrounds the books and cups that litter my desk. What did I know of the man? Not much. I remember him, his giant bear-like figure cutting an outline against the classroom windows as significant as the Washington Square Arch. I remember his dark brown slacks and tweed blazer that made him look so handsomely stuck in the 1970s, even those square brown glasses perched on his nose to read a poem. But mainly, I remember the poems. One of the first poems of his I ever heard, from the Dodge Poetry Festival videos, was “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” and there was something so unabashedly honest about the way he admitted us into his bedroom, said the word “come-cry” so that it was both gentle and shocking all at once. His voice was new to me then, a booming yet tremulous thing that existed in a place where men could be both commanding and alarmingly raw. Then, later at NYU where he was a guest lecturer at a few of our craft classes and read poems so that, even now, I can only think of them read in his own voice. I did not know him better because I could barely speak when he was teaching. I was a newbie and a nobody and he was Galway Kinnell. His presence somehow rendered me tongue-less and there was nothing I could do but watch how he pressed his glasses up, and ran his fingers through his hair, a gesture that was both boyish and wise, when someone asked him a question. I think now of how speechless he made me then, and how I wished I had said something after class or later at the holiday party where even wine wasn’t making me brave enough. Now, I’m at my desk, late October sun flooding in like some extreme spotlight and still I’m wordless. Except, these poems. His poems. These still-singing poems that will go on and on if we keep them alive with our grateful mouths. So I’ve been reading them over and over, all day. I think of that story I heard once of a bunch of poets in a bar asking Galway if he’d recite, “The Bear,” and when he did and they were all in awe, they simply shouted, “Again!” And he began again. In my mind it went on all night. That’s how I feel now, I want to point in the direction of the universe from which he came and shout, “Again!”
— Ada Limón
Thank You, Dave: On Galway Kinnell
It was 1975 (or maybe ’74), in the fall, Missoula, Montana. I was a graduate student, and Galway Kinnell was reading. Dick Hugo introduced Kinnell by saying he was the unlikeliest of rarities: a good-looking poet. He was, of course, and he seemed not to mind Dick’s ribbing. He had an amazing, charismatic presence for sure.
I’d only read Body Rags then, and I was pretty sure I loved it, especially “The Bear.” I remember hoping he would read that poem, but he didn’t. Instead he read the entirety of The Book of Nightmares. It must have taken about 50 minutes. He gave the briefest of introductions, saying he was going to read just one long poem, and started in. If I felt any disappointment, it went away quickly.
The Book of Nightmares is, well, spellbinding, and his reading of it was beautifully intoned. I remember the lines from near the end of the first canto, “Under the Maud Moon”: “this peck / of stunned flesh / clotted with celestial cheesiness.” And I remember wondering how one could possibly arrive at such a strange and unlikely description, its almost whispered sibilant assonances: “FLESH” and “ceLESTial” and “cheesiNESS.” And I remember thinking “cheesiness”? Celestial cheesiness? But I didn’t think about if for long. I just held on, as the rest of us in that audience did, unable to think about anything but what we were hearing.
Somewhere in the ’80s I found an inscribed, hardcover first edition of The Book of Nightmares. I’ve always wondered if the “Dave” to whom it was inscribed had died, and if his books had been sold to Powell’s as a lot, or if Dave himself had traded it in on something he thought might be better, even as I’ve always understood such a hope as that was very unlikely to be.
That copy is one of four I own today. One of them is my teaching copy. The pages of this one are so filled with my annotations that here and there the text is hard to make out. The possible derivation of the verb “droozed” is there. Much of the rest of it is just me making a happy fool of myself: “Holy Shit!” half a dozen times; “Yes!” and “This!” dozens each. By coincidence, I ordered texts for a seminar in the contemporary long poem yesterday, and one of the books will be The Book of Nightmares. Then this morning, I heard of Kinnell’s death, and I thought immediately of that reading in Missoula, maybe 40 years ago, and that feeling I felt, that afternoon long ago, I felt again today. Then I went to my study and opened my best copy (thank you, Dave), and began to read and to feel it again.
— Robert Wrigley
Galway Kinnell was a guest lecturer in a craft of poetry class I was taking at NYU. There was no announcement that he would be filling in, so finding this seven-foot-tall stranger in our classroom was surreal. He was gigantic — especially his ears and head from which his stiff hair stood out like a panda’s. I had no idea who he was, and he did not bother introducing himself. “I’m here because your teacher is sick,” he said, as if we were in kindergarten. He said he wanted to read some poems that everyone thought were great but actually weren't. He passed out a Xerox of "Leda and the Swan" and read it aloud. After hearing one line in his resonant voice, I knew the old man was a serious pro — a ringer. “Who is that?” I asked the student sitting next to me. “Galway Kinnell,” she whispered and rolled her eyes. "A lot of these lines are just terrible, right?" he asked. We all looked painfully confused. Finally someone read a line from the poem as a kind of question: "The feathered glory from her loosening thighs"? He nodded and grinned, "Bingo." I’d never had permission to think Yeats was anything other than perfect. He spent the remainder of the class talking about classic poems. He'd us questions but could rarely hear the shy students' answers. "What?" he 'd ask once, twice, shrug, and then ask another question. I was dazzled by the grace with which he navigated words all those words he could not hear. Three years later, his poem "Shelley" appeared in The New Yorker, a poem about the destructiveness of appetites, penned by such a seeming gentle giant, and I knew: he had indeed heard it all.
— Jennifer L. Knox
Living in the Poem — The Reassurance of Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares
When a writer is gone, words written in the past echo back, and beyond, into some unknown time.
As for these words scattered into the future —
is one invented too deep in its past
to hear them.
When are Galway Kinnell’s poems? These are lines that caution both against a prideful desire to live on beyond our time and against too quick a forgetting, the necessary lessons of history learned but forgotten.
These lines are from The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell’s 1971 book-length poem, part-Vietnam War protest, part-catalog of the horrors of the 20th century. The Book of Nightmares was Kinnell’s way of looking out at the world around him and trying to change the minds of those who were also looking at American involvement in Vietnam. But balanced in the scales, weighted against the epic sweep of war, where “a few bones / lie about in the smoke of bones,” Kinnell gently places his two children, Maud and Fergus, to whom the book is dedicated, and to whom he speak at the end of the first section, writing “you shall open / this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.”
Too easily we usher children into warzones, and then into our discussions of war, as if to say, it is only the children who make us regret war. That is not Kinnell’s lesson. The arresting peculiarity of The Book of Nightmares is the way it speaks at times to the adult selves of Maud and Fergus, “you yourself / some impossible Tuesday / in the year Two Thousand and Nine.” What matters about children is not their fragility, their innocence, or their newness: what matters is their connection to voice and song, to what we might pass on to one another. How a child “puts / her hand / into her father’s mouth, to take hold of / his song.”
Within Galway Kinnell’s poems, the present is so often at stake: think of the unflinching preparation for hunting in “The Bear.” The present is what we might, if we are not careful, lose, too wrapped-up in the projected future, or caught back when was, committing “the error / of thinking / one day all this will only be memory.” Such lines cannot be reduced to the truism that we should live in the now: while these poems urge us to notice ourselves now, where “here, / here is the world,” they can only do so because even the child will “tell / the sun, don’t go down” or “the flower, don’t grow old, / don’t die.” The presents pushes itself to the forefront of the senses because of the memories of birth, the “pre-tremblings” of death.
On the river the world floats by holding one corpse.
Living brings you to death, there is no other road.
Kinnell’s willingness to write death into his nightmare-book, and to write that nightmare to and for his children, amounts to no pessimism — quite the opposite. It is while we are living that we must encounter death, part of our travels. To write of the dead, as Kinnell does, is to assert also the vitality of being alive, because we know life must come to death in the end.
The poem does not, I think, seek posterity: why be so future-scattered, or past-forgotten? No: it seeks an ear, a voice, a mind, brightness. It might find posterity, but it does not seek it. The poem is that living presence we might find in each other’s mouths. Kinnell has given us at least that. His poems urge us not to make of poetry a relic, but to keep it living, a road for traveling.
— Lytton Smith