Remembering Galway Kinnell

“To me,” he said, “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.”

By a singular concatenation of events I found myself, in my freshman year of college, in a room with Galway Kinnell. Not alone, of course, but with several others curious about poetry. He read The Bear, for which he is justly loved and respected as a poet, swaying like a great lumbering bear side to side to the rhythms of his haunting lines.

Can you do this with language? How is it possible? I wondered, and set out to look for an answer to this question, vowing some day to write poetry Galway would approve of.

Fast forward ahead twenty years. I again found myself in a room with Galway Kinnell…this time by myself. The Loft Literary Center had launched its Mentor Program and I was one of the first group of eight young poets selected to work with Galway, (and with Phillip Levine, Marge Piercy, Mona Van Duyn). At that point my writing was pretty much imitative of his and he was willing to say so, to suggest as gently as he could I might want to look for my own voice instead of taking cues from his.  When I drove him to the airport at the end of the weekend, he thanked me for my poetry and allowed we’d meet again some day.

Jump ahead another thirty years. To celebrate half a century of looking for the answer I began asking in college, I decided to print and publish an anthology of poetry by those mentors, teachers, poet-friends and poet-students who all helped me continue looking for an answer, in believing this search was a noble one. I exchanged letters with Galway. He was kind enough to say he remembered me, but the language in his letters was uncharacteristically vague, without its usual edge. He was eighty-three at the time and I sensed he was experiencing decline.

Now that decline is accomplished. We have only memory…and the poetry – one long, dark, aching and truthful meditation opening up to the single notion that pervaded his poems throughout.  We begin to die the moment we are born, and our life’s work is to come to terms with, to embrace, that truth.

Like most of us, he made a mess of his life at times. As he wrote in “Avenue C Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World”, he was “…one of those who took it easy when they should have been out failing at something.” Other times he seemed to grasp the light and hold it above his head for a moment, his eyes agleam with a sense things were going to be fine.

Galway was devoted to the power of language, to the never-ending attempt to grasp its truth for just a moment, to let it go, and then to go looking for it again. In the end what did I learn from him? Probably not to want to write a poem like him, but to want, like him, to write poetry that states with unfailing honesty, I am here, now.

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