An Interview with Galway Kinnell
It can be discomforting to ask questions of Galway Kinnell. He is as careful about words in an interview as he is about words in his poetry. He is disinclined to say much about meanings in his work, or to elaborate how he came to write more personal poems.
Yet his reticence, his deep privacy and reluctance to go certain places, only leads me to respect him more. Kinnell’s words are spare but strong, and he speaks them softly and with graciousness.
Kinnell long ago earned the right to be selective. He’s written 14 books of poetry, three of prose (one for children), six translations, and a book on Walt Whitman. He’s won a Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He’s taught in this country and abroad, and he was the poet laureate of Vermont. His work is the subject of study at countless universities, and his readings draw crowds.
Nothing on this list, or in this interview, can tell as much about the man as the simple act of reading him, whether one chooses an older, much-analyzed work or something from his latest collection, Strong Is Your Hold. The latter demonstrates time and again how very much a creature of the natural world he is. The woods and terrain of his Vermont homeplace frequently are settings, as he looks back on his younger self, his children, and his experiences with often-intertwined mortality and love.
“The Stone Table” opens the book. He describes sitting with his love on a hillside, their feet on the edge of a stone slab once the floor of a cow pass. They speak in whispers as “a yearling bear/ lolls on its belly eating clover./ Abruptly it sits up. Did I touch my wine glass/ to the table, setting it humming?/ The bear peers about with the bleary undressedness/ of old people who have mislaid their eyeglasses.”
After the bear gets a whiff of them and runs off, the narrator recalls a friend readers might recognize as poet Donald Hall, who was married to another poet and friend, Jane Kenyon, who died from cancer. Hall “… lives to the south of that row of peaks… About now, paying his daily visit to her grave,/ reading by heart the words, cut into black granite,/ that she had written for him, when they/ both thought he would die first…”
That passage leads to this reflection: “I, who so often used to wish to float free/ of earth, now with all my being want to stay,/ to climb with you on other evenings to this stone …”
More urgent is the poem “Promissory Note”:
If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.
Until that happens, poetry happens. That it does and in so many places gives Kinnell hope. “I don’t really think there is any specific achievement of mine regarding poetry that I could pick out and be proud of,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things. But that’s the thing about poetry, and the spread of poetry throughout the country. So many people are writing so many things. Poetry awakens us to everything that surrounds us.”
Kinnell once commented that poetry might be the “canary in the mine-shaft.”
“Of course I was thinking that one of the places and one of the ways of keeping the lovely and precious from dying out would be poetry,” he says today. “I think you could extend that to: A whole culture of a country could be kept alive through poetry. So many, many people write in this country that it’s quite astonishing.”
How many people revere poetry and Kinnell was evident when he read at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in January in New York. About a thousand people turned out to hear “The Bear” of the poetry world. (He did not read his famous poem by that name.) At 81, he remains an imposing force.
In an onstage interview afterward with former New Yorker Poetry Editor Alice Quinn, Kinnell said he would advise younger poets to “maintain all your senses, powers, and faculties; keep the alertness you were born with.”
Kinnell honed his love of words as a child, when he read into the night when he was supposed to be sleeping. He hadn’t known much about poets until he met a number of them in college, including John Berryman and W. S. Merwin. He went on to discover Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, and Walt Whitman, among others. His own writing began with formal verse, “but I got sick of that shaping, metered verse.”
He gets a special gratification from translating. He uses phrases of poets he has translated in his well-known “When the Towers Fell,” his response to the events of 9/11, first published in the New Yorker and in his latest collection.
“I wanted some other language to be in this poem,” he says. “As I was writing along in English, I was on the lookout for some phrase or situation from another language that might be able to help universalize this poem.”
His poem describes the mundanity of the moments before the first plane hit a tower: “The banker is talking to London./ Humberto is delivering breakfast sandwiches./ The trader is working the phone. The mail sorter starts sorting the mail./ The secretary arrives, the chef, /the gofer, the CEO....” He then breaks into lines in French from Francois Villon’s The Testament, describing “....poor and rich/ Wise and foolish, priest and laymen/ Noblemen, serfs, generous and mean/ Short and tall and handsome and homely.” He jumps into passages from other writers several more times in the work, using words of Paul Celan and Aleksander Wat, and from Hart Crane and Whitman.
The poem took about a year to complete, he says, which is not unusual. How does he know when a poem is done? “When I can take a poem of mine that I think is finished and put it aside for a month and pick it up and read it and find it interesting, and if I encounter no place where I think it should be changed, and if at the end it surprises me, even though I wrote it, I think it might be done.”
Kinnell has changed works when they are in galley form, he says, and even after they have been published in a book.
Strong Is Your Hold contains “Shelley,” as in Romantic poet Percy Bysshe, “the one true free spirit I had heard of,” Kinnell writes. It builds to condemn Shelley, as it recounts the women and children he used or loved, discarded, and destroyed in his “pursuit of Eros.” Kinnell concludes: “…and in those days, before I knew/ any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,/ who thought he was following radiant desire.”
“I was moved to write it because I’ve often heard people say that it doesn’t really matter what wrongs you’ve committed in your life, how many broken lives you’ve left behind, what wreckage you’ve left in your wake in your passage through the world. What really matters is that you write a great work of art. Any personal failings are considered forgivable. I can see how such a view can be held, but I don’t believe it is true. And I wanted to write something to explicate my own position.”
Indeed he does do that, and easily talks about it. Less easy are very personal poems that are among his most stunning. I conclude with verses from “How Could She Not?” Kinnell’s emotional response, on a day of heavy beauty, to the death of Kenyon.
The air glitters. Overfull clouds
slide across the sky. A short shower,
its parallel diagonals visible
against the firs, douses and then
refreshes the crocuses. We knew
it might happen one day this week.
This morning did she wake
in the dark, almost used up
by her year of pain? By first light
did she glimpse the world
as she had loved it, and see
that if she died now, she would
be leaving him in a day like paradise?”
....How could she not
press her cheek to his cheek,
which presses itself to hers
from now on? How could she not
rise and go, with sunlight at the windows,
and the drone, fading, deepening, hard to say,
of a single-engine plane in the distance,