For a celebrated poet, Galway Kinnell doesn’t have much to say on the telephone. He answers the questions asked using thoughtful, carefully chosen words but rarely elaborates. He speaks, in fact, very much as he writes. Kinnell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning MacArthur Fellow—that’s the so-called “genius prize”—who received the National Book Award for his first collection of Selected Poems.
His visits to Westminster College and Brigham Young University this week will include readings from “some old chestnuts” as well as unpublished and more recent work.
Daniel Schenker wrote of Kinnell: “Western man’s two thousand year trespass on earth may be past redemption, but the horizon of Kinnell’s world extends considerably beyond Western man. Bears, porcupines, and hens, ocean waves, snowfalls, and lava flows share the space of Kinnell’s poems with men in a democracy of presence. The poet of culture searches for ways to heal the rift that isolates man from the rest of creation.”
Since 1960, Kinnell has published perhaps a dozen books of poetry as well as a number of translations, from Francois Villon to, most recently, Rilke. “I write when I can and when I’ve got something to write, but I don’t have a schedule like some writers do,” Kinnell told City Weekly. “A novelist has to write his three pages or whatever it is a day or the book will never get done, but poetry depends a little bit on mood and inspiration. One should be prepared to sit and write at any time on the curbstone.
“But to go into a room with a desk and some clean paper and a pencil and say I’m going to write a poem, for me is impossible.”
Born in Providence, R.I., Kinnell attended Princeton University and roomed there with W.S. Merwin. (Merwin will read April 5, 7:30 p.m. at the Main Library.) Kinnell was a Fulbright Scholar twice and has taught in universities around the world, including Iran. In the 1960s, he returned from Paris to join CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and worked to register black voters in the South. He was involved in Vietnam anti-war demonstrations and readings and awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Kinnell said he spent two or three years writing The Book of Nightmares, a haunting work that includes “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” about his daughter, Maud. Maud Gonne was an Irish revolutionary and feminist, the inspiration and love of William Butler Yeats. And besides, Kinnell said, he just likes the name. In stanza 6, Kinnell writes:
In the light the moon
sends back, I can see in your eyes
the hand that waved once
in my father’s eyes, a tiny kite
wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look:
And the angel
of all mortal things lets go the string.
In Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, he tells of his then-small son in “Fergus Falling.”
and when Fergus
saw the pond for the first time
in the clear evening, saw its oldness down there
in its old place in the valley, he became heavier suddenly
in his bones
the way fledglings do just before they fly,
and the soft pine cracked …
Poetry today, Kinnell said, is “quite popular and quite unpopular.” He finds there is “a whole kind of underground or, rather, unnoticed ground of people who are aspiring poets and readers of poets and lovers of poetry and the attendance at poetry readings is quite large usually.
“However, at the same time there’s a country which doesn’t really know very much about poets. They pop up here and there, but poems have disappeared from most of the magazines so [people] don’t encounter them very often,” he said. The New Yorker “continues to publish exceptional poetry, some of it very difficult in terms of someone who is not a reader of poetry coming upon it. They’re not afraid to do that and it’s a wonderful thing,” Kinnell observed.
The poet finds that “there are a lot of calls upon our attention” now. In the days when poetry in this country “had many, many readers, it was because they were stuck away in farmhouses and had very few calls on their attention. They read poems, recited poems and poetry was really woven into the public fabric, but no more.
“A part of this is that while poetry was very popular, it was somewhat of a low grade, quite sentimental poetry with kind of conventional values and conventional ways of responding to things. The real poetry was going on in secret, mainly Whitman and Dickinson. They weren’t read in the 19th century.”
While the percentage of people reading poetry today has diminished, Kinnell said there always will be readers. “But whether it will be a small minority or a large minority I don’t know.”
Kinnell divides his time between Vermont and New York University, where he is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing. “This is my last year. I’m retiring from teaching,” Kinnell said firmly. And what then? “And then just keep on with the other half of my life, which is reading and writing.”
GALWAY KINNELL Westminster College, Emma Eccles Jones Conservatory, 1840 S. 1300 East, Thursday March 10, 7 p.m. 484-7651
Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library Auditorium, Friday March 11, Noon. 801-422-6687