In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.
And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.
And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.
On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and go on running.
On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.
I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
perhaps the first taint of me as he
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.
Until one day I totter and fall --
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.
I awaken I think. Marshlights
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the rest of my days I spend
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that
poetry, by which I lived?
-from Body Rags, 1967
BIO: Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. In his youth, he was drawn to both the musicality and hermetic wisdom of poets like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he was classmates with W. S. Merwin. However, while Merwin studied with the critic R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry." He later received his Master's degree from the University of Rochester.
After serving in the United States Navy, he spent several years of his life traveling, including extensive tours of Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran and France. His first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was, was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964).
Upon his return to the United States, Kinnell joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as a field worker and spent much of the 1960s involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His many experiences with social activism during this time, including an arrest while participating in a workplace integration in Louisiana, found their way into his collection Body Rags (1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (1971), a book-length poem concerned with the Vietnam War.
Kinnell has published several more volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold: (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); A New Selected Poems (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980).
He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prose works by Kinnell include a collection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs (1978), a novel, Black Light (1966), and children's book, How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (1982).
About his work, Liz Rosenberg wrote in the Boston Globe: "Kinnell is a poet of the rarest ability, the kind who comes once or twice in a generation, who can flesh out music, raise the spirits and break the heart."
Kinnell's honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 1974 Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of California at Irvine, ColumbiaUniversity, Sarah Lawrence, and Brandeis, and divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
An Interview with Galway Kinnell by Daniela Gioseffi
Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Galway Kinnell, has taught Creative Writing for many years in the Graduate Division of New York University, located near his Greenwich Village apartment. I meet the National Book Award recipient in his parlor which affords a panoramic view of The Hudson River from his writing desk. The wall behind him is lined with hundreds of books of poetry and references of every kind, including his own many books of poetry and translations. I’ve known him for many years, but I don't notice that he has aged or become jaded by his many awards including the coveted Mac Arthur grant for his achievement in poetry. He seems vital and astute as ever. When I called to ask for an interview, he said that he doesn't have as many opinions as he once did. Selections from many of his interviews were re-published in Walking Down the Stairs ( U. of Michigan Press, 1978 Galway has just completed the final touches of a new edition of his Rilke translations, as well as a volume of selected poems for a British edition, following his NEW SELECTED POEMS recently out from Houghton Mifflin, 2000. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in Spring of 2001. I've brought him a photo he took of John Logan--a long deceased, poet friend we had in common. John and I were visiting Galway's house in Vermontover twenty-five years ago when Galway snapped the photo of us. He's pleased to see this memento of faces, smiling happily amidst greenery, caught in time. Kinnell has been a good friend to many poets, and he's helped to foster many younger ones and myriad students. He generously remarks on the gorgeous musicality of Logan's poetry. Bobbie Kinnell, Galway’s simpatica wife of several years offers us some morning coffee. We settle in comfortable chairs to begin our conversation.
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you feel that American poetry really reaches a vast audience, or do you think that we poets are of a society that only talks with itself? Not that we don't do each other good by doing so, but you've traveled the country a good deal, Galway. You've been around a long time giving readings. Do you really feel-- in a satisfied way--that your poetry reaches out into the culture and the nation? I know that this is a question for popular debate-- whether poetry matters--but how do you feel about it at this juncture in your life?
Galway Kinnell: Well, the status of poetry has changed over the last hundred years. Then the voice of a poet, at least a certain kind of poet, was a voice to be reckoned with. If Tennyson said something, it mattered! If Keats said something, it didn't. If Whitman or Dickinson said something, it didn't. It's not altogether an unhappy thing now that poets' public utterances don't matter, because in the past it was usually poets of the establishment who had that power. What's happening now is there are so many people writing poetry--and writing it very seriously--and many people who attend poetry readings and buy poetry books and read them . So, while poetry may appear somewhat publicly invisible in major media, it exerts a quite powerful influence on a very large number of individuals. In this way, it percolates up through the populace, and over time may have a profound effect on who we are as a people, and how we relate to each other and to other peoples as well as to the other creatures.
Daniela Gioseffi: I understand what you're saying. It's true that well, who remembers who the poet laureate was when Alexander Pope was writing? So the most visible poets today, might be the most forgotten ones tomorrow, for all we know. We've even had a couple of presidents, Kennedy and Clinton, who managed to have a poet read at their inaugurations, but, there's the problem of such a din of sports and sensational Hollywood entertainment, and all the "opiates of the masses," that far more Americans always know who the baseball, tennis, or football players are, or the movie stars, than who the poets are. Does that discourage you?
Galway Kinnell: That fact alone doesn’t discourage me. What does trouble me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out or diminishing. Perhaps, poetry will be the canary that flops to the bottom of its cage in the mine shaft-- warning us of what’s to come.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and now with Global Warming and the ozone layer disappearing, there’s a sense that what are we writing for?
Galway Kinnell: Apart from those things that are very real like Global Warming, I feel that there’s a deterioration in the cultural life of the country. And that is a pity.
Daniela Gioseffi: There's a kind of grossness, like gladiators fights, a brutal, bloody sensationalism of entertainment and sports--more so than ever, it seems, right now. Horror films about cannibalism, sexual violence and truly repulsive imagery created with naturalistic "special effects," more than ever…
Galway Kinnell: Yes.
Daniela Gioseffi: I know that you worked in the cause of registering black voters during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. I worked as an intern journalist in Selma in 1961, at the age of twenty--helping to integrate Deep South television under the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. My motives were simply that I was very naïve and not so wise about the harm that was to befall me--and idealistic about the work --but what would you say was your motive. Can you say something about that work that you did then and what went on around you and why you were involved in it as someone who was really a poet at heart?
Galway Kinnell: Ah, well, it was mostly that I found it unbearable to live in a segregated society. In my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, I wasn't really aware of the prevalence of segregation because, though practically everybody was an immigrant, they were almost all from Europe. There were no immigrants from the black populations of the South or the Caribbean in my school. In my childhood I saw very few people of color. In my grammar school, there was one Jewish person. I learned about segregation later, when I traveled about the country and spent time in the South. But when I actually came to discover it, I found it shocking and horrifying. I think when I first became aware of it. I was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, near Tennessee. I went down there for a summer on my GI bill. And, there was a black writer who came to visit, and I went into town with him. He had to buy a train ticket and I went to the train station with him. Well, the amount of fuss produced by a white and a black man walking together was obvious. He grew worried, but I didn’t, because I just didn’t realize that it was a dangerous thing for us to walk together talking as friends. Afterwards, I talked with him about it and he conveyed the experiences of his life that made him to wary of the situation. Then, I came to know other black people, and heard more of their experiences and read more and more about the history of it all, and realized that it wasn’t a phenomenon confined to just the Southern states, but that it was pretty much a national phenomenon. Certainly New York was a segregated city then, and still is to a significant degree.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes.
Galway Kinnell: And then, not long after that, I was living in France when the Civil Rights Movement became news, and reading the Paris edition of The Herald Tribune. I read about the Freedom Riders, and thought, my God, at last something is being done! As soon as I got back, I sought out C.O.R.E.--which I’d heard or read was going to do a voter registration drive. I realized that here was an opportunity to do something instead of merely stewing about it. As soon as I got back to this country, I signed up with CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, and went to Louisiana for a summer of voter registration and a fall of attempting integration in certain businesses in Hammond, Louisiana.
Daniela Gioseffi: So you were down there working with the Congress of Racial Equality, and registering voters. Very dangerous business then. I can imagine how you feel about the recent Florida elections. I hope more is going to come out in the news about that in equity this year.
Galway Kinnell: I certainly hope so.
Daniela Gioseffi: I teach intercultural communication and multicultural literature for tolerance teaching since I published ON PREJUDICE: A Global Perspective in 1993--but I wondered, speaking of those days: "The Last River" is a poem I admire, along with many others, and I noticed that though "The Last River" is in your first SELECTED POEMS, 1982, it's not in the recently published, collection A NEW SELECTED POEMS, 2000. Is there a reason why you left it out? It's not one of your best known poems, but I still think it's a good piece and suited to our current times.
Galway Kinnell: The reason I took it out is that I don't think it's as good a poem as it should be, and, yet, I don't see how I could fix it now. When I went down there to work on in the South, I thought it would be unseemly for me to "use" the situation down there as material for art, and I decided not to write a word while I was there. I put aside everything having to do directly with poetry and just did my work as a Civil Rights worker. A couple of years later I realized that was a serious mistake, I had misunderstood the relationship of art and life.
Daniela Gioseffi: It was idealistic, but all the same, the more said anywhere and everywhere, the better, yes?
Galway Kinnell: Exactly. It was ignorant idealism. I should have gone down there thinking that my job was two-fold, one was to do the work of voter registration and desegregation and the other was to write about all this to be as informative as possible through poetry or any other form of writing my pen might have taken. Later, I tried to write about it, but what I wrote lacked the life that it might have had originally.
Daniela Gioseffi: Is it that you kind of took a Dantesque form in "The Last River"? Is that what you don’t like about the poem?
Galway Kinnell: Taking that form reflected, I think, my sense that I had delayed too long. Instead of invoking the Inferno, I now think I should have taken a surrealistic approach and simply treated the whole world as hell. It was hell.
Daniela Gioseffi: It was Hell. It is hell! But, in many aspects it's Heaven, too--especially when you are "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock," (--title of a Kinnell poem.) Then it does become a bit of Heaven! So, you are not much enamored of "The Last River?" I should ask you about a poem of conscience with which you are happier.
Galway Kinnell: I guess of those you've listed here, I more satisfied with the results of "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible," or "The Fundamental Project of Technology." "The Fundamental Project of Technology" is a poem that I haven't read very often, first because it's hard to read, and second, because it seemed to lose some of its relevance, so to speak, with the end of the Cold War.
Daniela Gioseffi: So to speak, yes?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, only so to speak. The threat of nuclear war is back again.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, so much so that I’m working on a new and revised edition of my 1988 compendium of world literature, WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age from Touchstone. It’s to be redone by The Feminist Press, because the anti-nuclear movement is building up again. We’re still facing the increasing threat of proliferation, of Star Wars expansionism, of the weapons on alert, the problems of radioactive waste disposal-- none of which have disappeared at all. That’s why "The Fundamental Project of Technology"–written in the early
1980’s remains a very relevant poem for our time. What was the epigraph?
Galway Kinnell: The epigraph for the poem is: "A flash! A white flash sparkled!" --phrases taken from a description of the blast written by Tatsuichiro Akizuki in his book, Concentric Circles of Death. It forms a kind of refrain.
Daniela Gioseffi: I've always admired that poem. In a way, it has an epic proportion, sort of belying the first thing we said about the power of "the ordinary and close at hand." Even though it has intimate detail, it has a larger and omniscient point of view.
Galway Kinnell: It has the weaknesses of the epic to it, but in my mind what saves it is the peculiar difficulty of saying it. The rhythms clash, idioms are strained to the limit, syntax pops, long series of monosyllabic words seem almost gibberish. Its "voice," to me, conveys a horror—that is first felt in the voice apparatus of someone saying it. But, of course, it does have that weakness of epic "grandness"...
Daniela Gioseffi: Speaking of epic grandness, I know you’ve written a good deal about Walt Whitman, and some say that some of your poems have been influenced by a Whitmanesque cadence. You did after all edit The Essential Whitman, and many feel Whitman needed someone to edit an essential version of his work--but what would you say to these, perhaps, grandiose lines of Whitman from Democratic Vistas:" the poem, As I Sat Alone by the Blue Ontario’s Shore" in Poems of Parting, 1856:
Chant me a poem,…. Of the range of the high
Soul of Poets.
And chant of the welcome bards that breathe but my
Native air–invoke those bards;
And chant me, before you go, the Song of the throes
(Democracy–the destined conquer–yet treacherous lip
And death and infidelity at every step.)
Galway Kinnell: Well, you know sometimes the grand way of saying things doesn’t appeal to me. I think when I was younger, it did. But, less so now.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well the last elliptical couplet rings true as ever--but why do you think that you feel that way? I mean, I feel some of the same myself and I wonder if you can articulate why that’s so as we become older and wiser-- if we do become older and wiser?
Galway Kinnell: It just seems the more ordinary and close at hand is often the more true and real.
Daniela Gioseffi: Ah, yes, "the more ordinary and close at hand is often the more true and real!" I knew you’d say something succinct that would crystallize the thought. Can you go on a little more with that idea. It’s a very good one for poets, I think.
Galway Kinnell: Well no. I think that’s enough.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well then, "brevity is the soul of wit!" I believe that one can write a good or bad sociopolitical poem, as easily as a good or bad love poem. I think Dante, Neruda or Akmatova would agree. But, as I’ve read your poems: Oh, To a Child in Calcutta, The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible, The Fundamental Project of Technology, The Last River, Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond, The Homecoming of Emma Lazarus, and Shiefflied Ghazal, Driving West, I wondered what you’d say as a teacher of literary art, and the idea that poetry can offer human values and sociopolitical concern. What are the pitfalls the poet has to avoid to do so effectively?
Galway Kinnell: I certainly as a teacher encourage students who seem to be writing or who want to write poems of social and moral teachings. There are so many of our great poems that have explicit moral teachings, and almost all of poetry has implied social and moral teachings, but I think in that however in consciously writing a poem that teaches, the danger to a poet is that he or she thinks that they know the truth, and the poor slobs they’re writing to don’t, and there’s a preaching tone or patronizing air to such an attitude. I’d say that would be the danger. The advantage though would be to directly speak about things that matter tremendously to everyone, and to speak about these things in a way that only poetry can in a kind of intimate human way that makes you feel it as well as understand it.
Daniela Gioseffi: But, maybe epic poetry is not always weak in its grand view, is it? Sometimes we do need to look down over it all, objectively, and be larger than we are in our view are. I know that most of your poems have a more intimate view and the power of the ordinary and close at hand--but, perhaps, the subject of nuclear annihilation, as in The Fundamental Project of Technology, needs a larger than life view to grasp and hold its magnitude. The details in that poem of melted eyeglasses, the scorched uniform of a schoolboy, charred dishes, a pair of melted pliers, a ring fused to a helmet, the ordinary objects of human use left behind after the scourge of the bomb, give the poem a human intimacy in its omniscient view. Now, I wanted to ask you whether you see yourself as a "nature poet." I know that your definition of nature poetry includes urban poetry and the ant-hills of civilization. Can you explain, please?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, but I don't think of myself as a "nature poet." I don't recognize the distinction between nature poetry and, what would be the other thing? Human civilization poetry? We are creatures of the earth who build our elaborate cities and beavers are creatures of the earth who build their elaborate lodges and canal operations and dams, just as we do. Ants have their intricate "cities" under the ground, and the birds have their varied ways of building their nests on earth. The human is unique in that it’s taken over, but that’s no reason to day that the human is of a different kind, a kind created in the image of some god while all the others are created in the image of mere lumps of dirt. There’s some kind of sense that we can do whatever we wish with the other creatures, because God appointed us to do so, but this notion of us as lords of the earth postdates the actual creation of all animals and is a self-serving excuse for pillaging. There’s this idea of divine intervention giving humankind the right to dominance and usury of all other creatures, and that notion may actually be misinterpreted even in scripture and rather self destructive, considering the balances needed in the web of survival of our own species. Perhaps, it’s wiser to think of humankind as only one among the many animal species of the earth. All creatures have their intricate ways of living on earth, their buildings, nests, dwellings, dens and habitats. Humans are unique in one respect: we've taken over–and, so successfully that we've become a threat to many of the other creatures, and even a danger to the earth itself. So, that's why I don't think of myself as a "nature poet." Poems about other creatures may have political and social implications for us.
But, I think that every poem that I encounter which moves me has some sort of political or social force to it. For example, though James Wright has some blatantly political poems, like for example, "Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959" there’s also a poem, by him which appears to be the most apolitical sort of poem you can find, titled "Sitting By the Bank of a River," and yet it has it social or political implications. There the poet sits with the mosquitoes, salamanders and various others creatures on the shore--just meditating on the shore--and out of that meditation comes a certain burst of love for his wife, Annie-- a love so strong that he imagines himself dead and able, in the trance of the poem, to talk to his beloved while she’s still among the living. It’s an extraordinary poem, but the meditation evolves from the poet’s identification with the other creatures that rest by the river. Without that identification with the other living things of the earth, we’ll never save ourselves or the earth. If we just think of other animals as mere brutes that we can do with as we will, there won’t be these wondrous and free creatures to identify with--just a few on leashes and in zoos, and on dinner tables.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, it’s a pity that much of the money power is in the cities, and many people who live in urban settings don’t really get to view closely, for one small example, the wonder of a ruby-throated hummingbird--most magnificent flyer of earth weighing less than an ounce and making its way, non-stop, across the Gulf of Mexico, through wind and rain, churning it’s wings at eighty beats to the second. How the female builds her tiny nest woven of spider webs and lichen, or the male does an elaborate courtship dance, wings beating a hundred and twenty beats to the second to win her! Or, how, for example, the chipmunk thinks carefully as he tunnels his home in the earth, making one room for sleeping, one for defecating, one for eating and food storage, with a back door for escape.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, and the much maligned pig, if he’s given a pen with room to walk, designates one corner for his defecation, and consecrates the rest for eating, walking and lying down. The pig is actually one of the most delightful and clean animals.
Daniela Gioseffi: And intelligent –
Galway Kinnell: Yes very intelligent. We have distorted ideas of other animals.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes superstitions and prejudices, as we used to have for bats, for one example, before understanding and embracing their important role as insectivores and seed planters of the rain forest’s fruits.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, the birds aren’t just singing for our pleasure–
Daniela Gioseffi: No, they’re devouring billions of insects that would devour us if we keep killing them off by destroying their habitats--and they are singing to call, court each other and warn each other of danger, and declare territory and so forth. And, that’s what I appreciate about your poetry -- this understanding you display of the intricate web of life --how much other creatures have communication systems, song, thought and feeling. That’s something your poetry expounds and understands. There’s an acceptance of our own animal natures, too, and a redemption of everything in creation from warts to roses. Your animal poems, The Bear, The Procupine, etc., have sociopolitical implications in that sense. And, they are not the usual sentimental "nature poems, " of Romanticism. They are deeper--more resonant with the truth of existence and consonant with the naturalistic and often brutal struggle for survival.
Galway Kinnell: Well, James Wright has several very politically powerful poems which have great social force to them. For example this one which I happened to see lying before me in the table of contents to his collected poems, "Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959," I’ve always thought the poem said a good deal about our country’s relationship to others in the world of power. "The American Hero must triumph over the forces of darkness," is how it begins, so already the forces of darkness are alive in the poem and there is an implication of dominance over the other creatures and peoples of the earth–and so it goes on. "He has flown through the very light of heaven and come down in the slow dusk of Spain….Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco…. (Kinnell quotes the James Wright poem in entirety.)
Daniela Gioseffi: You’ve said that Robert Duncan, for one example, in his anti-Vietnam poem, "Uprising," was unafraid to mention the actual names of leaders or characters of his time in the way say that Aristophanes does in his plays. Does such usage of proper nouns worry you in terms of the lasting power of the poem–say in this poem of James Wright, too, which talks very specifically of certain names in the political sphere.Do you think such usage of temporal names harms the universality of a poem?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, Duncan doesn’t hesitate to use topical names, as many poets have--and I remember people complaining back in those Vietnam protest days about the use of living politicians names and dates and places in poems. The issue was what would people think of these poems when those names were dead and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be better to write in generalities than to be so specific? But, I don’t really thank that’s a consideration one should worry about, because the specifics matter, the details even of people who might not be heard of hundreds of years from now can resonate if used properly. We can feel the force of Robert Duncan’s or James Wright’s poem through these names. I think of Francois Villon, in the fifteenth century when books were first beginning to be widely duplicated, published, and distributed--and his first editor said this poem can’t last because it’s made up too much of incidence and people unknown to the future who were around in Villon’s time, But, when we read Villon now, he brings us back to his times with the historical resonance of his era, and we realize, too, that those types of people live around us today, in our on society, as well. They are analogous to our times, and that offers an element of universality.
There’s this thing about political poems–one must learn something them them, learn something about the political event, and if possible in the best poems, about oneself as well. Robert Duncan does this in his poem "Uprising," one of the earliest, protest poems about the Vietnam war.
Daniela Gioseffi: I think you are absolutely right, and those details bring the world alive in a poem. As Grace Paley says, politics is a part of everyone’s lives, but some writers write as if they didn’t live in the world and their lives were not effected by what goes on around them. People do talk about the sociopolitical issues all around them. They are a part of the experience of our lives and need to be brought to some sort of understanding in poetry. Neruda wrote plenty of loves poems, too, as did Gingsberg or Levertov or Rukeyser. I think that James Wright’s poem succeeds because of its details. What about this other idea you’ve sometimes expressed--for example in an essay on Walt Whitman--that poets can write themselves toward a better health and wholeness if they are honest in their self-knowledge. Can you say something about that?
Galway Kinnell: Self-knowledge is always helpful to our well being–but if we divide humankind into the good and the bad--and put ourselves among the good and others among the bad or poor slobs, we can never write truthful poetry. It's all false, if based on that erroneous premise–that we are the pure poet and the stupid rabble is all to blame. No doubt some people are morally better or worse than some others, but it is necessary to see that there’s no absolute classification. Some poems separate humanity into two camps: We, the "good people," the poets and lovers; and they, the Hitlers and Stalins, or Kissingers, and Nixons, and so on. We make the killers seem to belong to a different species. Knowing that what we call evil in others also exists in ourselves makes it more possible to write something that has authenticity. Ethridge Knight says in one of his poems, "I am all of them, they are all of me." The best anti-war poems allow us to remember that we and the enemy are brothers, as in Wilfred Owen’s last poem, he imagines that he meets in hell the man he’s killed in war–a "strange meeting" of accomplices. Whitman’s war poems are like that too. Some old fashioned nineteenth or eighteenth century political poems often tended to have an antagonist and the voice of purity as narrator. But, at the end of the Illiad Priam crosses over the lines of war to meet Achilles. The two enemies reach an almost loving understanding. We need to understand the possibilities for evil in ourselves and not write so much from lofty, self-righteous perches in order to achieve a believable authenticity.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, excellent advice for the writer--and to see no easy division helps us to avoid projecting all the evil or self-hatred that might lurk untapped in ourselves onto others. Projection of evil seems the root of all prejudice and trouble in the world. I’m trying to think of a literary example of what you mean.
Galway Kinnell: Well, let’s see? The Great Gatsby might be an example of a piece of American literature where the writer doesn’t put himself outside the ugliness or corruption, in an attempt to satirize-- but shows the decadence from the inside out, and is a part of the society perpetuating shallow values. The narrator is witness from the inside of the scene he exposes.
Daniela Gioseffi: Ah yes! And, "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible!" (Title of another Kinnell poem.) I think it was in 1926 that Marina Tsvetayeva said in her essay "The Poet on the Critic" that "Poetic schools —a sign of the times--are a vulgarization of poetry." What do you think about the divisions of so called "Language Poetry, Neo-Formalism, Neo-narrative, Abstract Expressionist, Performance Poetry, Slam Poetry, and so forth? Do you feel that these schools of poetry fragment the culture and are divisive? The lonely alienation of artists through the centuries has always been something of a sociological phenomenon, but do you think poetic schools and theories are a vulgarization of poetry as Tsvetayeva said? For example, Robert Pinsky has said that when form overpowers content, we tend to have a decadence in art-- or words to that effect.
Galway Kinnell: Well it might be true sometimes, but then it might not be true other times. I’d say that for example in the Duino Elegies of Rilke it might be possible to say that form overpowers content, but the content shines through all the same. Or, maybe about Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poetry you could say that form overpowers content. Still, in both those cases, the content seems to shine forth as if from behind the form. It’s as if Rilke chooses his words the way he wants them to sound, but they fill up a more intense meaning because of it.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, the last part of "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond" was like that for me. I think that may be an example of what you are saying: "And the rice paddies in Asia/ bones/ wearing a few shadows/ walk down a dirt road, smashed/ bloodsuckers on their heel, knowing/ the flesh a man throws down in the sunshine/ dogs shall eat/ and the flesh that is flung into the air/ shall be seized by birds,/ shoulder blades smooth, unmarked by old feather-holes,/ hands r-rivered/ by blue, erratic wanderings of the blood,/ eyes crinkled almost shut,/ seeing in the drifting sun that gives us our lives/ seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth." But, I noticed you cut the last line from the earlier version of the poem in your latest collection, A New Selected Poems, 2000–in which you’ve done a bit of revising on some of the poems. Was it because the words were overpowering the content--too carefully chosen? I felt they were aptly saying what they were saying better than any other words could say it--but maybe you felt that form was spewing content after it–so you cut the last line and ended with the starker line: "the drifting sun that gives us our lives." A beautiful and simpler ending. I think a poet feels when he’s hit the notes just right and I bet you know when you have.
Galway Kinnell: Well, I don’t know? Probably I feel it when I do, but the only example that comes to me just now is the first time I was ever a little amazed at by my own lines. I was describing the sewage flowing into the East River, in "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World" I think it went: "the brown sink of dissolve,/ The white float out in shoals and armadas,/ Even the gulls pass them up, pale/ Bloated socks of riverware and rotted seed/ That swirl on the tide, punched back/ To the Hell Gate narrows, and on the ebb/ Stem seaward, seeding the sea." I recall getting a little thrill from writing those sounds to match their meaning.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well, but, I don’t think form is over powering content there. It’s just organic to it, but I remember those lines very clearly--and what I love about them is that idea of redeeming everything from warts to roses. It isn’t about something pretty, but the words make it wondrous. You’re portraying a big city’s sewage flowing out to sea --the reality of our animal natures. Yet, your words portray that reality with a reverent wonder at the vastness of the sea, the flow of the driven waters, and the hugeness of the city and its monumental waste–full of its visceral and animal nature…
Galway Kinnell: But, going back to that question earlier about schools of poetry, and not only all the kinds of schools, but all the unique individuals who don’t belong to any schools--the vast variety of poetry being written in this country is amazing. So, I think it’s a sign that poetry is in good health, and that there are many poets and groups of poets who get together and find they are similar to each other, forming what might be called schools. It’s good that many different kinds of poets are extremely excited about writing poetry, and if everybody was writing the same way that wouldn’t be so good. Maybe, in the forties there was a sameness to the poetry being produced, at least that which we know about–but anyway now, there’s such a variety that it’s clearly a very vibrant art form. The only regrettable part about it is some of the ill feelings among some of the groups for each other. Have you noticed that?
Daniela Gioseffi: It would seem to be so for sure! (Laughter.) I’m not a part of any particular group myself, but I know what you mean.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, you can see it in various ways--that there’s an ill feeling among some of the groups. I think it’s necessary for poets to realize that they have much more in common with each other--even though they may write in differing styles and ways--than they have in common with the society as a whole. We’re all together in the art of the word in our different ways. When one poet reads or hears the work of another, it might mean little to that given poet because of temperamental differences, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that one must disparage that poet.
Daniela Gioseffi: But if a certain kind of poetry is receiving all the attention and prizes because of a power hold, and the audience says, gee, is that poetry? I don’t get it! And the audience starts turning away from poetry and saying, "I can’t get anything from it, I guess poetry isn’t for me, but only for poets!" Then maybe that isn’t so good-- as readers or audiences are turned away. But, what interests me is that poets like you do not feel this anger toward the more solipsistic branch of poetry, but that more abstract branch of poetry–that language or abstract branch–seems to be angry with the poets who are still trying to say something with poetic clarity and reach out to communicate with accessibility. So, it seems that the anger goes from the abstract, or solipsistic branch of poetry-- which fancies itself new and experimental--toward the poets who are loved for being accessible. Not that every line is as easy to absorb as ever other, and not that there isn’t abstract poetic expression in accessible poets, but those reachable poets have this big heart for the experimental ones! It doesn’t seem so much to be reciprocated, if I’m making any sense.
Galway Kinnell: Hmmm?
Daniela Gioseffi: Is it because they’re trying to make something new by chopping down the beanstalk of the giants that came before them?
Galway Kinnell: Well, maybe, but it’s possible to make something new without chopping down what comes before or is concurrently around. There’s so much room for different styles.
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you pay much attention to the performance poets and the poetry slams and C.D’s and video’s, Hip Hop, and what not, that’s around?
Galway Kinnell: Somebody once wanted to have a "senior slam" with Allen Ginsberg and me, (laughter) -- but I didn’t want to read my best poetry under those circumstances. However, I like the phenomenon of slams. I think they’re good for poetry, and I’m going to introduce some slammers, myself.
Daniela Gioseffi: At "The Peoples Poetry Gathering" in downtown Manhattan?
Galway Kinnell: At CBGB’S. I’m going to read for a little bit, and then I’m going to introduce some slammers…..but the thing about "The Peoples Poetry Gathering" is that it’s an event that’s trying to bring together all the different kinds of poetry and help them realize they‘re all part of the same art form. Last year, I read with a Cowboy poet and I enjoyed it.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, I’m going to host a Polyglot open mic. at that varied gathering in April. There will be every sort of style and culture, too. Do you feel that a poet has to have a certain image to attract an audience--the way Walt Whitman deliberately effected the clothes and demeanor of the working man, for one example? Allen Ginsberg, too, cultivated a certain "Beatnik" or Bohemian image.
Galway Kinnell: Well, I don’t think its necessary, but I have no objection to it. Robert Bly is one poet that I can think of who dressed a certain way-- with his panchos and had a certain style, and I don’t think it’s bad at all.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and aftger I came to his Great Mother Conference performing to my African lyre and dancing, he picked up a dulcimer and started dancing, too. But, I love the way Robert stirs things up and keeps us thinking. He’s always so alive with ideas and controversies. It’s great! I have a question for you, though, that may be embarrassing, but I’ll ask it anyway. I don’t know if you remember Blake’s poem, "The Ballad of Mary," about a handsome or lovely woman who goes out into the world and at first everyone loves her, and then the next thing they’re doing is throwing mud at her and trying to kill her out of envy, and their envy depresses her and makes her turn inward. You have an image, which I don’t think you’ve tried so much to cultivate, of rugged masculinity. I think it’s more who you really are, but do you think that being an attractive, rugged sort of manly man whom women fancied has brought you some envy or hurt or a hindrance? I ask this as I know that being attractive when I was young sometimes brought me a measure of envy, or the wrong kind of attention, and took focus away from my work. So attractiveness was more of a hindrance than a help. I just wondered what you’d say about that for a poet, for a poet’s life?
Galway Kinnell: Well now that I’m old and homely, I look back at pictures of myself when I was younger, and I think I was handsome. However, at the time those pictures were taken, I had no idea I was. I regarded myself as rather ugly, but looking back I see that I was, at least in some of the pictures, in others, (Laughter) I look the way I thought I looked. So, I’ve never thought of myself as handsome and I don’t know how it effected my career if I was?
Daniela Gioseffi: You don’t think it’s brought you any sort of envy or grief from other men? I’ve certainly heard jealousy expressed by other male poets. This thing of being a bit of, how shall I say? -- "matinee idol" of poetry, so to speak?
Galway Kinnell: Well, no one would have told me about their envy, so I don’t know if it was ever so. (Laughter.)
Daniela Gioseffi: Well, maybe, it’s brought envy from some men which you didn’t notice, or maybe it’s stupid question, but I do hope that you will one day be our Poet Laureate before your through–-though Stanley Kunitz is an admirable one! You deserve to be our Poet Laureate one day for your fine, very American poetry! You've given so many interviews, and there’s a bevy of them in WALKING DOWN THE STAIRS from the Poets on Poetry Series of Michigan University Press. After reading that book, I hardly knew what was left to ask you, so I'm grateful that you've consented to this interview. Is there any other question or questions you wished an interviewer had asked you which at this time in your life you'd like to expound upon. Anything that you wished someone had asked you at this juncture of your life in poetry.
Galway Kinnell: Ah, let me think….(Pause.) Do I ever regret having chosen poetry as my vocation over some other?
Daniela Gioseffi: I'd love to hear your answer to that, because I'm having my own regrets at sixty -- thinking I ought to work in a soup kitchen, or become an organic gardener, or just watch the birds and feed them everywhere to help their survival. (Laughter.) So, what would be your answer to that question?
Galway Kinnell: I've never had a moment's regret, except sometimes, thinking that our species might destroy the planet and everything on it. Then, I wonder if there might not have been another vocation I could have taken up that might have let me be more practically effective in this respect.
Daniela Gioseffi: Oh, I feel that answer in a very heartsick place when you articulate it. It's a very important point. How does the poet -- feeling such worldly despair at this time -- go on?
Galway Kinnell: Who knows? Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can. Perhaps, by trying to bring together one’s art and one’s life with one’s values.
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you feel that you are differently motivated to write now than you were as a young man. Do you feel the same fervor–as say when you wrote "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World" as you do now when you pick up your pen to write now? Do you feel your differently motivated when you sit down to write.
Galway Kinnell: I think I wrote with just as much fervor when I was young, as I do now, but I also sometimes wrote with a whimsy that I don’t think I do so much now. I don’t mean I don’t write with humor, but that kind of whimsical play has kind of disappeared-- and so, perhaps, it feels like more fervor, maybe less intermixture of unreflective triviality or whimsy , but probably I wrote then with as much desire, but with less reflection perhaps?
Daniela Gioseffi: Perhaps you wrote with more pure observation than contemplation, I think you’ve become more ironic than whimsical, perhaps, more meditative now....
Galway Kinnell: Well, one can’t speak of one’s own writing very well. That’s for others–for readers--to decide. It’s best to leave that to others.
Daniela Gioseffi: I'm glad you go on writing energetically and with as much fervor as ever. I think we need more poets like you who engage the visceral world, who make us sense our animal natures and accept them.There's a good deal of overly intellectual poetry--precious and urbane--overly intellectual and decadent poetry that's too abstract or solipsistic for the general reader to participate in. There's not enough deeply natural poetry being written-- poetry that faces death and organic life squarely, and makes living in touch with earth and all creation resonate with beauty and horror, wonder and despair---redeeming everything from shit to flowers as you do in your work. I'm glad that we have you as one of the American giants among poets of our time, and I thank you for your time.
Galway Kinnell: Thank you, Daniela.