Thursday, October 30, 2014

Galway Kinnell, the Great American Poet, Is Dead at 87

Galway Kinnell died Tuesday, October 28, at his home in Sheffield, Vermont. He was 87 years old. Galway was our greatest living American poet, and among the greatest we have ever had. He was deeply influenced by the likes of Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Butler Yeats. Like Whitman, he had "a mouth for words"--his work is immersed in the sensual, what you can taste and eat and smell and touch and hear. He was deeply tuned to the musicality of language. At the same time, Kinnell's work is deeply mystical and religious. Galway Kinnell always had a sense of human mortality, that we are here for just a while. And his poetry displayed deep compassion for the suffering of human beings (and really, all of creation).

Galway as a younger man

Photo from, by Richard Brown

Some of my favorite of Galway's poems include: "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps; "Wait"; "The Still Time"; "The Last Hiding Place of Snow"; and so many more. I will paste some of these below.

 Wait  (Galway Kinnell)
 Wait, for now.
 Distrust everything, if you have to.
 But trust the hours. Haven't they
 carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.#

The Still Time
by Galway Kinnell

I know there is still time -
time for the hands
to open, for the bones of them
to be filled
by those failed harvests of want,
the bread imagined of the days of not having.

Now that the fear
has been rummaged down to its husk,
and the wind blowing
the flesh away translates itself
into flesh and the flesh
gives itself in its reveries to the wind.

I remember those summer nights
when I was young and empty,
when I lay through the darkness
wanting, wanting,
I would have nothing if anything I wanted -
that total craving
that hollows the heart out irreversibly.

So it surprises me now to hear
the steps of my life following me -
so much of it gone
it returns, everything that drove me crazy
comes back, blessing the misery
of each step it took me into the world;
as though a prayer had ended
and the bit of changed air
between the palms goes free
to become the glitter
on some common thing that inexplicably shines.

And the old voice,
which once made its broken-off, choked, parrot-incoherences,
speaks again,
this time on the palatum cordis
this time saying there is time, still time,
for one who can groan
to sing,
for one who can sing to be healed.#

Galway Kinnell - After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run - as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears - in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players -
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across his little, startling muscled body -
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.#

Two selections from a poem by Galway Kinnell, maybe our greatest poet, writing about his mother in the poem "The Last Hiding Place of Snow":

Once in a while, passing the place,
I have imagined I heard
my old mother calling, thinking out loud her
mother-love toward me, over those many miles
from where her bones lie,
five years
in earth now, with my father's thirty-years' bones.

I have always felt
anointed by her love, its light
like sunlight
falling through broken panes
onto the floor
of a deserted house: we may go, it remains,
telling of goodness of being, of permanence.

So lighted I have believed
I could wander anywhere,
among any foulness, any contagions,
I could climb through the entire empty world
and find my way back and learn to be happy.

[later in the same poem]:

Even now when I wake at night
in some room far from everyone,
the darkness sometimes
lightens a little, and then,
because of nothing,
in spite of nothing,
in an imaginary daybreak, I see her,
and for that moment I am still her son
and I am in the holy land
and twice in the holy land, remembered
within her, and remembered in the memory
her old body slowly executes into the earth.

Here is what the New York Times said about him:
[New York Times story on Galway Kinnell]

“Galway Kinnell cares about everything,” the poet and novelist James Dickey once observed. Over the years he lent passionate support to the antiwar movement, to freedom of expression in repressive countries, to environmental causes and civil rights. In 1963 he went to work for the Congress of Racial Equality, helping to register black voters in Louisiana — an effort that got him thrown in jail, with a pimp and a car thief for cellmates.

Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. “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.”

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