Kinnell (for Bryan)
by Jeff Oaks
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write about Galway Kinnell. He was the visiting poet at SUNY Binghamton in 1983-4 when I was there, and I took both my Senior Seminar with him and was allowed to sit in on, with my friend Andy, the graduate Whitman seminar he ran. We were all nervous about meeting him, since he had just won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for his Selected Poems. He was at that moment as close to a god as I could want. I prayed he’d discover me the way Vachel Lindsay’d “discovered” Langston Hughes, even though I’m not even sure I knew that story yet. In those days, we had to submit portfolios to get into workshops, and so when it turned out that I’d been accepted into his, I was ecstatic.
We were out drinking in the campus pub the night I first met him. Liz Rosenberg, whom I adored as both a poet and a teacher, brought him in and they sat in a corner amid the noise. I remember running up to them, Liz introducing me, and him looking at me while I said how excited we were to have him there. He looked up at me and smiled and that was it. I read it as Get out of here, kid, made my excuses, and flew away, thinking I’d made a fool of myself. A day or two later, Liz told me that he probably hadn’t heard a thing, having confessed to her that he was hard of hearing in the ear id been standing near.
In workshop, he controlled the room. He had us memorize poems every week. When we showed up, he asked us to write out the poem on a sheet and hand it to him. From the entries, he chose a few; those people would recite. After thanking us, he’d lightly correct mistakes at the end. I remember he taught me about the difference between saying do and dew, when I read Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, a poem I still have in memory, along with Blake’s Tyger and Keats’ To Autumn.
We workshopped, but I don’t remember him saying much. He mostly let us have at each other, as most of our teachers did. What I really remember is going to his office for a conference, sitting down next to him while he read the packet of poems I handed over, and watching him work as a reader. He had a black felt tip pen he used to strike out lines, explaining sometimes why he’d struck them out, sometimes not. A few times, he’d stop reading and turn to a large dictionary he kept beside him, on his right hand. He flipped it open and track down a word I’d used, consider its definitions, and then either cross out the word in my poem or turn to me and say, this word pelt is a terrific word here, meaning as it does to hit and as a kind of fur. I felt like I’d passed some basic test of poetic skill–getting a word to work in multiple dimensions simultaneously.
We had a moment during one of those conferences, in which I’d handed him a batch of poems I’d written about my father and my relationship. He read and commented on them and then turned to me and said, You know, these are the kinds of things I think my brother feels about our father. They seemed to have touched him. It was a lovely moment, one that made me think I wasn’t crazy for wanting to write poems, that maybe my own experiences could be of use.
What I remember now, besides his gentleness and kindness at those moments, was the care he took with language, how much he loved it, loved to say words. This was just at the beginning, I think, of his long public love affair with Walt Whitman. I remember almost nothing of the graduate Whitman seminar my friend Andy and I sat in on except the sound of Galway’s voice reciting lines which might well have animated his own work in The Book of Nightmares:
The little one sleeps in its cradle;
I lift the gauze, and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill;
I peeringly view them from the top.
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bed-room;
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair—I note where the pistol has fallen.
The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders;
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor;
The snow-sleighs, the clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snowballs;
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs;
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside, borne to the hospital;
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall;
The excited crowd, the policeman with his star, quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd;
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes;
What groans of over-fed or half-starv’d who fall sun-struck, or in fits;
What exclamations of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes;
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here—what howls restrain’d by decorum;
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips;
I mind them or the show or resonance of them—I come, and I depart.
The blab, the sluff, the clank, the flap. He hit those words with a lover’s delight. We delighted with him.
He even came to a reading I did with my friend Judas Riley. It was the first reading my mother ever came to, and when I introduced her to him, he said, You must be so proud of your son. He’s a wonderful poet. My mother, who was well-known for her unflappability, nearly swooned. She never asked me what I was going to do with my life again.
He ended up writing a paragraph of recommendation for me for grad school. It seems to have worked, despite being extremely concise. I imagined we all asked him for letters. I saw him a number of times in the years after that, but he never really remembered me, although he twice said, Your face is so familiar. I knew even then that he was being kind. I know now how difficult it is to keep former students’ names in your head, and as busy as he always has been as a teacher, reader, speaker, workshop leader, I’m sure he must have hundreds of former students who come up to him hoping to be remembered.
I couldn’t claim to know him, even though my friends all still call him Galway as if he was going to call up any moment. He existed for me the way a force of nature existed. He represented an ideal to me; he made possible certain kinds of passions I might have been holding in. I was holding in quite a few passions in those days; poetry became the one place where I could release the pressure, where I let myself play, where I felt daring, where I could keep track of my life.
I still love many, many of his poems. My favorites are still the animal poems, especially the ones from Body Rags that seem to combine Wallace Stevens, Rilke, James Wright, and D.H. Lawrence into a new voice: The Fly, The Bear, and The Porcupine.