Last week, just before the Dodge Poetry Festival, I dreamt I was walking beside a river with Galway Kinnell. It was a brisk, sunny, autumn day, very windy, and that shock of bangs kept falling across his eyes, as it often did. He was relaxed, at peace, clearly enjoying the bracing wind and weather. It was so vivid that I woke feeling we’d had a brief visit, and that I must write to him.
In the dream, he looked as he had when I first met him nearly thirty years ago in the Creative Writing Program at NYU, remarkably fit and vigorous though approaching 60. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the MacArthur genius award. A long career spent steadily building a reputation for a singular voice was reaping hard-earned and well-deserved national and international recognition.
But on the first day of that first writing workshop, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, laid out a notebook and uncapped his fountain pen, very much like any artisan preparing to get down to work. This was going to be a workshop in the oldest sense of the word: a long-experienced laborer in the art was going to share everything he knew to help the young apprentices who’d come to improve their craft.
The competitive atmosphere that has since come to poison so many MFA programs was simply not permitted in that room. His metaphor for our shared task was to compare us to runners on the same team practicing on the track: We were not competing with each other. We were to urge each other to try harder and, like any good team, we’d all be better as a group by having practiced together. He insisted the greatest value of the entire program was not what we might learn from him, but from the friendships we would form there.
I was so nervous during those first workshops that on nights I had poems to present I would break out in hives that were so severe they made my lips swell, causing me to lisp and slur words. This was caused by my own fear. He was a careful, solicitous teacher who saw as his main task to try and discover what each individual student’s personal project was, and try to help them remove whatever obstacles were in their way. He spoke of personal issues that inhibit writing as much as he did of matters of craft. He was the single most important teacher to me in my life as a poet. I’d sent him a thank you letter saying as much a decade ago.
As the Director of the Dodge Poetry Festival is it important to note that I was only one of thousands of young poets he taught over the decades of his career, and the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands influenced by his work, on the page and as a reader. At the height of his health and powers, a reading by Galway Kinnell gave a modern reader some sense of what it might have been like to be in the presence of a shaman or a bard in the days when we all believed the spoken word was capable of magic. Those who heard him at the Dodge Festival know what this was like.
But here’s a bit of Dodge Poetry Festival trivia you may not be aware of: Back in the 1980’s, when then Dodge Foundation Director Scott McVay was first beginning the poetry program, working with poets of national stature to see what such a program might be capable of, it was Galway who first uttered the phrase “poetry festival.”
He returned many times, most recently in 2010, when he read his translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in its entirety. It was an unforgettable evening. He was an unforgettable talent and teacher. I join the many who care about poetry and his great contribution to it who will miss him the rest of our lives.
Even if you’ve already read them, go out and read The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World, The Book of Nightmares, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, The Past, any of the editions of the Selected Poems and his most recent, Strong Is Your Hold to remind yourself just how much contemporary poetry is capable of.