Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Like most of his contemporaries, Galway Kinnell started out writing in traditional forms. The shape of formal verse, with its counted beats and pre-determined quatrains, octaves and couplets, is carried over from the sung lyric, where counted time and the shape of the melody determine the length of each line and stanza. But stanzaic structure was not the only feature borrowed from music. In much of the lyric poetry written in these forms there is also an attempt to imitate the mellifluousness of music itself. John Keats and William Butler Yeats are only two of the masters of this tradition whose influence is evident in Kinnell’s earliest poems.
Yet, in a publishing career that has spanned more than five decades, he has emerged as one of the most distinctive and influential poets of his generation, which includes Allen Ginsberg, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton and James Wright. There is no mistaking Kinnell’s voice in these lines from “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”:
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.
The still undanced cadence of vanishing.
How did such a transformation occur? Speaking with high school students at the first Dodge Festival in 1986, Kinnell said he reached a point in his life where he felt that counting syllables and searching for rhymes didn’t seem like the best way for a grown man to spend his time. Criticizing one of his early poems, “First Song,” he complained the rhyme scheme he’d created had forced him to end a line by describing frogs as singing of “their joy,” when it would have been better, he now felt, to have gone down to the frog pond and listened more closely to the frogs themselves.
When Kinnell, Ginsberg and their contemporaries began writing free-verse, they were influenced by incantation and the rhythms of Hebraic verse as they had come down through William Blake, Christopher Smart and Walt Whitman. But even then, Kinnell’s use of the long line was unique. Whitmanesque rhythms were counter-balanced by a cherishing of the pause, a respect for the power of silences learned from Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, and rooted in Kinnell’s own insistent self-questioning. Since Flower Herding on Mount Manadnock (1964) and Body Rags (1968), his work has sustained a constant tension between the impulse to break out into ecstatic song and the knowledge of how easily a voice can be silenced.
During these years, through his translations of Yves Bonnefoy, Yvan Goll and Francois Villon, he learned to explore the potential of harsher and more jarring sounds and images. By the time Kinnell wrote The Book of Nightmares, Rainer Maria Rilke’s soaring and searching rhetoric had left a clear stamp on his work. But even with these many influences, a distinct voice was always present. For Kinnell, these often long-dead poets were beloved teachers and mentors, who nurtured his constant testing of himself and of the possibilities and limitations of the spoken word.
In all of his collections, but particularly in those of recent decades, there is a sense of a relentless striving toward a poetry that is not based on emulating music, chant, Hebraic verse or any other constructed model, but on the physicality of words themselves. For Kinnell, every word has its own weight, texture, taste and mouth feel, which, as he writes in “Blackberry Eating,” “I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well.” His poems have come closer and closer to a keen appreciation for the value of words for their own unique existence as corporeal things, a savoring of the pure languageness of language.
This is no mere aesthetic exercise, but part of a deeper attentiveness to the sounds of an actual life lived on this earth. On Sunday afternoon of that first Festival, an infant in the concert tent started wailing during Kinnell’s reading. As its young parents rose to leave, Galway stopped in mid-poem to call out “Oh, please don’t take that baby away! A baby’s cry is a tuning fork.” He is still listening. Still writing poems that stun us into silence for their authentic ring.
“Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” appears in The Book of Nightmares and A New Selected Poems, which also includes “Blackberry Eating.” Galway Kinnell’s most recent collections include Strong is Your Hold and Imperfect Thirst. A rare video of Kinnell reading “The Bear” from memory at Thomas Jefferson College in 1973 is available on YouTube.
Kinnell will read his translation of Rainer Marie Rilke’s Duino Elegies in its entirety on Saturday morning at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival.
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