Sunday, November 30, 2014

Poems Here on Earth: Galway Kinnell

Last April Alex and I drove up to Vermont with the dogs and spent two days with Galway and Bobbie Bristol Kinnell, wonderfully snowed in, with a good two or three feet of the stuff covering the hill where the house sits, and the old apple orchard, and the stone walls, and the field riddled with voles where we played croquet two summers ago. Bobbie had tried to get a message to us to tell us about the weather, but we were already on the way, and I think in the end we were all glad we hadn't gotten the message. It was a warm, convivial, surprisingly comfortable time; Galway had been suffering from a form of cognitive impairment caused perhaps by leukemia, perhaps by complications from treatment, perhaps by eight decades on earth, We drank lots of tea, watched our dogs tumble with theirs (mostly peacefully, with a few time-outs in the car to cool down, and looked at lots of photographs. Bobbie had mentioned to me that Galway liked looking at photographs of poets, so I brought along a couple -- Margaretta Mitchell's anthology and portrait collection from California, and something else I now forget. Galway and I sat on the couch -- a very warming fire in front of us, and every morning Bobbie dressed him so he looked gentlemanly and ready for the day -- and I'd watch his face light up when he'd recognize someone. Names had entirely fled from his memory, and mostly he'd just say nothing or a word or two. The exception was when we got to a portrait of Sharon Olds, one I didn't think caught a Sharon i recognized. I said I didn't think it was a good likeness; Galway answered, "She has many aspects," his most compete and acute sentence of the weekend.

The next morning Alex and I made some strong coffee, which we are loath to start the day without and which Galway and Bobbie probably didn't drink much. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and though I don't recall Galway actually saying anything, he was clearly relishing his coffee, and when asked if he'd like a second cup there was a firm and resounding yes. More relish, and then, with Bobbie's consent, a third, and the poet grew bright-eyed, savoring the sweet hot cup in the good breakfast company, a happiness you could feel.

I've been thinking, since Galway's passing in October, about what he meant to the poets of my generation, trying to articulate that to myself; I've never done that, exactly, as his work and his presence has always been a part of my poetic life in a way that made it less likely I'd stand back to examine it.  In other words, his influence, a deeply shaping one, particularly in terms of the understanding he conveyed to us as to what poetry is for.

When I was still in high school,  I discovered the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. It was at that time in an little 20's Spanish bungalow on Speedway Boulevard, and I found it because my wonderful high school drama teacher, a literate man intensely interested in the welfare of the young actors in his charge, had introduced me to Richard Shelton, a poet who'd be wonderfully generous to me over the next few years, and in some ways contribute substantially to saving my life. Home in those those days had spun out of control, and i lived in real emotional danger and some physical danger too, and was hovering on the edge of homelessness. But there was one thing I seemed to have a gift for, and people noticed, and were tremendously kind to me. I could go to the Poetry Center anytime I wanted and read, or listen to tapes, or just breathe in the atmosphere.

And of course I'd go to poetry readings, and I liked to hang out under an olive tree in front of the cottage where the visiting poets stayed. I'd see them walk out into the sunlight, and to me they seemed beings of another order, as if their feet didn't entirely touch ground. I wanted to see them, and I guess I wanted to make contact, but I was far too shy to ever say a word to them. In this way I observed Allen Ginsberg, Mark Strand, Jim Tate, Phil Levine, Lawson Inada, and Galway. I can't remember if I was encouraged to sign up for conferences with a couple of the visitors,  or if I chose two I thought sufficiently non-threatening and signed up myself. Thus I met William Stafford, who read my baby neo-surrealist poems and told me, with real sweetness, "I have a feeling these are poems in heaven, but they're not poems on earth yet," which I thought about the best critical thing that anyone could possibly say; I felt seen, and I felt there was hope, and what else do you need? My other conference was with Diane Wakoski. My cat had been hit by a car the night before, and when I expressed my sorrow about it, she said she thought it a shame that people wasted so much feeling on animals when they could direct it to other people. I immediately decided I didn't care what she thought about my poems, which in retrospect seems to demonstrate a certain mature autonomy.

But I digress. I would hear Galway read many, many times in my life, but the first one was on the stage at the U of A, shortly before THE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES was published. I know he read "The Hen Flower". which had me floating up above my self, in the dark air of the auditorium for a while, and "Under the Maud Moon" --what else I don't know. What was utterly clear to me, though I couldn't have said so then, was that this was a poetry where the spiritual stakes were dire indeed; the poet was out to wrestle meaning out of transience, out of mortality, out of suffering, out of the difficulties the world presents, and his quest was for insight, and perhaps it's fair to say that he also sought a sustainable, tolerable place to dwell in the face of it all: how to love the world in the face of all this, how to go on loving it? How to keep the spirit alive, or at least to sing, with great clarity and with consummate attention, what it is for the self to go down in ashes?

Galway made this out of Whitman and out of Rilke, and doubtless too out of what he learned from James Wright's heartbreaking poems, and out of Hart Crane's diction, and the outlaw lyrics of  Francois Villon, melded together with his signature gestures: a vocabulary of uncommon richness, a deep pleasure in sonic texture and a gallumphing rhythmic drive, a sonorous speaking voice that seemed to demand texts of such gravity and scale.

At the U of A in those days -- like any group of young poets, or any poetic micro culture, I guess -- we had a reading list. My friends focused their attention on a relatively small group of writers who were pursuing the rather detached, otherworldly poetics of the early 70s.-- like any group of young poets we had a reading list: Strand, Simic, Bly, Wright, Merwin and Kinnell were our central stars, six white men whose work seemed monumental, each an accomplished edifice bearing the signatures of an unmistakable, individual voice. (Five white guys, a fact which we did not question; that seems extraordinary, in retrospect, but in truth although we were interested in opening the doors of consciousness, and in an expansive sense of what it might mean to be human, the awareness of how matters of race and gender played out in our daily lives was a sort of distant, barely dawning light. This was probably more true in Tucson than in other, more urban places; we were a ways out of the mainstream.)

I admire each of these poets still. If I push myself to be truthful, it's the work of Wright and Kinnell I've loved best, the former with his seemingly bottomless heart and his achingly cracked self moving tenderly through the world, the latter with his huge longing and his compelling sense of spiritual quest. For that's the urgency of Galway's work; it was always driven by a deep need to discover what could be affirmed in experience, to name the ways the soul is shaped and educated by love, grief and time. Of these six poets, none seems to me more the pilgrim driving his own quest forward. Of the wonderful poets we heard read, back there in the hushed and rather reverent darkness of our auditorium, none seemed to hold his poems to such an extraordinarily demanding standard: in its making, the poet would be changed; in hearing those stanzas spoken aloud, so would the listener.

Something came full circle for me in August, at the Vermont State House, when a group of us read Galway's poems as part of a tribute to the former State Poet, who was sitting in the audience, pleased to be together with his children and grandchildren. Marie Howe, Michael Collier, Ellen Voight and I read poems we'd chosen, and how strange and extraordinary to look at Galway, listening while one said aloud a poem like "Prayer":

                     Whatever happens. Whatever
                      what is is is what
                      I want. Only that. But that.

I think we were all feeling a bit desolate, as we moved toward the end of the program, and then something I hadn't expected happened. Galway's granddaughter, the daughter of his daughter Maude, came up to the podium and recited, from memory, "Under the Maude Moon." It's a section from THE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES in which Kinnell describes holding the infant Maude in his arms, and thinking both of continuance and of his own mortality, and hers. And here, forty or more years after the poem was written, was a poised young woman giving those words back to her grandfather, her mother, and to all of us there. It was an extraordinary moment of legacy, in which one could see how Galway had shaped the future -- including, as has become more clear to me since his passing, my own sense of vocation.