from American Poetry Review,
January / February 2011
Galway Kinnell is the author of eighteen volumes of poetry, most recently Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). He is the recipient of the 2010 Wallace Stevens Award. His many honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, and the Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America.
CD In his elegy "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," W. H. Auden addresses the ghost of Yeats, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." Can you, in thinking back on your career, remember what specifically hurt you into poetry?
GK I don't know. Perhaps the sense of stagnation I felt growing up in a decayed mill town in the Depression, damaged me into poetry.
CD You write about Pawtucket in several of your poems. One thing that struck me when you visited my creative writing class at Providence College last year was your comment that you were reluctant to call yourself a poet.
GK A poet should not call himself a "poet." Being a poet is so marvelous an accomplishment that it would be boasting to say it of oneself. I thought this well before I read that Robert Frost took the same view.
CD Do you think it's dangerous to think of yourself as a poet?
GK It's not dangerous. One may hope that one is a poet, or even believe it, but it's better all around if someone else declares it.
CD When did you move to Sheffield?
GK I bought this old house in 1960. I've lived in it summers and parts of winters. It wasn't until 1995 that I succeeded in making it my permanent home. I liked living half in New York and half in Vermont. I think I might have felt something essential was missing in me if I had lived all the time only in the city or only in the country.
CD You were writing about your Vermont house at the beginning of your career, and at the same time you were also writing such urban poems as "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" and "The River That Is East."
CD I'm hard pressed to think of another American male poet who has written as affectionately and prolifically about his children as you have. You seem in paradise as a father in such poems as "Under the Maud Moon," "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight," "Fergus Falling," "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps," "It All Comes Back" and "Everyone Was In Love" even though some of these poems address dark or frightening subjects—the Vietnam War, Fergus falling out of a tree.
GK To me, being a parent was entirely a joy. I never became angry with my children—and seldom even irked—except one time, when they were jumping around in the back of the car on one of those ten-hour journeys between Sheffield and New York.
CD This is clear in your poems about them.
GK It's not as if wrote only the good parts and left the bad parts out. For me, it was all the good part. I may not have been a good father, in the sense that I traveled a lot during their childhood and adolescence, because that's how I made my living. It put a strain on my wife, and on my marriage, and it wasn't good, but I had to do it, and also, of course, I wanted to do it. They suffered. Suffered is possibly too strong a word, but they didn't like it. Whenever I was invited to go on a long trip somewhere, I explained to them at once what it would entail and asked if it would be okay with them if I did it and they saw it was important to me and said, "Yes, do it." Of course, I realize that their wish to accommodate me prevented them from telling me how much really it would cost them for me to be away for so long.
CD In almost every book since The Book of Nightmares you have included poems about your children. A recent poem from your last book, "It All Comes Back," is a favorite among my students.
GK I'm glad to hear that.
CD They love the way the son is father of the man in this poem.
GK I wanted life to go on in this way forever. They were wonderful children. They didn't play the piano or sing or do anything elaborate, they just were great children. They seldom quarreled and when they did, it was usually over some small thing and usually they settled it themselves. They had an interest in all sorts of things and liked playing together. And I liked the habit they had, right up to college, of using my knees as their favorite chairs, when company came.
CD In your poem "The Past" from your 1985 book of the same title, you write, "I wanted to sit at the table / and look up and see the sea spray / and beach grass happy together. / I wanted to remember the details: / the dingy, sprouted potatoes, / the Portuguese bread, the Bokar's coffee, / the dyed oranges far from home, / the water tasting of decayed aluminum, / the kerosene stench." By recollecting random things from your past, you hold on to the past in the present, living twice as it were. This poem appears to be an important apology for the elegiac side of your view of the world, as you claim in the poem yourself: "For of the four / possibilities—from me-and-it / still-here to it-and-me- / both-gone—this one, me-here- / it-gone, is second best, / and will do, for me, for now." I'm curious why you omitted this poem from your last selected poems, especially since it expresses the actual logic of that elegiac side.
GK Did I leave it out of my selected poems? Well, a "Selected Poems" does not necessarily consist of only the best poems. It is also a sampling of the range of the work. I trust readers, if they like the selected poems, to get other of my books, and possibly discover in them poems they like as well. But if I had known that you liked "The Past" especially, I would have put it in the New Selected. For one thing, it is fully unencumbered by religious thinking.
CD I hope you do salvage it in your next collection. I noticed also while listening to your CD of Strong Is Your Hold that you changed and added lines to poems, and even in some cases stanzas.
CD Do you feel that poetry remains an elusive process?
GK I know that as time passes, some poems that seemed to me rather perfect cease to, and sometimes, maybe even after twenty years, I see what's wrong. So I mark the corrections in a copy of the book. In my library is a corner where the books are labeled "Marked Copy" in heavy ink on the covers.
CD In the Whitman anthology you edited titled The Essential Whitman, you edited several of Whitman's poems by incorporating his most successful changes in the various editions of Leaves of Grass, thus creating new versions of his poems that consisted of his best revisions. Do you feel there are only a fraction of Whitman's complete poems that are, to use a term from Samuel Johnson, "durable"?
GK If you gave a book of Whitman's final versions of his poems to someone who knew little about poetry but could recognize it, such a person could read and read and find the book extremely uneven. I came upon Whitman in college, but I soon stopped because, like many poets, he wrote so many awful poems, and published all of them. Also, he revised his poems unwisely and made some of his early poems worse. He seems to have lost the capacity to criticize his own work, and come to feel that whatever effused from his being was glorious. As I wandered through his poetry, I encountered so many of Whitman's rotten poems that I gave up—temporarily. Ten years later, I studied his poetry in preparation for teaching a course on Whitman at the University of Grenoble. Suddenly I fell in love with his poems, and he has been my greatest influence ever since. I realized that if one starts by reading very closely Whitman's first book, the unrevised "Song of Myself," one would be obliged to see his genius at once. As far as The Essential Whitman, I tried to collect into that book only his best poems in their best versions.
CD And was Frost another influence? I love your homage to him, where you start off very humorously about his gift for gab, asking, "Why do you talk so much, Robert Frost?" But I don't get the impression that you've actually been that influenced by Frost, despite living in Frost country.
GK I've never felt an influence from Frost. And I don't really live in Frost country. His was a world of actual, functioning, often prosperous farms, which are long gone from my part of Vermont. But I love Frost's poems. I admire most his poem "Home Burial." To write it must have taken extraordinary self-knowledge and natural truthfulness, as well as the power to enter into the feelings of another, a power not all poets possess. In this poem, I feel that Frost was determined to write the whole truth, and he did. Convincingly. He never surpassed this poem. It concentrates only on reality, and it is free of banter.
CD "I'll come after you, I will" is such a brutal last line to that poem spoken by the husband.
GK Edward Thomas, Frost's English friend, a poet who was killed in World War I, objected to the harsh ending, but Frost stuck to his guns.
CD A consistently raw quality runs throughout your work, resounding with primordial energy. It's almost as if you write with dirt in your mouth, figuratively speaking of course.
GK That's pretty good.
CD Does this make sense to you?
GK I don't know, but I like it.
CD But there's also an agonistic quality in your work that contains both antinomian and metaphysical elements, a quality that is on the one hand Frost-like in its affirmation of Earth being "the right place for love," this visceral, mortal planet where your hunter in "The Bear" discovers "that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry" by which he lives, and a metaphysical view on the other, a realm beyond this world as you describe it in "Under the Maud Moon" where there is "a sadness / stranger than ours, all of it / flowing from the other world."
GK I wonder if either can exist without the other.
CD Strong public speakers appear in much of your poetry, as well, from The Book of Nightmares to your poem about 9/11, "When the Towers Fell." Other poets of your generation, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin have also alternated back and forth between their public and private muses. With regard to your relatively recent poem, "When the Towers Fell," you have credited Paul Celan's poem, "Death Fugue," as an influence. Was Celan's poem a particularly strong influence behind "When the Towers Fell"?
GK Well, he was never an influence, as far as I can see, but "Death Fugue" is a poem I've always very much admired. It is a poem "to live by." I wanted to quote bits of it in my own poem.
CD It's hugely ambitious, as are many of your other prophetic or public poems, such as "The Fundamental Project of Technology," "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of C into the World," "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible," and "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond." We live in a time when very few people seem to be listening to poets, or at least taking them very seriously. Perhaps this has always been the case. Auden said "Poetry makes nothing happen" in his elegy for Yeats. But what has compelled you to write your Amos-like jeremiads and lamentations?
GK I don't think of my "public" poems as prophetic or exceptionally persuasive. I think of most of them as outcries. The number of people who take poetry seriously probably varies with the number of serious poems there are. A poem often makes something happen, but as the reader may appear on the outside the same after it, you could conclude that nothing has happened. I hope the "nothings" that happened in the Iranian people from reading poetry—they are great poetry lovers—carry them into the streets to attempt their brave and probably brief revolution.
CD You taught English and American literature in Iran for a year. Was that a fulfilling experience?
GK Well, yes and no. That was an important period of my life. I spent over a year in Iran in 1959 and 1960. I met a great assortment of people. I became friends with well known poets including Nader Naderpour and Forough Farokhzad. Among my friends from other countries were a Japanese, two Frenchmen, an American who knew Iran well, and a Norwegian who spoke fluent Farsi. It's an amazing country—or at least was. Weekly readings in coffee houses by professional reciters of the great poems of the past; miracle plays, performed secretly out in the countryside, being forbidden by the Shah; elaborate underground streams carrying fresh water through the desert; "strength houses" where ancient martial arts were performed; I could go on. For a long while I thought of writing a book called "The Iran I Loved" and including a lot of my photographs and prose, but it would have taken some doing, especially, corralling and identifying the photographs. I didn't write much poetry while I was there, I don't know all the reasons, but one was that so much of it I didn't understand. I wrote a lot of very long letters about Iran. I was writing weekly articles for the English language edition of an Iranian newspaper, and I was ceaselessly traveling around Iran a lot with my camera. At the same time, I was preparing for and teaching two courses at the University of Teheran.
CD They published your photographs there?
GK The newspaper published my photographs and descriptions of some aspect of Iran each week in the centerfold of the Sunday paper. They gave me airline tickets for travel, but I didn't trust the upkeep of the airplanes and so drove everywhere in my little quatre-chevaux. The time flew by. As for poetry, I ended up with a lot of descriptive fragments. Back in the States, I did write a novel set in Iran, called Black Light.
CD Did you find the Persian culture inspiring?
GK I loved the presence around me of an ancient world. The Shah was trying to modernize Iran, but luckily everywhere the past showed through.
CD Did you learn any Farsi?
GK I learned about 500 words but I couldn't speak or write it. I concluded that for a person like me, with a limited power to learn languages, one can't read Farsi unless one already can speak it. As opposed to Spanish, where the written language tells you exactly how to pronounce every word.
CD Turning back to your own fascinating language, in your book What a Kingdom It Was you use a lot of King James phraseology. I'm thinking of such poems as "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World," "The Supper After the Last," and "The Dead Shall Rise Incorruptible." But these poems aren't Christian at all, or even religious. They are in fact rife with natural imagery and atheistic conclusions that echo Wallace Stevens' pagan credo at the conclusion of "Sunday Morning." So I'm wondering what your rationale was for incorporating Christian references and conceits into several of your own poems in What a Kingdom It Was.
GK The music of What a Kingdom It Was might sound a Christian note but not a Christian belief.
CD These poems I mentioned end with mortal and pastoral tropes: "I breathe the shape of your grave in the dirt," from "The Supper After Last," and from "To Christ Our Lord" these last two lines, "The swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north, / the pattern and mirror of the acts of earth." So rather than there being any mention of heaven or religion, these poems point earthward in their conclusions, away from religious transcendence.
GK Little by little I stamped out the Christian applications.
CD In addition to living in Iran, you also lived in several other countries and states. Did you suffer from wanderlust?
GK No, I take sustenance from wanderlust. To get me out of my rut, to see all I can of the world. When I was fourteen, I read Richard Haliburton's The Royal Road to Romance and Harry Franck's A Vagabond Journey Around the World. Basically, perhaps, I just wanted, as an earthling, to know as much as I could of the earth. When I hiked for days and days at a time through some of the great Western forests, I didn't always know where I was exactly. Some people might say I was lost. But I wasn't. I am an earthling. This is my home. I watched the positions of the sun. I read the stars. I studied the terrain. And I had a map and a compass in my pocket.
CD There's a renegade spirit in your adventures as well as your writing. You inject such intense psychic and emotional energy in your poems. Your language emanates it. Do you find a large difference in the energy you expend in your daily living and your writing? You have maintained amazingly high poetic energy in all your books, upping the ante in both your personal and political subject matter with each new collection.
GK I don't know if I can up the ante again. My energy comes and goes. Without energy, words are flabby. Energy is their air. It is the kind of energy that allows someone like Stanley Kunitz, putting all his bodily capabilities on hold, using every scrap of energy he saved up, to write—until he was 100.
CD When did you write "The Quick and the Dead," which is in your most recent book? That poem has remarkable intensity.
GK Strong Is Your Hold came out in 2006. I hope it has that intensity.
CD In your elegies for your sister and your mother, you use the words "elsewhere" and "someplace else" to describe that realm they have crossed over to. In your poem "Promissory Note," you use the word "oblivion" to describe what follows death. These atheistic references remind me of Whitman's musing on death in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," where he also resists using religious language to describe the after non-world.
GK I must have been 18 or 19 when I realized that much of Christianity is made of wishes. When I graduated from college, my mother asked me if there was a heaven. I thought: Who am I to crush her hopes? I said, "I don't know." "What?" she replied rather indignantly, "You spent four years at Princeton and you didn't even learn if there is a heaven!!" In retrospect, I don't think she was hoping that my answer would strengthen her faith, but simply hoping to find the truth.
CD You've mentioned you held in some scorn poetry workshops and writing courses when you were at Princeton.
GK Well, not really. There were only a few workshops, taught by R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman; it would be absurd to be scornful of their courses. The true reason I didn't enroll was that I didn't feel my poetry was developed enough. I didn't want to submit work that I already knew was badly flawed. But one of the professors in the English Department, Charles Bell, saw something in my poems. I liked his poems, too, and we developed a wonderful, lifelong poetry friendship, during which our meetings were sometimes very much like workshops.
CD I don't know when you wrote "Meditation Among the Tombs." It was pretty early ...
GK It was early, yes.
CD A stanza such as this, "But if the darkness finds the graves where we / Were buried under sillions of our past / Still pointing gloomy crosses at the east, / And thinks that we were niggard with our bravery, / Our ghosts if such we have, can say at least / We were not misers of our misery," seems pretty good to me.
GK I guess one could find passages of interesting poetry in some of those early poems, but most were awful all the way through.
CD Well, you found your own way. You went to Rochester for a year, and then taught for two years at Alfred University, then the University of Chicago. You traveled after that throughout the world. You were active in the anti-war movement; you took part in the Civil Rights activities in the South. You seem to have been percolating the whole time.
GK Yes, I was, most of the time.
CD I know you've also been influenced heavily by Dickinson, and I wonder what you think about her vacillation between faith and skepticism. One minute, death presages oblivion, as she states in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" where she feels "wrecked solitary here," then seemingly faithful the next, as in her poem "Of Course I Prayed" where she carries on an intense one-way conversation with God about his absence. But like you, she often seems far too attached to the things of this world to entertain any real notion of heaven. "It is too difficult a Grace / to justify the Dream," she writes at the conclusion of 569, "I reckon—when I count at all—"
GK I don't know that it's her attachment to things of this world so much as it's her clear-sightedness. She seems to have been soaked in Christianity in her youth. In her adulthood I'm sure that her Christian usages were mostly ways of speaking. Her sisters and brothers were Christians, but it seems to me—and many others—that Emily was a staunch skeptic.
CD You use the most particular, insectivorous language in poems about the agents of death, which are also the agents of life. I'm referring to the flies and maggots in such poems as "The Flies" and "The Quick and the Dead." You seem deeply intrigued by these creatures.
GK Theirs is an impressive world.
CD There is a beautiful section about that specifically in "The Quick and the Dead," where you write, "I know that if no fellow creatures / can force their way in to do the underdigging / and jiggling and earthing over and mating / and egglaying and birthing forth, then for us / the most that can come to pass / will be a centuries-long withering down / to a gowpen of dead dust, and never / the crawling of new life out of the old / which is what we have for eternity on earth."
GK I wonder if Emily would have appreciated this passage given the earthiness of the language.
CD I wonder how one could presume to speak for Emily, but I would like to answer yes. If she liked Higginson's natural descriptions, which she did, going so far as to memorize them, I certainly think she'd like yours. I'm curious to know where you find words like plouters, pronotum, noggles, sloom, drouking, moils, gowpen and dunch. I can't find them in any dictionary.
GK They're old words that have stuck to my brain as I read about that nether world, and sometimes peeked into it. They're actual words, except perhaps I made up dunch. Moils and pronotum are still words in good standing. Others, unfortunately, have passed out of usage. I hate losing them, so I use them. But I use them only when they pay their way, so to speak, when they seem to express things more accurately or more vividly than our contemporary vocabulary. Do you think that happens?
CD Oh yes, the word noggles describing the way a large beetle moves, I see it. In your poem about the wounded snake, "Burning the Brush Pile," the word hirpled describes the hitching motion of a hurt snake perfectly. But I did wonder if these words were neologisms?
GK They are real words, some still used in certain parts of England.
CD These are wonderfully descriptive words that you have brought back into the language. Not just one or two, but dozens.
GK Well, I wish I had in fact brought some of them back. I see no sign of it.
CD They must have been used by somebody.
GK There is a Webster's dictionary that includes a huge number of the words that have fallen off the back end of the language. Being old, it does not of course include many of the new words. The OED is quite good when it comes to old words. But this Webster's I just mentioned, The Webster's International, 1925 edition, may be even better.
CD I have to say it looks fantastic.
GK It looks like an ordinary old Webster's but it's considerably fatter.
CD Looks like a sacred book.
GK Yes, it is a sacred book. And when you open it, you find lovely pictures and illustrations. It has a weakness for snakes and skulls.
CD Here's the word cere you use in your poem "Ode and Elegy" about the hawk. "The cere above the hawk's beak / flushes hard yellow from exertion." But this word may still be used to describe, as it says here on my Web dictionary, "the fleshy, membranous covering of the base of the upper mandible of a bird, esp. a bird of prey or a parrot, through which the nostrils open."
GK It is still used by birders. What I wanted to point out especially about the dictionary is that each page is divided horizontally, into two, a top section for words in use, a bottom section, in smaller print, for words that are out of use.
CD This is amazing, so much more satisfying than looking up words on Dictionary.com.
GK I would be surprised if the computer, with its attention focused on the front end of the language, would reach for many of these disappearing words. Now, see, hirples: "to walk with a cramp."
CD I'm not sure how you first found this word, even in this dictionary.
GK I must have stumbled across it somewhere.
CD Where did you get this dictionary?
GK In a bookstore. One that specialized in used dictionaries and encyclopedias. That kind of bookstore doesn't exist anymore.
CD I'm going to get one. I could use one. We didn't talk about your translations.
GK Well, you know we could sit here for the rest of our lives ...
CD But who would feed the chickens?
GK ... And we would suddenly wake up twenty years from now and wonder ...
CD Which reminds me of these lines of yours: "Then I will go back / to that silent evening, where the past just managed / to overlap the future, if only by a trace, / and the light doubles and casts / through the dark a sparkling that heavens the earth."
One last question. In the last poem of Strong Is Your Hold, a poem titled "Why Regret," you write, "Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert / to wake in the night and find ourselves holding hands in our sleep." These are actually the last two lines of the poem. They make the valiant claim about what means most to you, not the brilliant concert, or perhaps poem also by implication, but waking in the middle of the night to find yourself holding hands with your beloved.
GK Is it a valiant claim, or is it a wonderful, surprising realization? Isn't to find in a moment that we, who chose years ago to live as a couple, are still thrilled to be with each other, isn't that about the most blessed thing of all?
CD Yes, and especially heartening to hear from someone who has achieved as much as you have as a poet.
GK Art is wonderful, but the moment love is smashed, darkness falls, deafness falls, nothing survives as it was.
CD What could be clearer than that? Thank you, Galway.
About the Author
Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, Night Mowing (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press. 1990), and The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His book of interviews with senior American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, is forthcoming from Marick Press.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon
Assistant Editor: Joanna Goodman