I met Galway Kinnell – very briefly, alas – when I received a Cranbrook Writer’s Guild Scholarship in the late 1970s. Cranbrook is less than a mile down the same street from my family’s home, and I used to take walks to the Eliel Saarinen landmark – so it was odd to have a weekend retreat so close to my familiar haunts.
Not every man seems like his poems – it doesn’t take too much poetry writing to see that the “voice” that emerges in one’s poems can be startlingly unlike one’s own – but Kinnell did. I was hungry and lingered over the refreshments before the opening event, alone in the large, wood-paneled room – I could have taken just one oatmeal cookie without anyone noticing. But Kinnell walked into the room at the moment, and he teased me about it, in a lightly flirtatious sort of way. He was handsome, genial, and overwhelmingly masculine – and I was indeed overwhelmed. Well, I was getting over someone, as I recall, and I wanted to be overwhelmed. For those few minutes, he was just the ticket.
Now, as everyone knows, the Pulitzer prizewinning poet died at his home in Sheffield, Vermont, of leukemia, on Tuesday, October 28, at the age of 87.
He was the poetry section of the event; I was the prose. So my workshop sessions were with British author Paul Scott of Jewel in the Crown fame – I wrote about that here. Nevertheless, I attended Kinnell’s readings over the weekend, and somewhere among my books (where is it?) I have the one I purchased at that time, his breakthrough The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, published in 1960, and I was bowled over by the words as well as the man.
From the New York Times:
The poem is a 14-part work about Avenue C in Manhattan, a mother lode of inspiration for someone with Mr. Kinnell’s photographic eye and intuitive sense of other people’s lives. In these verses and on this street, Jews, blacks and Puerto Ricans walked in the spring sunlight, past the avenue’s mainstays at the time — the Downtown Talmud Torah, Blosztein’s Cutrate Bakery, Areceba Panataria Hispano, Nathan Kugler Chicken Store Fresh Killed Daily and others. The vendors’ carts clattered on the cobblestones. In the gathering shadows,
wiped-out lives — punks, lushes
Panhandlers, pushers, rumsoaks, all those
Who took it easy when they should have been out failing at something.
And after dark, the crone who sells newspapers on the street:
Rain or stars, every night
She is there, squatting on the orange crate,
Issuing out only in darkness, like the cucarachas
And dread nightmares in the chambers overhead.
His best years were ahead of him: “When his Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983, and a share of the National Book Award the same year, it amounted to a fresh appreciation of his best work over 25 years.”
“Serious or droll, Mr. Kinnell was an imposing figure at poetry readings, a big, muscular man with powers of retention that enabled him to recite long pieces from memory, his own and other writers’ as well. One time, he confessed in an interview with Saturday Review, he even mesmerized himself. ‘I just folded my arms on the lectern and fell asleep,’ he said. ‘I suppose the audience thought I had fallen into a poetic swoon.’”
It’s not entirely common for an obituary to have quite as much exuberance as this one. You might check it out here. It matches the man. At least as I remember him … on that afternoon when he seemed so full of life, teasing me about the cookie I never ate.