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Galway Kinnell's poetry transformed the world, but the world has changed

Galway Kinnell was often compared to his favorite poet, Walt Whitman, whose “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Kinnell movingly read aloud every year on the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge at a benefit for the New York poetry library Poets House. Like Whitman, Kinnell — who died in 2014 having won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and a MacArthur, among other honors for books published between the 1960 and 2006 — was a poet of capacious interest in the natural world, profound commitment to social justice, and deep sympathy for the people he saw.

He was a poet of his time, meaning both that he depicts the world, concerns and values of the last third of the 20th century, and that his poems are like those of many of his peers born at the end of the 1920s — A.R. Ammons, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich — who broke free of the strict formalism of 1950s American poetry to create the more impressionistic, sometimes surreal, nature-focused poetry of the late 1960s and 1970s. For many, Kinnell’s poems are exactly what one thinks of when one thinks of contemporary poetry. All of his books are collected here, along with a handful of late poems. It is impossible to consider the landscape of the last 50 years of American poetry without Kinnell.

Kinnell was inarguably a great poet. Among the subjects he was best at were steadfastness in marriage and parenthood. In his famous poem “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” Kinnell’s young son Fergus wanders into his parents’ room when “we lie together, / after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodes, / familiar touch of the long-married.” Then Fergus “flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep, / his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.” There is no ball and chain here, no ambitions crushed beneath the weight of child-rearing. Kinnell’s world is enlarged and infinitely specified by his love for his family.

Specificity itself — the great bounty of attending intimately to life’s minutia — is another of Kinnell’s great subjects and poetic practices. Like many of his generation, whose faith was shattered by the Vietnam war, Nixon, the struggles of the civil rights movement and the turmoil of the late ’60s, Kinnell turned to the secular spirituality of nature for his religion, as he does in the much anthologized “Blackberry Eating”:

I love to go out in late September

among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries

to eat blackberries for breakfast,

the stalks very prickly, a penalty

they earn for knowing the black art

of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them

lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries

fall almost unbidden to my tongue,

as words sometimes do ...

Kinnell’s readers are granted constant and intimate access to his body, to his sensations, to what it feels like to taste and touch and see and hear and think as him. This was a profound priority, an invitation to empathy, to communion, that was essential to Kinnell’s sense of what poetry could, and should, do. For him, the poet’s work is to come as close to the world as possible with words, to express its contradictions and complexities in literally breathtaking detail, looking

until the other is utterly other, and then,

with hard effort, probably with tongue sticking out,

going over each difference again and this time

canceling it, until nothing is left but likeness

and suddenly oneness

At his best — and he is very often at his best — Kinnell is capable of transforming the world at hand — in both urban and country settings, for he split much of his life between New York and Vermont — into a grammar that can point us toward, be our access to, profundity, to truths, and what often feels like Truth itself.

Nonetheless, it is hard, with all that is happening in the world and especially in America this past year, to say that this is the top book of poetry I’d recommend reading right now. Contemporary readers, especially younger ones, may have a hard time swallowing optimistic secular spiritualisms like the notion that “everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing.” Perhaps not enough room is left in these poems for another kind of wisdom: the ambiguity and uncertainty that newer poetry has become very adept at conveying.

Among Kinnell’s most important late works is “When the Towers Fell,” a long poem written after 9/11, which feels deeply prescient right now. Of the fallen towers, Kinnell says, “often we didn’t see them, and now/ not seeing them, we see them.” The truth of this applies to so much we’d taken for granted, the loss of which now overruns our news feeds. This poem represents a very personal working through of a very public tragedy by a deep and earthbound mind. Kinnell here trains his considerable descriptive powers on imagining what it was like to be in the towers when the planes struck: “Some let themselves fall, begging gravity to speed them to the ground. / Some leapt hand in hand that their fall down the sky might happen more lightly.”

We need this poem again, and more poems like it, which ache to understand others’ suffering, which suffer over a suddenly dashed dream of what could and should have been, what should be. Kinnell teaches that kind of attentiveness.

Teicher’s most recent book of poetry, “The Trembling Answers,” was published in April. He is also the editor of “Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz.”

Collected Poems

Galway Kinnell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 640 pp., $35

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