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Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, is dead at 87

Galway Kinnell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work explored themes of nature, religion and human rights, died Tuesday of leukemia at 87 in Sheffield, Vt., reports the New York Times.

Kinnell wrote more than a dozen books of poetry in a career that spanned five decades. Among his best-known works are “The Book of Nightmares” (1973), “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone” (1990) and “Selected Poems” (1982), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

A native of Rhode Island, Kinnell was born in Providence and raised in the nearby town of Pawtucket. He attended Princeton University, where he was friends with W.S. Merwin, the future U.S. poet laureate.

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In a 1985 appearance at Chapman College, the Los Angeles Times reported that Kinnell was characteristically reticent when asked personal questions. After a student asked if he could “tell us a little bit about your life,” Kinnell responded, “Well, I could tell you a little bit. I could tell you a lot, but I won’t.” He continued, “I was a very silent child, almost mute. I think everybody was too busy to talk to me. I developed a big sense of isolation from others ... Gradually I felt that if I was ever going to have a happy life, it was going to have to do with poetry.”

Kinnell was politically active in the 1960s. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he was once arrested in Louisiana after a workplace integration protest.

In an interview with the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, Kinnell’s friend Philip Levine, former U.S. poet laureate, said Kinnell never discussed his arrest: “He wouldn’t do anything that would ever sound like boasting. He’s a real American in a way. He’s the kind of person that this country created and hopefully still creates. People from nowhere somehow invent themselves. They say, ‘I’m gonna be a poet, and I’m gonna be a good person.’”

The themes of Kinnell’s poetry were diverse. He wrote about the natural world (“The Bear”), family (“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”) and illness (“Parkinson’s Disease”).

He also wrote frequently about death. “The Book of Nightmares” was inspired by the horrors of the Vietnam War. But as angry as he could be, he sometimes considered mortality more gently and wistfully. In the poem “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” Kinnell wrote:

”...I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.
...
Little sleep’s-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.”


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