Galway Kinnell, who aspired to a poetics that “could be understood without a graduate degree,” died on Tuesday in Vermont, at eighty-seven. A winner of both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, Kinnell wrote poems that “dwell on the ugly as fully, as far and as long as I could stomach it,” as he once told the Los Angeles Times. “I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.”
Tony Hoagland said that Kinnell’s primary subjects were “mortality, erotic love, and creatureness.” That might make him sound solemn, But Kinnell, who was born in Rhode Island, could also be exceptionally warm, especially when his subject was New England. An obituary by the Associated Press quotes Major Jackson, who included Kinnell among “the great quintessential poets of his generation”:
In my mind he comes behind that other great New England poet Robert Frost in his ability to write about, not only the landscape of New England, but also its people … Without any great effort it was almost as if the people and the land were one and he acknowledged what I like to call a romantic consciousness.
It would be hard to overstate the effect of Kinnell’s poems on the form at large. “I don’t think Galway Kinnell influenced me, but what’s more important, he inspired me,” Philip Levine said in his Art of Poetry interview:
When I read his great poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” I said, My God, this is how good the poetry of my generation can be. I can remember exactly where I was when I first read it, on the second floor of the library in an armchair holding The Hudson Review and shivering with excitement.
The Review published Kinnell’s poems throughout his career; his work first appeared in our Spring 1965 issue. We’ve made available one of those earlier poems, “On the Frozen Field,” which begins:
We walk across the snow,
The stars can be faint,
The moon can be eating itself out,
There can be meteors flaring to death on earth,
The Northern Lights can bloom and seethe
And be tearing themselves apart all night,
We walk arm in arm, and we are happy.
You can also read “The Geese,” from our Summer 1985 issue, and “Lackawanna,” from Fall 1994. But best of all is “Another Night in the Ruins,” which Kinnell read at a Review salon in 2001; you can hear the recording here.