Maybe it’s just because I’m stretched as thin as cheap stockings right now and prone to emotions, but I cried this morning hearing (again) about the passing of Galway Kinnell.
I learned to love his poems in college, by my professor who loves his poems. When I worked for the Dartmouth bookstore years ago, I sold books at a reading he gave at Dartmouth, sitting next to him as he signed new and wellworn copies. The reading he gave was equal parts wonderful and sad; he often lost his place while reading a poem, or seemed to drift away mid-thought. I witnessed the deteriorating mind of a poet whose poems have meant a lot to me.
His epic poem (note: I do not generally use the word epic so you know I mean it) “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World” has so much more of New York in it than Taylor Swift’s new song (that’s not saying a lot), and even more of New York in it than Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ song. He was compared to Walt Whitman after that poem, and I see why: it contains multitudes, big time.
As Daniel Lewis of the New York Times writes, “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.”
I’ve experienced a renewed love of Kinnell since moving to Vermont, as I read his poems again, many of which are set in this state, such as “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, certain peculiar words
like strengths and squinched,
many-lettered, on-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
And then there’s this poem, which has always blown my mind. If someone had told me in college that you could write a poem with the word “is” used three times in a row and it would be a stunner, I would not have believe him/her.
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Harriet Richardson, a Student Organizer at Pennsylvania’s Juniata College, Presses a Cloth to the Wounds of Galway Kinnell, Who Was Then Poet-In-Residence at Juiata, Selma, Alabama, 1965.