Katherine Quimby (wordsrmylife) wrote,
Katherine Quimby

The Poet, the Land and the Word, or Why I'll Miss Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell died yesterday at 87. He was old enough to be my father (in fact, my father is a year older), but that's not why I'll miss him.

I'll miss him because he was the first writer who made me think that my landscape might offer the stuff from which writing--poetry, stories, what have you--might be drawn.

It was the spring of 1977 or 1978 and I was taking a course in "Contemporary" Poetry. We weren't writing it, but we were reading, everything from Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and W. B. Kinsella to Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found many voices I still hear to this day, some of them literally--"Going from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box" comes to mind often as I grocery shop--and I wrote the usual papers that took poems apart to see how they had been put together. And then Bob Gillespie, our long-haired, free-spirited instructor, offered us the option of reading one of half a dozen poetry volumes published by a single author in the last few years for our final paper. I have no memory of what the other choices were, but I chose "The Book of Nightmares" based on its title and medievalish cover, because I was the dark and angsty type before angsty before angsty was a word.

It wasn't quite what I expected, but it spoke to me--not the poems of married life, or even sex, because that wasn't who I was then (see dark and angsty), but the swamps and bogs, the hemlocks and tamaracks, the bear. I didn't know who this poet was, but he used images I knew, he talked of a landscape similar to the one I knew in ways I could understand, without always turning it into metaphor the way Frost had.

All semester long, no matter how I struggled to improve my grade, every essay received a B+/A-. I no longer remember what the topic was, but the essay I wrote on that book--in the midst of struggling to understand a lost friendship (dark and angsty, remember)--finally tipped the balance to pure A-. I remember the pleasure--and surprise--of that grade. But even more, I remember, not long after that, running across some resource with information about contemporary poets. On a whim, I looked up Galway Kinnell's name. That's how I discovered that he lived at least part of the year less than 50 miles from where I grew up. No wonder his imagery was familar.

So Galway Kinnell became one of those poets I turned to when I needed poetry.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear him in person, when he gave a reading in Glover, Vermont, and I had the pleasure of taking my daughter, at that time almost the same age I was when I first discovered his work. It was a marvelous evening, in a packed room in one of the older, wood-paneled public spaces that can be found in so many Vermont towns. And I came to appreciate him as a poet even more, for along with poems like "The Bear" and one of the "Fergus" poems that speak to all of us, he also shared a poem best appreciated--perhaps only appreciated--by those who have made the drive from one part of the remote Northeast Kingdom to another. His poem plays with a familar description of a route that requires inclusion of most of the prepositions, but elevates it, too, so that the result is not doggerel, or light verse, but something that left listeners both laughing and moved.

Galway Kinnell brought poetry home to me, and for that, I will miss him.

Tags: galway kinnell, poetry
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