We are arriving in that time of the year’s cycle when the trees turn towards their sleep and the animals slow and altogether too much is a metaphor of death. And the poet Galway Kinnell has died today, and that is not a metaphor at all.
Back in about 1982, I was a student of English at Chico State, presumably working on a paper on death in the poetry of Galway Kinnell. I had been reading his poems over and over, for days, I’m sure. I remember, vaguely, being pulled along by the words, surprised and baffled by the strange places they were taking me. This was very special art.
Deep in the stacks of obscure books in the university library, I found a little 20 page book containing the text of a lecture that Kinnell gave at Colorado State in 1969. And it seems I found a couple of helpful passages, which I sat down and transcribed by hand on yellow paper.
Tonight I was going to write to you about how much Kinnell’s poetry meant to me, and quote from a couple of poems. But taking one of his books from the shelf, I found that transcription I made back in college, folded between the pages. You can see a scan of it here:
“It is perhaps true that a poem entails a struggle with one’s own nature, that it comes partially out of our hunger to be changed – and so may be an act of longing for what we are unable to be…. We can also perhaps feel the suicidal presence, feel it as an essential element in the (his) hymn to earthly life. I doubt that, in serious poems, death and life can be separated at all. It is obvious that poems craving heaven involve a certain death-wish. But in the great poems affirming life we may be even more clearly in the presence of some kind of will to die.” (Page 18.)
“It is part of whatever may be glowing in our lives that we have been able to dream of paradise, that we have glimpsed eternity. It is as much a part of this glory that we are unable to enter paradise or live in eternity. That we endure only for a time, that everyone and everything around us endures only for a time, that we know this, is the thrilling element in every creature, every relationship, every moment.” (Page 20.)
I decided to share this because, while many are undoubtedly quoting his poems, you won’t find this material mentioned. You can’t really find this anywhere, without great difficulty. A bookseller in Wadsworth IL has a copy for sale for $50. I’m sure there are copies in college collections, but it’s obscure and out of print.
Fast forward a dozen years to the release of Imperfect Thirst in 1994. Galway Kinnell came to Santa Barbara to read. I was asked to pick up the cake for the reception at a bakery and take it to the reading. It was a massive sheet cake, the perfect likeness of the cover of his new book.
The reading was at the Victoria Street Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was raining. A few blocks away at the Arlington, Toad the Wet Sprocket was playing. There was nowhere to park. At the front of the Arlington, I couldn’t find anyone to help get the big cake inside. So I had to park far away and carry Galway’s cake in the rain. I know what you’re thinking… no, the cake and I both made it there intact.
The poet had a cold that night but he soldiered on. He read wonderful poems for us, and signed my book that was the perfect likeness of his cake. I remember he was kind and patient, stayed a while to chat before returning to his hotel to battle his cold.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the best we can expect from our poets: that they explore what’s common to us all, give us a chance to contribute a verse (or carry the cake), and leave us something to remember them by.
I have to say that in reading Galway Kinnell’s poems, I’ve always felt the presence of death but not as a terminal imperative; more as a continuum of Being. He hasn’t convinced me that we die, even today.
“I say ‘God'; I believe,
rather, in a music of grace
that we hear, sometimes, playing to us
from the other side of happiness.
When we hear it, when it flows
through our bodies, it lets us live
these days lighted by their vanity
worshipping — as the other animals do,
who live and die in the spirit
of the end — that backward-spreading
- Galway Kinnell
from There Are Things I Tell No One