August 2001

Galway Kinnell


Galway Kinnell has taught creative writing and poetry for many years both in the United States and abroad, and for several years in the Graduate Writing Division of New York University. His current collection, A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) follows, by 18 years, Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), which won The Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and comes after the publication of four ensuing collections: The Past (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone (Knopf, 1990), Three Books (Ticknor & Fields, 1993), and Imperfect Thirst (Houghton Mifflin, 1994). Galway has just completed the final touches of a new edition of his Rilke translations, as well as a volume of selected poems for a British edition.

In February, 2001, I greet Galway Kinnell in his Greenwich Village apartment in New York, which, high as it is, affords a panoramic view of the Hudson River from his writing desk. The wall behind him is lined with hundreds of poetry books and references of every kind, including his own many books of poetry and translations.

I've brought him a photo he took of John Logan—a poet friend we had in common who is now deceased—and me, one he took many years ago when John and I were visiting Galway's house in Vermont in the early 70's. He's pleased to see this memento—faces, smiling happily caught in time. Kinnell has been a good friend to many poets, and he's helped to foster many younger ones and myriad students. He generously remarks on the gorgeous musicality of Logan's poetry.

I begin falteringly with a question that included a somewhat grandiose quote from Walt Whitman. At first, it seems to draw no response; then after a pause, Galway says something succinctly apt: "It seems the more ordinary and close at hand in poetry is often the more true and real."

—Daniela Gioseffi

Interview with Galway Kinnell

Daniela Gioseffi: It is a question often debated: does poetry actually reach a vast audience, or are poets simply talking to themselves? At this juncture in your life, do you feel—in a satisfied way—that your poetry reaches out into the culture and the nation?

Galway Kinnell: Well, the status of poetry has changed over the last hundred years. Then, the voice of a poet, at least a certain kind of poet, was a voice to be reckoned with. If Tennyson said something, it mattered! If Keats said something, it didn't. If Whitman or Dickinson said something, it didn't. It's not altogether an unhappy thing now that poets' public utterances don't matter, because in the past it was usually poets of the establishment who had that power. What's happening now, in this time, when there are so many people writing poetry and writing it very seriously—and many people who attend poetry readings and buy poetry books and read them—is that while poetry is rather invisible publicly, it exerts a quite powerful influence on a very large number of individuals. In this way, it percolates up through the populace and, over time, may have a profound effect on who we are as a people and how we relate to each other and to other peoples and to other creatures.

DG: I understand what you're saying. Far more Americans will always know who the baseball players are than who the poets are. Does that discourage you?

GK: What troubles me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out. Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what's to come.

DG: You worked in the cause of registering black voters during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Can you say something about the work you did then and why, a poet at heart, you were involved in it?

GK: Ah, well, it was mostly that I found it unbearable to live in a segregated society. In my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, I wasn't really aware of the prevalence of segregation because, though practically everybody was an immigrant, they were almost all immigrants from Europe. In my childhood I saw very few people of color. In my grammar school, there was one Jew. I learned about segregation later when I traveled about the country and spent time in the South. I soon realized that segregation wasn't confined to the South but pervaded the entire country.

I was living in France when the Civil Rights Movement became news. I realized that here was an opportunity to do something instead of merely stewing about it. As soon as I got back to this country, I signed up with CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, and went to Louisiana for a summer of voter registration and a fall of attempting integration in certain businesses in Hammond, Louisiana.

DG: "The Last River," a poem you wrote of your time in the South, is included in your Selected Poems (1982) but not in your recently published collection, A New Selected Poems (2000).  It's not one of your best known poems, but it's a poem I admire and a good piece suited to current times.  Why did you take it out?

GK: The reason I took it out is that I don't think it's as good a poem as it should be, and yet I don't see how I could fix it now. When I went down there to work in the South, I thought it would be unseemly for me to "use" the situation down there as material for art, and I decided not to write a word while I was there. I put aside everything having to do directly with poetry. A couple of years later, I realized that was a serious mistake; I had misunderstood the relationship of art and life. It was ignorant idealism. Later, I tried to write about it, but what I wrote lacked the life that it might have had originally.

DG: Is it that you took a kind of Dantesque form?

GK: Taking that form reflected, I think, my sense that I had delayed too long. Instead of invoking the Inferno, I now think I should have taken a surrealistic approach and simply treated the whole world as hell. It was hell.

DG: It was Hell. It is hell! But, in many aspects, it's Heaven, too, especially when you are "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock;" then it does become a bit of Heaven! However, since you are not much enamored of "The Last River," I should ask you to read one you are happier with.

GK: I could read either "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" or "The Fundamental Project of Technology." "The Fundamental Project of Technology" is a poem that I haven't read very often, first, because it's hard to read and, second, because it seemed to lose some of its relevance, so to speak, with the end of the Cold War.

DG: So to speak?

GK: Yes, only so to speak. The threat of nuclear war is back again.

I should say by way of preface that the epigraph for this poem is: "A flash! A white flash sparkled!" These are phrases taken from a description of the blast written by Tatsuichiro Akizuki in his book, Concentric Circles of Death. It forms a kind of refrain.

The Fundamental Project of Technology   
Click to hear in real audio

A flash! A white flash sparkled!
—Tatsuichiro Akizuki, "Concentric Circles of Death"

Under glass: glass dishes that changed
in color; pieces of transformed beer bottles;
a household iron; bundles of wire become solid
lumps of iron; a pair of pliers; a ring of skull-
bone fused to the inside of a helmet; a pair of eyeglasses
taken off the eyes of an eyewitness, without glass,
which vanished, when a white flash sparkled.

An old man, possibly a soldier back then,
now reduced down to one who soon will die,
sucks at the cigarette dangling from his lip, peers
at the uniform, scorched, of some tiniest schoolboy,
sighs out bluish mists of his own ashes over
a pressed tin lunch box well crushed back then when
the future first learned, in a white flash, to jerk tears.

On the bridge outside, in navy black, a group
of schoolchildren line up, hold it, grin at a flash-pop,
scatter like pigeons across grass, see a stranger, cry
hello! hello! hello! and soon bye-bye! bye-bye!
having pecked up the greetings that fell half unspoken
and the going-sayings that those who went the day
it happened a white flash sparkled did not get to say.

If all a city's faces were to shrink back all at once
from their skulls, would a new sound come into existence,
audible above moans eaves extract from wind that smooths
the grass on graves, or rasping heart's-blood greases still,
or wails infants trill born already skillful at the grandpa's rattle,
or infra-screams bitter-knowledge's speechlessness
memorized, at that white flash, inside closed-forever mouths?

To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete
evolutionary characteristics, in particular of death,
which foreknowledge terrorizes the contents of skulls with,
is the fundamental project of technology; however,
pseudologica fantastica's mechanisms require:
to establish deathlessness it is necessary to eliminate
those who die; a task become conceivable, when a white flash sparkled.

Unlike the trees of home, which continuously evaporate
along the skyline, these trees have been enticed down
into eternity here. No one knows which gods they enshrine.
Does it matter? Awareness of ignorance is as devout
as knowledge of knowledge. Or more so. Even though not knowing,
sometimes we weep, from surplus of gratitude, even though knowing,
twice already on earth sparkled a flash, a white flash.

The children go away. By nature they do. And by memory,
in scorched uniforms, holding tiny crushed lunch tins.
All the ecstasy-groans of each night call them back, satori
their ghostliness back into the ashes, in the momentary shrines,
the thankfulness of arms, from which they will go
again and again, until the day flashes and no one lives
to look back and say, a flash, a white flash sparkled.


DG: In a way, that poem has an epic proportion, sort of belying the first thing we said about the power of "the ordinary and close at hand."

GK: It has the weaknesses of the epic to it, but, in my mind, what saves it is the peculiar difficulty of saying it. The rhythms clash, idioms are strained to the limit, syntax pops, long series of monosyllabic words seem almost gibberish. Its "voice," to me, conveys a horror that is first felt in the voice apparatus of someone saying it, but, of course, it does have that weakness of epic "grandness"....

DG: Epic poetry is not always weak in its grand view, is it? Sometimes we do need to look down over it all, objectively, and be larger than we, in our view, are. So, thank you very much for reading it.

Now, I want to ask you about this idea of being a "nature poet." Your definition of nature poetry includes urban poetry and the anthills of civilization.

GK: Yes, but I don't think of myself as a "nature poet." I don't recognize the distinction between nature poetry and—what would be the other thing?—human civilization poetry? We are creatures of the earth. All the creatures have their intricate ways of living on earth. Humans are unique in one respect: we've taken over. We've taken over so successfully that we've become a threat to many of the other creatures and even a danger to the earth itself, so that's why I don't think of myself as a "nature poet." Poems about other creatures may have political and social implications for us.

DG: Indeed, yours do. And this idea you have often expressed—for example, in an essay on Walt Whitman—that poets can write themselves toward a better self if they are honest in their self-knowledge. Can you say something about that?

GK: If we divide humankind into the good and the bad and put ourselves among the good and others among the bad, we can never write truthful poetry. It's all false if it's based on a false premise. No doubt some people are morally better or worse than some others are, but it is necessary to see that this is not an absolute classification. Knowing that what we call evil in others also exists in ourselves at least makes it possible to write something that has some authenticity.

DG: That's excellent advice for the writer—to see no easy division helps us avoid projecting all the evil or self-hatred that might lurk untapped in ourselves onto others.

GK: Yes.

DG: You've given many interviews, and there are a bevy of them in Walking Down the Stairs. After reading that, I hardly knew what was left to ask you. Before we end this interview, is there any other question you've wished an interviewer had asked you?

GK: Ah, let me think.... Do I ever regret having chosen poetry as my vocation over some other?

DG: And how would you answer that?

GK: I've never had a moment's regret, except sometimes thinking that our species might destroy the planet and everything on it, I wonder if there might not have been another vocation I could have taken up that might have let me be more practically effective in this respect.

DG: Oh, I feel that answer in a very heartsick place when you articulate it. It's a very important point. How can the poet—feeling worldly despair—possibly go on?

GK: Who knows? Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can.

Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award-winning author of twelve books. She has edited two prize-winning compendia of world literature and reviewed poetry for many prominent publications, including American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, and Independent Publisher. Gioseffi edits Her latest books of poetry are Going On: Poems (Via Folios, 23),and Symbiosis, an e-book available fall, 2001, from Rattapallax Press.



Galway Kinnell: Interview
Copyright © 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 17The Cortland Review