with Galway Kinnell
-by Daniela Gioseffi
Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Galway Kinnell, has taught Creative Writing for many
years in the Graduate Division of New York University, located near his Greenwich
Village apartment . I meet the National Book Award recipient in his parlor which
affords a panoramic view of The Hudson River from his writing desk. The wall behind him is lined with hundreds of books of
poetry and references of every kind, including his own many books of poetry and translations. I’ve known him for many
years, but I don't notice that he has aged or become jaded by his many awards including the coveted Mac Arthur grant for
his achievement in poetry. He seems vital and astute as ever. When I called to ask for an interview, he said that he doesn't
have as many opinions as he once did. Selections from many of his interviews were re-published in Walking Down the Stairs
( U. of Michigan Press, 1978 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, following his NEW SELECTED POEMS recently out from Houghton Mifflin,
2000. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in Spring of
2001. I've brought him a photo he took of John Logan--a long deceased, poet friend we had in common. John and I were visiting
Galway's house in Vermont over twenty-five years ago when Galway snapped the photo of us. He's pleased to see this memento of faces,
smiling happily amidst greenery, 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. Bobbie Kinnell, Galway’s simpatica wife of several years offers us some morning coffee. We settle in comfortable
chairs to begin our conversation.
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you feel that American poetry really reaches
a vast audience, or do you think that we poets are of a society that only talks with itself? Not that we don't do each
other good by doing so, but you've traveled the country a good deal, Galway. You've been around a long time giving readings. Do you really feel-- in a satisfied way--that
your poetry reaches out into the culture and the nation? I know that this is a question for popular debate-- whether poetry
matters--but how do you feel about it at this juncture in your life?
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 is 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 . So, while poetry may appear somewhat publicly invisible in major media, 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 as well
as to the other creatures.
Daniela Gioseffi: I understand what you're saying. It's true that well,
who remembers who the poet laureate was when Alexander Pope was writing? So the most visible poets today, might be the most
forgotten ones tomorrow, for all we know. We've even had a couple of presidents, Kennedy and Clinton, who managed to have
a poet read at their inaugurations, but, there's the problem of such a din of sports and sensational Hollywood entertainment,
and all the "opiates of the masses," that far more Americans always know who the baseball, tennis, or football players
are, or the movie stars, than who the poets are. Does that discourage you?
That fact alone doesn’t discourage me. What does trouble me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious
in our world seem to be dying out or diminishing. Perhaps, poetry will be the canary that flops to the bottom of its cage
in the mine shaft-- warning us of what’s to come.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and now with Global Warming and the ozone
layer disappearing, there’s a sense that what are we writing for?
Apart from those things that are very real like Global Warming, I feel that there’s a deterioration in the
cultural life of the country. And that is a pity.
Daniela Gioseffi: There's a kind of grossness, like gladiators
fights, a brutal, bloody sensationalism of entertainment and sports--more so than ever, it seems, right now. Horror films
about cannibalism, sexual violence and truly repulsive imagery created with naturalistic "special effects," more
Galway Kinnell: Yes.
Daniela Gioseffi: I know that you worked in the cause of registering
black voters during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. I worked as an intern journalist in Selma in 1961, at the age of twenty--helping to integrate Deep South television under the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. My motives were
simply that I was very naïve and not so wise about the harm that was to befall me--and idealistic about the work --but
what would you say was your motive. Can you say something about that work that you did then and what went on around you and
why you were involved in it as someone who was really a poet at heart?
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 from Europe. There were no immigrants from the black populations of the South or the Caribbean in my school. In my childhood I saw very few people of color. In
my grammar school, there was one Jewish person. I learned about segregation later, when I traveled about the country and spent
time in the South. But when I actually came to discover it, I found it shocking and horrifying. I think when I first became
aware of it. I was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, near Tennessee. I went down there
for a summer on my GI bill. And, there was a black writer who came to visit, and I went into town with him. He had to buy
a train ticket and I went to the train station with him. Well, the amount of fuss produced by a white and a black man walking
together was obvious. He grew worried, but I didn’t, because I just didn’t realize that it was a dangerous thing
for us to walk together talking as friends. Afterwards, I talked with him about it and he conveyed the experiences of his
life that made him to wary of the situation. Then, I came to know other black people, and heard more of their experiences
and read more and more about the history of it all, and realized that it wasn’t a phenomenon confined to just the Southern
states, but that it was pretty much a national phenomenon. Certainly New York was a segregated city then, and still is to a significant degree.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes.
Galway Kinnell: And then, not long after that, I was living in France when the Civil Rights Movement became news, and reading the Paris edition of The Herald Tribune. I read about the
Freedom Riders, and thought, my God, at last something is being done! As soon as I got back, I sought out C.O.R.E.--which
I’d heard or read was going to do a voter registration drive. 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.
Gioseffi: So you were down there working with the Congress of Racial Equality, and registering voters. Very dangerous
business then. I can imagine how you feel about the recent Florida elections. I hope more is going to come out in the news about that in equity this year.
Galway Kinnell: I certainly hope so.
Daniela Gioseffi: I teach intercultural communication and multicultural
literature for tolerance teaching since I published ON PREJUDICE: A Global Perspective in 1993--but I wondered, speaking of
those days: "The Last River" is a poem I admire, along with many others, and I noticed that though "The Last
River" is in your first SELECTED POEMS, 1982, it's not in the recently published, collection A NEW SELECTED POEMS,
2000. Is there a reason why you left it out? It's not one of your best known poems, but I still think it's a good
piece and suited to our current times.
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 on 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 and just did my work as a Civil Rights worker. A couple of years later I realized that was
a serious mistake, I had misunderstood the relationship of art and life.
Daniela Gioseffi: It was idealistic, but all the same, the more
said anywhere and everywhere, the better, yes?
Exactly. It was ignorant idealism. I should have gone down there thinking that my job was two-fold, one was to do the work
of voter registration and desegregation and the other was to write about all this to be as informative as possible through
poetry or any other form of writing my pen might have taken. Later, I tried to write about it, but what I wrote lacked the
life that it might have had originally.
Daniela Gioseffi: Is it that you kind of took a Dantesque form
in "The Last River"? Is that what you don’t like about the poem?
Galway Kinnell: 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.
Daniela Gioseffi: It was Hell. It is hell! But, in many aspects it's Heaven, too--especially
when you are "Flower Herding on Mount
Monadnock," (--title of a Kinnell poem.)
Then it does become a bit of Heaven! So, you are not much enamored of "The Last River?" I should ask you about a
poem of conscience with which you are happier.
I guess of those you've listed here, I more satisfied with the results of "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.
Daniela Gioseffi: So to speak, yes?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, only so to speak. The threat of nuclear war is back again.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes,
so much so that I’m working on a new and revised edition of my 1988 compendium of world literature, WOMEN ON WAR: International
Voices for the Nuclear Age from Touchstone. It’s to be redone by The Feminist Press, because the anti-nuclear movement
is building up again. We’re still facing the increasing threat of proliferation, of Star Wars expansionism, of the weapons
on alert, the problems of radioactive waste disposal-- none of which have disappeared at all. That’s why "The Fundamental
Project of Technology"–written in the early 1980’s remains a very relevant poem for our time. What was the
Galway Kinnell: The epigraph for the poem is: "A
flash! A white flash sparkled!" --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.
Daniela Gioseffi: I've always admired that poem. In a way,
it has an epic proportion, sort of belying the first thing we said about the power of "the ordinary and close at hand."
Even though it has intimate detail, it has a larger and omniscient point of view.
Galway Kinnell: 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"...
Daniela Gioseffi: Speaking
of epic grandness, I know you’ve written a good deal about Walt Whitman, and some say that some of your poems have been
influenced by a Whitmanesque cadence. You did after all edit The Essential Whitman, and many feel Whitman needed someone to
edit an essential version of his work--but what would you say to these, perhaps, grandiose lines of Whitman from Democratic
Vistas:" the poem, As I Sat Alone by the Blue Ontario’s Shore" in Poems of Parting, 1856:
Chant me a
poem,…. Of the range of the high
Soul of Poets.
And chant of the welcome bards that breathe but my
Native air–invoke those bards;
And chant me,
before you go, the Song of the throes
(Democracy–the destined conquer–yet treacherous lip
And death and
infidelity at every step.)
Galway Kinnell: Well, you know
sometimes the grand way of saying things doesn’t appeal to me. I think when I was younger, it did. But, less so now.
Gioseffi: Well the last elliptical couplet rings true as ever--but why do you think that you feel that way? I mean,
I feel some of the same myself and I wonder if you can articulate why that’s so as we become older and wiser-- if we
do become older and wiser?
Galway Kinnell: It just seems
the more ordinary and close at hand is often the more true and real.
Daniela Gioseffi: Ah, yes, "the more ordinary and close at
hand is often the more true and real!" I knew you’d say something succinct that would crystallize the thought.
Can you go on a little more with that idea. It’s a very good one for poets, I think.
Galway Kinnell: Well no. I think that’s enough.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well then, "brevity is the soul of wit!"
I believe that one can write a good or bad sociopolitical poem, as easily as a good or bad love poem. I think Dante, Neruda
or Akmatova would agree. But, as I’ve read your poems: Oh, To a Child in Calcutta, The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible,
The Fundamental Project of Technology, The Last River, Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond, The Homecoming of Emma Lazarus,
and Shiefflied Ghazal, Driving West, I wondered what you’d say as a teacher of literary art, and the idea that poetry
can offer human values and sociopolitical concern. What are the pitfalls the poet has to avoid to do so effectively?
Galway Kinnell: I certainly as a teacher encourage students who seem to be writing
or who want to write poems of social and moral teachings. There are so many of our great poems that have explicit moral teachings,
and almost all of poetry has implied social and moral teachings, but I think in that however in consciously writing a poem
that teaches, the danger to a poet is that he or she thinks that they know the truth, and the poor slobs they’re writing
to don’t, and there’s a preaching tone or patronizing air to such an attitude. I’d say that would be the
danger. The advantage though would be to directly speak about things that matter tremendously to everyone, and to speak about
these things in a way that only poetry can in a kind of intimate human way that makes you feel it as well as understand it.
Gioseffi: But, maybe 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 are in our view are. I know that most of your poems have a more intimate view and
the power of the ordinary and close at hand--but, perhaps, the subject of nuclear annihilation, as in The Fundamental Project
of Technology, needs a larger than life view to grasp and hold its magnitude. The details in that poem of melted eyeglasses,
the scorched uniform of a schoolboy, charred dishes, a pair of melted pliers, a ring fused to a helmet, the ordinary objects
of human use left behind after the scourge of the bomb, give the poem a human intimacy in its omniscient view. Now, I wanted
to ask you whether you see yourself as a "nature poet." I know that your definition of nature poetry includes urban
poetry and the ant-hills of civilization. Can you explain, please?
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 who build our elaborate
cities and beavers are creatures of the earth who build their elaborate lodges and canal operations and dams, just as we do.
Ants have their intricate "cities" under the ground, and the birds have their varied ways of building their nests
on earth. The human is unique in that it’s taken over, but that’s no reason to day that the human is of a different
kind, a kind created in the image of some god while all the others are created in the image of mere lumps of dirt. There’s
some kind of sense that we can do whatever we wish with the other creatures, because God appointed us to do so, but this notion
of us as lords of the earth postdates the actual creation of all animals and is a self-serving excuse for pillaging. There’s
this idea of divine intervention giving humankind the right to dominance and usury of all other creatures, and that notion
may actually be misinterpreted even in scripture and rather self destructive, considering the balances needed in the web of
survival of our own species. Perhaps, it’s wiser to think of humankind as only one among the many animal species of
the earth. All creatures have their intricate ways of living on earth, their buildings, nests, dwellings, dens and habitats.
Humans are unique in one respect: we've taken over–and, 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.
But, I think that every poem that I encounter
which moves me has some sort of political or social force to it. For example, though James Wright has some blatantly political
poems, like for example, "Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959" there’s also a poem, by him which appears
to be the most apolitical sort of poem you can find, titled "Sitting By the Bank of a River," and yet it has it
social or political implications. There the poet sits with the mosquitoes, salamanders and various others creatures on the
shore--just meditating on the shore--and out of that meditation comes a certain burst of love for his wife, Annie-- a love
so strong that he imagines himself dead and able, in the trance of the poem, to talk to his beloved while she’s still
among the living. It’s an extraordinary poem, but the meditation evolves from the poet’s identification with the
other creatures that rest by the river. Without that identification with the other living things of the earth, we’ll
never save ourselves or the earth. If we just think of other animals as mere brutes that we can do with as we will, there
won’t be these wondrous and free creatures to identify with--just a few on leashes and in zoos, and on dinner tables.
Gioseffi: Yes, it’s a pity that much of the money power is in the cities, and many people who live in urban
settings don’t really get to view closely, for one small example, the wonder of a ruby-throated hummingbird--most magnificent
flyer of earth weighing less than an ounce and making its way, non-stop, across the Gulf of Mexico, through wind and rain,
churning it’s wings at eighty beats to the second. How the female builds her tiny nest woven of spider webs and lichen,
or the male does an elaborate courtship dance, wings beating a hundred and twenty beats to the second to win her! Or, how,
for example, the chipmunk thinks carefully as he tunnels his home in the earth, making one room for sleeping, one for defecating,
one for eating and food storage, with a back door for escape.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, and the much maligned pig, if he’s
given a pen with room to walk, designates one corner for his defecation, and consecrates the rest for eating, walking and
lying down. The pig is actually one of the most delightful and clean animals.
Daniela Gioseffi: And
Galway Kinnell: Yes very intelligent.
We have distorted ideas of other animals.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes superstitions and prejudices, as we used
to have for bats, for one example, before understanding and embracing their important role as insectivores and seed planters
of the rain forest’s fruits.
Yes, the birds aren’t just singing for our pleasure–
Daniela Gioseffi: No, they’re devouring billions of insects
that would devour us if we keep killing them off by destroying their habitats--and they are singing to call, court each other
and warn each other of danger, and declare territory and so forth. And, that’s what I appreciate about your poetry --
this understanding you display of the intricate web of life --how much other creatures have communication systems, song, thought
and feeling. That’s something your poetry expounds and understands. There’s an acceptance of our own animal natures,
too, and a redemption of everything in creation from warts to roses. Your animal poems, The Bear, The Procupine, etc., have
sociopolitical implications in that sense. And, they are not the usual sentimental "nature poems, " of Romanticism.
They are deeper--more resonant with the truth of existence and consonant with the naturalistic and often brutal struggle for
Galway Kinnell: Well, James Wright has several
very politically powerful poems which have great social force to them. For example this one which I happened to see lying
before me in the table of contents to his collected poems, "Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959," I’ve
always thought the poem said a good deal about our country’s relationship to others in the world of power. "The
American Hero must triumph over the forces of darkness," is how it begins, so already the forces of darkness are alive
in the poem and there is an implication of dominance over the other creatures and peoples of the earth–and so it goes
on. "He has flown through the very light of heaven and come down in the slow dusk of Spain….Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco…. (Kinnell
quotes the James Wright poem in entirety.)
Daniela Gioseffi: You’ve said that Robert Duncan, for one
example, in his anti-Vietnam poem, "Uprising," was unafraid to mention the actual names of leaders or characters
of his time in the way say that Aristophanes does in his plays. Does such usage of proper nouns worry you in terms of the
lasting power of the poem–say in this poem of James Wright, too, which talks very specifically of certain names in the
political sphere.Do you think such usage of temporal names harms the universality of a poem?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, Duncan
doesn’t hesitate to use topical names, as many poets have--and I remember people complaining back in those Vietnam protest days about the use of living politicians
names and dates and places in poems. The issue was what would people think of these poems when those names were dead and forgotten.
Wouldn’t it be better to write in generalities than to be so specific? But, I don’t really thank that’s
a consideration one should worry about, because the specifics matter, the details even of people who might not be heard of
hundreds of years from now can resonate if used properly. We can feel the force of Robert Duncan’s or James Wright’s
poem through these names. I think of Francois Villon, in the fifteenth century when books were first beginning to be widely
duplicated, published, and distributed--and his first editor said this poem can’t last because it’s made up too
much of incidence and people unknown to the future who were around in Villon’s time, But, when we read Villon now, he
brings us back to his times with the historical resonance of his era, and we realize, too, that those types of people live
around us today, in our on society, as well. They are analogous to our times, and that offers an element of universality.
There’s this thing about political poems–one must learn something them them, learn something about the political
event, and if possible in the best poems, about oneself as well. Robert Duncan does this in his poem "Uprising,"
one of the earliest, protest poems about the Vietnam war.
Daniela Gioseffi: I think you are absolutely right, and those
details bring the world alive in a poem. As Grace Paley says, politics is a part of everyone’s lives, but some writers
write as if they didn’t live in the world and their lives were not effected by what goes on around them. People do talk
about the sociopolitical issues all around them. They are a part of the experience of our lives and need to be brought to
some sort of understanding in poetry. Neruda wrote plenty of loves poems, too, as did Gingsberg or Levertov or Rukeyser. I
think that James Wright’s poem succeeds because of its details. What about this other idea you’ve sometimes expressed--for
example in an essay on Walt Whitman--that poets can write themselves toward a better health and wholeness if they are honest
in their self-knowledge. Can you say something about that?
Self-knowledge is always helpful to our well being–but if we divide humankind into the good and the bad--and
put ourselves among the good and others among the bad or poor slobs, we can never write truthful poetry. It's all false,
if based on that erroneous premise–that we are the pure poet and the stupid rabble is all to blame. No doubt some people
are morally better or worse than some others, but it is necessary to see that there’s no absolute classification. Some
poems separate humanity into two camps: We, the "good people," the poets and lovers; and they, the Hitlers and Stalins,
or Kissingers, and Nixons, and so on. We make the killers seem to belong to a different species. Knowing that what we call
evil in others also exists in ourselves makes it more possible to write something that has authenticity. Ethridge Knight says
in one of his poems, "I am all of them, they are all of me." The best anti-war poems allow us to remember that we
and the enemy are brothers, as in Wilfred Owen’s last poem, he imagines that he meets in hell the man he’s killed
in war–a "strange meeting" of accomplices. Whitman’s war poems are like that too. Some old fashioned
nineteenth or eighteenth century political poems often tended to have an antagonist and the voice of purity as narrator. But,
at the end of the Illiad Priam crosses over the lines of war to meet Achilles. The two enemies reach an almost loving understanding.
We need to understand the possibilities for evil in ourselves and not write so much from lofty, self-righteous perches in
order to achieve a believable authenticity.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, excellent advice for the writer--and to
see no easy division helps us to avoid projecting all the evil or self-hatred that might lurk untapped in ourselves onto others.
Projection of evil seems the root of all prejudice and trouble in the world. I’m trying to think of a literary example
of what you mean.
Galway Kinnell: Well, let’s
see? The Great Gatsby might be an example of a piece of American literature where the writer doesn’t put himself outside
the ugliness or corruption, in an attempt to satirize-- but shows the decadence from the inside out, and is a part of the
society perpetuating shallow values. The narrator is witness from the inside of the scene he exposes.
Gioseffi: Ah yes! And, "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible!" (Title of another Kinnell poem.) I think
it was in 1926 that Marina Tsvetayeva said in her essay "The Poet on the Critic" that "Poetic schools —a
sign of the times--are a vulgarization of poetry." What do you think about the divisions of so called "Language
Poetry, Neo-Formalism, Neo-narrative, Abstract Expressionist, Performance Poetry, Slam Poetry, and so forth? Do you feel that
these schools of poetry fragment the culture and are divisive? The lonely alienation of artists through the centuries has
always been something of a sociological phenomenon, but do you think poetic schools and theories are a vulgarization of poetry
as Tsvetayeva said? For example, Robert Pinsky has said that when form overpowers content, we tend to have a decadence in
art-- or words to that effect.
Galway Kinnell: Well it might
be true sometimes, but then it might not be true other times. I’d say that for example in the Duino Elegies of Rilke
it might be possible to say that form overpowers content, but the content shines through all the same. Or, maybe about Gerard
Manly Hopkins’s poetry you could say that form overpowers content. Still, in both those cases, the content seems to
shine forth as if from behind the form. It’s as if Rilke chooses his words the way he wants them to sound, but they
fill up a more intense meaning because of it.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, the last part of "Vapor Trail Reflected
in the Frog Pond" was like that for me. I think that may be an example of what you are saying: "And the rice paddies
in Asia/ bones/ wearing a few shadows/ walk down a dirt road, smashed/ bloodsuckers on their heel, knowing/ the flesh a man
throws down in the sunshine/ dogs shall eat/ and the flesh that is flung into the air/ shall be seized by birds,/ shoulder
blades smooth, unmarked by old feather-holes,/ hands r-rivered/ by blue, erratic wanderings of the blood,/ eyes crinkled almost
shut,/ seeing in the drifting sun that gives us our lives/ seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth." But,
I noticed you cut the last line from the earlier version of the poem in your latest collection, A New Selected Poems, 2000–in
which you’ve done a bit of revising on some of the poems. Was it because the words were overpowering the content--too
carefully chosen? I felt they were aptly saying what they were saying better than any other words could say it--but maybe
you felt that form was spewing content after it–so you cut the last line and ended with the starker line: "the
drifting sun that gives us our lives." A beautiful and simpler ending. I think a poet feels when he’s hit the notes
just right and I bet you know when you have.
Well, I don’t know? Probably I feel it when I do, but the only example that comes to me just now is the first
time I was ever a little amazed at by my own lines. I was describing the sewage flowing into the East River, in "The
Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World" I think it went: "the brown sink of dissolve,/ The white
float out in shoals and armadas,/ Even the gulls pass them up, pale/ Bloated socks of riverware and rotted seed/ That swirl
on the tide, punched back/ To the Hell Gate narrows, and on the ebb/ Stem seaward, seeding the sea." I recall getting
a little thrill from writing those sounds to match their meaning.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well, but, I don’t think form is over
powering content there. It’s just organic to it, but I remember those lines very clearly--and what I love about them
is that idea of redeeming everything from warts to roses. It isn’t about something pretty, but the words make it wondrous.
You’re portraying a big city’s sewage flowing out to sea --the reality of our animal natures. Yet, your words
portray that reality with a reverent wonder at the vastness of the sea, the flow of the driven waters, and the hugeness of
the city and its monumental waste–full of its visceral and animal nature…
Galway Kinnell: But,
going back to that question earlier about schools of poetry, and not only all the kinds of schools, but all the unique individuals
who don’t belong to any schools--the vast variety of poetry being written in this country is amazing. So, I think it’s
a sign that poetry is in good health, and that there are many poets and groups of poets who get together and find they are
similar to each other, forming what might be called schools. It’s good that many different kinds of poets are extremely
excited about writing poetry, and if everybody was writing the same way that wouldn’t be so good. Maybe, in the forties
there was a sameness to the poetry being produced, at least that which we know about–but anyway now, there’s such
a variety that it’s clearly a very vibrant art form. The only regrettable part about it is some of the ill feelings
among some of the groups for each other. Have you noticed that?
Daniela Gioseffi: It would seem to be so for sure! (Laughter.)
I’m not a part of any particular group myself, but I know what you mean.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, you can see it in various ways--that there’s an ill feeling among some of the
groups. I think it’s necessary for poets to realize that they have much more in common with each other--even though
they may write in differing styles and ways--than they have in common with the society as a whole. We’re all together
in the art of the word in our different ways. When one poet reads or hears the work of another, it might mean little to that
given poet because of temperamental differences, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that one must disparage that
Daniela Gioseffi: But if a certain kind of poetry is receiving all the attention and prizes because
of a power hold, and the audience says, gee, is that poetry? I don’t get it! And the audience starts turning away from
poetry and saying, "I can’t get anything from it, I guess poetry isn’t for me, but only for poets!"
Then maybe that isn’t so good-- as readers or audiences are turned away. But, what interests me is that poets like you
do not feel this anger toward the more solipsistic branch of poetry, but that more abstract branch of poetry–that language
or abstract branch–seems to be angry with the poets who are still trying to say something with poetic clarity and reach
out to communicate with accessibility. So, it seems that the anger goes from the abstract, or solipsistic branch of poetry--
which fancies itself new and experimental--toward the poets who are loved for being accessible. Not that every line is as
easy to absorb as ever other, and not that there isn’t abstract poetic expression in accessible poets, but those reachable
poets have this big heart for the experimental ones! It doesn’t seem so much to be reciprocated, if I’m making
Galway Kinnell: Hmmm?
Daniela Gioseffi: Is
it because they’re trying to make something new by chopping down the beanstalk of the giants that came before them?
Galway Kinnell: Well, maybe, but it’s possible to make something new without
chopping down what comes before or is concurrently around. There’s so much room for different styles.
Gioseffi: Do you pay much attention to the performance poets and the poetry slams and C.D’s and video’s,
Hip Hop, and what not, that’s around?
Somebody once wanted to have a "senior slam" with Allen Ginsberg and me, (laughter) -- but I didn’t
want to read my best poetry under those circumstances. However, I like the phenomenon of slams. I think they’re good
for poetry, and I’m going to introduce some slammers, myself.
Daniela Gioseffi: At "The Peoples Poetry Gathering"
in downtown Manhattan?
Galway Kinnell: At CBGB’S. I’m going to read for a little bit, and then
I’m going to introduce some slammers…..but the thing about "The Peoples Poetry Gathering" is that it’s
an event that’s trying to bring together all the different kinds of poetry and help them realize they‘re all part
of the same art form. Last year, I read with a Cowboy poet and I enjoyed it.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes,
I’m going to host a Polyglot open mic. at that varied gathering in April. There will be every sort of style and culture,
too. Do you feel that a poet has to have a certain image to attract an audience--the way Walt Whitman deliberately effected
the clothes and demeanor of the working man, for one example? Allen Ginsberg, too, cultivated a certain "Beatnik"
or Bohemian image.
Galway Kinnell: Well, I don’t
think its necessary, but I have no objection to it. Robert Bly is one poet that I can think of who dressed a certain way--
with his panchos and had a certain style, and I don’t think it’s bad at all.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes,
and aftger I came to his Great Mother Conference performing to my African lyre and dancing, he picked up a dulcimer and started
dancing, too. But, I love the way Robert stirs things up and keeps us thinking. He’s always so alive with ideas and
controversies. It’s great! I have a question for you, though, that may be embarrassing, but I’ll ask it anyway.
I don’t know if you remember Blake’s poem, "The Ballad of Mary," about a handsome or lovely woman who
goes out into the world and at first everyone loves her, and then the next thing they’re doing is throwing mud at her
and trying to kill her out of envy, and their envy depresses her and makes her turn inward. You have an image, which I don’t
think you’ve tried so much to cultivate, of rugged masculinity. I think it’s more who you really are, but do you
think that being an attractive, rugged sort of manly man whom women fancied has brought you some envy or hurt or a hindrance?
I ask this as I know that being attractive when I was young sometimes brought me a measure of envy, or the wrong kind of attention,
and took focus away from my work. So attractiveness was more of a hindrance than a help. I just wondered what you’d
say about that for a poet, for a poet’s life?
Galway Kinnell: Well now that I’m old and homely, I look
back at pictures of myself when I was younger, and I think I was handsome. However, at the time those pictures were taken,
I had no idea I was. I regarded myself as rather ugly, but looking back I see that I was, at least in some of the pictures,
in others, (Laughter) I look the way I thought I looked. So, I’ve never thought of myself as handsome and I don’t
know how it effected my career if I was?
Daniela Gioseffi: You don’t think it’s brought you
any sort of envy or grief from other men? I’ve certainly heard jealousy expressed by other male poets. This thing of
being a bit of, how shall I say? -- "matinee idol" of poetry, so to speak?
Galway Kinnell: Well, no one would have told me about their envy, so I don’t know if it was ever
Daniela Gioseffi: Well, maybe, it’s brought envy from some men which you didn’t notice,
or maybe it’s stupid question, but I do hope that you will one day be our Poet Laureate before your through–-though
Stanley Kunitz is an admirable one! You deserve to be our Poet Laureate one day for your fine, very American poetry! You've
given so many interviews, and there’s a bevy of them in WALKING DOWN THE STAIRS from the Poets on Poetry Series of Michigan
University Press. After reading that book, I hardly knew what was left to ask you, so I'm grateful that you've consented
to this interview. Is there any other question or questions you wished an interviewer had asked you which at this time in
your life you'd like to expound upon. Anything that you wished someone had asked you at this juncture of your life in
Galway Kinnell: Ah, let me think….(Pause.)
Do I ever regret having chosen poetry as my vocation over some other?
Daniela Gioseffi: I'd love to hear your answer to that, because
I'm having my own regrets at sixty -- thinking I ought to work in a soup kitchen, or become an organic gardener, or just
watch the birds and feed them everywhere to help their survival. (Laughter.) So, what would be your answer to that question?
Galway Kinnell: I've never had a moment's regret, except sometimes, thinking
that our species might destroy the planet and everything on it. Then, 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.
Daniela Gioseffi: Oh,
I feel that answer in a very heartsick place when you articulate it. It's a very important point. How does the poet --
feeling such worldly despair at this time -- go on?
Who knows? Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can. Perhaps, by trying to bring together one’s
art and one’s life with one’s values.
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you feel that you are differently motivated
to write now than you were as a young man. Do you feel the same fervor–as say when you wrote "The Avenue Bearing
the Initial of Christ Into the New World" as you do now when you pick up your pen to write now? Do you feel your differently
motivated when you sit down to write.
I think I wrote with just as much fervor when I was young, as I do now, but I also sometimes wrote with a whimsy
that I don’t think I do so much now. I don’t mean I don’t write with humor, but that kind of whimsical play
has kind of disappeared-- and so, perhaps, it feels like more fervor, maybe less intermixture of unreflective triviality or
whimsy , but probably I wrote then with as much desire, but with less reflection perhaps?
Daniela Gioseffi: Perhaps
you wrote with more pure observation than contemplation, I think you’ve become more ironic than whimsical, perhaps,
more meditative now....
Galway Kinnell: Well, one can’t
speak of one’s own writing very well. That’s for others–for readers--to decide. It’s best to leave
that to others.
Daniela Gioseffi: I'm glad you go on writing energetically and with as much fervor as ever. I
think we need more poets like you who engage the visceral world, who make us sense our animal natures and accept them.There's
a good deal of overly intellectual poetry--precious and urbane--overly intellectual and decadent poetry that's too abstract
or solipsistic for the general reader to participate in. There's not enough deeply natural poetry being written-- poetry
that faces death and organic life squarely, and makes living in touch with earth and all creation resonate with beauty and
horror, wonder and despair---redeeming everything from shit to flowers as you do in your work. I'm glad that we have you
as one of the American giants among poets of our time, and I thank you for your time.
Galway Kinnell: Thank you, Daniela.