Albright: Kinnell's Collected Poems

Dec 6, 2017

Galway Kinnell died at his home in Sheffield in 2014, at the age of 87. His many admirers mourned the loss, but also celebrated the poet who once said his job was “to figure out what’s happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a lasting shape.”

Kinnell’s poems have lasted, and can now all be found in one volume, co-edited by his widow, Bobbie Bristol, and his former graduate student, Jennifer Keller.

As Edward Hirsch says in the introduction, Kinnell’s poetry is “mystically physical,” whether he’s showing us a “little sheep’s-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,” or “panhandlers and pushers” on Avenue C in New York City’s Lower East Side.

From 1927-2014, Kinnell published ten books of poetry, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was also a MacArthur Fellow and the State Poet of Vermont, a title he shared with Robert Frost, among others, with whom he’s been compared.
In an editors’ note, Bristol observes that Kinnell was an avid reviser, and that he once remarked (I assume half joking) that he should have waited to publish his poems until he was 80, when he was finally satisfied with them. The collection, in a sense, grants that wish.

I met Kinnell toward the end of his life, when I drove up the dirt road to his classic farmhouse to record him for a story I was reporting, reading one of his own favorite poems, “Saint Francis and the Sow.” He warned that his eyesight wasn’t as sharp as it used to be and he might make mistakes. But in his sunlit study, holding the book in his lap but rarely looking at the text, he recited the lines in his warm, conversational voice without a single stumble.

In his introduction, Hirsch writes that Kinnell recognized “a luminous spark in us” – a spark that glows throughout this collection, even through dark moments when the down-to-earth existentialist contemplates death - his own, or, more chillingly, “The Silence of the World" - the title of one of his poems.

It ends this way: “From across the valley the thud of an axe/arrives later than its strike/and the call of goodbye slowly separates itself/little by little from the vocal chords of everything.”

Good-bye, Galway Kinnell. But with this 500-page collection, hello again.