Galway Kinnell, poet

Buy this, but more importantly, read it.
Buy this, but more importantly, read it.

Galway Kinnell passed away earlier this week. I had a chance to hear him read a few years ago, and was struck by his ability to both feel deeply and speak cogently about that feeling. He was a great poet, and one of the few who manages to be both great and intelligible. Literature will be the smaller without him. He gave one of my favorite definitions of the purpose of poetry ever (also quoted in the Times article linked above):

“To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

I was sure I’d featured Kinnell on this blog before, but it seems I haven’t. This one, “The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Good-bye to His Students,” starts funny, but doesn’t end that way. I was going to link to a few more, but realized they were all so good, I just couldn’t choose one more. So here are all of them from poetry foundation. And here is one that I have loved for a long time, stanza 9 from “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone,” read by Garrison Keillor.

Finally, here is “Oatmeal:”

 

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if
somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats.
Keats said I was right to invite him: due to its glutinous texture, gluey
lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to
disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
He said it is perfectly OK, however, to eat it with an imaginary
companion,
and he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund
Spenser and John Milton.
He also told me about writing the “Ode to a Nightingale.”
He wrote it quickly, he said, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in
his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the
stanzas, and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and
they made some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if
they got it right.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, then
lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move
forward with God’s reckless wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas
of his own, but only made matters worse.
When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there is
much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started
on it
and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy
cells” and “Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,” came
to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him–drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the
glimmering furrows, muttering–and it occurs to me:
maybe there is no sublime, on the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from
lunch.
I’m aware that a leftover baked potato can be damp, slippery, and
simultaneously gummy and crumbly,
and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

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