Friday, 21 October 2011

The Bliss of Solitude: Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell's early work was fierce, with a bitter beauty that reflected the early 60s when he was an antiwar activist poet and, before that, a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality. Not only a humanist, his view of the natural world reminds me of Ted Hughes; he looks at nature to better reveal human nature, often revelling in the unpleasant details of this wildlife.
 "I've tried to carry my poetry as far as I could, to dwell on the ugly as fully, as far, and as long, as I could stomach it. Probably more than most poets I have included in my work the unpleasant because I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events."
Here his young self reads 'The Bear'.
He does not consider himself a 'nature poet' though:
 "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…Poems about other creatures may have political and social implications for us."
As he's aged his work has softened and re-focussed on homely things. Tenderness, beauty and a love of family seem to have rooted him; his writing is less angry, less expansive; more specific and home grown. His children appear in his recent collection from 2007 'Strong is Your Hold', including "Everyone Was in Love" (read here by the poet himself) which recalls the delight of seeing his kids Maud and Fergus transfixed by snakes; they seem as fearless and keen eyed as he once was.
The children intrude themselves into his most private moments: 'After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps'.
With this more meditative stance Kinnell remains ever compassionate and, like Keats long before him, focusses on the transience of things and how their passing impacts on his everyday existence. He recognises the importance of bearing witness and being seen to do so:
"It's the poet's job 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 certain shape, that have a chance of lasting." 
It's interesting how a writer's defining work is invariably that which is their most direct; often their least ambitious; possibly because All of Us respond to immutable truths; oftentimes all of the wise words have already been spoken and rest between the borders of the saccharine and the sonorous. Just listen to Louis Armstrong's 'Wonderful World' or Mancini's 'Moon River' to wonder at the power of the platitude; I love the inclusivity of "we're after the same rainbow's end, waiting 'round the bend, my huckleberry friend; Moon river and me." even though I don't quite get it (what is a 'huckleberry friend'?
The weight and wisdom of words well placed can make us feel connected to something within and beyond ourselves; to a greater society. Poetry's balm might even help us towards humility and understanding; our feelings and failings endorsed when the penny drop moments are articulated well for us; they connect us to the ground and to each other. Although more than ever it's a dog eat world I hope that we have moved beyond 'survival of the fittest'; it's not the strengths that bind us; it's the weaknesses; we recognise our vulnerabilities in others and love them for it. 
Mmm, I need to step down from the pulpit and get back on topic: words and music as epitaphs...
It wouldn't be hard to imagine 'Promissory Note' as the world's favourite eulogy. 
There is a heartbreaking urgency to these simple words, written for Galway Kinnell's wife Bobbie:

Promissory Note

If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.

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