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About this poet

Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. In his youth, he was drawn to both the musicality and hermetic wisdom of poets like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he was classmates with W. S. Merwin. However, while Merwin studied with the critic R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry." He later received his Master's degree from the University of Rochester.

After serving in the United States Navy, he spent several years of his life traveling, including extensive tours of Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran and France. His first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was, was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964).

Upon his return to the United States, Kinnell joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as a field worker and spent much of the 1960s involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His many experiences with social activism during this time, including an arrest while participating in a workplace integration in Louisiana, found their way into his collection Body Rags (1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (1971), a book-length poem concerned with the Vietnam War.

Kinnell has published several more volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); A New Selected Poems (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980).

He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prose works by Kinnell include collection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs (1978), a novel, Black Light (1966), and children's book, How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (1982).

About his work, Liz Rosenberg wrote in the Boston Globe: "Kinnell is a poet of the rarest ability, the kind who comes once or twice in a generation, who can flesh out music, raise the spirits and break the heart."

Kinnell is the recipient of the 2010 Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. His other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 2002 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, the 1974 Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.

He has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of California at Irvine, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Brandeis. He taught at New York University for many years, where he was Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing. He currently lives in Vermont.


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From the Image Archive

 

The Bear

Galway Kinnell, 1927
1

In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.


2

I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.

And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.

And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.


3

On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and rise
and go on running.


4

On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
steamy hulk,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.

I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching
perhaps the first taint of me as he
died.

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.


5

And dream
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.


6

Until one day I totter and fall—
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,

blows across
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.


7

I awaken I think. Marshlights
reappear, geese
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lies, licking
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the next,
the next,
the rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?

From A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell, published by Houghton Mifflin. © 2000 by Galway Kinnell. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

From A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell, published by Houghton Mifflin. © 2000 by Galway Kinnell. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927.

by this poet

poem
Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all
poem
The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from
poem

 

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