What A Kingdom It Is: An Interview with Galway Kinnell
(Part One of Two)
by Daniela Gioseffi
Galway Kinnell is one of America's most widely known and loved poets and hardly needs an introduction. Winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a MacArthur Foundation Grant, the language of his work today seems as fresh as when he published his first collection, What a Kingdom It Was (Houghton Mifflin, 1960). Perhaps, one can detect that his voice has settled into a calmer, self-assured tone, yet his convictions are as real and connected to the earthly realm as ever. His latest collection, A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), follows, by eight years, Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), which won The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and comes after the publication of four ensuing collections: The Past (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (Knopf, 1990), Three Books (Ticknor & Fields, 1993), and Imperfect Thirst (Houghton Mifflin, 1994.)
Kinnell is a poet of masculine tone and music. His original voice portrays the realities of the natural world. Often, he finds transcendence through enveloping himself in the realities of nature, her vulnerability and fierce cruelty, vulturism, decay, and death, as well as her awe-inspiring majesty and beauty. His portrayal of the natural world is not Romantic in the 19th century style, but rather, naturalistic and accepting of all manner of visceral wonder, horror, glory and ferocity, as well as tenderness.
There is a sardonic tone at times, but always there is passion for what is both beautiful and tragic. Much of his work is as aware of the absurdities of urban civilization as of man's inhumanity to man. His poems are transcendent of all things, "original, spare and strange."
And yet I can rejoice
Much of Kinnell's lyricism is composed of single stanzas, but, whatever form he utilizes, he does it justice and makes it his own, always wrestling with full-bodied themes. There is no solipsistic world of effete and decadent experiment operating in Kinnell's writing. He has real things to say about an actual world of flesh and bone and excrement, full of nature's glories and horrors, always viewed from within the reality of our gutsy, animal being, our need to survive from the land and its vulnerable animal life, a world poignant with transient beauty and helpless mortality. His work is not without its lighter moments and sense of humor, as for example in his entertaining poem about having oatmeal with John Keats.
Kinnell's poetry is one in which events occur: women and men make love, people and animals are born, live and die, the earth blossoms and freezes, burns and churns, and the "mortal acts" of living take place.
I meet Galway at his home in the Village overlooking the Hudson River. The wall behind him is lined with well-stocked bookcases reaching to the ceiling. I've known him for many years prior to his many prizes and awards, and his kindliness and humility have never seemed spoiled by his many plaudits and honors. He seems as vital and astute as ever. Selections from many of his interviews were republished in Walking Down the Stairs (University of Michigan Press, 1978), so he rarely grants interviews these days. He feels he's already offered his various views on the writing of poetry and on American culture.
He has been busy of late with polishing a new edition of his Rilke translations, as well as a British edition of his selected poems. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in Spring of 2001. I mention John Logan, an old and long-deceased poet friend we shared in common, and say Logan's work deserves to be revived and remembered. Galway agrees and generously remarks on its gorgeous musicality. Bobbie Kinnell, Galway's wife, offers us some morning coffee, and we settle into our conversation.
seem to be dying out or diminishing.
DG: Even though we've had a couple of presidents, Kennedy and Clinton, who managed to have a poet read at their inaugurations, there's always, these days, the problem of such a din of sports and sensational 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. Lord Byron or Tennyson, for example, were really listened to and followed by the masses—relative to the popular cultures of their times—as avidly as a Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts are today. One wonders whether poets are heard much outside their own circles. Has that fact ever discouraged you?
GK: That fact alone hasn't discouraged 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 mineshaft, warning us of what's to come.
DG: Yes, and now with global warming and the ozone layer disappearing, there's a sense of 'What are we writing for?'
GK: 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.
DG: There's a kind of grossness, like gladiator 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 than ever
and still is to a significant degree.
DG: 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 Klu Klux Klan. My motives were simply that I was very na´ve 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?
GK: 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. 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 so 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.
GK: 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. [Congress on Racial Equality] 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, and went to Louisiana for a summer of voter registration and a fall of attempting integration in certain businesses in Hammond, Louisiana.
I should have taken a surrealistic approach.
DG: So you were down there working with the Congress on 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 inequity this year.
[The 2000 presidential election was decided by a margin of mere hundreds in Florida, allowing George W. Bush to carry the state (of his brother, Governor Jeb Bush) and its electoral votes—albeit only after a 5-4 decision by the United States Supreme Court. Eds.]
GK: I certainly hope so.
DG: "The Last River" is a poem from those days that I admire, along with many others, and I noticed that although "The Last River" appears in your first Selected Poems (1982), it is omitted from the 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.
GK: 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 to work on voter registration 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.
DG: It was idealistic, but all the same, the more said anywhere and everywhere the better, yes?
GK: 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.
DG: Is it that you kind of took a Dantesque form in "The Last River"? Is that what you don't like about the poem?
GK: 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.
DG: It was hell. It is hell! But, in many aspects it's heaven, too--especially when you are "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock." 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.
GK: I guess of those you've listed here, I'm 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. The threat of nuclear war is back again.
DG. Yes. 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. I'm working on a new and revised edition of my  WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age from Touchstone because the anti-nuclear movement is building up again. 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 epigraph?
GK: 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.
DG: I've always admired that poem. In a way, it has an epic proportion; even though it has intimate detail, it has a larger and omniscient point of view.
is often the more true and real.
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
GK: 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.
DG: Well, the last elliptical couplet rings true as ever, but why, do you think, do 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 wiser.
GK: It just seems the more ordinary and close at hand is often the more true and real.
DG: 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 "Sheffield 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?
social and moral teachings.
GK: 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, 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.
DG: 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?
We've taken over—and become a threat.
GK: 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 say 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.
political or social force to it.
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.
DG: Yes, it's a pity that so much of the money and 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, the 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 its wings at eighty beats to the second. 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.
GK: Yes, and the much maligned pig, if he's given a pen with room to walk around, 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. We have distorted ideas of other animals. The birds aren't just singing for our pleasure.
DG: 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 Porcupine," 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 survival.
over the forces of darkness. . . "
--James Wright ("Eisenhower's Visit to Franco, 1959")
GK: 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 recites the entire poem to conclusion.)
© 2001 Daniela Gioseffi A much abbreviated and different version of this interview appeared in The Cortland Review, November, 2001. A longer version of the introduction appeared as a review of Kinnell's A New Selected Poems in the Spring 2001 issue of poetrybay.com. (DG)
(A regular contributor to the magazine, Daniela Gioseffi is a widely published poet, novelist and literary critic, and the American Book Award-winning author of ten books of poetry and prose. Her latest, SYMBIOSIS: poems, 2001, is an e-book is available at various e-book sites through Rattapallax Press. The new and revised edition of WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age will appear from The Feminist Press. Gioseffi edits and publishes PoetsUSA.com, an internet site which incorporates five web sites of literature, commentary, and criticism.)