Series Review:

Makor: Poetry & Mentorship Series

Kinnell, Kraus and Gabis

On December 14, "Poetry & Mentorship," a series jointly sponsored by Makor and the NYU Writing Program, presented Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell and two of his former students, Sharon Kraus and Rita Gabis.

The Makor building at 35 West 67th Street near Lincoln Center is a multi-level, multi-use arts center that feels like an uptown Knitting Factory housed in European-consulate architecture. New as of just a year ago, it offers music and literary presentations, art exhibits, film screenings, and a café-bar. (Richie Havens was playing the night I was there.) Community outreach includes visiting the aged, feeding the hungry, teaching English as a second language, and similar programs. There is also a comprehensive range of Jewish-life activities, including talks on the klezmer and the Torah. (An events calendar appears on the web site, www.makor.org.)

The reading room accommodated the 100+ audience, though a few remained standing along the back wall. Onstage were a podium with microphone, and a small table with a vase of flowers, water glasses and a pitcher. The wall behind was hung with a grey/pink iridescent curtain. Eve Grubin, the series curator, was prepared with a lively introduction for each poet.

Ms. Kraus read first. A petite, pretty young woman, she thanked Kinnell for encouraging her to take risks and to write from her own life, speaking as truly as possible. By example, he had taught her generosity of spirit and reminded her that the transactions which matter most are the spiritual ones. She especially appreciated that when a student was encountering obstacles, creative or otherwise, he turned toward the student, not away from him.

Ms. Kraus began with "The Coroner's Assistant" from her collection, Generation (Alice James Books), a poem in which the speaker is present as an autopsy is performed on her mother, found four days dead in the tub. In a tone willed to match the dispassionate procedure ("My motherís body is not my mother."), we discover by the precision of scalpel to water-logged flesh and the slow, systematic removal and discard of vital organs ("Does God wear gloves to dismantle a soul?"), that what remains of this love--never unconditional or complete--is compassion.

Both this piece and the next, a metaphoric portrait of her husbandís averted back, were well-written, well-observed, concise, and sometimes humorous, though they played for me more as prose than poetry. The content was there, however, if somewhat lacking for the music and rhythm which I consider prerequisites of poems.

Rita Gabis, author of The Wild Field (Alice James Books), praised her former teacher for helping her "shake up assumptions and circumstances." The work, though evidently written with care, was unmusical--for all her awe-filled delivery of it. In "One Day," the speaker, who last night wept over the break-up of her marriage, is restored to optimism today by the "sun-life" in a bottle of gourmet olive oil. ("Transformation is everywhere in the criminal light.") This is not a maybe-you-had-to-be-there failure. There is a human universality in a good poem. Even when one writes about oneself, the poem must be bigger than. There was no weight or consequence in the rest of what Ms. Gabis read. She couched the innocuous in the simple with a mannered result. Blossoms are like the white leavings of a 3-hole punch during recess; the white moths of a soul fly out of a rape victimís body; the speaker and her husband lie on fresh-mown grass, but leave no mark when they rise--apparently after reading:"Books almost killed us / they made for so much silence."

Galway Kinnellís A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin 2000) has been nominated for the National Book Award, an honor already conferred (along with the Pulitzer) on his first Selected Poems in 1982. When curator Eve Grubin introduced Kinnell, she recalled the talk he delivered on October 30 as this yearís Stanley Burnshaw Lecturer at the CUNY Graduate Center (Big City Lit™ was there. See Addendum below.), and was impressed especially by his retelling of the legend that man and animal once spoke a "natural language," a facility we lost upon expulsion from Eden.

Kinnell thanked his students for their tribute and touched on the Greek derivation of the word, "mentor" (friend and advisor to Odysseus), only to say, "I donít feel wise. Iím just a fellow struggler, stumbler and aspirer." As a student, he was singled out for mentorship by Charles Bell, who throughout Kinnellís long career has always read and commented on his poems. Though Bellís interest gave him confidence, Kinnell believes he might have achieved his own voice sooner had he not had to struggle out of his mentorís orbit. He first found that voice for good, he said, with "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World."

Poetic talent is very fragile and individual. One must not tamper or deal too roughly with it. A mentor needs to see what a student is trying to do, support his talent as it emerges, and help him when he gets stuck. Also, one needs to give equal attention to all, whatever their talent.

Though he favored no one, he naturally did have favorites, and the thrilling part, he said, was watching the swift acceleration of their poetic powers during two years of concentrating their whole attention on poetry.

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that donít flower

Asked to comment on his connection to Judaism, Kinnell related that, as a young teacher in France after the war, he had spent a month in the new state of Israel, studying the Old Testament and living "as a poor wanderer." His biblical self-study (and his poverty) continued on 5th Street at Avenue C, where he wrote the 500-line "Initial" piece ("A man leaves a doorway tic toc tic toc tic toc tic hurrah toc splat") which critics have compared to The Waste Land. He also told the audience--with fresh delight--that his daughter had converted to Judaism and was now pursuing Medieval Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness.
(from "St. Francis and the Sow")

After "St. Francis" (Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, 1980), Kinnell read "Rapture" (Imperfect Thirst, 1994) ("a love poem"), both of which have been retained in the new selected.

Her breasts fall full; the nipples
are deep pink in the glare shining up through the iron bars
of the gate under the earth where those who could not love
press, wanting to be born again.
[ . . . ]
Under the falls
of hair her face has become quiet and downcast,
as if she will be, all day among strangers,
looking down inside herself at our rapture.

Kinnellís third piece was "The Quick and the Dead," a poem he had "just finished the other day." Its 200-some lines appear on a full, double-columned page of the Christmas issue of The New Yorker (Dec. 25, at 130).

Heís dead, I flung him there myself,
[ . . . ] Yet now
he lives: he jerks, he heaves, he shudders,
as if the process of decomposition
had quickened in him and turned violent,

Burying beetles reanimate a vole which had made itself a nuisance in the garden. The buriers are joined by "freeloaders of the afterlife / the midden flies, who arrive / and drop their eggs in, too," until the feast becomes "a self-digesting birth banquet." Kinnell says he was as spellbound by this process as by a medieval play, a ritual more dignified than our own whereby the human body is "pranked up in its holiday best" and laid out "in a satin-lined airtight stainless-steel coffin" which will be but a "centuries-long withering" and never the "crawling of new life out of the old."

When Kinnellís voice moves over his words, the effect is like that of the intended instrument filling the emptiness of whole notes.

The reading was followed by a book-signing.

--Elena Kondracki

* * *

Addendum
2000 Stanley Burnshaw Lecturer, Galway Kinnel

Big City Lit™ was there--along with Mr. Burnshaw and an audience of about 150 on folding chairs--for Kinnellís talk, "The Music of Poetry." He began by joking that he always had to title his speeches long before he really had any idea what he was going to say. Few can speak as well as he even spontaneously on this topic.

His poem, "The Music of Poetry," (performed at Carnegie Hall in April, when he featured for Lyric Recovery Festival™) finds him at a like-titled conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, faltering, like Frost, at the lectern, as thoughts of his "beloved" putting down her book and turning out the light cause him "to garble a few words and tangle [his] syntax," as he imagines her saying his name "into the slow waves of the night, and faintly, being alone," singing. He recounts Frost's lapse before the nation, "Lonely before millions, / The paper jumping in your grip," the anxious reactions of the president's men ("Boys this is it, / This sonofabitch poet / Is gonna croak," and his recovery, "Putting the paper aside / You drew forth / From your great faithful heart / The poem."

At CUNY now, he tells us what D.H. Lawrence said, that everything depends on the pause, on something as indefinite as the voice's expressiveness, the ebbings and liftings, which Pound reminded us are not the rhythm of the metronome, but rather, of the musical phrase.

All poems derive from ancient chant, Kinnell said, amalgams of the past. While we use systems to bring out the music of the language, it is the music, not the system which makes for the feeling. The iambics of Emily Dickinson's free verse contain pauses, inserted to make for the rhythm. Rhythm combines with the physical body of the poem's noise make for the texture of conspicuous sound.

He recounted the legend that there once existed a natural language spoken by man in Eden and spoken by the animals still. Lost upon expulsion from the garden, we will regain it in heaven. In the meantime, we still speak in poems during those moments of great tenderness. Whitman's wordless murmurings of the lover's name, the spell cast by the lover's voice, are all part of this phenomenon, and very much a part of what Whitman sought to achieve in poetry altogether, an infantile quality, sweet and deep.

Rilke's angels too, human babies and animals are still half in and half out of heaven, and thus love the cooing and babbling of the mother. Too soon the music gets lost and we transfer our interest to semantic meanings, yet, the baby knows the great important of the expressive element. It is these tones which fill out the poem.

Kinnell then read a series of poems, beginning with Keats's "To Autumn," noting its phonetic affinities, the poet's love for the sacred drone of insects, his entrancement by the nightingale. He offered a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as evidence of excessive affinity. Christopher Smart tried for an echo, saying, "the lion roars itself from head to tail." Other poets read or mentioned included John Clare, who transliterated the nightingale's sound as "jug jug" and "tern tern"-- phonetics which reappear in The Waste Land,--Wallace Stevens, Gary Snyder, Rilke ("The Panther",) James Wright, Muriel Rukeyser, and Emily Dickinson .

Athletes get into a rhythmic zone and exceed their actual strength. So too, the trance produced by the nightingale is owing to rhythm, like the flow of chopping wood. When words start to come rhythmically, relaxed, and the oem comes of its own accord, one hits on versimilitudes through knowledge of no path, just the appearance of being given. One can become attuned in that state to the rhythms of the earth, and then make spontaneous and right choices with no effort. Kinnell said,

The poem has to be given, in its music at least, or it will never amount to anything.

Kinnell's famous, multi-part piece, "The Bear", was written one night when his heartbeat was chaotic heartbeat, and he couldn't sleep. He didn't think about what he was wing. Consciously, he identified with the hunter, but the voice came from the bear.

The lecture was videotaped. Contact the Continuing Education Department at (212) 817-2005 for a copy. (mh)