In Memoriam: Galway Kinnell

by Phillip Witteveen on November 7, 2014


Galway Kinnell—Pulitzer winning poet, essayist and teacher—died October 28, 2014 at age 87. He was a big, square-jawed guy, the kind it seemed you could blunt iron against; he wrote with the soul of a river, or a son of Abraham. He did all this at a time of emergent New Criticism (after the advent and aftermath of Pound and Eliot’s Modernism), but didn’t seem too bothered with theories in vogue at the time, according, as they were, to the sorting algorithm of popular culture. He was more into the timeless stuff, or maybe better put, the stuff of timelessness. In his poems, there’s an urgent mortality, preoccupied as he was not just with life, but with life-before-death. So this, it turns out, (at age 87 on a Tuesday in Sheffield, Vermont due to leukemia) has been the end—the end of all ends it was his way to envision over and over again.

In 1971, Kinnell was interviewed by Mary Jane Fortunato, in New York City. It was Spring.

“In our New York Quarterly craft interviews,” said Fortunato, “we have tried to be as objective as possible and not to get too involved with feelings and emotions about things, but stay with craft and style.”

“Matters I don’t know anything about,” said Kinnell.

In 1972, Kinnell was interviewed by James J. McKenzie, in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Said the poet: “I go to bed early, don’t eat much, don’t drink, and play tennis when I can. Every day I try to put in an hour or so of work. And, then, somehow, it seems OK.”

In an unrecorded place and time, and yet often quoted, Galway Kinnell said: “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.”

Kinnell is survived by all those he mattered to (there are many), and in ephemera—his work, and the work it gathered around itself, critically, and in conversation. The University of Michigan Press is proud to preserve and celebrate part of this legacy in selected interviews (Walking Down the Stairs), and collected discourse on his poetry (On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell).

You can read the New York Times obituary here.

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