Poet Kinnell mines emotion from a rich life

July 19, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Galway Kinnell is drawn to 19th-century British Romantic poet John Keats. "His deepest feelings suffuse the whole poem," Mr. Kinnell says. "You feel the emotion in the style."

Critics have said similar things about the poems of Galway Kinnell.

One of America's most important contemporary poets, Mr. Kinnell will read his own poetry and discuss the influence of Keats at the University of Maryland Baltimore County at 7 p.m. tomorrow. The reading is part of a series of free public events that complement an international scholarly conference, "The Cultural Legacies of Romanticism," being held at UMBC today through Sunday.

A professor of writing at New York University and author of 12 books of poetry, four books of translation, two novels and a book of critical theory, Mr. Kinnell has been writing poems for nearly 50 years. In 1982, he won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his book "Selected Poems." And he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984.

He was state poet of Vermont, right after Robert Frost, about whom he wrote: "flimsy white leaf/Of hair standing straight up . . . [he] dwelt in access to that which other men have dwelt all their lives to get near."

Born in 1927 in Providence, R.I., Mr. Kinnell was the son of immigrant parents. His Irish mother was one of the first influences to lead him toward poetry.

"She had something about her that opened to the other world," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Vermont, remembering his mother as a woman who thought about things that most people don't think about. He laughs as he explains that when he graduated from college, his mother asked him if he learned whether there was an afterlife. College should have taught him about such important matters, she insisted.

One of his classmates and friends at Princeton University was W. S. Merwin, who would also become a major poet.

He was taught at Princeton by poet Charles G. Bell, who described him as looking "more like a prize fighter than a literary man." One of his early poems, "Meditation Among the Tombs," which concerns the poet's desire to create, was written for Mr. Bell, who would become his mentor and friend.

After getting his master's degree in 1949, Mr. Kinnell traveled extensively. He also served as a Fulbright professor in France, Australia, Hawaii and Iran. The people and things he saw became subjects in many of his poems: the child in Calcutta, the lady in Bangor, Maine, the pond in Asia, the henhouse in Rhode Island, the street in New York, the telephone in Mexico, the flower on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

Learning other languages also gave Mr. Kinnell a greater appreciation for English. "In English, you get a sense of things being born and dying that you can't get in Romance languages," he observes. "The nouns arrest things. The verbs throw everything into action; they put time into the poem and get it going."

As for his poems, Mr. Kinnell says, he tries to put all of his experience into them. There's his brother who died in an automobile accident, whom he writes about in "Freedom, New Hampshire": " . . . the grass/ Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,/And the few who loved him know this until they die."

There's the birth of his daughter, in "Under the Maud Moon": "Her head/ enters the headhold/that starts sucking her forth: being itself/closes down all over her, gives her/into the shuddering grip of departure." There's the birth of his son, in "Lastness": "he squinted with pained,/barely unglued eyes at the ninth-month's blood/splashing beneath him."

There's mother, father, sister, wife, God (whom he describes as a "music of grace . . . playing to us from the other side of happiness"). There's nature: from bear to possum to gray heron to forest to daybreak.

And there's death. Some critics have said that Mr. Kinnell is obsessed with death; others, that he's obsessed with love. In a sense, his poetry gets its power from both. As he puts it in "Spindrift": "Nobody likes to die/But an old man/Can know/A kind of gratefulness/Toward time that kills him,/Everything he loved was made of it."

POETRY READING

Who: Poet Galway Kinnell, reading at "The Cultural Legacies of Romanticism" conference

Where: University Center Ballroom, University of Maryland Baltimore County

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: Free

Call: (410) 455-2336

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