Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell

First of all I want to congratulate the ten recipients. I’ve read something by all ten and I find them a remarkably talented group of writers. That’s why, secondly, I want to congratulate the Whiting Foundation for finding them. For finding them, and then for honoring them not only with an honor, but with a large and very useful amount of money. And for arranging this award money to come down out of the blue and not be something one has to apply and beseech for. And finally, for bestowing these awards in a beautiful room.

These awards are given to emerging writers, writers who are just now coming into the full exercise of their powers. To writers who are leaving the state of innocence, that long period of obscurity which all writers go through—well some not so long—and entering the state of experience, where they will receive recognition, possibly renown, and conceivably for some of these ten, fame.

I wanted to say something about the two states—not that I know so much about the second—and something about the trials and blessings which pertain to them. If I seem to talk more about poetry than about novels and essays, that's understandable, right?

I started writing in the 1950s. Times change, but I trust that some of the experiences that I had resemble some that the youngest writer here might have today.

When I started, poetry was a kind of cult, the life of poetry like priesthood. No money, few readers, total devotion. One was to make one’s own living by one’s wits, more or less. Vaguely in the distance was the figure of Robert Frost, old and famous, but somehow, totally out of reach. In the 1950s, poetry readings sprang up in bars and coffee houses. Paul Blackburn took upon himself the role of union organizer and called up all the poets—it was still possible to know who they all were—and asked each of us to agree not to read for less than five dollars. As a sign of our shaky bargaining position, he added, “Well, if you can’t get at least five dollars, at least get a free drink.”

Thanks to Betty Kray and the Academy of American Poets, poetry reading tours were set up in the early 1960s. Those who went out on the tours came to places where poets had never been before, where it was assumed that poets were an extinct species. Appearances by poets were tantalizing, therefore, and brought out some of the curious—just to see one. We were often introduced as “living American poet.” There is the story about how Robert Creeley was interrupted at a reading by a student who said, “Mr. Creeley, are those real poems or did you make them up yourself?”

The audiences were sometimes quite small. I remember my first tour, the Midwest Poetry Circuit, in 1961. I flew from Ohio via Chicago to an airport deep in Minnesota. Then I was driven for hours through a black forest to a remote college, where I read to an audience of three. That included my driver. And the person who introduced me. And the person who had prepared the refreshments for the reception. Which four of us attended.

Then, as now, there were too few magazines, too few pages in magazines, too few bright editors of the magazines. Of course, we defined brightness by the attitude the editors held toward our own writing. Rummaging about my papers a few years ago, I unearthed a batch of letters of rejection. Here are a few samples:


Thanks for the chance at these poems, Mr. Galway. We liked “Yankee West” the better, but feel that its stanza four is not up to the others. Perhaps it could be safely omitted. We should be glad to read “Yankee West” again, should you care to resubmit it.

Sincerely yours.


Dear Mr. Kinnell,

I regret to say that in our long history, payment for poems has never been made. The poets have always been very glad to grant permission. Frost, Witter Bynner, Carlos Williams, Margaret Widemar and many others, have gladly given me consent to include their poems without any consideration for payment. If you feel you cannot go along with them, much as I regret it, I shall be obliged to omit your poem.

            Sincerely yours.


Dear Mr. Kinnell,

I am returning these. We cannot use love poems unless they have some cosmic twist or humanistic ictus.

Sincerely yours.


Dear Mr. Galway,

The trouble we have had regarding a decision about your poem, “Yankee West,” is due to a split editorial opinion. We can get together on the poem only if you can omit stanza three, which to some of our editors sounds false and bombastic.

Sincerely yours.


Dear Mr. Kinnell,

The conspicuous flaw in the poems is a too great reliance on the trite feeling word and situation: “The sadness of joy.” Do you read much modern poetry? I’d suggest a book called Understanding Poetry by Brooks and Warren. Holt, very cheap, very helpful on rhythm, imagery, etc. Get it.

Sincerely yours.


Dear Mr. Galway,

You may have noticed that “Yankee West” did not appear in the summer issue. This is because of doubts a number of us had regarding stanza two. I, for one, have the feeling that stanza one is strong enough to stand alone. We will be having our editorial meeting in early November and will let you know.

Sincerely yours.


Well, these letters, which caused bitter distress and considerable ire at the time, now seem rather sweet and touchingly innocent. How wonderful that the editors took the time to write these letters. I can assure you that the poems deserved rejection; and that for many of them “false and bombastic” was an understatement. If you ever run across “Yankee West” (what a title!)—which I hope you never do—I’m sure you will find even the much admired stanza one completely without merit, not to speak of humanistic ictus or cosmic twist.

That period of obscurity in my life as a writer, lasting from my late teens until I was thirty-three years old, when I published my first book, was, all in all, a wonderful time. I had a lot of solitude, I read a lot, I wrote a lot, I wandered a lot. I made friendships with poets of my generation—friendships which continue even now—friendships full of idealism and excitement, irreverence and blatantly Oedipal attacks on our elders, exchanges of criticism between ourselves, and much talk and much laughter. And then one by one we stepped out of that obscure Eden and published.

Of course, every writer wants to publish. But there is something fearsome about it too. Emily Dickinson write (and let us overlook her culturally-determined use of the word “white” in these otherwise lovely stanzas):


Publication—is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man—

Poverty—be justifying

For so foul a thing


Possibly—but We—would rather

From Our Garret go

White—unto the White Creator—

Than invest—Our Snow—


Emily Dickinson is the only great writer I know of who renounced publication. The reasons to publish are too compelling. Possibly, one wants to publish to give oneself an identity, before others, even to oneself; or to feed one’s vanity, or to provide a home, between hard covers, to poems one has labored over. But the principal reason is that the destiny of a poem is to touch others.

Once one has embarked on a writing career, there are no trustworthy outward signs as to how one is doing. A long jumper can measure, a banker can count up, but a writer…any glance at the history of literary reputation tells us writers fall into four classes: those who are esteemed in their lifetimes and continue to be esteemed ever after (and I hope all of our ten here are in this class, but nobody in this room will ever know); those neglected in their lifetimes and discovered and loved afterwards; those who are esteemed in their lifetimes but who drop out of sight and are never heard from again; and last, and least, those who are neglected in their lifetimes and neglected ever after. Keats said, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.” He could only say, “I think;” he could only hope it; he could not know. What most writers want most is that their work will endure, but no writer can ever know. Only God knows. And God does not read poetry—and probably reads very little fiction either. God leaves all that to his father, Chronos. Chronos, of course, is senile and takes centuries to sort it all out and let us know who is great and who is not. Famous writers can never be free of the knowledge that their renown must be only for a day.

Whitman took the sane view. He wrote:


And whether I come to my own today or in ten

              Thousand or ten million years,

I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal

               Cheerfulness I can wait


Of course Whitman does not include among the possible fates that he will never come to his own. But that is because he had in abundance that necessary quality, faith in his own talent. Also, he loved to write. Those two qualities are what makes the profession of writing possible. Whitman, like all writers, sometimes had trouble writing—and was saved by his faith in his gift and his love of writing. It is possible that—this is a hard concept to express—it is possible that writers are unsuited to their profession and that’s why they have taken it up. It may be that a writer feels building up within some burden of meaning that must get said—something unspoken that absolutely needs to get out. Addressing the hermit thrush, Whitman said, “For well, dear brother, I know, if thou was not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.” But how does such a buildup happen? It must happen when the writer cannot express him or herself—when the writer is mute in some way. What would normally flow off in talk and in other ways is dammed up and produces the overwhelming need to write. To put it another way, only those who can’t write, must write.

There lies the difficulty. The writer is born with a gift, but also a barrier. To write is not like laying bricks—to lay words in true and beautiful order takes a heightened intensity, that will allow one to break through inhibitions and discover something within oneself and in the world around one that one has not known before. It may even help to be a little cracked, so that the mind lets in light that the whole mind shuts out. But this kind of special intensity cannot always be summoned up. Writers have invented a term for this state (it is the only profession that has invented a name for its own affliction), writer’s block.

Which is probably a euphemism for writer’s fear. Fear of breaking through the barrier, the inhibition, into something painful. Many writers, especially in our time and in this country, in order to overcome these difficulties, have undertaken a Faustian pact. “Give me so-and-so many years of magical power and prolific production, and then you can come and take my soul away.” The spirits who bestow the magical power and prolific production and then come to enforce the contract and take the soul away are, usually, just that: spirits.

The true joy of the writer is exactly the same in renown as it was in obscurity. The true joy comes during the act of writing. At the best, uncontracted moments, the locked self opens, the world takes on an extreme reality, and words flow from one saying things one doesn’t know one knows. Only lovers—I don’t know why I say “only,” because everybody is a lover, or was, or will be, or may be—only lovers know that sense of oneness with the creation that the writer knows in the moment of creation. The dingy garret fills with light, the light itself seems to be singing. As Dylan Thomas put it:


It is my craft of sullen art

Exercised in the still of night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.


This joy of writing is the true reward. There are outward rewards as well—money that comes down of the blue, like these awards we are celebrating today, is not the least of them, and is perhaps the most useful. Royalties from the sale of books is a kind of immaterial money; it is the distillation of people’s desire to have one’s writing and is worth more than other money and must be spent in special ways. Perhaps the most affecting outward reward is the gesture of response that indicates one’s writing has, in fact, touched another. Such as walking into a house and finding a piece of one’s writing scotch-taped to the refrigerator door. Or having someone pull out a dog-eared poem, clipped from a magazine many years before from their wallet. Or recite the poem by heart. Or receiving a letter that wanders in from some unfamiliar place. I want to read a portion of such a letter I received many years ago. I hope you don’t take it as self-serving that I read it. It happens to be a letter I have. Every writer has received an equivalent.


“I became ill. I withdrew from everyone. Not only just from things outside, but in another way, I never let anyone near me. If I were touched, it would be like someone setting fire to me. It hurt not really physically, but in my mind. I know I’m not explaining it well. I don’t know exactly how to put it. This may sound odd, but you were the first person I ever let touch me. Your words, physical words—Does that make sense? It is like this—when I was sick, though I was sixteen years old, I was really four in my mind, a very injured and terrified four. I would remember my uncle pinning me down, holding me immobile until I couldn’t breathe, he was so heavy. It felt like my lungs wouldn’t expand. Therefore, I never let anyone touch me. It hurt too much. But then there were your poems. The one I especially loved was, 'To a Child in Calcutta.' Can you see why? In the fifth, sixth lines and others, and the line, 'If I held you in my arms until you slept, in these arms.' And it was so different. Again, it was a little girl, only this time, someone was holding me very tenderly. Funny, isn’t it? You held a child in Calcutta that you never really knew. You also held a child in a living room in Waynesburg that you never even met."


Well, that letter arrived probably twenty years ago. I remember thinking at the time, if I never receive another honor, this one will do.


Galway Kinnell was the author of ten books of poetry, including The Book of Nightmares, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, Imperfect Thirst, and most recently A New Selected Poems and Strong is Your Hold.  He also published a novel, Black Light; a selection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs; and a book for children, as well as translations of works by Yves Bonnefoy, Yvan Goll, Francois Villon and Rainer Maria Rilke. A former MacArthur Fellow and State Poet of Vermont, he was a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.  In 1982, his Selected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in 2002, he was awarded the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America.  He taught for many years at New York University, where he was Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing. He was a longtime resident of northern Vermont.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he was raised in Pawtucket, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and took a Masters degree from University of Rochester.  He was the director of the adult education program at the University of Chicago’s Downtown Center, a teacher and journalist in Iran, and a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality in Louisiana, and subsequently taught poetry at colleges in this country and abroad.

Galway Kinnell passed away in 2014 at the age of 87. For more on his life and tremendous career, see Daniel Lewis’s piece at The New York Times.