rereading with Galway Kinnell

One of my favorite things about a reading and writing life is exploring how meaning gathers around words and self when we first read something, and then dwelling on how that changes when we reread things. The shifts between a first read and a rereading – especially when the two experiences are years apart – can be as dramatic as the shifting between tectonic plates, or as subtle as a turn of light as the afternoon grows late.


This train of thought naturally invites parallels with life, which is where this week’s poem, “Lost Loves” by Galway Kinnell, comes to mind. This poem invokes the idea of its title and then goes into unexpected specifics. First, Kinnell’s apt and inventive phrasing of “I lie baking / the deathward flesh in the sun” evokes a languishing sense of mortality. “Deathward” works both on a philosophical level as well as on an emotional one. The word makes one think about the biological functioning of the human body, about what is inevitable. The image of a door “banging in the wind” then leads to specific street names and poem titles which are, in this context, cast as lost loves.

The second section upends this somber dynamic by hitting different notes. Suddenly, the speaker is able to “rejoice”; suddenly there is change. When we get to the intense, primordial image at the end, life itself has shifted and is reread into something raw and hopeful. Love is not lost then, but recovered in the living.

Lost Loves – Galway Kinnell


On ashes of old volcanoes
I lie baking
the deathward flesh in the sun.

I can hear
a door, far away,
banging in the wind:

Mole Street. Quai-aux-Fleurs. Françoise.
Greta. “After Lunch” by Po Chu-I.
“The Sunflower” by Blake.


And yet I can rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
into life,

and enter ourselves
like the tadpole, its time come, tumbling toward the slime.


From Collected Poems


shameless with hayden carruth

I found this week’s poem reading through The Seleced Poetry of Hayden Carruth (Macmillan, 1985). In his introduction, Galway Kinnell quotes Carolyn Kizer’s response to the question of what it takes to be a poet: “It is necessary to be absolutely shameless.” There are many things this could mean. For one, Carruth was writing at a time when the term “confessional” was rooting itself into the poetic landscape. But there is more to what Kizer means than gossip, per se. There is a depth of feeling to Carruth’s work that is tapped into indirectly.

fireAn example of what I mean can be found below. The narrative of “In Memoriam” is straightforward through the first six lines; the stoking of a fire in winter described in these lines grounds the poem in physicality. The repetition of the word “suddenly” in line six, however, marks a turn from the physical to the emotional. The speaker goes on to describe reading the poems of a recently deceased poet in the same straightforward manner as the fire, only this act of reading coincides with an increase of heat in the room. This coinciding blurs the physical and emotional in a shameless way; the heat that overwhelms the speaker is evoked on both levels. Rather than state his grief directly, the poem moves on carrying the charge of these blurred states through imagery. The admission (or confession) in these lines, however, occurs in the clarity of each line, and rings out because of it.

In Memoriam – Hayden Carruth

This warmish night of the thaw
in January a beech chunk
smoldering in my Herald
No. 22A box stove suddenly
takes fire and burns
hot, or rather I suddenly
who was reading the sweet
and bitter poems of Paul
Goodman dead last summer
am aware how my shed
becomes a furnace, and taking
my shovel I ladle
a great mush of snow
into the stove’s mouth
to quieten it
and then step quickly
outside again to watch
the plume of steam rise
from my stovepipe straightly
and vanish into mist.


Happy misting!


* sequencing with galway kinnell

As I work out of the echo of last week’s exams, I continue to have thoughts along the lines of fragmented narratives and ways of making use of what’s called in media res, which translates roughly as “into the middle of things.” It’s a phrase I picked up while reading Shakespeare: we first meet Romeo as he is in between relationships (I always forget that some serious moping opens up that famous play about love: kind of foreshadowing, no?).

I also see the term in media res as summing up how we understand ourselves. We are born into the middle of our parents’ lives; we read poems in the middle of different stages of our life; we eat, uhm, sandwiches in the middle of the day – and from these moments begin to cobble together the narrative pieces that make up who we are.

One of the ways this concept is worked with in lyric poetry is the sequence, and one of the great practitioners of which was Galway Kinnell, whose lines do the careful and exacting work of establishing moments and threading them together towards a greater whole.

Coming back to this week’s poem, there’s some sonic repetition (flop; feathers; flames) throughout the piece I hadn’t noticed before, and it’s telling how those sounds are absent from section 5. The difference, while subtle, does much to make the feeling of that section stand out against the rest. Each stanza, ultimately, plays image and moment against each other powerfully through such distinctions.


Another Night in the Ruins – Galway Kinnell

In the evening
haze darkening on the hills,
purple of the eternal,
a last bird crosses over,
‘flop flop,’ adoring
only the instant.

Nine years ago,
in a plane that rumbled all night
above the Atlantic,
I could see, lit up
by lightning bolts jumping out of it,
a thunderhead formed like the face
of my brother, looking down
on blue,
lightning-flashed moments of the Atlantic.

He used to tell me,
“What good is the day?
On some hill of despair
the bonfire
you kindle can light the great sky—
though it’s true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in …”

Wind tears itself hollow
in the eaves of these ruins, ghost-flute
of snowdrifts
that build out there in the dark:
upside-down ravines
into which night sweeps
our cast wings, our ink-spattered feathers.

I listen.
I hear nothing. Only
the cow, the cow of such
hollowness, mooing
down the bones.

Is that a
rooster? He
thrashes in the snow
for a grain. Finds
it. Rips
it into
flames. Flaps. Crows.
bursting out of his brow.

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
to open ourselves, to be
the flames?


Happy flames!


* remembering galway kinnell

Given this week’s news of Galway Kinnell’s passing, I find myself heading into Dia de los Muertos this weekend with him on my mind.

I had the pleasure of attending a reading he gave alongside Phil Levine in NYC. The two great poets chatted at their table before the reading. When the time came to start, Galway walked up to the mic and in his booming, majestic baritone gave a stellar reading of Phil’s poem “They Feed They Lion.” The room was collectively knocked out. Phil then walked up and replaced Galway at the podium, and said: “Gee, that was pretty good.”

They then proceeded to take turns, poem by poem, reading each other’s work. I remember how well the two voices complimented each other’s work, Phil adding some lyric subtlety to his reading of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of the Christ into the New World,” and Galway delivering the grit and grace behind Phil’s poems.

Grit and grace are two solid words to remember Galway Kinnell by, words exemplified in the meditation in the poem below.

* el maestro *
* el maestro *

The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak – Galway Kinnell

The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it’s feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can’t, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn’t arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.


Happy stronging!


* pennies, memory, & the friday influence

Brown Penny – WB Yeats

I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.


Today’s Friday Influence focuses on this lyric by WB Yeats.

I was introduced to this poem when talking randomly with a stranger in a bookstore.  We went back and forth about poets we had read.  Suddenly the name Yeats came up and the young man began reciting this poem from memory.  I walked away from that encounter eager to memorize the poem myself.

This was years ago.  I have since memorized around thirty poems.  Memorizing a poem, according to Galway Kinnell, is a way to own a poem, to have it be a part of your other memories.

I have a system: I write out a line longhand and then close my eyes, reading the words off the back of my eyes, reciting them to myself.  When I feel I have it, I write out the next line and then go over the two lines so far and then continue until I have the whole poem down.

This process is insightful in that it slows you down in your reading to the point that you begin to see the relation of each individual word and phrase to the others.  For example, the last line of the first stanza with its looped in the loops of her hair hands up an image that leads into the O love is the crooked thing – not only is there the declarative O that mimics the hair loops visually but there is the tension between the physical and emotional hinted at slyly here.


Since we are now in the time of Gemini, the twins, I thought I would have this first post feature a twin of the Yeats poem.  Below is my tribute/imitation of ‘Brown Penny’ inspired by events in my little brother’s life when he was fifteen:


— with apologies to Yeats

I whispered he is too young
And then he is old enough
Wherefore I called my brother
To ask if he was in love.
He’s in love, he’s in love, mom said,
And for my feelings he doesn’t care.
Ah, lupito, lupito, lupito
You’ll get pulled to your room by your hair.

O blood is the crooked thing
I will never be wise enough
To know what I did or didn’t
To put me so distant from love —
It feels like the stars have run away
And shadows eaten the moon;
Ah, lupito, lupito, lupito
Don’t forget your brother too soon.


Happy pennying!


* some Rimbaud thoughts & eating your own heart out

I is an other.

Arthur Rimbaud


Mr. Rimbaud may be responsible for our contemporary poetry workshops.  The spirit of these words can be heard around any discussion of a poem in terms of its speaker: the speaker seems real; the speaker isn’t believable; it feels as is if the speaker has issues with his father, etc.

Anything to keep from seeing a poem in terms of “the poet.”

Think in terms of Heraclitus who says You can’t step in the same river twice.  You can’t step into the same poem twice.  Even a week after writing the first draft of something, you come back to the same words a different person.  Maybe you’ve picked up some image or phrase in the passing week that can now go into the work at hand, into the work that this ‘other’ you has left to be revised.

Thinking in terms of “I is an other” can free you up as you write, keep you from being stuck to the detailed-oriented defense of trying to write “how it really happened” and open you up to what can happen now.  Revising should be about coming back to words for more words.  In essence, one is always revising one’s self.


Here’s another bit of Rimbaud in this vein of thought:

Beneath a bush a wolf will howl

spitting bright feathers

from his feast of fowl:

Like him, I devour myself.

(from A Season in Hell)

In one stanza, almost carelessly, he writes down what could be seen as the manifesto for 20th century poetry if not 20th century society.   The focus on the self, on uncovering, recovering, and analyzing the self that drives so many memoirs and self-help books – not to mention countless poems in every language – can be seen here.

Below is Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert”, a poem that has a similar effect as the above stanza.  I recall Galway Kinnell using it to preface an essay in which he talked about the nature of being a poet.


In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

who, squatting upon the ground,

held his heart in his hands,

and ate of it.

I said: “Is it good friend?”

“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;


“But I like it

because it is bitter

and because it is my heart.”

Stephen Crane


Happy eating!


* using ‘like’ and liking it

(a note on motion)

The heart is a thing in motion,

like the stars, like the ocean.



In early 2010, I filed for divorce.  I had never thought I would get married, much less that if I did that it might not work out.  Owning up to a relationship not working hurts no matter what side you are on. I spent the first month of the process reeling in late nights, beer, coffee, and words.

Two nights in particular stick out to me.  I got home one night and read the first of a number of nasty emails from my ex (she had every right).  The turn, though, from confidant to stranger hit hard.  Her words haunted me.  I was stuck between beating myself up and needing to move on.

I spent that night playing around with different phrasings of the above lines.  The original was (embarrassingly enough) something like: the stars are always in motion, the heart with them.  When I came back to the words the next day, I cut much of the free write out and found myself, of all things, rhyming.  At a time in my life when few things were harmonious, here were these two lines wanting to chime.


What I see in these lines is a meeting of the personal with an admission of insignificance.  However vast the heart inside me felt at the time, the stars and ocean were always vaster.

Another thing I see in these lines is the affirmation of a lesson learned: For years I had carried with me something Galway Kinnell had said about simile, how the word ‘like’ pointed to where imagination cut off from reality.  He said it in the context of avoiding simile.  The lesson for me with these lines is that there is a time and place for ‘like’.  In these lines, it needs to be ‘like’ because while, yes, all three things – heart, stars, ocean – are perpetually moving, of the three things listed, the heart is the one thing that eventually ceases.

Mortality as played out in word choice.  Whoa.

Seriously, this distinction, this cut between imagination and reality, lifted the lines from the mire of naivete that rhyming couplets evoke and made them self-aware of that naivete, made them realistic as well as hopeful.