Anecdotal Evidence that Dogs Dig Poetry: An Interview with Galway Kinnell

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3 July 2016

Poet-critic David St.-Lascaux interviewed the late poet Galway Kinnell, co-founder of the NYU Creative Writing Program, on 28 June 2010. Questions were introduced by excerpts from Kinnell’s and others’ poetry. Kinnell passed away on 28 October 2014; a memorial reading of his poetry, co-sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, NYU, Poetry Society of America and Poets House, was held at Cooper Union on 12 May 2015.


The very dog who ate Kinnell’s book. Illustration by Matt Lubchansky.

David St.-Lascaux: My black dog — this is a true story — ate your book. I went to replace it because it was a library book, and they sold me a volume called Three Books for $1.03. The UPS shipping was $3.48. Is poetry underappreciated — is it worth less than the cost of deliverymen wearing brown shirts? Are your poems that tasty?

Galway Kinnell: Well, that’s a nice way to look at it.


… a great maternal pine whose branches
open out in all directions
explaining everything.

– from “The Last Gods,” Galway Kinnell

Disclosure: I discovered Galway Kinnell by accident, in “The Last Gods.” Except practically, does a poet need to write more than one perfect poem?

GK: I’d put it another way. It would be nice if one could write a perfect poem, and two would be more than nice.

DSL: Other than ones you’ve written yourself, have you read perfect poems by others?

GK: I think so, yes. Almost any poem that I have memorized pleases me all the way through and I don’t feel that there’s any flaw, and think of it as the perfect poem. I don’t know how you would describe perfect poems, but a poem like “To Autumn,” by John Keats or a more recent one like “In My Craft or Sullen Art” [GK reciting] –

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,

… and so on and so on, by Dylan Thomas. And then there are other truisms of a perfect poem, one that once you memorize it, it’s impossible to dislodge it from yourself, and if you do make an error, it’s your own human error of momentary laxness, and not a flaw in the poem.

DSL: Do you enjoy memorizing poetry?

GK: Well, I used to, but my memory is weaker now, so I only do it because I don’t keep the poem properly, and because when I start to read, I reach for books to keep me going.

Nature and mortality — and I don’t know what they are, but they are out of our reach to articulate, and yet they represent something that is really the heart of living. So it’s natural that one should continually try to act and cast a wandering eye over them periodically.


I know she is there, where snow
falls flakes down fragile softly
falling until I can’t see the earth
any longer, only its shrouded shapes.

– from “The Last Hiding Places of Snow,” Galway Kinnell

Your poetry is said to focus on nature and mortality, and you are said to embrace a panentheistic philosophy [panentheism asserting that divinity is omnipresent in nature and time]. You’ve spent your life in this territory: What has interested you about nature and mortality?

GK: Hmm. Well, both of those things — and I don’t know what they are, but they are out of our reach to articulate, and yet they represent something that is really the heart of living. So it’s natural that one should continually try to act and cast a wandering eye over them periodically.


I rambled
I rambled all around
in and out the town
I rambled

– from “The Last River,” Galway Kinnell

My older friends always give me advice. What can you tell the younger ones coming along about your life today?

GK: Well, I wouldn’t take on that role of a savant or teacher. I have taken on that role, but I less and less do because I know less, so I don’t teach.


James Wright went back to the end. So did Richard Hugo.
– from “On the Oregon Coast,” Galway Kinnell

You mentioned Dylan Thomas and John Keats. A very short list of your favorite poets, poets one should read if one has never read poetry?

GK: The list? A poem is written by a person… another person has written another poem… they’re all different, and poems, like us, are different. Therefore, I wouldn’t steer anyone toward one poem or another, because who I am to know what I need that somebody else might also.

I have my own favorites. I would never suppose I should write a list of poems that everyone must read. You know, there are anthologies of poetry produced every few years which purport to present the best poetry of the race. The poems in these books are purporting to present the greatest of all poems — [which] are not the greatest of all poems, necessarily, maybe they are something, then; obviously some of these anthologies overlap, but they’re accidental.

DSL: You’ve taught, so you’ve seen some younger poets coming along through the years. How do we assess the work of contemporary poets, given that there are so many now, and poetry is so much more available than it’s ever been? How does somebody go about trying to read all the poetry there is — are we experiencing an embarrassment of riches now in poetry?

GK: I would think that it’s a little harder today because there are so many poems that we can get our hands on, that are in print, that are translated, and that are being written — there are so many of them that we could spend our whole lifetimes reading poems and deciding whichever ones are the best, so that when you find all the poems in the world that are the “best” ones, it only means that these are the poems that you like best and it doesn’t mean that these are the best poems.


“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”
– poem title, Galway Kinnell

Is it important or even necessary for a poet to read other poets’ poetry? The street poet Eminem told the New York Times recently, “I don’t think I’ve ever read poetry, ever. I’m not really book-smart.” And also, for example, Sappho and Homer didn’t read Dante, or Whitman — or Kinnell, but they seemed to do OK. What do you think about reading versus devoting your life to writing?

GK: Homer probably read very few poems relative to the number of poems that somebody in his position would read today. So we deal with what we can get our hands on, and if we’re unsatisfied, we give up reading poems, or we sit and search.


… and by the time
the pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.

– “Daybreak,” Galway Kinnell

… a wonderful poem you wrote about the starfish. I read about [the oosphere,] “a comet reservoir well beyond the orbit of Pluto” in the Oxford English Dictionary, which I call “accidental,” or found poetry. There are all kinds of poems — epic, introspective, nonsense poems. What kinds of poetry interest you now?

GK: Well, I wouldn’t say that there is a kind of poem. I still love most of the poems I once loved. A whole lot of different ones. I’ve forgotten a lot of those poems that I used to love, and I’m sure if I heard them up, I would love them still.


In the frog pond
the vapor trail of a SAC bomber creeps,

– from “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond,” Galway Kinnell

You’ve been political; that’s courageous. You are an American poet. What do you see ahead for this entity, this nation state, its people? How do you think history will see America 400 years from now?

GK: I have no idea, and I’m not even going to attempt to offer a thought. What happens to the world will determine what the world looking back at the United States of America will say in judgment, and we don’t know what will happen…. I did the right thing, I think. That doesn’t mean that we’ll succeed in the things that I’ve advocated, things that will form what the United States becomes.


Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking…

– from “To a Stranger,” Walt Whitman

Per Whitman’s exhortation and my own natural fearlessness, I talk to strangers. Do you, and do you recommend this?

GK: Yes, I think it’s a good idea. Sometimes it’s just entertaining, and sometimes you learn something that you wouldn’t have learned from talking only to people you know.

DSL: Is it easier to talk to strangers as a tourist in a foreign country? Do you think we have a natural reticence to talk to each other as peers?

GK: I think it’s easier to talk to people we know!


… my friend
and mentor warned, “Don’t lose
all touch with humankind.”

– from “The Past,” Galway Kinnell

Your poem about the Cape. Your Wikipedia biography says you found the solitary lives of Dickinson and Poe appealing. Looking back, would you say that the solitary life is overrated? What are the benefits of a solitary life?

GK: Well, the solitary life allows you to have more time for continuous thinking, and more time for thinking routinely, or time for walks alone in the places you alone are drawn to explore, and it gives you time to contemplate, and there are some advantages to this.

DSL: But as you look at humans as social animals, is the solitary life — forgive me — antisocial, and how do you balance that, and does one need to?

GK: I don’t think it’s very good to live entirely alone, and a life isolated from others, and I think the experience of love is of great importance in my life, and if life is solitary, there’s no love. Higher love is intimate; it communicates, and that’s impossible if you’re alone.

I think a lot of the life of lovers is unusual, and doesn’t get written about for reasons I don’t know.


… she opens
her legs showing him her great beauty,
and smiles, a bow of lips
seeming to tie together
the ends of the earth.

– from “The Last Gods,” Galway Kinnell

Dean Young said there may be something a poet loves more than a lover, and sex, like, for example, the muse. Based on “The Last Gods,” I would say he is clearly mistaken. What makes this poem so fucking good?

GK: I guess, I don’t know if it’s good or not…. It’s unusual, and I think a lot of the life of lovers is unusual, and doesn’t get written about for reasons I don’t know.

DSL: Inhibition, maybe? But you would think that poets would be uninhibited — or less so.

GK: You would think so. Sometimes I do think the contrary.


I have always intended to live forever;
But not until now, to live now….

– from “The Seekonk Woods,” Galway Kinnell

I calculate that if one lives to be 100, one lives for over 52 million minutes. By this math, you’ve got 148,920 hours, or 8,935,200 minutes ahead of you up to 100 [at 87, Kinnell actually lived about 46 million minutes]. As a writer, do you swing for the fences of eternity?

GK: No, I don’t. I don’t know what will happen to my work afterwards, after I die, and I don’t worry about it, and that’s not why I’m writing. Why I’m writing is to try to articulate something, and whether anybody thinks it’s a good articulation or not I’ve no idea, and I’m not thinking that the Joe Schmoe across the continent, he needs to know this, and I don’t care if I reach Joe Schmoe; I mean, I do, but I don’t care whether he knows about this or not. I’m just writing what I’m trying to know.


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

– “Prayer,” Galway Kinnell

Franklin’s long epitaph reads

“The Body of Benjamin Franklin Printer Like the cover of an old book Its contents worn out And stript of its lettering & gilding Lies here, food for worms. Yet the work shall not be lost For it will as he believes appear once more In a new & more beautiful edition Corrected & amended by the Author.”

You mention editing your work on an ongoing basis. Do poems stabilize? Or is improvement always a possibility?

GK: Well, sometimes [a poem flows] from the hand, not one word can be pulled out, but it’s not common with me, but it’s common with Keats, for example. With most poets, I feel a comradeship, because I see they, too, don’t know what they’re talking about sometimes.


I think I want to go back now and live again in the present time…
For here one has to keep facing the right way, or one sees one dies, and one

– from “First Day of the Future,” Galway Kinnell

Another of your poems. One of the great epiphanies of middle age, for me, was the realization that I wouldn’t be around to see how it all turns out, which I just always thought I would. Do you have a greater sense of urgency now to write?

GK: Yes, I guess I’m writing a lot, but I’ve always written a lot. I’m no different but I do feel an urgency which I didn’t before.


What immense coat or shroud
that can wrap the whole earth
are these golden needles
stitching at so restlessly?
When will it ever be finished?

– from “Shroud,” Galway Kinnell

Do you have enough time to write down all of the things you have inside to write about?

GK: Yes, that’s one thing about time that I’ve noticed. I don’t seem to have enough time, even though I have the same amount of time. And also energy, which dwindles, so not all avenues into the poems are as open as they were before.

I imagine the future of the human being is going to be a long one. I don’t think we’re going to wipe ourselves out; could be we may wipe most of ourselves out, but there’ll be some left….


To de-animalize human mentality…
is the fundamental project of technology;

– from “The Fundamental Project of Technology,” Galway Kinnell

The world of electronic communications – is this the future?

GK: You know, I imagine the future of the human being is going to be a long one. I don’t think we’re going to wipe ourselves out; could be we may wipe most of ourselves out, but there’ll be some left, and they’ll be a little different, and they’ll adapt and invent, so I can see a long and twisted and unpredictable future for the species.

DSL. Do you read science fiction?

GK. No. This life we live now is more interesting to me than imaginary lives in science fiction.

DSL: You know, since eating your book, my dog now always wags his tail. So I ask you, do you think it’s his nature, or maybe something that you wrote, that he digested?

GK. I don’t know. I think dogs are underestimated, so it’s possible.

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