Interview: Galway Kinnell

What A Kingdom It Is!
by Daniela Gioseffi
(Part Two of Two)

[Part One appears in the Feb'02 issue. Here, Kinnell and Gioseffi continue their conversation, moving on to: why some political poems endure despite their specificity; the different consequences of self-knowledge and of self-righteousness; the form vs. content dynamic; poetic variety vs. factional aesthetic acrimony; the help or handicap of personal beauty; vocational alternatives to poetry; and the effect of age on writing motivation. Eds.]

. . .

DG: You've said that Robert Duncan, for one example, in his anti-Vietnam poem, "Uprising," was unafraid to mention the actual names of leaders or characters of his time in the way, say, that Aristophanes does in his plays. Does such usage of proper names worry you in terms of the lasting power of the poem. Do you think such usage of temporal names harms the universality of a poem?

GK: Yes, Duncan doesn't hesitate to use topical names, as many poets have. And I remember people complaining back in those Vietnam protest days about the use of living politicians' names and dates and places in poems. The issue was, what would people think of these poems when those names were dead and forgotten? Wouldn't it be better to write in generalities than to be so specific? But, I don't really thank that's a consideration one should worry about. Because the specifics matter, the details, even of people who might not be heard of hundreds of years from now, can resonate if used properly. We can feel the force of Robert Duncan's poem through these names.
          I think of François Villon, in the fifteenth century, when books were first beginning to be widely duplicated, published, and distributed—and his first editor said this poem can't last because it's made up too much of incidents and people unknown to the future who were around in Villon's time. But, when we read Villon now, he brings us back to his times with the historical resonance of his era, and we realize, too, that those types of people live around us today, in our own society, as well. They are analogous to our times, and that offers an element of universality.
          There's this thing about political poems: one must learn something from them, learn something about the political event, and if possible—in the best poems—about oneself as well. Robert Duncan does this in his poem "Uprising," one of the earliest protest poems about the Vietnam War.

DG: I think you are absolutely right, and those details bring the world alive in a poem. As Grace Paley says, "Politics are a part of everyone's life." But some writers write as if they didn't live in the world and their lives were not affected by what goes on around them. People do talk about the sociopolitical issues all around them. They are a part of the experience of our lives and need to be brought to some sort of understanding in poetry. Neruda wrote plenty of love poems, too, as did Ginsberg or Levertov or Rukeyser. I think that James Wright's poem ["Sitting by the Bank of a River"] succeeds because of its details.

Self-Knowledge vs. Self-Righteous Judging of Others

There's another idea you've sometimes expressed—for example in an essay on Walt Whitman—that poets can write themselves toward a better health and wholeness if they are honest in their self-knowledge.

GK: Self-knowledge is always helpful to our well-being, but if we divide humankind into the good and the bad, and put ourselves among the good and others among the bad or the poor slobs, we can never write truthful poetry. It's all false, if based on that erroneous premise—that we are the pure poet and the stupid rabble is all to blame. No doubt some people are morally better or worse than some others, but it is necessary to see that there's no absolute classification.
          Some poems separate humanity into two camps: We, the "good" people, the poets and lovers; and they, the Hitlers and Stalins, or Kissingers, and Nixons, and so on. We make the killers seem to belong to a different species. Knowing that what we call evil in others also exists in ourselves makes it more possible to write something that has authenticity.
          Etheridge Knight says in one of his poems, "I am all of them, they are all of me." The best anti-war poems allow us to remember that we and the enemy are brothers, as in Wilfred Owen's last poem; he imagines that he meets in hell the man he's killed in war—a "strange meeting" of accomplices. Whitman's war poems are like that too.
          Some old-fashioned nineteenth or eighteenth century political poems often tended to have an antagonist and the voice of purity as narrator. But, at the end of the Iliad, Priam crosses over the lines of war to meet Achilles. The two enemies reach an almost loving understanding. We need to understand the possibilities for evil in ourselves and not write so much from lofty, self-righteous perches in order to achieve a believable authenticity.

DG: Yes, excellent advice for the writer—and to see no easy division helps us to avoid projecting all the evil or self-hatred that might lurk untapped in ourselves onto others. Projection of evil seems the root of all prejudice and trouble in the world. I'm trying to think of a literary example of what you mean.

GK: Well, let's see. The Great Gatsby might be an example of a piece of American literature where the writer doesn't put himself outside the ugliness or corruption, in an attempt to satirize, but shows the decadence from the inside out, and is a part of the society perpetuating shallow values. The narrator is witness from the inside of the scene he exposes.

The Form vs. Content Dynamic

DG: Ah yes! And "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible!" [Title of another Kinnell poem.] I think it was in 1926 that Marina Tsvetayeva said in her essay, "The Poet on the Critic," that "Poetic schools—a sign of the times—are a vulgarization of poetry." What do you think about the divisions of so called "Language Poetry, Neo-Formalism, Neo-narrative, Abstract Expressionist, Performance Poetry, Slam Poetry, and so forth? Do you feel that these schools of poetry fragment the culture and are divisive? The lonely alienation of artists through the centuries has always been something of a sociological phenomenon, but do you think poetic schools and theories are a vulgarization of poetry as Tsvetayeva said? For example, Robert Pinsky has said that when form overpowers content, we tend to have a decadence in art—or words to that effect.

GK: Well, it might be true sometimes, but then it might not be true other times. I'd say that, for example in the Duino Elegies of Rilke, it might be possible to say that form overpowers content, but the content shines through all the same. Or, maybe about Gerard Manley Hopkins's poetry you could say that form overpowers content. Still, in both those cases, the content seems to shine forth as if from behind the form. It's as if Rilke chooses his words the way he wants them to sound, but they fill up a more intense meaning because of it.

DG: Yes, the last part of your "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond" was like that for me. I think that may be an example of what you are saying:

And the rice paddies in Asia
wearing a few shadows
walk down a dirt road, smashed
bloodsuckers on their heel, knowing
the flesh a man throws down in the sunshine
dogs shall eat
and the flesh that is flung into the air
shall be seized by birds,
shoulder blades smooth, unmarked by old feather-holes,
hands rivered
by blue, erratic wanderings of the blood,
eyes crinkled almost shut,
seeing in the drifting sun that gives us our lives
seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth.

But, I noticed you cut the last line from the earlier version of the poem in your latest collection, A New Selected Poems (Houghton, 2000)—in which you've done a bit of revising on some of the poems. Was it because the words were overpowering the content, were too carefully chosen? I felt they were aptly saying what they were saying better than any other words could say it, but maybe you felt that form was spewing content after it; so you cut the last line and ended with the starker one: "seeing in the drifting sun that gives us our lives." A beautiful and simpler ending. I think a poet feels when he's hit the notes just right and I bet you know when you have.

GK: Well, I don't know. Probably I feel it when I do, but the only example that comes to me just now is the first time I was ever a little amazed by my own lines. I was describing the sewage flowing into the East River, in "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World." I think it went:

The brown sink or dissolve,
The white float out in shoals and armadas,
Even the gulls pass them up, pale
Bloated socks of riverwater and rotted seed
That swirl on the tide, punched back
To the Hell Gate narrows, and on the ebb
Stem seaward, seeding the sea.

I recall getting a little thrill from writing those sounds to match their meaning.

DG: Well, but I don't think form is overpowering content there. It's just organic to it, but I remember those lines very clearly—and what I love about them is that idea of redeeming everything from warts to roses. It isn't about something pretty, but the words make it wondrous. You're portraying a big city's sewage flowing out to sea—the reality of our animal natures. Yet, your words portray that reality with a reverent wonder at the vastness of the sea, the flow of the driven waters, and the hugeness of the city and its monumental waste—full of its visceral and animal nature…

Poetic Variety vs. Aesthetic Factionalism

GK: But, going back to that question earlier about schools of poetry—and not only all the kinds of schools, but all the unique individuals who don't belong to any schools—the vast variety of poetry being written in this country is amazing. So, I think it's a sign that poetry is in good health, and that there are many poets and groups of poets who get together and find they are similar to each other, forming what might be called 'schools.' It's good that many different kinds of poets are extremely excited about writing poetry, and if everybody was writing the same way that wouldn't be so good. Maybe, in the Forties there was a sameness to the poetry being produced—at least that which we know about. But, anyway, now there's such a variety that it's clearly a very vibrant art form. The only regrettable part about it is some of the ill feelings among some of the groups for each other. Have you noticed that?

DG: It would seem to be so for sure! (Laughter) I'm not a part of any particular group myself, but I know what you mean.

GK: Yes, you can see it in various ways, that there's an ill feeling among some of the groups. I think it's necessary for poets to realize that they have much more in common with each other—even though they may write in differing styles and ways—than they have in common with the society as a whole. We're all together in the art of the word in our different ways. When one poet reads or hears the work of another, it might mean little to that given poet because of temperamental differences, but that's okay. It doesn't mean that one must disparage that poet.

DG: But if a certain kind of poetry is receiving all the attention and prizes because of a power hold, and the audience says, "Gee, is that poetry? I don't get it! "And the audience starts turning away from poetry and saying, "I can't get anything from it. I guess poetry isn't for me, but only for poets!" Then maybe that isn't so good, as readers or audiences are turned away.
     But, what interests me is that poets like you do not feel this anger toward the more solipsistic branch of poetry, but that the more abstract branch of poetry—that language or abstract branch—seems to be angry with the poets who are still trying to say something with poetic clarity and reach out to communicate accessibly. So, it seems that the anger runs from the abstract or solipsistic branch of poetry—which fancies itself new and experimental—toward the poets who are loved for being accessible. Not that every line is as easy to absorb as every other, and—not that there isn't abstract poetic expression in accessible poets—but those reachable poets have this big heart for the experimental ones! It doesn't seem so much to be reciprocated. Is it because they're trying to make something new by chopping down the beanstalk of the giants that came before them?

GK: Well, maybe, but it's possible to make something new without chopping down what comes before or is concurrently around. There's so much room for different styles.

DG: Do you pay much attention to the performance poets and the poetry slams and C.D's and videos, Hip Hop, and what not that's around?

GK: Somebody once wanted to have a "senior slam" with Allen Ginsberg and me (Laughter), but I didn't want to read my best poetry under those circumstances. However, I like the phenomenon of slams. I think they're good for poetry, and I'm going to introduce some slammers, myself. At CBGB's. I'm going to read for a little bit, and then I'm going to introduce some slammerrs. But the thing about "The People's Poetry Gathering" at Cooper Union and around Lower Manhattan is that it's an event which attempts to bring together all the varying kinds of poetry and help them realize they're all part of the same art form.

DG: Yes, I hosted a polyglot open mic at that varied gathering in April. There was every sort of style and culture, too. Do you feel that a poet has to have a certain image to attract an audience, the way Walt Whitman deliberately effected the clothes and demeanor of the working man, for one example? Allen Ginsberg, too, cultivated a certain "Beatnik" or Bohemian image.

GK: Well, I don't think it's necessary, but I have no objection to it. Robert Bly is one poet that I can think of who dressed a certain way, with his panchos, and had a certain style, and I don't think it's bad at all.

DG: Yes, and after I came to his Great Mother Conference, performing to my African lyre and dancing, he picked up a dulcimer and started dancing too. But, I love the way Robert stirs things up and keeps us thinking. He's always so alive with ideas and controversies. It's great!

Do Poets Envy the Beautiful Among Their Peers?

DG: I have a question for you, though, that may be embarrassing, but I'll ask it anyway.

I don't know if you remember Blake's poem, "The Ballad of Mary," about a handsome or lovely woman who goes out into the world and at first everyone loves her, and then the next thing they're doing is throwing mud at her and trying to kill her out of envy, and their envy depresses her and makes her turn inward. You have an image, which I don't think you've tried so much to cultivate, of rugged masculinity: I think it's more who you really are. But do you think that being an attractive, rugged sort of manly man whom women fancied has brought you some envy or hurt or been a hindrance? I ask this as I know that being attractive when I was young sometimes brought me a measure of envy, or the wrong kind of attention, and took focus away from my work. So attractiveness was more of a hindrance than a help. I just wondered what you'd say about that for a poet, for a poet's life.

GK: Well, now that I'm old and homely, I look back at pictures of myself when I was younger, and I think I was handsome. However, at the time those pictures were taken, I had no idea I was. I regarded myself as rather ugly. But looking back I see that I was, at least in some of the pictures. In others, I look the way I thought I looked. So, I've never thought of myself as handsome and I don't know how it affected my career if I was.

DG: You don't think it's brought you any sort of envy or grief from other men? I've certainly heard jealousy expressed by other male poets. This thing of being a bit of—How shall I say?—a "matinee idol" of poetry, so to speak?

GK: Well, no one would have told me about their envy, so I don't know if it was ever so. (Laughter)

DG: Well, maybe from some men it's brought envy which you didn't notice, or maybe it's a stupid question, but I do hope that you will one day be our Poet Laureate before you're done. You deserve to be our Poet Laureate one day for your fine, very American poetry!

Alternative Vocation: Kinnell's Question to Himself

DG: You've given so many interviews, and there's a bevy of them in Walking Down the Stairs from the Poets on Poetry Series of Michigan University Press. After reading that book, I hardly knew what was left to ask you, so I'm grateful that you consented to this interview. Is there any other question or questions you wished an interviewer had asked you which at this time in your life you'd like to expound upon? Anything that you wished someone had asked you at this juncture of your life in poetry?

GK: Ah, let me think.…Do I ever regret having chosen poetry as my vocation over some other?

DG: I'd love to hear your answer to that, because I'm having my own regrets at sixty, thinking I ought to work in a soup kitchen, or become an organic gardener, or just watch the birds and feed them everywhere to help their survival. (Laughter) So, what would be your answer to that question?

GK: I've never had a moment's regret, except sometimes thinking that our species might destroy the planet and everything on it. Then I wonder if there might not have been another vocation I could have taken up that might have let me be more practically effective in this respect.

DG: Oh, I feel that answer in a very heartsick place when you articulate it. It's a very important point. How does the poet—feeling such worldly despair at this time—go on?

GK: Who knows? Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can. Perhaps, by trying to bring together one's art and one's life with one's values.

The Effect of Age on Writing Motivation

DG: Do you feel that you are differently motivated to write now than you were as a young man? Do you feel the same fervor now as, say, when you wrote "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World"? Do you feel you're differently motivated when you sit down to write?

GK: I think I wrote with just as much fervor when I was young as I do now, but I also sometimes wrote with a whimsy that I don't think I do so much now. I don't mean I don't write with humor, but that kind of whimsical play has kind of disappeared. And so, perhaps, it feels like more fervor, maybe less intermixture of unreflective triviality or whimsy. But, probably I wrote then with as much desire—but with less reflection perhaps?

DG: Perhaps you wrote with more pure observation than contemplation. I think you've become more ironic than whimsical, perhaps, more meditative now.…

GK: Well, one can't speak of one's own writing very well. That's for others—for readers—to decide. It's best to leave that to others.

DG: I'm glad you go on writing energetically and with as much fervor as ever. We need more poets like you who engage the visceral world, who make us sense our animal natures and accept them. There's a good deal of overly intellectual poetry—precious and urbane—overly intellectual and decadent poetry that's too abstract or solipsistic for the general reader to participate in.
     There's not enough deeply natural poetry being written, poetry that faces death and organic life squarely, and makes living in touch with earth and all creation resonate with beauty and horror, wonder and despair, redeeming everything from shit to flowers as you do in your work. I'm glad that we have you as one of the American giants among poets of our time, and I thank you for your time.

GK: Thank you, Daniela.

(See Feb'02 for Part One of this interview,
which contained DG's introduction to Kinnell's work.)

© 2001 Daniela Gioseffi A much abbreviated and different version of this interview appeared in The Cortland Review, November, 2001. A longer version of the introduction appeared as a review of Kinnell's A New Selected Poems in the Spring 2001 issue of (DG)

(A regular contributor to the magazine, Daniela Gioseffi is a widely published poet, novelist and literary critic, and the American Book Award-winning author of ten books of poetry and prose. Her latest, SYMBIOSIS: poems, 2001, is an e-book is available at various e-book sites through Rattapallax Press. The new and revised edition of WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age will appear from The Feminist Press. Gioseffi edits and publishes, an internet site which incorporates five web sites of literature, commentary, and criticism.)
Daniela Gioseffi hosts a poetry reading series, titled "Celebrating Literary Brooklyn," on the last Monday of the month, beginning February 25 until April, then from September tthough November. The series meets at 6:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Heights Public Library, 280 Cadman Plaza West. Free and open to the public, it is sponsored in part by Poets & Writers, Inc. with funds from a major grant received from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA.)