Pulitzer poet makes the personal public

February 25, 2002|By Kevin Clapp

Walking Out Alone in Dead of Winter

By Galway Kinnell

Under the snow the secret

Muscles of the underneath

Grow taut

In the pain, the torn love

Of labor. The strange

Dazzled world yearning dumbly

To be born.



With ashes still smoldering and a buzz saw of activity at Ground Zero wreaking havoc on life at New York University, some students questioned the point of producing personal prose.

But to Galway Kinnell, poet, professor, there was no more appropriate time.

"The thing is," the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet says from his NYU office, "everything has a personal aspect to it, so that this event is not something they can not write about.

"It's difficult to find a way to write about it ... but the personal remains as important as ever, and the personal can be a great event itself."

Lauded as one of the leading contemporary poets, Kinnell will read a selection of his works Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Gettysburg College. The 7:30 p.m. presentation in McCreary Hall's Bowen Auditorium is free and open to the public.

"His voice is really unique," says Peter Stitt, English professor and editor of the school's arts magazine, The Gettysburg Review. "He's kind of like one of the heirs to the tradition of Robert Frost. He writes a lot about nature but also writes a lot about society and puts the two in conflict with one another, sometimes in harmony with one another."

Lately, the poet is witnessing a harmonic convergence of his own, as several projects steamroll to completion. On the NYU faculty for 22 years, Kinnell is teaching about the craft of poetry this semester even as he revisits several of his past works for paperback reissues of five collections.

All of this takes place as he readies a new edition of another book, plus jots ideas down for new poems as ideas strike him, though fresh work seems to be receiving less attention lately.

"You pay a price in a sense," he says of returning to previous work. "Because instead of writing a new poem you're fiddling around with old ones, so it holds you back."

The former MacArthur Fellow and state poet of Vermont (1989-93) will also work with poetry and creative writing students during his visit.

Kinnell's "Selected Poems" won the 1982 National Book Award for Poetry in addition to the Pulitzer. Stitt says students have an opportunity to learn that hearing the poet read transcends reading the poetry in books.

"The value of having someone like him in the classroom is almost uncountable," he says. "This is someone they get to read in class and they tend to think about writers as icons, like Shakespeare, and then here he is."

Working with young writers, Kinnell sees nothing in their poetry that didn't cause generations before to stumble. Some lines fall flat, needing a veteran's input to make them sing. Otherwise, the work is too explicit and requires a softer touch.

If Kinnell could impart one piece of advice to neophytes, it would be to take advantage of those who blazed the trail for them to write.

The bottom line? Read, he says.

"I think students come without a great knowledge of poetry that's come before them, and I think it's a handicap for them," Kinnell laments. "With my course, we're talking about how poetry

has evolved from Middle English to contemporary free verse. Free verse is an evolution of what came before, so it's necessary to read what came before to make the most of what language can give you."

Much like Kinnell constantly examines his own works, tweaking poems until they reach his ideal.

With miles to go before he sleeps, Kinnell continues to tread upon his own lyrical quest, which he deems critical to his artistic growth.

"The way I think of it is the work takes me a long time, longer than it takes most people," he says. "That poem written in a book is not quite finished, so as time goes by I continue to work at it in the hope of getting it finished.

"I know it's finished when 10 years have gone by and I have no impulse to change it."

If you go . . .

Poetry reading by poet Galway Kinnell

Wednesday, Feb. 27

7:30 p.m.

Bowen Auditorium

McCreary Hall

Gettysburg College

Gettysburg, Pa.

Admission is free.

For information, call


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