Obituary: Galway Kinnell, poet

BORN: Providence, Rhode Island, 1 February 1927. Died: Sheffield, Vermont, 28 October, 2014, aged 87.

American poet Galway Kinnell explored the themes of nature, religion and human rights and connected the experiences of daily life to larger forces, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. His liberating political work of the 1960s and beyond opened up American poetry to the masses, from the cerebral wit of the 1950s, through his forceful, spiritual takes on the outsiders and the underside of contemporary life in US society, leading one critic to call him “one of the true master poets of his generation”.

With more than a dozen books of poetry written over a five-decade career, Kinnell won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems (1982), and also a share of the National Book Award with contemporary Charles Wright. This tome of work pushed deep into the heart of human experience in the decades following the Second World War.

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Kinnell and his contemporaries were a generation of poets trying to write verses that, as he explained, “could be understood without a graduate degree”. This he achieved, with all his published work – pastoral odes, meditations on mortality, evocations of urban streetscapes and candid explorations of sex – from 1960 to 2008 still in print.

Kinnell was not afraid to explore the full range of emotion in his poetry, mixing the beauty of words with the harshness of social and political struggle. One contemporary said: “He expressed terror, he expressed profound awe at human existence, and regret… It would be limiting for us to confine him merely as a protest poet or a poet of the heart or a Romantic poet. Maybe that’s part of his allure, that he captures the full range of human emotions.”

Galway Kinnell was born in 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island on America’s north-eastern seaboard and one of four children to immigrants. His Scottish father, James, was a carpenter and his Irish mother, Elizabeth, a homemaker.

He grew up in the small, sleepy town of Pawtucket. Growing up, he was influenced by his surroundings but was also heavily shaped by his experiences as an adult. A self-confessed introvert, as a child he read reclusive American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, among others. He recalled: “I was a very silent child, almost mute… I developed a big sense of isolation from others…Gradually, I felt that if I was ever going to have a happy life, it was going to have to do with poetry.”

He served in the US Navy during the Second World War, before attending one of America’s elite Ivy League universities, Princeton, where he roomed with and became good friends with future US poet laureate WS Merwin, who introduced him to the works of WB Yeats.

Merwin described their relationship as “like brothers” and remembered his friend as a “very generous soul”.

In 1948 Kinnell received his BA with the highest honours and the following year completed an MA at Rochester University. He then worked at the University of Chicago. Thereafter, he spent a number of years in Europe, serving as Fulbright Professor, a highly prestigious award, at the Universities of Grenoble, Nice, Sydney and Tehran. The latter spawned the writing of his only novel, Black Light, a tale of an Iranian carpet-mender whose life is changed by a murder.

Kinnell’s breakthrough poem came in 1960, with The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World; drawing inspiration from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, this is a 14-part work about Avenue C in Manhattan and the plight of those that walked the street.

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Upon returning to the US in the 1960s, Kinnell was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) working on voter registration and workplace integration in Hammond, Louisiana. In 1963 this effort got him arrested and thrown in jail, with a pimp and a car thief for cellmates. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. These experiences led to his critically acclaimed book-long poem, The Book of Nightmares (1971), which is no less concerned with death than previous work – with how lives are to be lived with the constant awareness that everything begins dying from the moment of inception.

Nine years later, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) was published, representing a shift in Kinnell’s anxieties and illustrating images from his private life, and with a lighter tone and looser style; he was able to achieve greater emotional impact and thematic resonance in this collection.

The themes of Kinnell’s poetry were diverse, covering the natural world, illustrated in The Porcupine, and The Bear, the telling of a hunter who, after consuming animal blood and excrement, comes to identify with his prey; family, After Making Love We Hear Footsteps, and illness, Parkinson’s Disease.

In 2001 he published a retrospective collection, A New Selected Poems, focusing on his 1960s and 1970s poetry, which features a fierce surrealism that also grapples with large questions of the human, the social and the natural. One commentator wrote, “It’s proof that poems can still be written, and written movingly and convincingly, on those subjects that in any age fascinate, quicken, disturb, confound and sadden the hearts of men and women”.

Kinnell served as poet laureate for Vermont from 1989-93, and moved there in 2005.

His final book, Strong is Your Hold (2006) featured the notable, When the Towers Fell, about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York.

The Academy of American Poets later gave him the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement in 2010.

Kinnell had been suffering from leukaemia. He is survived by his wife Barbara.