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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Poet Galway Kinnell Dies At 87

Alden Pellett
Poet Galway Kinnell, pictured here at a reading at the First Congregational Church in Manchester in 2003, died Tuesday at his home in Sheffield.

America has lost a gifted poet who loved living in Vermont. Galway Kinnell, the state’s former Poet Laureate, died Tuesday at his home in Sheffield. He was 87.

Galway Kinnell was born to immigrant parents in Rhode Island, and in the years after World War II, he became a distinctly American voice in the literary world.  He won a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur fellowship, and an American Book Award for a large body of work that never went out of print.

In poetry...our tenderest, truest words are spoken. --Galway Kinnell

Here is what he told VPR in 2013 about why he spent so much of his long life reading and writing poems.

“If it’s a poem I love it gives me great happiness. Poetry has a strange timbre that prose doesn’t have. In prose we tell what happens; in poetry another voice takes over, strange to us perhaps, where our tenderest, truest words are spoken,” Kinnell said.

And Kinnell was a charismatic speaker of verse. Even late in life, as illness, including leukemia, took hold and his memory faltered, he gave spirited readings in small and large venues. This excerpt from one of his best-known poems, “St. Francis and the Sow,” paints a sharp-eyed portrait of an animal he says he found living in the nearly abandoned house he bought in rural Vermont.

“From the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long perfect loveliness of sow.”

Although he wrote, traveled and taught throughout the world, Kinnell was happiest, many friends say, in the Northeast Kingdom. Lisa von Kann got to know the poet well when he agreed to give readings at the St. Johnsbury Atheneaum, where she was once Director.

“He was a poet and his job was to bring poetry to the people. That was his work in life, his purpose in life and I think he really enjoyed it,” von Kann said.

When he heard the news of Kinnell’s death, fellow poet Donald Hall marveled at his close friend’s ability to write brilliantly despite advancing age and poor health.  Kinnell  published  a new poem just last winter in the New Yorker Magazine. “The best of his poems seize me up and carry me with them,” Hall says. “I am inside the universe of the poem.”

Creating those universes, Kinnell once said, meant seeing both the “ugly” and “cheerful” sides of life.  He wrote about war, poverty, and injustice, as well as more homely topics—like oatmeal.

“Apart from my loved ones, poetry has been the most important thing in my life,” Kinnell told VPR last year.

And those loved ones are deeply sad this week. But his wife, Barbara Bristol, says his children, Maud and Fergus, are keeping busy carrying out his wishes.

“Actually we’re going to bury him up on the hill behind our house where there’s a stone table that he has written a poem about and we’re going to bury him next to the stone table. So they are up there in this cold drizzly weather digging his grave. They’re wonderful,” Bristol said on the phone.

Kinnell’s 14-year-old granddaughter Mirah Kozodnoy was also dear to him. The teenager took center stage with a poem Kinnell wrote for her mother at an honorary event at the Vermont Statehouse last August.

“Already in your dreams the hours begin to sing. Little sleep’s head sprouting hair in the moonlight, when I come back we will go out together. We will walk out together among the ten thousand things, each scratched in time with such knowledge. The wages of dying is love,” she recited.

She got a standing ovation, and then applauded her grandfather.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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