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Monday, December 27, 2010

Number 22: Galway Kinnell "The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students"

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

--Galway Kinnell

Hap Notes: Galway Kinnell (Born 1927) while studying at Princeton University made no bones about how scornful he was of classes that could "teach" one to write poetry. After graduation, he served in the Navy and traveled a good deal. When he got back to the states he got a job as a field worker with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was heavily involved with the civil rights movement during the 60s. He was arrested, at one point, while integrating a workplace in Louisiana. I believe he is retired now but he still writes and lectures because you never actually retire from writing like you do from, say, driving a cab or making rubber or something. It haunts you forever.

In addition to writing poetry and teaching creative writing, Kinnell has translated the poetry of Rilke and Francois Villon. It's the Villon translations where I first encountered him and I worked backwards, then, to read his poetry. Kinnell was great friends with the poet James Wright and their work has a similar clearly worded symmetry.

Kinnell deals with real life situations in his poetry and his influence seems to be most notably Whitman, without the grandeur of the style which he would, I think, find a bit much. He does celebrate the self, though, almost as much as he makes social commentary in much of his poetry. Kinnell takes a nice big juicy bite out of life, he has an appetite for it as well as a certain amount of horror and sorrow for mankind.

The whimsical humor of the poem at hand is, at first, somewhat light-hearted and funny. One immediately understands the kinds of poetry the narrator has been reading from the description of the senders and it makes you smile a bit, and wince, to think on it. The poet has obviously written criticisms, "in the mildest words" but he's sure that if the students understand his objections they will feel rejected enough to poison him- he's mostly joking about this, though. We understand both points of view here, though- the rejected and the rejector. The descriptions immediately fill us with a sense of superiority.

Then the author (somewhat modestly) says his poem, the one we are reading, the "chopped prose," isn't much better than the poems sent for his instructional perusal, which of course, probably isn't true at all. But then he gets down to the dirt of the poem.

The poems which are "smothering in words" that "will to life" and the pity that he feels for those lonely souls trying to get their feelings on the paper are suspiciously close to the poet himself. His poem, addressed to us, is also from some "imaginary" place, isn't it? His solitude is also shared but his loneliness is his own, pondering the various places the students live, but, reader, where is he from, eh? He's some place we don't see or know- he's giving us his solitude but keeping his loneliness as well.

So while he bids his students goodbye and releases himself from the task of reading more painful verses. He, also, has that "god given impulse" does he not? He, in spite of his poetic prowess, could be mourning for himself as well as them.

And what interesting town names- Xenia (the Greek concept of courtesy to one far from home), Burnt Cabins (like a pioneer town once in flames), and Hornell (more than likely named for some forgotten town founder.) Put those together and see how they add. Subtle but good stuff there.

Here's a good Kinnell quotation: "If you could keep going deeper and deeper, you'd finally not be a person ... you'd be a blade of grass or ultimately perhaps a stone. And if a stone could read, poetry would speak for it."

Here's another: "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."

You can find more Kinnell here:

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