Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014

I read in the New York Times yesterday that Galway Kinnell has died. I would say that on the strength of his poem, “Why Regret,” he had been my favorite living poet. William Matthews used to hold that title until his particular decease.

Something about that poem made it perfectly memorizable, something perfectly suited to me. Just reading it again now makes me feel all over again the sense of palpable joy I used to feel (not often enough) in the 90s. Cozy apartment, delicious food, warm sweater. It’s some kind of talisman, I swear.

Michele Bernard, “Poesies Pour Les Enfants” mp3s,

If this is up your alley… kids’ poems in French, played by accordion-wielding lady.

‘There is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek.’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

In making this statement Boldwood’s voice revealed only too clearly a consciousness of the weakness of his position, his aims, and his method. His manner had lapsed quite from that of the firm and dignified Boldwood of former times; and such a scheme as he had now engaged in he would have condemned as childishly imbecile only a few months ago. We discern a grand force in the lover which he lacks whilst a free man; but there is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek. Where there is much bias there must be some narrowness, and love, though added emotion, is subtracted capacity. Boldwood exemplified this to an abnormal degree: he knew nothing of Fanny Robin’s circumstances or whereabouts, he knew nothing of Troy’s possibilities, yet that was what he said.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXIV

Consider the power of the novel, that in the space of half a thousand pages, it can bless us readers with characters to ponder over half a hundred years, or longer. Anna Karenina, from her eponymous novel, is endlessly fascinating! Consider, too, the power of reams of text to launch simpler characters toward ruin, then provide a kind of forensic meteorology on the gusting winds of their fate. In this book, Boldwood’s ship is about to splinter on the rocks of Troy’s cunning, a sad end with which we readers will soon be intimately familiar.

Farmer Boldwood is perhaps the most broadly drawn of the main characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, but the tragedy of his love for Bathsheba Everdene is the most keenly illustrated. This passage, which comes from Boldwood’s useless interview with Troy in order to get Troy to marry Fanny Robin and leave him the open road to Bathsheba’s heart, shows just how desperation, even desperate love, can be the saddest emotion of them all.

The contrast between the grand force of love and its all-too-narrow focus is something that also comes up (viewed from the other end of the telescope) in one of my favorite lines of modern poetry, from “Why Regret?” by Galway Kinnell.

Or when Casanova threw the linguine in squid ink
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat”?

‘I want to see the words in between the words, and I want others to understand them.’ -Samantha @ Girls Write Now

I could watch these highlights of the Girls Write Now event last
weekend all day; they just get better and better. Erica’s poem in the
clip below is pretty powerful (“red velvet cupcakes of indifference,”
anyone?), but Samantha speaks with such assurance she just knocks the
whole event onto a different level.

‘…carefully removing word after word until he had something that looked like a poem.’-Iain M. Banks

He always took a small notebook with him on his walks, and made a point of writing down anything interesting. He tried to describe the feel of the grasses in his fingers, the way the trees sounded, the visual diversity of the flowers, the way the animals and birds moved and reacted, the color of the rocks and the sky. He kept a proper journal in a larger book, back in his room at the old couple’s cottage. He wrote his notes up in that each evening, as though filling out a report for some higher authority.


In another large journal book, he wrote his notes out again, along with further notes on the notes, and then started to cross words out of the completed, annotated notes, carefully removing word after word until he had something that looked like a poem. This was how he imagined poetry to be made.


It’s definitely a technique for writing poems. I chose to write more at length about the other quote from Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks because it discusses the relationships between two of the characters. This passage, though, maybe it speaks more to the soldier character and his nature as a curious person who doesn’t have the imaginative skill to write a poem. Only problem is that such a character doesn’t resemble the one whom it allegedly describes.

Galway Kinnell, “Why Regret?”

Once again, I’m reminded [follow this link, maybe?] about this fantastic poem, which I first came across cradled in the folds of an excerpt from Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” within the pages of the December 22 & 29, 1997 New Yorker.

I had memorized the Kinnell poem back when I lived in Greenpoint in the winter and spring of 1998, when I still spent time walking over the Pulaski bridge to get to the subway to get to whatever job I might have had then. This 20-minute exercise afforded me the luxury of spending time memorizing poems off of index cards: I would carry the index card in my jacket pocket, or hold it in my gloved hands (this one is a winter memory, you see), while hustling across the freezing Newtown Creek toward the no. 7 train’s Vernon-Jackson stop.

Memorial Day of that year I bought my first bike and by fall of the next year I had sworn off the pedestrian transit of the bridge in favor of cycling over and taking the Queensboro bridge into Manhattan, one side effect being the loss of poetry-memorizing time. But every once in a while I look around for the Kinnell poem, which has gotten much easier to find since it was published in a book Strong Is Your Hold.

Unfortunately for me, Mr. Kinnell has revised his poem for publication (which is why I’m not putting the whole thing in this blog post; I remember the old poem, not the new one. It would be like showing a picture of a 2008 Jamis Durango and claiming, “This is the bike I bought in 1998, which freed me from the drudgery of walking across the Pulaski Bridge on winter mornings.”) I remember line 17 as being “muck, birdlime, slime, mucus, gleet, ooze,” not “glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck” as it is in the book.

The Robbins poem, “Alien vs. Predator,” when compared to the Kinnell poem, just seems glitzy and shiny and made of tinfoil. Its delights are insipid compared to the deep wonder and insight of Kinnell’s verses.


“a little foam chiropractor”? Meh. What’s the fun in memorizing a poem like that?

Galway Kinnell, “Why Regret?”