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Poetry For Galway Kinnell: Confessions, A Blessing


I'LL BET the dream all began with the vision of innocent sharing of places at the medieval wooden Advocate table and at the seminar table of Lowell's Tuesday Chosen. Began of winter evenings reading aloud, of long intense discussions of tradition and iconoclasm, of who's breaking into print and why, of our own ambitions and crippling incapacities, of our competition and heroes and of what must be done.

This dream, of a friendly community of Harvard student poets, probably deserves a harsher portrait than it's going to get here-but who can be cruel to an image fleeing if not already fled, disarmingly optimistic and conceived in such good faith.

It all seemed so ambitions and exhilarating at first. Soon, however, this certain in group of Harvard student poets found itself also sharing vocabulary, mannerisms and a whole poetic sensibility. For awhile we all wrote poems about our depressions and called it "the drifting, fading and languishing school." Then we wrote liberal poems about our childhoods and families (discreetly calling it nothing but knowing in our hearts that it was "the Life Studies school.") An occasional tic of style would distinguish one of us from the others-and the style was good, don't get me wrong, competent and finished-but we had sheepishly to admit that we could spot each others' line sequences from a mile away and that those oh so-recognisable adjective arrangements sometimes haunted us in our sleep. We published Advocates laden with our own poems-and all of us seemed to hear criticisms from magazines in Chicago and the Coast echoing words like "Lowell-ian." "Lowell-esque,"

So, now, some of us worry. The questions of modernity and breaking loose, of style and dealing with the influence of others cannot be ignored. We spring back and forth between comfort and demand, between our consciousness of tradition and our need to invent-but we never seem to be able to leap beyond the gravity of our certain custom; we are never able to forge something really new or wonderful.

PERHAPS this all has something to do with why I was so gladdened when Robert Bly read here that Friday night when most of us were going or had gone to Washington. Talking into an Advocate tape recorder before-hand, he discussed a new sense of space in poetry, that feeling for the vast empty untouched universe of things to be felt and said. Besides the Orientals, who have always known where space is, perhaps only the Americans, with the expanse of physical space to their right and left, can strike it rich-even if their minds are just half open-said Bly. America's poets have only to relax into this, to lean-as Galway Kinnell says-"in any direction, which is the way."

Bly spoke also of the extinction of ego, the ability to lose yourself into what you're writing poems about, to become like the haiku artist-the bursting of silence, the frog into the night pond, the sound of one hand... And all of this in an age of writing focussed so compulsively inward! In the tradition that extends from Eliot to Lowell and those between, most poets write of themselves, in a style which Bly calls the reporting of "news of the human mind." Involved, ego-centered, almost embarrassingly self-aware, many contemporary poets seem to live to reveal, to confess. Again the style is very, very good . But Plath writing about an intensely personal insanity:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time-

or Lowell writing about his grandparents:

Grandpa! Have me, hold me, cherish me!

Tears smut my fingers.

achieves an emotional consummation that just cannot be improved. Like the Lincoln Continental, these revelations-of-mind are a polished but exhausted perfection. Where can one go from here except to the distressing extreme of Anne Sexton writing "In Celebration of My Uterus?" The poetry of discovery and sincerity becomes a simplistic, gratuitous poetry of exposure, and that sacred "space" vanishes at the boundaries of private experience.

Then, almost as a tease of an answer from out of the infinite west, Richard Brautigan came a week ago and read spacey little one-liners that laughed in the now-vulnerable face of "serious" poetry everywhere. American literature at its most libertine spoke, ruthlessly mocking the discipline and care of poetry along with the paralyzing limitations that have admittedly been placed upon it. The line between space and sloppiness, like the one between innovativeness and perversity, grew tenuous. With Brautigan, things were looking grim for those of us who were counting on salvation in looseness and space.

Two days later, Galway Kinnell appeared and read in Boylston Auditorium, and for me, it was like sunrise in a misty eastern sky... Suddenly schools of poetry and communities of like-minded poets seemed obsolete; idealism and purity reigned again. Kinnell read from an inexhaustible richness of things both everyday and vast, from the flesh and bones and stones of the woods and its parts. He read about the mountains in Vermont and I thought of Frost: he read about things growing and I thought of Rocthke; he read about the creative necessity of solitude and I thought of Bly-yet all the while I knew it was none of these, no simple influence. It was less a question of poetry than of a way of looking at things, of being tender, direct and sympathetic, of being able to lose yourself, to become and feel the way a bear, a porcupine or an unborn baby must.

For hours after the reading, I was filled with it. I could hardly talk to my friends about Galway Kinnell's poetry, but having the music of it in my mind. I agreed to write about it. I kept the image of him alone and healthy reading his own poetry, astonishing songs of his own mind and making. Feeling less effete than I have in a long time. I walked into the Advocate sanctum after the meeting had ended and everyone had departed, traces of the carnage of Saturday night's Brautigan reception still heavy in the air. Fled for awhile at least that old vision; born at last I think a new one.

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