Galway Kinnell accomplished much in his 87 years. The Rhode Island native, who died in October, was the recipient of numerous honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the Frost Medal for poetry.
But Kinnell’s contribution to poetry isn’t solely measured by the awards he received. According to Pittsburgh poets who knew him or read his work, Kinnell was a unique talent who wrote poetry with a singular aspect.
“You don’t find many echoes in Galway’s poetry,” says Sam Hazo, founder of the International Poetry Forum, which brought the world’s most noted to poets to Pittsburgh from 1966 to 2009. “He doesn’t imitate other poets at all. His poems are uniquely his own.”
A memorial reading will be held Jan. 31 in Kinnell’s honor at the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield. Mike Schneider, who is organizing the event with fellow Pittsburgh poet Jimmy Cvetic, studied with Kinnell at the University of Pittsburgh in 1983.
“I think, of all American poets in the past century or so, he writes most deeply and passionately from his feelings,” Schneider says, “in a way that is closer to the great Hispanic poets of the 20th century, (Pablo) Neruda, (Federico Pablo) Lorca and others, than most American poets.”
Schneider says Kinnell’s poems always paid attention to “sound qualities — the music of words,” a value he thinks has not always been emphasized by contemporary poets.
Kinnell also influenced poets via his choice of subjects. When Lynn Emanuel, a poet and professor in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, started to read Kinnell’s poems as a young woman, she was struck by the way he wrote about children.
“I couldn’t think of a single male poet who was undertaking this subject — or at least none of whom were writing about children and wives with intimate tenderness and without sentimentality,” Emanuel says. “And I think what is true of these poems is true of the best of his work. He was far ahead of the curve in this, and I think, to a large degree, he still is.”
Terrance Hayes, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and won a National Book Award for his poetry collection “Lighthead,” says Kinnell’s “Book of Nightmares” remains an important work for him.
“It’s an expansive, passionate book, a love child of Whitman and Lorca,” Hayes says of the poetry collection that was published in 1973. “I love many more of Kinnell’s individual poems, but that’s a perfectly conceived book.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.