Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014) grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and was educated at Princeton and Rochester University. He joined in the radical political movements of the 1960s, working for the Congress on Racial Equality and protesting against the Vietnam War. Socio-political issues remained an important element in Kinnell’s poetry, but were always been combined with an underlying sacramental quality. Initially this was expressed through the traditional Christian sensibility of his first collection, What a Kingdom It Was, but later work moved away from religious orthodoxy into a poetry which “burrows fiercely into the self . . .” (Richard Gray). The first edition of his Selected Poems (1980) won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Kinnell taught poetry and creative writing for many years and in many places, including France, Iran, and Australia.

Kinnell said “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.” It is this search for the essential that marks out Kinnell’s poetic territory: like the bear of one of his most celebrated poems, he digs in for the winter. This desire to feel a oneness with the universe is beautifully expressed here in the closing lines of ‘The Seekonk Woods’ where Kinnell describes himself lying on his back, staring up at the stars as he tries to escape the pressure of time, to lose himself in the present and “attain/ a moment of absolute ignorance”. This search for the spiritual begins with the flesh – touch is a central sense in his poetry, from St. Francis’ gentle blessing of the sow in one of his most famous poems, to the awkward/ graceful dance of a daughter leading her elderly father in ‘Parkinson’s Disease’. The poems imply that we begin to know and respect our place in the world through the skin: this makes Kinnell a devout poet, honouring the earth and all the creatures, including the human ones, which share its surface. He is drawn to writing about the moments when our most basic nature is revealed, in birth, sex and death, as in his celebrated poems of physical union, ‘After Making Love We Hear Footsteps’ and ‘Rapture’. There is anger at human destructiveness, and he writes of a desire to escape, as in his sequence ‘When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone’, but this is tempered with a tremendous tenderness, particularly evident in the poems for his young son and daughter.

For all the plain grandeur of his language with its Biblical cadences, Kinnell is not a remote figure. The deep resonance of his voice brings out both the wisdom and intimacy of his poems, as embodied in the closing lines of ‘Lastness’, a section of his long poem, The Book of Nightmares, where he bends over his newly born son: “and smelled/the black, glistening fur/of his head, as empty space/must have bent over the newborn planet. . .”.

'Blackberry Eating', 'Oatmeal' and 'First Song' come from a recording made for The Poetry Archive on 11 July 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London, produced by Richard Carrington. The remaining poems come from a recording made for The Poetry Foundation on 19 September 2007 in New York.

Books by Galway Kinnell



Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for 'Selected Poems'

Prize website

Joint Winner National Book Award for Poetry for 'Selected Poems'

Prize website
1989 - 93

Poet Laureate for the State of Vermont

Prize website