When I learned last night that Galway Kinnell had died, I gathered all his books I have into a stack next to me and looked at them, flipped through some, read what I'd underlined--I'd taught The Book of Nightmares in an undergraduate Contemporary American Poetry course at Rice in l989; I'd used an excerpt from the poem The Wandering Shoes for the epigraph of my memoir in 2001. This morning I went online and read the Times' obituary, and particularly loved the last paragraphs, the words of James Dickey about Kinnell.
"Galway Kinnell cares about everything,” the poet and novelist James Dickey once observed.
"... he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness.
“To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on this earth at this moment."
I thought back to when I was first exposed to the real thing, to when I first heard the voice of a poet who showed "what it is for him or her to be on this earth at this moment".
All I'd known of poetry until I was eighteen was Longfellow, Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe.
In my sophomore year at LSU, I'd signed up for William "Kit" Hathaway's poetry writing workshop. We were to hand in some of our poems and sign up to meet with him in his office before the workshop began.
I think I remember every single second of that day.
I remember the beige tiles of the WPA hallway, his cramped corner office, the old-fashioned wooden chair with a desk attached that I tried to get into gracefully. I'd never met with a college teacher before. God the misery of my shy self, sweating, short of breath. It was hot as hell--it seems like it always was in Baton Rouge. He had my poems in his small hands, clutched and crumpled and damp. Damn, some of those poems had been published in my high school newspaper, the originals framed by my mother! He waved them around his head; his white shirt was half tucked in, half out. He told me my poems were not poems, told me they had nothing to do with poetry or with the world around us or with anything except some greeting card mishmash of sentimentality. He said they were sappy and sickening and I was never EVER to write anything like them again if I wanted to be in his workshop. What are "all these fucking balloons and rainbows and crap that makes me want to puke?" he asked. At least I knew it wasn't a real question.
Of course, I ran toward this madman instead of running far, far away.
I knew just enough to know I knew nothing.
I got in the writing workshop but didn’t say one single word nor submit one single poem the whole semester.
So it wasn't until l974 that I understood what poetry could do to you. I'd signed up to be in Hathaway's Contemporary American Poetry course. I was the only undergrad; the rest were grad students, most wanting to be poets, hippies with bare feet; some of them had their dogs with them--an Irish Setter, a yellow lab mix. (I even remember the way the afternoon light fell into the room, the dog hairs seen floating, illuminated by the shafts of sun).
It was the first contemporary poetry class the English department had offered in the four years I'd been there--for all I know, the first one EVER offered. The faculty was incredibly traditional as well as hierarchically. Since he'd been there, Kit had not been "allowed" to teach anything except creative writing because he didn't have a doctorate. He "only" had a master's degree--and a book. Later I'd learn first-hand about these departmental conflicts between writers and scholars. All I knew then was simply that I had to learn about contemporary poetry from Kit. It seemed it was my only chance.
Kit was the youngest teacher I'd had in college; he was only fifteen years older than me.
His school "uniform" was a short-sleeved white polyester shirt with a white t-shirt with sleeves underneath, khaki pants, a clip-on tie, and a gold watch. Sometimes he wore a white shirt with small faded blue stripes. He adhered to the university dress code--nice shirt, tie--but with his ironic twist. Kit wanted, always, to dress like a "townie," those he most identified with from his hometown of Ithaca, NY, though his dad had taught at Cornell. Years later I learned that Kit's father was Baxter Hathaway, who started Cornell's creative writing program. But Kit had run with the rough crowd of the town, always, and made cracks about any who put on airs, as in feathers in one's hair, or moccasins on one's feet--if you weren't an Indian.
At that point, Kit was a young, bitter man whose alcoholism had just begun taking its toll; ultimately it would exact a high price, costing him his teaching career, one might even venture, his poetry. But in l974, he was in good spirits. He had a pale baby face with smooth skin that kept a pink flush on his cheekbones. He had all sorts of energetic bursts and tics; he shuffled but it was a fast shuffle; he made fun of his own movements sometimes by doing a little cha-cha—perhaps after he’d had his drinks with lunch; he paced when teaching and he talked fast; he said "You know what I mean?" about every six sentences. Even though his face was round, he had a way of being pointy--he bore down on you, on a subject, his eyes growing beady and fierce when riled. When you could get him to laugh, well, that was nice, a softness happened around his eyes. But that was rare. (Kit ultimately stopped drinking and has remained sober, though he no longer teaches.)
True terrible confession: this course was listed as a two-hundred-level course. By taking it instead of a four-hundred level, I would not be able to graduate "on time."
I lied to my father after the fact and said this had been an accident. Didn't tell him until a month before graduation. I blamed it on the person assigned to English majors to help them organize their semesters. I said she sucked at math.
I did experience enough remorse to take the only job I could get on campus, which was in the Poultry Department.
There were rats where I worked. Rats came up through the toilets in search of water because of the poison. They'd hemorrhage in the ladies'; it happened my first day. From then on, I held it until I got off work and went to the student union. Chickens attract rats. It was my sacrifice, my act of penance for my lies, for my love of poetry.
It was worth it.
Kit's class--the poetry he chose--that's when it happened: that's when I first heard "what it's like to be on this earth at this time." That's where Kit read to us the poems of those who were "bearing witness." .
On the first day of class, he shuffled in, a cool dude we all called Hathaway. He opened a dog-eared book and began to read James Dickey's poem, The Sheep Child. I had experienced nothing in the world heretofore like what I felt when Kit rasped out the last lines:
Dead, I am most surely living In the minds of farm boys: I am he who drives Them like wolves from the hound bitch and calf And from the chaste ewe in the wind.They go into woods into bean fields they go Deep into their known right hands. Dreaming of me,They groan they wait they sufferThemselves, they marry, they raise their kind.
Twenty years later, Kit told me that what he mainly remembered about me was how wide-eyed I was, sitting there, never speaking, my big brown eyes unblinking.
During each class, Kit paced around the room, spewed saliva, his shirt pasted by sweat to his chest as he read to us. There was Dickey's poem Falliing, the inspiration drawn from an actual event, about a stewardess who fell from the emergency exit of an airplane. As he read, I fell with her; fell and fell and fell:
She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her
Self in low body-whistling wrapped intensely in all her dark dance-weight
Coming down from a marvellous leap with the delaying, dumfounding ease
Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil
Of a central state of one’s country with a great gradual warmth coming
Over her floating finding more and more breath in what she has been using
For breath as the levels become more human
These were poems written by people that Hathaway actually knew. James Dickey, Alan Ginsberg, Richard Hugo; People who were alive. Not only were they NOT DEAD, but they were like Kit--wild and crazy and drunk on language.
I fell in love. With James Dickey. With Theodore Roethke. With John Berryman.
And with Kit Hathaway.
It was years later that I discovered Galway Kinnell, but it all started in that room with that crabby poet, William "Kit" Hathaway and his love of poems, the kind that take the top right off of your head, the kind that bear witness, the kind that tell you what it is to be on this earth at this time.
There was a direct line for me, one that ran straight from that day until this one, from Hathaway to Dickey to Kinnell. As I live and breathe, I promise you that.