A Very Great Poet is Gone: Galway Kinnell

A great American poet is gone. Galway Kinnell, whom I met several times, both at Poetry Center San Jose in the 1980s and at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where he was lauded as one of the founders, has died. You can read many of his poems at the Poetry Foundation site, and there are numerous videos of him reading his work, as he came to prominence in the age when people first thought to film poets.

Here is a short collection of some, I particularly love.

One of my very favorite poems of his is “St. Francis and the Sow” which you can read here. Reading this poem as a young woman encouraged me, gave me a place to start. These two lines are among the reasons I teach poetry:

though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness


This photo is from the SVCW’s website. That’s Bob Hass, Galway Kinnell, Brenda Hillman and Sharon Olds, probably at a benefit reading.

“A New Song” by W. S. Merwin

Today, driving to work, feeling overwhelmed by National Poetry Month, and already stressing about what poem I would find and post to the Cupertino Poetry Exchange today, I tuned in to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac (on my excellent local NPR station, KALW).

Today’s poem, “A New Song” by W. S. Merwin, turns out to be a charming meditation on time and our (always impossible) expectations for it. The poem allowed me to take a deep breath, to laugh at my preoccupations with time, and to move more lightly into the day. That’s enough.

The New Song

by W. S. Merwin

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

“The New Song” by W.S. Merwin, from The Moon Before Morning.
© Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

Because I do not have permission to reprint Mr. Merwin’s poem on my blog, I am encouraging you to buy his books by providing this link to them on Amazon. (buy now) Here is the short scoop on this wonderful poet. “Merwin was the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. He is the author of over fifty books of poetry, prose, and translations. He has earned every major literary prize, most recently the National Book Award for ‘Migration: New and Selected Poems’ and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for ‘The Shadow of Sirius.’ He lives in Hawaii where he raises endangered palm trees.”

I find Mr. Merwin’s photo to be almost as calming and comforting as this poem. I hope you enjoy them both.

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry”

Poems about cats. (We already talked about poems and dogs, discussing Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.) I love cats. I don’t know that there are as many poems about cats, many poets being dog people, but that’s okay. I know of a few.

Today on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read a poem called “The Cats” by Ann Iverson. It’s got the right attitude for a poem about cats, “To find yourself so remarkable /  all the day long.” That is what cats do. That’s what got me started thinking about cat poetry. I found on the Poetry Foundation’s website an entire page about Cat Poems. The list includes “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” which I lauded here earlier this week, several other children’s rhymes, some very funny stuff, including the concrete poem (poem in a shape) “Magnificat. Brave Cat At Snifter Fishbowl” by George Starbuck (see image below), and some fine work by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, that English couple with all the marriage troubles.

But by far my favorite cat poem, and a very famous one indeed, is the section from Jubilate Agno written by Christopher Smart that begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.” You can read all about Mr. Smart at the Poetry Foundation, and many other places, but I encourage you, if you’re tired and need a lift, to read the poem about his cat. There is nowhere else in the English language a more beautiful hymn to a cat, and to their magical spiritual heavenly ordinary lives. The poem is too long to reproduce here, but you can find it here. And just a taste —

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
Here is George Starbuck’s poem.  The cartoon (check out the awesome blog post of his life) of Christopher Smart and Jeoffry is by Paul Bommer.