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Book News: Remembering Poet Galway Kinnell, Whose Song Said Everything

Poet Carolyn Forche stands with her friend and mentor Galway Kinnell (right) during a trip to Japan to attend the Asian Writers Congress in 1983. (Courtesy of Carolyn Forche)

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When Galway Kinnell accepted the post of Vermont's State Poet in 1989, the honor didn't come without a bit of polite disagreement. No writer had occupied the post since Robert Frost more than 25 years earlier, and with the revival came also a desire among some to change its name — from "state poet" to something more august, something along the lines of, say, laureate.

Kinnell would have none of it. If "state poet" had been good enough for Robert Frost, it was good enough for him, he contended at the time. And besides, Kinnell said, he regarded the post as being much like that of the state bird: as an honor that obliged them both to sing.

Kinnell died Tuesday at age 87 in his home in Sheffield, Vt., and he leaves behind a legacy of song — some five decades of simple, inviting verse that appealed to a range of readers who had been put off by the modernist movements that came before him.

During a career that spanned more than a dozen books, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Kinnell devoted his lines to difficult questions of death and family, dwelling as often on the ugly as on the beautiful. Yet he did so always in everyday language that belied the dexterity of the writer behind it.

In his public life, Kinnell never shied from political activism. In the 1960s, he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality. More recently, he protested against U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Along the way, he was a near-constant presence at poetry readings throughout Vermont and in Manhattan, where he taught at New York University.

"He was a giant in many ways; his power to reach deep into the human condition was equaled by his ability to see beyond it," said Bruce Nichols, Kinnell's publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "His mission to write poetry that could be understood by and connect to a broader readership created and lifted up generations of poetry readers and, without question, will continue to do so through the ages."

It is perhaps inevitable that Kinnell's poetry should be compared with that of Walt Whitman. Kinnell edited a collection of Whitman's poetry, after all, and occasionally invoked some of the poet's best-known lines in poems of his own. But beyond these explicit connections, Kinnell's work often carried the tune of Whitman's "Song of Myself" — a song that, in its frank simplicity, aspires to be sung by everyone.

Speaking to NPR, his friend and fellow poet Carolyn Forche recalled not just Kinnell's talent but also his generosity. She said Kinnell encouraged her writing back when she was a student, and that he later read the Biblical "Song of Songs" at her wedding.

"He taught me both silence and to say everything," Forche said. "His poems led me to mine. He was a great poet, yes, but also a kind and gentle human being who knew, as he wrote in his poem 'Another Night in the Ruins,' 'that for us / as we go up in flames, our own work/ is / to open ourselves, to be / the flames.' "

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