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Craven: Galway Kinnell

Vermonters will miss poet and neighbor Galway Kinnell—for his graceful and deeply human verse and his caring way of being with friends and fresh acquaintances alike.

I knew Galway through my arts work—but I’ll always remember an experience during the frigid winter of 1991, when I worked on a screenplay at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I arrived at MacDowell, frazzled and ready for the long silences made possible at my own cabin in the snowy woods.

At night, we’d gather for dinner - composers, painters, and performance artists. And on my first night at MacDowell I was pleased to find Galway Kinnell in residence. Galway was writing a long poem—about the first Persian Gulf War that had begun just two nights before. We were all worried—and there wasn’t much media or news about that war in general at MacDowell. So instead of checking out TV news showing precision bombing strikes in Iraq—we’d gather after dinner to hear Galway, who wanted feedback on his sprawling work-in-progress, titled simply, “This War.”

Galway opened his poem by painting a picture of a Bagdhad Bazaar he’d visited years earlier to bargain, unsuccessfully, for a silver samovar.

He wrote:

“The merchant and I talked it over for a long time in the kerosene glare,”

“He was older and seemed a little reckless, like my brother.

And he seemed to like me but to love the samovar.”

Galway’s poem questioned the Middle East war as a testing ground for new weapons, as a contest for oil, and a ratings boost for news networks. He recognized peoples’ desire to embrace our troops through support for the war—then reminded us how support for war places our troops in grave danger. He imagined the battle as a contest of wills between leaders - and conjured the image of a fantasy baseball game on a sandlot outside New Haven, with the elder President Bush as pitcher and Sadaam Hussein pawing the dirt in the batter’s box.

At the poem’s core - he admitted to his own fear:

“The troops do not think this war is good

business,” he wrote.

“They feel somewhat high - adrenaline

gives them an animal alertness they do not

have at home. They are also afraid.”

“I am afraid,

“And I am sitting at a fire

in a comfortable farmhouse in Vermont.

And there is snow outside.”

“This War” was only ever published as an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press. But it reminds me of Galway Kinnell’s background as a Navy veteran in World War 2 – and the inspiration he took from peace, human rights, and environmental movements. And it made me think of Daniel Lewis’ recent New York Times remembrance of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet.

“Through it all,” Lewis wrote, “(Kinnell) held that it was the job of poets to bear witness... To me,” Kinnell 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 earth at this moment.”