“Poetry is…standing up and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is…to be on Earth at this moment.” – Galway Kinnell

When I was in high school I knew nothing of poetry, except a schoolgirl’s frustration at not being able to answer that maddening question so often thrown at students: What is poetry? 

And then I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico and one night was invited to the home of tutor Charles G. Bell, whose friend Galway Kinnell was giving a reading of his poems. By the fireside. With students sitting on sofas. And Indian rugs on the floor.

I was mesmerized. By Kinnell, of course, because he was gorgeous. But by something else that was completely new to me – a live poetic voice. Until that time, I had always read silently to myself. Words lay on pages and were, mostly, quiet. Unless they were words spoken in a play. Or in a speech. Or in a movie.

But until that night I had never heard a poet read their own words. And it changed everything for me. To this day, I read poetry out loud (and many other kinds of writing too, especially letters).

Years later I heard Kinnell read again at the 92 Street Y in New York City, in front of hundreds of people in a big room, standing at a podium, dressed in corduroy pants and a shirt and an elegant blazer. That deep, confident, present, and energetic yet serene voice rolling over the audience like a crackling fire.

And years still after that, when I was representing a fine art photographer in New York City, whose portraits of people were particularly stunning, I wrote to Kinnell and asked if he might sit for a portrait. He wrote back, of course, rather than leaving a decidedly unpoetic message on my answering machine, telling me that his schedule was tight between teaching at New York University and life in Vermont, but that if he could swing it, he would.

I never got to meet him for that shoot, which in retrospective I am glad for. My memory of Kinnell at St. John’s, when I was 18, sitting in front of the fire at Charles and Danny (his wife) Bell’s adobe home, tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico, allows me to think of him, and poetry, perhaps the way poets and poetry ought to be thought of – as Muse forces that whisper to us always.

For reasons unknown and that perhaps need no explanation, Kinnell’s letter sits on my desk in a glass flower container, long emptied of its but blooms, free to contain the letter of a man who wrote often about nature.

It is impossible to choose which of his poems is my favorite. But there is one that lingers within me always, words and phrases from which pop into my head quite unexpectedly, usually when I am driving, or walking down the street, or surrounded by nature.

So I copy the entirety of When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone here in honor of Mr. Kinnell. It resonated with me the instant I read it. No doubt because when I first encountered it, I myself had lived a long time alone.

Read it out loud.

When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone – Galway Kinnell


When one has lived a long time alone
one refrains from swatting the fly
and lets him go, and one hesitates to strike
the mosquito, though more than willing to slap
the flesh under her, and one lifts the toad
from the pit too deep for him to hop out of
and carries him to the grass, without minding
the toxic urine he slicks his body with,
and one envelops, in a towel, the swift
who fell down the chimney and knocks herself
against the window glass and releases her outside

and watches her fly free, a lift line flung at reality,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
one grabs the snake behind the head
and holds him until he stops trying to stick
the orange tongue, which splits at the end
into two black filaments and jumps out
like a fire-eater’s belches and has little
in common with the pimpled pink lump that shapes
sounds and sleeps inside the human mouth,
into one’s flesh, and clamps it between his jaws,
letting the gaudy tips show, as children do
when concentrating, and as very likely
one down oneself, without knowing it,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
among regrets so immense the past occupies
nearly all the room there is in consciousness,
one notices in the snake’s eyes, which look back
without paying less attention to the future,
the first coating of the opaque milky-blue
leucoma snakes to get when about to throw
their skins and become new––meanwhile continuing,
of course, to grow old––the exact bleu passé
that discolors the corneas of the blue-eyed
when they lie back at last and look for heaven,
a blurring one can see means they will never find it,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
one holds the snake near a loudspeaker disgorging
gorgeous sound and watches him crook
his forepart into four right angles
as though trying to slow down the music
flowing through him, in order to absorb it
the milk of paradise into the flesh,
and now a glimmering appears at his mouth,
such a drop of intense fluid as, among humans,
could form after long exiting at the tip
of the the penis, and as he straightens himself out
he has the pathos one finds in the penis,
when one has loved a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
ne can fall to poring upon a creature,
contrasting its eternity’s-face to one’s own
full of hours, taking note of each difference,
exaggerating it, making it everything,
until the other is utterly other, and then,
with hard effort, possibly with tongue sticking out,
going back over each one once again
and cancelling it, seeing nothing now
but likeness, until . . . half an hour later
one starts awake, taken aback at how eagerly
one swoons into the happiness of kinship,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone
and listens at morning to mourning doves
sound their kyrie eleison, or the small thing
spiritualizing onto one’s shoulder cry “pewit-phoebe!”
or peabody-sparrows at midday send schoolboys’
whistlings across the field, or at dusk, undamped,
unforgiving clinks, as from stonemasons’ chisels,
or on trees’ backs tree frogs scratch the thighs’
needfire awake, or from the frog pond pond frogs
raise their ave verum corpus—listens to those
who hop or fly call down upon us the mercy
of other tongues—one hears them as inner voices,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
one knows only consciousness consummates,
and as the conscious one among these others
uttering compulsory cries of being here—
the least flycatcher witching up “che-bec,”
or redheaded woodpecker clanging out his
music from a metal drainpipe, or ruffed grouse
drumming “thump thrump thrump thrump-thrump-
through the treees, all of them in time’s
unfolding trying to cry themselves into self-knowing—
one knows one is here to hear them into shining,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has loved a long time alone,
one likes alike the pig, who brooks no deferment
of gratification, and the porcupine, or thorned pig,
who enters the cellar but not the house itself
because of eating down the cellar stairs on the way up,
and one likes the worm, who by bunching herself together
and expanding rubs her way through the ground,
no less than the butterfly, who totters full of worry
among the day-lilies, as they darken,
and more and more one finds one likes
any other species better than one’s own,
which has gone amok, making one self-estranged,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
sour, misanthropic, one fits to one’s defiance
he satanic boast—It is better to reign
in hell than to submit on earth—
and forgets one’s kind, as does the snake,
who has stopped trying to escape and moves
at ease across one’s body, slumping into its contours,
adopting its temperature, and abandons hope
of the sweetness of friendship or love
—before long can barely remember what they are—
and covets the stillness in organic matter,
in a self-dissolution one may not know how to halt,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has loved a long time alone,
and the hermit thrush calls and there is an answer,
and the bullfrog, head half out of water, remembers
the exact sexual cantillations of his first spring,
and the snake slides over the threshold and disappears
among the stones, one sees they all live
to mate with their kind, and one knows,
after a long time of solitude, after the many steps taken
away from one’s kind, toward the kingdom of strangers,
the hard prayer inside one’s own singing
is to come back, if one can, to one’s own,
a world almost lost, in the exile that deepens,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
one wants to live again among men and women,
to return to that place where one’s ties with the human
broke, where the disquiet of death and now
also of history glimmers its firelight on faces,
where the gaze of the new baby looks past the gaze
of the great-granny, and where lovers speak,
on lips blowsy from kissing, that language
the same in each mouth, and like birds at daybreak
blether the song that is both earth’s and heaven’s,
until the sun has risen, and they stand
in a light of being united: kingdom come,
when one has lived a long time alone.

#GalwayKinnell   #poetry   #WhenOneHasLivedALongTimeAlone