Galway Kinnell is typing up a draft of a new poem when he stops to welcome an interviewer. His manual Smith-Corona, which he bought in a thrift shop 15 years ago, dates back to the late 1930s or early 1940s. There are splatters of correction fluid on the cover and lakes of white on the roller.
"I use a lot of correction tape, too," he says. "Sometimes it gets so thick, the page won't fit in the typewriter, and I have to retype."
Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, answers several questions about his brownish typewriter with green keys, and then he asks a question of his own: "Would you like to try it?"
The offer says volumes about one of America's most celebrated contemporary poets, a man as gracious and sensitive in person as he is on the page.
Kinnell fans have long loved his work for its intelligence and honesty, his keen eye for detail, and the subtle connections between people and their environment. There is an authenticity, a humanity to his work that few of his contemporaries can match.
Such qualities are perhaps needed more than ever in the wake of Sept. 11. And Kinnell, like many poets, is writing about the tragedy. It's the subject of his poem in progress, but Kinnell wonders aloud if he will ever finish.
"It's the poet's job," he says, "to figure out what's happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a certain shape, that have a chance of lasting." But the terrorist attacks are "so huge that it's difficult to write about them directly."
Kinnell suspects that poets will learn how to handle the topic as time goes on. And, he says, if he succeeds in writing a strong poem, "it will mean that my poetry had to change a little bit to accommodate the subject."
Kinnell says that while most Americans feel deeply shaken by the attacks, "poets had a special shock, because people who wrote just about themselves and things that happened to them suddenly had a feeling that these things were trivial."
This is not to say, however, that poetry must be impersonal. Kinnell believes that poetry is inherently personal - it's one person's exploration of life, of what it means to be on earth. But, he adds, poets must take things more seriously. "You can no longer just fool around.... We need a deeper sense of the preciousness of our time here as conscious beings."
That consciousness has always been present in Kinnell's work. Whether he's writing about his family or describing the loveliness of sows, Kinnell's work reveals affection for creatures both great and small. Indeed, he claims that the "other animals are the angels. Human babies are the angels."
A pig as an angel?
"I try to see past the usual clichés about things," he smiles. " 'Pig' is a pejorative word, but if you get to know them, get a feeling for them, you see that they have an extraordinary beauty. When creatures don't have an extraordinary beauty, it's because the person in contact with them is not seeing it. I feel more and more in love with other creatures as I get older."
Some critics use the word "spiritual" to describe Kinnell's work, but that is not a word he would use. When he writes, he addresses his work "to being." He thinks in terms of accuracy, of capturing what seems to be truth in a particular moment and context. "It is almost as if the words are imitations of something else - shapes of reality."
Despite his many honors - the National Book Award, a MacArthur fellowship, having been poet laureate of Vermont - Kinnell never seems to lose his center, or his compassion. He can make almost any situation, any loss, resonate. Indeed, much of his work leaves the reader with a delicious ache, a sense of wanting to look once more at whatever scene is passing.
"Nobody would write poetry if the world seemed perfect," he says. "There is some sadness in all poetry; sadness may be the prevailing note." But sadness, as in Keats's "To Autumn," is what makes poetry thrilling. "It's only too sad because it's so happy. Mortality makes everything worth more to us."
Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.
On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and, as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity, they sank down
into the mud, faded down
into it and lay still, and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.