Galway Kinnell has been around for a long time. He's 83, and his first book was published in 1960, when he was 33. He has been a "serious" poet most of his career, addressing mortality, nature and environmental issues, war, poverty, marital disharmony, solitude--in the gravest possible tones. His indignation and grieving often rise to histrionic levels, and one has the feeling that it has always been important to his sense of self-esteem to be taken with complete sincerity. This is fine, up to a point. Formally, Kinnell has never been an innovator, which is to say that he has never seen fit to think far enough through the implications of how his art might reflect the utmost commitment he appears to make in the other spheres of his concerns. In other words, form isn't subject to the same level of inquiry he conducts with his emotions and official positions.
With the occasional exception.
Another New Englander, Robert Frost, was frequently amusing in his poems, using light, gentle ironies to gain access to deeper levels of meditation, than might have seemed apt, given the seemingly bland occasions of his subject matter. The grudgingly private and guarded Nor-'Easter's bearing was a persona Frost would often use to mask the philosophically astute and pondering mind that inspired many of his most impressive performances in verse. It could be tiresome, or arch, or too cute, at times; but Frost understood how levity balances seriousness in art, and comedy may be as ambitious a method as tragedy when it comes to the telling observation or unresolved dilemma.
I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on a hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge, as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to
disintegrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with an imaginary companion,
and that he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as wholesome as Keats claims,
still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the "Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words "Oi 'ad a 'eck of a toime," he said,
speaking through his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas, and he and a friend
spread the papers on a table, and they made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day
if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas, and the way here and
there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and
peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward
with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about the scraps of paper on the
table, and tried shuffling some stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words lovingly, and his odd accent
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started on it, and two of the lines,
"For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings
hours by hours," came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows, muttering.
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously gummy and crumbly,
and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.
Oatmeal is the sort of poem that is very effective when read to groups. It has just the right light-hearted tone, a dramatic whimsy which captivates peoples' interest in a public setting. I've never heard Kinnell read it, but I did hear him read his poetry, twice, back the early 1970's, and he was very effective, with a breathy baritone which seemed to command attention. Oatmeal is a classic anthology-piece, inviting and ingratiating, but it's very untypical of Kinnell's work as a whole, employing as it does elements of fantasy and humor which belie his usual gravity and conviction. I suppose one could say it's a kind of writing he's "earned" the right to enjoy through the course of a long, honored career.
The idea of making up an imaginary conversation with John Keats over a bowl of morning oatmeal is the sort of gesture you might expect of Ogden Nash, or James Thurber. Having Keats mull over his composition of "Ode to a Nightingale" in his characteristic Cockney accent is the sort of clever detail that would charm the casual poetaster. Two details seem somewhat out of place, though, or perhaps they're examples of Kinnell's contribution to the imaginary history of literary biography. Somehow I doubt whether Keats would be comfortable with the simile of "the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark"; or the remark about "amnion's tatters." Amnion is the thin, tough, membranous serous-filled sac that encloses the embryo or fetus of a mammal, bird or reptile. "Amnion's tatters" is the sort of slightly yucky detail that is characteristic Kinnell. That oatmeal should evoke associations like this is the sort of standard grim connection that drives his imaginative engine.
John Keats bust
The poem concludes with a humorous aside about the Irish potato connection of Patrick Kavanagh:"I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously gummy and crumbly, and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me." Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh was safe in his grave long before Kinnell put him into this poem, so the conversation with the dead conceit is preserved. I think it's encouraging to see a fee-fie-fo-fum poet like Kinnell let his hair down, occasionally, and write a poem of simple charm, even when it's thinly disguised free-verse doggerel like this. Allowing oneself to step out of the robes of high aesthetic discourse and speak commonly is always a useful exercise. Pound often did it, to great effect, and his mixture of rude frankness with high toned address is one of the strengths of Modernist art.
For most of his career, Kinnell walked the typical tight-rope of maintaining the modicum of decorum while speaking--more or less--in the vulgar tongue. He never ascended to the kind of strained prosaic intensity of Jack Gilbert, James Wright, though one senses that he was just as ambitious and committed to that intensity of potential effect as they were. Kinnell has a devoted following, and it's easy to see why. He puts out a controlled, clean line of measured positions, strongly male; his opinions are predictably correct, and he projects the loner's romantic code of individuality and crusty disdain. I have admired a number of his poems, though they ultimately present no challenges to poetic formality, or prevailing political conceits or presumptions. There is a level of ambivalent complacence about this which is distinctly un-contemporary. And Oatmeal seems to capture some of this tension, between the immediate reality of daily life (eating breakfast alone), and his aspiration to connect with the larger tradition that inspired his earliest efforts. Perhaps Kinnell had realized, at some point late in the game, that it was his differences and privacies and incidental oddnesses that would, in the end, save his name from the obscurity of the quotidian, from the predictable niceties of the day.