Last Thursday evening in Manhattan a hundred or so literary writers and readers gathered inside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, a magnificent venue that has been host to such historical events as Abraham Lincoln’s rousing Cooper Union Address, in which he urged the nation to abolish slavery, in 1860. People rushed in from the cold, scanning the auditorium for empty seats. Heavy winter coats took on lives of their own, refusing to stay within the confines of the narrow wooden chairs. Our collective body heat seemed to rise in direct proportion to the noise.
When poet Galway Kinnell entered from stage left, the audience stood in applause. We had gathered to celebrate Kinnell’s eightieth birthday. Twelve poets followed him onto stage, then walked down the stairs and fanned out to fill the first row of seats. A tiny podium had been set up at the front of the stage. Each poet would give a brief remarks, followed by a reading of a Kinnell poem of their choosing.
As the birthday party poetry reading began, the mood became festive but poignant. Anne Marie Macari compared the experience of reading Kinnell’s poetry to giving birth to her children. (The occasion seemed to call for such lofty expressions of genuine feeling.) She read “Another Night in the Ruins,” a poem, in part, about poetry as life’s work.
“Galway, you are amazing,” said Yusef Komunyakaa before reading “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond” in a deep, sonorous voice. “You make me feel less embarrassed to be human,” explained Marie Howe, who chose to read “Freedom, New Hampshire.” Robert Bly prefaced “The Bear” by calling Kinnell “a wonderful bear of a man.”
Cornelius Eady, Mark Doty, and C. K. Williams focused on their first impressions of Kinnell’s poetry, which they all had discovered as young men. Along with his reading, Eady serenaded Kinnell with a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” In his slightly breathless introduction, Doty explained that Kinnell’s work showed him where the imagination could go, then read “It All Comes Back.” Williams was blunt: “When I first heard Galway read, something in me said, ‘Holy shit.’” He concluded with “The Porcupine,” his southern accent gliding across the stanzas.
Sharon Olds launched straight into “Oatmeal,” which, like so many Kinnell poems, uses an experience rooted in physicality (eating) to discuss a mental experience (writing poetry). In this case, the lonely speaker decides to invite an imaginary companion to share his unappealing bowl of gloppy oatmeal—he chooses John Keats so that they might enliven the meal by discussing literature. Olds concluded her tribute by reading some lines, composed for Kinnell’s seventy-fifth birthday, about how every day, somewhere, someone is reading his words. Readers “love you,” she said.
Grace Paley, wearing a blue sweater and matching blue beanie, followed Olds. She adjusted the microphone—bending it way down—and explained that she would read “Shelley,” after which, she said, “I might say something…but I might not.” As it turns out, she did have something to say: “Okay, so much for poets,” she concluded.
Gerald Stern, two years Kinnell’s senior, referred to him as “our North star.” He apologized in advance for mispronouncing some difficult words in Kinnell’s “Why Regret” and said he couldn’t find them in his dictionary.
Edward Hirsch praised Kinnell for bringing warmth back to American poetry after the coldness of modernism. For Hirsch, Kinnell stands as a moral example of how to live one’s life in poetry. After reading “St. Francis and the Sow,” he blew the poet a kiss.
E. L. Doctorow told an anecdote about playing tennis with Kinnell and Stephen Dunn. During a particularly heated moment in the game, Doctorow collided with Dunn while trying to return a shot. As Doctorow lay sprawled on the court, he noticed Kinnell’s face morph from concern to abstraction—and realized that Kinnell was trying to think of a word to describe the sound of Doctorow’s head hitting the ground. Once the audience stopped laughing, Doctorow read “On the Tennis Court at Night.”
Finally, Kinnell rose to read. We stood again and clapped; he clapped back. Still large and bearlike (even at eighty), he wore a dark sports coat and pinkish-red shirt. After reading “Prayer,” he recalled seeing a photograph of a man who’d had one of the poem’s lines tattooed across his back: “What is is is what I want.” The tattoo artist, Kinnell said, thought it was a misprint.
He then read a very funny poem about a cat, followed by a blistering poem about violence. He read lines from other poems about his children and his marriage, about a bear alone in the twilit woods, about death, about poetry. He finished by inviting his friends to gather around him.
Poetry is the most solitary of arts, composed alone and often consumed that way as well. Galway Kinnell’s birthday party poetry reading reminded us that poetry is meant to be heard. Words that seem so private actually function best in public, particularly when shared with friends.