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Kinnell brings his masterful poetry to the Media Lab


Bartos Theater, Oct. 31, 7:30 pm.



HEN ONE HAS LIVED A long time alone / One wants to live again among men and women." So begins the 11th section of Galway Kinnell's poem, "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone," a work in multiple parts. The poem, taken from Kinnell's book of the same name, twines together the classic themes of love, sex, nature and death, at times joyful, at others contemplative, but all in all, a complete summing of the poet's work.

Kinnell, currently State Poet of Vermont, writes in casual, fluid free verse that flirts with iambic rhythm. One finds the roots of his style in Whitman and Keats, and Kinnell recited selections from those poets at his reading on Halloween.

The organizers of the Poetry at the Media Lab series request that the poets read a few works by those who have influenced them; Kinnell, taking this request to heart, alternated his poems with his favorites by other authors, each pair of poems speaking to a common theme.

After opening with "The Bear" -- a dramatic, gripping story of an Eskimo hunting and killing a bear, and eventually merging his personality with it -- Kinnell began his official reading with a poem by John Clare, a contemporary of Keats. Clare's poem, which sounds much like a children's story, is full of birdcalls that Kinnell wrapped his rich voice around. Kinnell matched the Clare poem with the seventh section of "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone," speaking of a "red-headed woodpecker clanging out his music from a metal drainpipe, or ruffed grouse drumming thrump thrump thrump . . . ."

He followed that poem with Keats' "To Autumn" and paired that with "Oatmeal." "Oatmeal," also taken from When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, is modern Kinnell, concentrating more on whimsy than on tragedy, a distinction that the poet himself noted later in the question and answer section. "I am aware that it is not good to eat oatmeal alone," he writes. "Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if someone eats it with you." The poet conjures a breakfast companion -- John Keats -- and spends a lazy morning talking about the origins of "Ode to a Nightingale" and "To Autumn," discovering that the latter poem was born of a morning spent alone, eating oatmeal.

Kinnell's fellow New York University faculty member, Sharon Olds, read "Oatmeal" at her MIT appearance last spring, and Kinnell returned the favor by reading Olds' "The Ferrier." Unlike his previous pairings, which matched poems of similar topics, Kinnell chose to counterpoint Olds' bittersweet, troubled musings about her father's death with "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps," about his son coming to greet his parents after the act that once created him.

One of the last poems Kinnell read was yet another stanza of "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone," this one a celebration of life. He writes: "[O]ne envelops, in a towel, the swift / who fell down the chimney . . . and releases her outside / and watches her fly free, a life line flung at reality." And like the swift's flight, Kinnell's poetry is a life line, one which draws us closer to nature, and to the nature of existence.