Galway Kinnell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, passed away on Tuesday from leukemia. He wrote more than a dozen books throughout the five decades of his writing career. Among his recent works, After Making Love We Hear Footsteps, reflected on the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks.
In 1982, he won the Pulitzer for Selected Poems, which also won the National Book Award for Poetry. Kinnell also wrote about the horrors of the Vietnam War, but his most famous poem, “The Bear,” metaphorically tells the story of a hunter who comes to identify with his prey after eating it.
Galway Kinnell was born in Rhode Island and passed away at his home in Vermont. He was the son of Scottish and Irish immigrants.
“Gradually I felt that if I was ever going to have a happy life, it was going to have to do with poetry,” Kinnell once stated.
He was a Princeton University graduate and an admirer of WB Yeats. In 1960, Kinnell broke through as a poet with “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World.” It is a 14-part poetic work about the many people who walk Avenue C in Manhattan.
In his personal life, Galway Kinnell was married two times. His wife, Barbara K. Bristol stated that his cause of death was leukemia.
As a poet, Kinnell gained acclaim during a time in literature that sought to make poetry approachable by those outside of academic circles. His work became popular between 1960 and 2008 among urban poetry circles. Kinnell wrote frankly about mortality and sex.
The epic poem and its 14 parts blend graphic imagery with a sense of sad reflection. In the first part of “The Bear,” Kinnell wrote:
In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
Kinnell was also the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. It is often referred to as the “genius grant.” Throughout his career as a writer, Kinnell impressed young and old for many decades. With his appreciation for nature and people, Galway Kinnell captured human sensitivities in a beautiful way, even when he was shedding light on ugly aspects of human nature. In fact, it was his ability to make humanity’s flaws sound poetic that made Galway Kinnell the timeless poet he was in life, and now, in death.
[Photo courtesy of Bob Adelman/Corbis / NY Times]