I met Galway thirty years ago and was his appreciative student for at least forty workshops and lectures, including some intimate weekends down in Carmel. He brought an innovative technique to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where he was the Director of the Poetry Program for at least twenty years. Tired of reviewing poems that had already been reviewed many times before getting to Galway’s workshop, he insisted on only brand-new work. A big part of his innovation was that he had the workshop leader write and share new material as well, so we participants got to see the brand-new work of Galway and other fine poets such as himself and Brenda Hillman, Robert Hass, and Sharon Olds. With Galway, they constituted the “big four,” among many other talented poets he gathered around himself.
It’s so cliché that he will be sorely missed, but clichés are rooted deep in the language because they express commonly held thoughts. Galway Kinnell will be sorely missed.
This is “Oatmeal”, a “refrigerator poem,” one that I have seen displayed prominently, so it is easily read whenever the poetry lover reaches for a drink or food. Here’s a ‘youtube’ of him reading it, which I can’t watch tonight without crying, followed by the text: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xv8EY2vWJg
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.
Here’s the NYTimes obituary. It’s hard to believe he’s no longer with us on this Earth.