When former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin revived the practice of appointing a state poet laureate in 1989, she didn’t need to look far for her first selection. Galway Kinnell ’48, a Pulitzer Prize winner who lives in Sheffield, Vt., about an hour north of the capital in Montpelier, accepted the post, becoming Vermont’s first poet laureate since Robert Frost — and in Kunin’s words, “a treasure for the state.”
Earlier this month, Kinnell returned to the Statehouse for a ceremony celebrating the 87-year-old poet’s life and career. Kunin was on hand, along with several poets and family members who read favorite poems from Kinnell’s career and selections of their own work.
Kinnell, a friend and Princeton classmate of former U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin ’48, was a student during the early years of the University’s creative writing program, when the faculty included poets R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman. But he shied away from poetry courses. “The true reason I didn’t enroll was that I didn’t feel my poetry was developed enough,” he explained in a 2011 interview with American Poetry Review. “I didn’t want to submit work that I already knew was badly flawed. But one of the professors in the English department, Charles Bell, saw something in my poems. I liked his poems, too, and we developed a wonderful, lifelong poetry friendship, during which our meetings were sometimes very much like workshops.”
Kinnell’s modesty has endured, even after publishing 18 books of poetry and prose and receiving the American Academy of Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award in 2010, for “proven mastery in the art of poetry.” “A poet should not call himself a ‘poet,’” he said in the 2011 American Poetry Review interview. “Being a poet is so marvelous an accomplishment that it would be boasting to say it of oneself.”