A Long Time

Driving home from South Burlington this afternoon, I caught the latter part of Jane Lindholm’s 2009 interview with Galway Kinnell on Vermont Public Radio—a repeat. Mr. Kinnell was one of the first poets I read when I embarked on my own self-study in 2003—having in mind that he was the quintessential Vermont poet. Everyone I knew loved his poetry. His books are stocked in every bookstore throughout the state. I had a vision of him in some cabin in a shady pocket of the Kingdom, pencil-scratching through notebooks, which kept piling up in a dark corner.

This is (was) my vision of a mountain poet, a Vermont poet. I imagined David Budbill, walking stick in hand, tooling along on wooded paths only he knows, and coming home to his cabin in the secret nook where he lives, to pencil-scratch away his meditations. And Robert Frost, who kept his cot in a few different cabins between Vt and NH. Hayden Carruth, Bob Arnold, Ruth Stone, the list goes on. Because we live in The Green Mountain State, I had a vision of what a crusty old Vermont poet should be. It always involved being a hermit in the mountains. I aimed to be one of them.

Perhaps I was also influenced by Mr. Kinnell’s poem, “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone”, which I first encountered at a reading of his in Grafton, about 2000 (or so). The musicality of his reading, the sure strides in his voice. It was like theater. Hard not to fall in love with his gravely baritone, those deep dimples, and the words.  A poem I have in draft form “from one who has loved you a long time” is directly influenced by Mr. Kinnell’s piece. The term “a long time” intrigued me with its elastic meaning.

A long time in Mr. Kinnell’s poem is defined in terms of the living around him, the birds, snakes and frogs, bereft of humans. In fact, he doesn’t try to define it. It has been so long “among regrets so immense the past occupies/ nearly all the room there is” that in fact there is only room to notice. Notice the flickering of the snake tongue, the clockwork of birdsong. But noticing is not everything because the regret is so large and the time so long. “Consciousness consummates”, he writes. And though one can come to love “any other species better than one’s own”, they all “live to mate with their own kind”.

It is a poem about regret and longing. “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone” takes the adage that “time heals all wounds” and counters it by saying that though it may take “a long time”, the wound is never healed.  The yearning for forgiveness

that discolors the corneas of the blue-eyed
when they lie back at last and look for heaven,
a blurring one can see means they will never find it

So why bother? My own poem is not so dark, but still echoes all these subjects. Likewise, the speaker makes no promises. Such is life. Other influences included Federico Garcia Lorca and Li-Young Lee. But that’s another story.

I was surprised to hear a caller to the radio program describe her use of “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone” as part of her wedding ceremony. As in all art, the receiver takes from it what they will, intended or not. My interpretation is still my own.  I was pleased to hear Ms. Lindholm read “Blackberries” by Tim Mayo, since he’s a friend of mine, and we displayed it this April as part of POETRY Alive! As in nature, everything comes around again.

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