Galway Kinnell: “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone”

July 17, 2020

After the marriage to my first wife, Cathay Gleeson, ended, we still stayed in touch. Towards the end of the last century, I remember one afternoon that she called to ask me if I knew of the poet Galway Kinnell. “Since the spring of 1968,” I told her, “when I got his book, BDOY RAGS.”

“Do you know a poem of his with the title ‘When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone’?” she asked.

“No, I don’t. In truth, I haven’t looked at his work in a while.”

“You should look it up. I was watching the PBS evening news yesterday and they had him on as a featured poet, and that was the poem he read. It’s a great poem, Bill.”

Cathay was not one to seek out poetry; she preferred dance and visual art. Poetry was welcome, however, if it showed up at her door, as it frequently did when we lived together. Afterwards, too, she was a generous host to its presence. The first time that I read Kinnell’s poem, I instantly saw why it spoke to her so profoundly.

I often thought of that conversation the next 20 years, and now it seems more poignant then ever. In my sorrow for her passing, I like to think that its rhythms gave her comfort in the all the years after she first heard that poem, and recognized in it her self-determination to achieve some embodiment of its theme of arduous joy.

……………. one knows,
after a long time of solitude, after the many steps taken
away from one’s kind, toward the kingdom of strangers,
the hard prayer inside one’s own singing
is to come back, if one can, to one’s own,
a world almost lost, in the exile that deepens,
when one has lived a long time alone.

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