In 1989, when longtime Sheffield resident Galway Kinnell was appointed poet laureate of Vermont — or "state poet," as he preferred — by then-governor Madeleine Kunin, he was the first to hold that title since Robert Frost. The position, which he had until 1993, is just one of the scads of awards, fellowships and appointments he has garnered throughout his career.
Kinnell taught at more than 10 institutions, most recently New York University, and published more than 10 volumes of poetry, including translations of Rainer Maria Rilke and others. He has received almost every honor that can be bestowed upon a writer: a Fulbright Fellowships, two Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, an NEA Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
On Thursday, August 7, Kinnell, now 87, will receive yet another tribute as the Vermont Statehouse hosts "Celebration of a Life in Poetry" in his honor.
The public is invited to hear Kinnell's poems read by some of his accomplished colleagues — Michael Collier, Mark Doty, Jody Gladding, Edward Hirsch, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Sharon Olds and Ellen Bryant Voigt — in the grand forum of Vermont's legislative hall. A reception will follow in the Cedar Creek Room.
The Kinnell celebration is the brainchild of Lisa von Kann, who put the event together with support from the Vermont Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Vermont Arts Council and several other arts and media organizations. Readers of this paper may know her as the founder of Back Roads Readings, a Northeast Kingdom literary series that kicked off in 2013.
Von Kann, who formerly coordinated readings in the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, has a knack for luring literary luminaries to venerable 19th-century buildings. The series is now based at the Brownington Village Congregational Church, where writers such as current Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea, Leland Kinsey and Reeve Lindberg have shared their work.
Attendees at the Kinnell celebration can also experience an evocative pairing of poems and place. In the past, he has performed at venues ranging from the gargantuan Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey to Lyndonville's the Grindstone Café. Now Kinnell's words will resound inside the Statehouse — perhaps the most fitting place to hear one of Vermont's most beloved "state poets."