Introductions: Richard Kenney
October 18, 2019
By Rebecca Hoogs, SAL Associate Director
Twenty years ago this fall, I walked into the deep time of Richard Kenney’s classroom at the University of Washington. I was young and dumb—and by dumb I mean dumb but also quiet—painfully shy and silent, writing an all-thumbs poetry. I can’t blame Professor Kenney for making me older—we can give shallow time a shout-out for that, but I can thank him for giving me, and so many writers in this audience tonight and in this Pacific Northwest community, more digits—the digital gifts of language—with which to plumb “emotion’s analog,” as he calls it.
We are here tonight to celebrate the publication of his latest endeavor, Terminator, a compendium of the last ten years. Professor Kenney and I both grew up in New England and I was reminded, upon reading this new collection, of the tradition of stone-wall building, where the stones hold together not with mortar, but by their own weight and by being perfectly fitted.
To “heart the wall tightly” means to fill gaps in the interior of the wall between the face stones. “The tighter the hearting,” I read in a manual on stone-wall building, “the stronger the wall. However fewer larger hearting stones are much stronger than many small little bits.” Think of this as you listen to his work tonight. His poems are dense and layered in the best way—intellectually, lexically, emotionally, philosophically, politically—and each word is a “large hearting stone,” is carefully placed to build the emotional argument of the poem as each rhyme and metrical foot pack a granite punch of momentum.
This might sound heavy, and it is at times. The “Big Dark” that the meteorologists say is upon us is upon us in this book. But there is lightness too—play and humor and quick-wit. How can something so heavy be so light? Something so long go, so quick—I’m looking at you, life! You will laugh-sob tonight. But best of all, you will get the gift of hearing the poems in the voice of the poet, which will give you one way to hear them, in all their humor and irony and head and heart, when you orbit back to them at home. For these are poems that reward return.
Like the poets Kenney admired and admires still—poets so well-loved we know them by a single stone—Frost or Auden or Yeats or Hopkins—his work “does not just register experience, it produces it,” (praise that Robert MacFarlane bestows upon another writer in his astounding collection on language and land, Landmarks, and which thoroughly applies to Kenney’s book. In fact, you should read Landmarks and Underland: A Deep Time Journey because MacFarlane is a genius, and because MacFarlane and Kenney’s writings call to each other.)
Whether in Rome, or Friday Harbor, or Seattle, or through his work, Kenney has taught many of us in this cornerstone of the country how to think, how to see, how to build poems the old-fashioned way: from the ground up, out of the sturdy stuff of ideas, with a tool kit of rhyme and meter, from labor, from play. Schwarzenegger, please step aside, tonight Professor Kenney will show us the meaning of “blockbuster.”
The poet Richard Kenney gave a reading at Broadway Performance Hall on October 17, 2019, as part of our 2019/20 Poetry Series; SAL Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs gave this introduction.