A letter unsent

In their short biographies of the decorated 20th-century poet Galway Kinnell, Poets.org, poetryfoundation,com, Wikipedia, and the other sources do not mention his time teaching at little Alfred University in western New York. NYU makes the stories, as do Sarah Lawrence, University of Chicago, a Fulbright in Paris, and a number of Kinnell’s celebrity poet-in-residence appointments: Brandeis, Cal Irvine, more. He liked to get around, and poetry was his hoverboard.

His involvement throughout the Sixties in the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), his Louisiana arrest, his book-length poem on Vietnam rate in all bios, but there’s silence about Alfred.

The internet misses nothing. Search “Galway Kinnell Alfred University,” and of course, there it is, voluminously documented in all the geekiest sources like Jstor, somewhere deep in the About Us narrative at the Alfred University website — one of those “can’t get there from here” internal pages that don’t show on any site navigation.

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Freshly out of the MFA program at the University of Rochester and still in his early twenties, the future Pulitzer winner took a tumble through the Finger Lakes, landing on the Southern Tier and scoring his first academic appointment at the picturesque, wooded campus where it always seems to be the peak of autumn. There, Kinnell met the acquaintance of one John Burdick.

John G. Burdick. Pops. Two years older, but an undergrad to Galway’s precocious prof. My father’s route to Alfred involved failing out of Cornell because all he wanted to do was work at the radio station. (I think I am still not supposed to talk about that.) He enlisting in the Navy in the war years but never saw action, and then resumed his studies of education at Alfred some time in the late 1940s.

His off-campus apartment was in the same house as Kinnell’s. They became friendly. My father took a class with him and began writing poetry himself — not bad, either. Galway leaned on my father’s expertise with electronics and audio equipment. One evening, Galway was attempting to set up his new stereo with his girlfriend. In the family myth, it has always been “wife,” and my father even copped to a crush on her, but all the biographies have Kinnell marrying for the first time in 1965. It wasn’t working for them — probably something with the ground wires.

Galway went to fetch Jack Burdick for an assist. Jack wasn’t home. Galway scrawled a plea for help and pinned it to my father’s door — a proper ballad stanza, a quatrain of alternating four and three accent lines with rhymes on lines two and four, significant of course because Kinnell would become famous for his highly lyrical brand of unrhyming free verse. It was titled “Ode to Jack Burdick.” It asks him to bring his pliers over and get the damned hi-fi working. It still hangs on my mother’s living-room wall.

A few years after my father’s death, I had the bright idea to scan that faded, pencil-written scrap where family history and cultural history collided and somehow get it to Galway, who was alive and still publishing prolifically. A friend who is a fabulous Internet sleuth found his street address in a matter of minutes. I wrote the letter, and edited it down to something warm but terse. For some reason I never got it out the door.

My father was humble. I would say to a fault, but it wasn’t a fault. You had to scratch pretty deep before you’d find the first layer of his ego. He was far more likely to minimize his experiences and achievements than to crow about them. He spoke warmly of Kinnell and the times they shared in that house. I have little doubt that the poet — one known and celebrated for his uncommon depth of human feeling — would have remembered my father.

Kinnell died in 2014.

Most of the memorable letters in my life are ones I wish I hadn’t sent, impetuous, emotional bursts of feverish eloquence that felt great in the moment of their sending and much, much less great later. “Write, don’t send” became an invaluable mantra for me, especially here in the treacherous one-click, hyper-epistolary age where people like me can really do themselves harm. That unsent letter to Galway Kinnell is the only one that burns in the other way.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.