Galway Kinnell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who opened up American verse in the 1960s and beyond through his forceful, spiritual observations on the outsiders and underside of contemporary life, died Oct. 28 at his home in Sheffield, Vt. He was 87.
His wife, Bobbie Bristol, said he had leukemia.
Among the most celebrated poets of his time, Mr. Kinnell won the Pulitzer and National Book Award for his 1982 collection “Selected Poems” and later received a MacArthur fellowship, commonly called a “genius grant.”
In 1989, he was named Vermont’s poet laureate, and the Academy of American Poets gave him the 2010 Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement. His other books included “Body Rags,” “Mortal Acts, Mortal Words” and “The Past.” His final collection of poetry, “Strong Is Your Hold,” was released in 2006.
Mr. Kinnell’s style blended the physical and the philosophical and often focused on tactile and jarring physical details of people and nature. He once told the Los Angeles Times that his intention was to “dwell on the ugly as fully, as far, and as long” as he “could stomach it.”
In one of his most famous poems, “The Bear,” he imagines a hunter who consumes animal blood and excrement and comes to identify with his prey, wondering “what, anyway, was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?”
Mr. Kinnell was born Feb. 1, 1927, in Providence, R.I., and was a 1948 graduate of Princeton University. He was influenced in childhood by Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, among other poets.
He served in the Navy during World War II, traveled widely and was a field worker for the civil rights organization CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Like his longtime friend and Princeton classmate W.S. Merwin, Mr. Kinnell wove the events of the time into his poetry.
In “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond,” from the 1968 collection “Body Rags,” he invokes the chanting style of Walt Whitman to condemn violence:
And I hear,
coming over the hills, America singing,
her varied carols I hear:
crack of deputies’ rifles practicing their aim on stray dogs at night,
sput of cattleprod,
TV going on about the smells of the human body,
curses of the soldier as he poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs
the rice of the world,
with open mouth, crying strong, hysterical curses.
In a telephone interview, Merwin said that he and Mr. Kinnell had been “like brothers” and remembered his friend as a “very generous soul.” He praised Mr. Kinnell’s work as “warm-hearted” and as the product of “someone who was independent but felt sympathy with other people.”
University of Vermont poet and English Professor Major Jackson, who read one of Mr. Kinnell’s poems during an August ceremony at the Vermont statehouse, called him one of “the great quintessential poets of his generation.”
“In my mind he comes behind that other great New England poet Robert Frost in his ability to write about, not only the landscape of New England, but also its people,” said Jackson.
Mr. Kinnell taught at numerous schools, including Reed College in Portland, Ore., and New York University. For several years, he was a visiting poet at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. From 2001 to 2007, he served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Survivors include his wife.