He died this week. And he never lost faith in his role. As the NYTimes obituary tells us, "he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. 'To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"
He also said that poets should "write verses that...could be understood without a graduate degree." And that is why I think we should pause and appreciate what he did. He rekindled an American poetic experience that flares up only occasionally among American poets during the 20th and 21st centuries. This is also why you won't find Kinnell in many anthologies used in high schools and colleges. His poetry is not academic, not an amalgam of literary allusions and historical images. His poetry is highly sensory, sensual and personal. In his focusing on daily life, he makes us aware of how exquisite and frightening it can be.
Like the few others of his kind—Whitman, Hart Crane, Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich—he belongs to no school, but rather, as he said, he stands alone, bearing witness. And I think we would be improved by listening to his voice, not only because it sounds familiar, but also because it can remind us of how intrinsically valuable each of us is, something easily drowned out in the cacophony of our mediated lives.