Galway Kinnell


So from poet to poet we proceeded

in our celebration of Christopher Smart’s

long-undiscovered poem Jubilate Agno, composed

by this profligate, drunken, devout, mad polymath

between 1757 and 1763 while incarcerated

for a year in St. Luke’s Hospital for the Insane

and then for four or five years more in the less

bedlamic asylum at Bethnal Green.

Drawing on books he had brought or  

borrowed from other madhouse libraries—

to wit: an Authorized Bible, a Polyglot Bible,

Albin’s Natural History of Birds, Walton’s

Compleat Angler, Coxe’s Descriptions of Carolana,

Pliny’s Natural History, Anson’s Voyage Around

the World, Ainsworth’s Thesaurus, plus various popular

journals and occult writings — and availing himself

of his own waggery, his own observations and wide

learning,  his prodigious memory and excited imaginings,

“For I am not without authority in my jeopardy” 

Smart extracted from his whirling brain one, two,

or three, lines a day, to keep himself sane—

for a profound sanity underlies this project:

to repair our connection to the natural world

by joining person after person – a Joram or Caleb or Ehud

or Haggith, or Bernice or Shobab or Joab — with an animal,

or insect, tree, plant, flower, or precious stone — almost any

living, or almost living, entity would do, from the Zoony

to the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish.

This grand but unfinished work, which Smart saw as

his “Magnificat,”  is witty and wild in its calls-and-responses,

in effect a long, healing roll-call of the earth.



And so, two hundred and fifteen years later,

twenty-one poets gathered on a February night

in a little church on Lower Fifth Avenue 

and one by one stood up and read or recited

to a large and ardent audience thirty   

lines or so per poet from Jubilate Agno —

mere floccinaucinihilipilification 

to the world outside, but to us a source of joy and truth —

the lung-ether of the living loving the long dead.

Some poets were attracted to passages they knew,

for their own reasons, such as Etheridge Knight,

who, like Kit Smart, had done time:

“Let Andrew rejoice with the whale,

who is array’d in beauteous blue

and is a combination of bulk and activity,

for they work me with their harping-irons,

which is a barbarous instrument,

because I am more unguarded than the rest.”

Or like Allen Ginsberg, who, moved perhaps

by Kit’s madness, in his gentlest voice allowed

that in writing “Howl” he had communed

with the genius of Smart’s prosody. Then he chanted:

“Rejoice with Buteo who hath three testicles,

for I bless God in the strength of my loins and

for the voice which he hath made sonorous.”

Whereupon Grace Paley born Grace Goodside

to immigrant Ukrainian socialists — here now

in her earthly glory — took herself to the podium

and lovingly bronxed: “Let Milcah rejoice

with the Horned Beetle who will strike a man

in the face …for I am the Lord’s News-Writer

—the Scribe-Evangelist.” Then Philip Levine,

who also had drawn singing breaths

into himself from Smart’s incantations

in his own great poem “They Feed They Lion,”

spoke: “Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm

—the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowels

of their Betters.” After him, came elegant

David Ignatow, followed by Allen Grossman,

our philosopher, and Nancy Willard,

our magician.  Jane Cooper’s tremulous piping

floated down from the vaulted ceiling 

and reminded us:  “Earth which is an intelligence

hath a voice and a propensity to speak in all her parts,”

and Gerald Stern, with his own joyful

Smartian super-exuberance asserted — as if, Eureka!

he had learned how to do it just yesterday:“The Circle

may be SQUARED by swelling and flattening!” Joel

Oppenheimer came after him, followed

by Harvey Shapiro and Gregory Orr

and a lion-tongued Thomas Lux who roared:

“For the coffin and the cradle and the purse

are all against a man…”  But Vertemae Grosvenor

— O Smartian name!— whose first language,

Gullah, came to her on the tongues of Sea Islanders,

called us back into happiness:  “Rejoice

with the Pigeon, who is an antidote

to malignity and will carry a letter.” Next

 Paul Zweig, beautiful doomed spirit, told us,

“For Harpsichords are best strung with gold wire,”

and from Allen Planz, fisherman by trade:

“Let Jude bless with the bream, who is melancholy

for his depth and serenity, for I have a greater

compass of mirth and melancholy than another.”

Then Stanley Plumly recited, then David

Cumberland, then me, and next

James Wright, who took the passage that Gerry

Stern might have been hoping for:  Kit’s éloge to his

Cat Jeoffrey,  his only faithful companion:

“For there is nothing sweeter than his peace

when at rest, there is nothing

brisker than his life when in motion.”



Last to the podium was Muriel Rukeyser,

who once wrote her own Smartian vow: “Never

to despise in myself what I have been

taught to despise, and never to despise the other,”

and who concludes her tender ode to the cockroach so:

“I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.”

Now Muriel was soaring with Kit Smart’s words,

and the faces in the nave all lifted

as one, amazed, all of them, by her huge head,

her heart-shaped face, her ferocious beauty,

and her voice a little growly at its edges:  

“For I have a providential acquaintance

with men who bear the names of animals…”

And everyone there was with her,

the little church swelled with light,

the podium itself seemed to be attempting

to raise itself up – “ for I bless God 
for Mr Lion Mr Cock Mr Cat Mr Talbot

Mr Hart Mrs Fysh Mr Grub and Miss Lamb.”

And now it was evident that the podium

was not rising but that Muriel was sinking,

toppling in fact, hauling down on herself

the microphone and the amplifier and their wires,

in a heap on the floor.  Then from this wreckage

her suddenly re-clarioned voice was heard: “Let Zadok

worship with the Mole—before honour is humility!”

As we disentangled her, she sat up

and said:“She that looketh low shall learn!”

A woman rushed out the door, crying,

“I’m calling an ambulance!” Muriel shouted

after her: “No ambulances!  I need a chair!”

A plump man came swiftly wriggling

through the audience, “I’m a doctor! A doctor!”

“No doctors!” Muriel shouted even louder,

 “A chair! A chair!”  Eased into a chair at last,

she smiled at us: “Let Carpus rejoice with the Frog-Fish—

a woman cannot die on her knees!”



For all those who were at the Church

of the Transfiguration that evening in l978,

and those who may have heard about it later

and those of you hearing of it now

for the first time, and for Kit Smart who died

in debtor’s prison in 1771 at forty-nine,

and for Muriel, who would die two years after that night,

and for these witnesses who are also gone:

Paul and Etheridge and Jane and Allen and Allen

and Grace and David and James and Joel —

and the carrier pigeon, too — and for the rest of us

still standing — or sitting – or soon to topple —

let all of us rejoice and be made glad.

Found In Volume 40, No. 01
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  • gkinnell
Galway Kinnell
About the Author

Galway Kinnell is the author of nine books of poetry, including The Book of Nightmares, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, and Imperfect Thirst.  He has published books of translations, including the poems of Francois Villon and Rainer Marie Rilke.  His latest collection is Strong is Your Hold. Galway Kinnell has been a MacAuthur Fellow and State Poet of Vermont.  Books of his have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  He taught for many years at New York University, where he was Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing.  He lives in Vermont and New York City.