Of Oatmeal and Amnion

Why is it that the people I think should live the longest because they are the best and the world needs them so badly….don’t?  Galway Kinnell was the first love of my life, poetically speaking.  When I was an undergrad, I got to meet him once, when he spoke at UNC-A, and he was humble and rough and beautiful and everything his poems said he ought to be….and how often does that happen?  He was a man among men and a poet among poets.

Galway Kinnell


I eat oatmeal for breakfast.

I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.

I eat it alone.

I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.

Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if

somebody eats it with you.

That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have

breakfast with.

Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.

Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal–porridge,

as he called it–with John Keats.

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him in: due to its glutinous

texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness

to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with

an imaginary companion,

and he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund

Spenser and John Milton.

Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as

wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.

Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the

“Ode to a Nightingale.”

He had a heck of a time finishing it–those were his words–“Oi’ad

a ‘eck of a toime,” he said, more or less, speaking through his porridge.

He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his


but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the stanzas,

and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they made

some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if they got it right.

An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through

a hole in the pocket.

He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,

and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a

Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay

itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move

forward with God’s reckless wobble.

He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about

the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas

of his own, but only made matters worse.

I would not have known about any of this but for my reluctance to eat

oatmeal alone.

When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”

He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words

lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.

He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there is

much of one.

But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started

on it, and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy

cells” and “Thou watchedst the last oozings hours by hours,” came to him while eating oatmeal alone.

I can see him–drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the

glimmering furrows, muttering–and it occurs to me:

maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.

I am aware that a baked potato is damp, slippery and

simultaneously gummy and crumbly,

and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me (Kinnell, 1995, pp. 37-38).


When one has lived a long time alone,
one wants to live again among men and women,
to return to that place where one’s ties with the humangalway-kinnell
broke, where the disquiet of death and now
also of history glimmers its firelight on faces,
where the gaze of the new baby looks past the gaze
of the great-granny, and where lovers speak,
on lips blowsy from kissing, that language
the same in each mouth, and like birds at daybreak
blether the song that is both earth’s and heaven’s,
until the sun has risen, and they stand
in a light of being united: kingdom come,
when one has lived a long time alone.

~Galway Kinnel (The last stanza from “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone”)

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