Galvin, Brendan 1938–

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Galvin, Brendan 1938–


Born October 20, 1938, in Everett, MA; son of James Russell (a letter carrier) and Rose Galvin; married Ellen Baer, August 1, 1968; children: Kim, Peter, Anne Maura. Education: Boston College, B.S., 1961; Northeastern University, M.A., 1964; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, M.F.A., 1967, Ph.D., 1970.


Home—Durham, CT; Truro, MA. Office—Department of English, East Carolina University, Bate Building 2202, Greenville, NC 27858-4353; fax: 252-328-4889.


Writer and educator. Northeastern University, Boston, MA, instructor in English, 1963-65; Slippery Rock State College, Slippery Rock, PA, assistant professor of English, 1968-69; Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, assistant professor, 1969-74, associate professor, 1974-80, professor of English, 1980—; East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, professor of English and Whichard Distinguished Chair in the Humanities. Founder and director of Connecticut Writers Conference; visiting writer, Connecticut College, 1975-76; affiliated with Wesleyan-Suffield Writer-Reader Conference, 1977-78, Martha's Vineyard Poetry Seminar, 1986; Coal Royalty Visiting Chair in creative writing, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, spring, 1993; Windham Robertson Visiting Writer in Residence, Hollins College; visiting writer, Loyola University-New Orleans; visiting writer, Western Carolina University.


Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1974, 1988; Artist Foundation fellowship, 1978; New England Film Festival, first prize, 1978, for Massachusetts Story; Connecticut Commission on the Arts fellowship, 1981, 1984; Guggenheim fellow, 1988; Sotheby Prize, Arvon Foundation, 1988; Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine, 1989; O.B. Hardison, Jr., Poetry Prize, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991; Outstanding Academic Book, American Library Association, 1993, for Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat; Charity Randall Citation, International Poetry Forum, 1994; Iowa Poetry Prize, 1997, for Hotel Malabar; National Book Award finalist, 2005, for Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005; Aiken Taylor Award, Sewanee Review, for the work of a career.



The Narrow Land, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1971.

The Salt Farm, Fiddlehead (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1972.

No Time for Good Reasons, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1974.

The Minutes No One Owns, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1977.

Atlantic Flyway, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1980.

Winter Oysters, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1983.

A Birder's Dozen, Ampersand Press (Princeton, NJ), 1984.

Seals in the Inner Harbor, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1985.

Raising Irish Walls (chapbook) Ampersand Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.

Wampanoag Traveler: Being, in Letters, the Life and Times of Loranzo Newcomb, American and Natural Historian, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1989.

Great Blue: New and Selected Poems, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1990.

Early Returns, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1992.

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1992.

Islands (chapbook) Druid City Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1993.

Sky and Island Light, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1995.

Hotel Malabar, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1998.

The Strength of a Named Thing, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1999.

Place Keepers, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2003.

Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2005.

Ocean Effects, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2007.


Massachusetts Story (documentary film script), produced by Gordon Massingham, 1978.

Today You Will Meet the Love of Your Life (poetry video), Connecticut Public TV, 1987-88

Also author of books on poetic theory. Contributor to periodicals, including American Review, Atlantic, Connecticut English Journal, Georgia Review, Harper's, Hudson Review, Massachusetts Studies in English, Nation, New Republic, New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Sewanee Review, Hollins Critic, and Shenandoah. Editor, with George Garrett, Poultry: A Magazine of Voice, 1981—.


Brendan Galvin told CA: "I began writing little stories on the kitchen floor when I was maybe nine or ten, using Disney characters in badly plotted one-pagers, and in high school received my first rejection when the faculty advisor to the student newspaper didn't believe I'd written the poems I submitted. I was a tackle on the football team, and I think he thought I took them from someone on the bus to school.

"Later, as a biology major at Boston College, I sometimes wrote at the back of a laboratory while my peers cut into a turtle's plastron to get at its terrified heart. Biology gave me a vocabulary I use in my poems without self-consciousness, so it's not unusual for me to use a word like ‘meniscus.’

"I was accepted at two dental schools, but decided on a master's degree in English, instead. At Northeastern University I took a poetry-writing course with Wallace Stevens scholar Samuel French Morse, who encouraged me to try for publication, and in the following year the Atlantic accepted two poems. I continued to write and publish at the University of Massachusetts, where I earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D., with a dissertation on Theodore Roethke.

"Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnel, and D.H. Lawrence are just a few of the poets I admire deeply and keep returning to in my reading. In addition I read a lot of fiction and history, natural history, and folklore.

"I continue to write about the natural world I live in at my home in the woods above a Cape Cod salt marsh. I accept the fact that my poems are ‘under peopled,’ but am not perplexed by it. In many respects I'm a private person to whom the politics of literary reputation seem both a waste of time and an appalling example of our present-day lack of shame.

"Around the time I turned fifty, I walked into my study one afternoon and the autumn sun was falling through the skylight onto my open notebook. A pen was lying beside the notebook. Sounds like a scene from a bad movie, I know, but my first thought was, ‘That's the most beautiful sight in the world!’ I wonder how many people my age feel that way about the tools of their trade. That moment convinced me I'd chosen the right life, and I'm still deeply pleasured by feeling the poem grow under my fingertips. I believe the world exists so that writers can write about it."

Galvin's poetry is characterized by a sense of geographic place and personal heritage, and a keen interest in the landscapes, the fauna and flora, of the world about him. Some of his specific themes have included the country versus the city, the exploitation of workers, and the victimization of children. More generally, Galvin can be seen as a poet who celebrates the beauty of the natural world, making use of images from that world to explore human relationships: familial, interpersonal, social, and historical. Writing in a precise yet lyrical free verse, influenced by his early work in metric forms, Galvin's voice interweaves the literary with the conversational, often borrowing from the local speech patterns of his native Cape Cod. He also makes use of scientific terminology, reflecting his lifelong interest in the natural sciences. His imagery tends to be realistic, firmly rooted in the direct experience of the senses, particularly the visual. Additional elements that make Galvin's poetry distinctive are its use of serio-comic effects and traditional narrative techniques.

Galvin's first book, The Narrow Land, deals with seasons along the Atlantic Coast. His second, The Salt Farm, broadens his range of topics, including poems about animals, the loss of loved ones, and the burning of an abandoned factory. In both books, Galvin's preference for the rural over the urban, the beauties of nature over "the paranoia of supermarkets," is clearly expressed.

By the mid-seventies, Galvin had established his poetic reputation with publication in such major venues as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker. His third book, and first major collection, No Time for Good Reasons, brought together forty-six poems, the best of ten years' work. It received critical praise for its inventiveness, its organic use of language, and its sense of humor. In his next collection, The Minutes No One Owns, Galvin further developed his vision and deepened the texture of his language. Both of these books, as their titles indicate, are concerned with the passage of time, another of Galvin's recurrent themes.

Galvin's fifth collection, Atlantic Flyway, presents an example of why he has described his own work as "under peopled." Birds play a significant role in poems throughout this book, and human characters are often described in avian terms. Galvin also begins to explore his own heritage in Atlantic Flyway, including poems about a journey in search of his ancestral home, about his grandfather, and about the Irish potato famine.

Wampanoag Traveler: Being, in Letters, the Life and Times of Loranzo Newcomb, American and Natural Historian further demonstrates Galvin's interest in history and natural history, and as the author has stated, involved research in both fields. It also extends his narrative approach to poetry by creating an entire booklength story set in the eighteenth century. Wampanoag Traveler relates the tale of Loranzo Newcomb, who gathers seeds and other specimens in the New World for shipment to the Royal Society in England. It is told in fourteen sections, each an imaginary letter written by Newcomb, thirteen to the Society and a final letter addressed directly to the reader. Snake bites, hummingbirds, a trained alligator, and fiddler crabs are among the subjects covered, every one serving as a starting point for Newcomb's ponderings on a variety of themes, from unrequited love to the destruction of the environment. In the final letter, a discussion of apples, Galvin examines the question of history itself. Writing in Poetry, Ben Howard criticized the book for a lack of thematic unity, and stated: "Galvin's project is ambitious, but the power of the book lies less in its grand design than in its compelling local effects." Glyn Maxwell, in the Times Literary Supplement, attributed the success of the poem to "Newcomb's voice, the intelligence and humanity that Galvin breathes into this lonesome scientist."

Composed of sixty poems from eight previous collections, along with twenty new poems, Great Blue: New and Selected Poems provides a representative selection of Galvin's work. In the title poem of the book, a near-mystical parallel is drawn between the great blue heron and Galvin's mother, both of whom are seen as guardian spirits. Here one can also find poems about animals, folklore, nature, art, history, holiday rituals, Galvin's Irish ancestry, and other subjects. In Shenandoah, X.J. Kennedy praised the collection as "tightly-winnowed" and praised the works's "forthrightness, intensity and originality." Writing in Prairie Schooner, Philip Paradis described Great Blue as "an outstanding collection by a major contemporary poet," and stated that "Galvin's style with its lyricism, earthiness, penchant for irony, and realistic clear-sightedness suggests he is certainly acquainted with the wellsprings of Irish poetry."

In Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat, Galvin returns to the book-length story format of Wampanoag Traveler. This tale centers on an actual historical character, his own namesake, the sixth-century Irish monk, Brendan the Navigator. Background for the poem relies heavily on the medieval Voyage of St. Brendan, which tells of a small fishing boat, manned by Brendan and other monks, that may well have sailed all the way to the New World. Galvin's version, however, is primarily a fictitious account, in which he creates personalities for Brendan and the other monks and adds adventures of his own. The premise of the book is that Brendan, as an old man, is dictating an account of his voyage to a young scribe in order to correct misconceptions about it. Phoebe-Lou Adams, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, stated: "Mr. Galvin's highly distinctive style blends legend, folktale, psychological reconstruction, and gritty commonplace into its own poetic coherence." Fred Chappel in the Georgia Review remarked: "This work is a true narrative poem even by my persnickety standards, and a fascinating story it is."

In The Strength of a Named Thing, the "poems are offerings to our attention, and with what sheer pleasure they enlarge our spirit and sensibility," commented Thomas Reiter in Hollins Critic. For Galvin, "naming as an expression of the quality or value inherent in a person, thing, or locale is at the heart of this book. Naming confers identity," Reiter observed. Naming "becomes a way of creating and holding wisdom strongly in place in a community, a locality," and naming serves to "rescue an object from anonymity," Reiter commented. Reiter concluded that the volume of poems is "indispensable."

Hotel Malabar is Galvin's third book-length narrative poem and a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1997. The story revolves around events at a Cape Cod resort hotel during the summer of 1976. The narrative structure centers on monologues delivered by the diverse cast of characters. A. Norton Parlin is the hotel's owner, an elderly man who has given a series of taped interviews to Sheila, one of a trio of federal agents investigating Parlin's potential treason when he managed a Central American banana plantation. Mac, the hotel's maintenance man and groundskeeper, and Gorencamp, the chief of operations, also contribute their perspectives. The last character is Fermin, an herbalist from India, who serves as Parlin's personal health consultant. "The craft of the fiction writer is everywhere evident, witness the distinctiveness given each speaker by imagery, syntax, cadence, and tone," observed Reiter in another Hollins Critic review. As the agents investigate, they uncover evidence of Parlin's connections to the Nazis during World War II, but rather than the major act of treason involved in sending intelligence data on Canal Zone maneuvers to Germany, Parlin's actual involvement turns out to be much more mundane. Hotel Malabar stands as an ingenious and compelling performance, a one-of-a-kind enactment of American bad dreams," commented Reiter. "Here Galvin is at the height of his narrative powers."

Galvin once wrote: "I grew up on Cape Cod and in a suburb of Boston, and these two poles have affected my work strongly, in that my poems are full of imagery from the sea, the land, austere and muted, of the outer Cape, and the urban blight that infects humans who come in contact with it, especially through their work, most of which is unfulfilling and worthless." Elsewhere, he has written "the true risk [in writing poetry] is presenting felt expressions of the way things are, statements that move the inner life of the hearer because they offer him a truth deeper than one he previously knew."

George Garrett noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "whether he is being serious or funny, or, as is usual, a combination of both, it appears that Galvin is facing up to the desperate elements in nature as well as in social and private situations; he is working out crucial events with strokes both bold and delicate."



Christina, Martha, editor, OuterLife: The Poetry of Brendan Galvin, Ampersand Press (Princeton, NJ), 1991.

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 8, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Critical Survey of Poetry, Salem Press (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1982.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since Word War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.


Atlantic Monthly, June, 1992, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat, p. 128.

Georgia Review, fall, 1990, review of Wampanoag Traveler: Being, in Letters, the Life and Times of Loranzo Newcomb, American and Natural Historian, p. 540; summer, 1992, Fred Chappell, review of Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat, p. 376.

Hollins Critic, October, 1998, Thomas Reiter, review of Hotel Malabar, p. 19; June, 2000, Thomas Reiter, review of The Strength of a Named Thing, p. 20.

Poetry, June, 1977, review of No Time for Good Reasons, p. 167; September, 1990, Ben Howard, review of Wampanoag Traveler, p. 353; January, 1993, Ben Howard, review of Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat, p. 229; February, 1998, Christian Wiman, review of Sky and Island Light, p. 289.

Prairie Schooner, spring, 1993, Philip Paradis, review of Great Blue: New and Selected Poems, p. 168.

Publishers Weekly, December 30, 1996, review of Sky and Island Light, p. 61; October 25, 1999, review of The Strength of a Named Thing, p. 78.

Shenandoah, winter, 1991, review of Great Blue, p. 115.


East Carolina University Department of English Web site, (January 2, 2007), biography of Brendan Galvin.