Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Galway Kinnell spent a pivotal summer as a student in Western North Carolina during the late 1940s.
Enrolled at the experimental Black Mountain College in rural Buncombe County, he made connections with people from all over the world.
“I didn't get much book learning,” said Kinnell, 81, who will read from his work Thursday at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of “The Spirit of Black Mountain” arts festival which runs through Saturday.
“But I got a lot of human learning – because of the people I met. We talked about things that mattered. To me, it was a very fulfilling experience.”
Winner of the National Book Award and former state poet of Vermont, Kinnell is regarded as one of America's greatest poets. He has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities and as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Kinnell's appearance at Lenior-Rhyne marks the 20th anniversary of the college's Visiting Writers Series.
The arts festival celebrates the 75th anniversary of Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933 until 1956.
The event – featuring the visual arts, poetry, music, dance and theater – is presented by Lenoir-Rhyne and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in partnership with the Hickory Museum of Art.
The legendary Black Mountain College was an important breeding ground of American art, literature, music and dance. Faculty members included such people as writer Alfred Kazin, choreographer Agnes de Mille and director Arthur Penn.
Albert Einstein and Carl Jung were advisors.
Kinnell was a Navy veteran studying at Princeton University on the GI Bill when he attended a summer session at Black Mountain.
He found things there loosely organized.
“You could do basically what you wanted to,” Kinnell said. “as long as you were learning something. I did a lot of reading and met so many interesting people.”
One friend was a student from France who shared Kinnell's love of the outdoors. They would spend two or three days at a time hiking the rugged countryside.
Around the campfire at night, the friends recited poetry in English and French – everything from Walt Whitman to William Butler Yeats.
“It was a magical time,” Kinnell said. “To walk for days around the hills was a kind of spiritual exercise as well as physical.”
Going into town with an African American friend, Kinnell was aware of the tension as all eyes were on them.
“This was my first venture into the South and a segregated society,” Kinnell said. “I saw it up close. And it was pretty frightening.”
Later, Kinnell would join the Congress of Racial Equality as a field worker, and spent much of his time involved with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Kinnell's free public reading is at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Belk Centrum on the Lenoir-Rhyne campus.
For information on the arts festival, go to www.black moun tain col lege cele bra tion.com.