“Another Night in the Ruins,” by Galway Kinnell, is a poem about spirituality and creativity told in seven sections. It was first published in the Paris Review in the spring of 1966. Kinnell later included it in his poetry collection, Body Rags (1968), which was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. The publication of this volume marked a high point in Kinnell’s career as a poet; after this point Kinnell began to garner significant honors.
As a child, Kinnell loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, but as a mature poet, he considered himself a follower of Walt Whitman. Scholars of American literature assert that modern American poetry stems either from the tradition of Walt Whitman or from Emily Dickinson. Whitman is clearly evoked in Kinnell’s passionate, sonorous style, and like Whitman’s work, Kinnell’s poems are concerned with spirituality, man’s relationship with the natural world, and social issues.
“Another Night in the Ruins” draws heavily from the natural and spiritual world as the narrator examines his own process of creativity. The ruins referred to in the title are the metaphysical ruins of former works residing within the narrator of the poem. The narrator is seeking a way toward growth or rebirth as a writer. By the end of the poem, he comprehends that the fire of creativity is not a tool to be controlled, and he knows instead his real work lies in trusting himself entirely to his creative passion.
Section 1: Lines 1–7
“Another Night in the Ruins” begins with a description of setting in the first two lines. It is nighttime and the narrator is outside, or looking outside, at a hilly landscape. Lines 3 and 4, “purple / of the eternal” is a light reference both to aristocracy and spirituality. Purple is a color traditionally reserved for royalty. In this phrase, Kinnell is evoking awe, which is then stirred by a casual bird that flies by in lines 4 and 5. The bird is of the mortal, secular realm, emphasized by the silly “‘flop-flop’” of its passing. The bird “crosses over” the hills in line 5, a turn of phrase that is also used colloquially to describe people who have died. This allusion to death is underlined by the frequent use of birds in death symbolism. Birds have been described as harbingers of death or as those who carry away the souls of the dead. In the last two lines of this section, the narrator says he is “adoring / only the instant,” a multilayered phrase referring both to the narrator’s admiration of the bird, of the nighttime hills, and of the amorphous presence of a higher being.
Section 2: Lines 8–16
The second section recalls an experience from nine years earlier. Nine is a number of significance and power in Western folklore because it is comprised of three threes (three also being an important number). Here the narrator remembers a trans-Atlantic flight. The airplane passes through a storm and the poet sees, as described in lines 13 and 14, a thunderhead in the shape of his brother’s face. The face is looking “nostalgically down” on the ocean as if it were a god looking down in its creation. This oblique spiritual reference reinforces those put forth in the first section. The layers of meaning here suggest the narrator’s close (even familial) relationship to his own deity; the love and sorrow inherent in nostalgia; the storm as reference to the biblical story of Noah wherein the Earth was flooded for forty days and forty nights.
Section 3: Lines 17–23
Having remembered his brother, the narrator dwells on him further in the third section of the poem. The narrator remembers, in line 18, his brother scoffing, “What good is the day?” Lines 19 through 21 describe a bonfire that lights the nighttime sky. This image is reminiscent of the lightning over the Atlantic Ocean in the second section. The fire imagery of the second and third sections in connection with the narrator’s brother invites an interpretation of the brother as a kind of fire god (for example, Zeus). The bonfire the brother speaks of is lit on “some hill of despair” although what causes the despair is not identified. Lines 22 and 23 introduce fear and excitement when the narrator’s brother explains that one must jump into the fire to keep it burning. Literally this...
(The entire section is 1190 words.)