Galway Kinnell 1927–
American poet, novelist, translator and essayist
A writer of lyric free verse, Galway Kinnell is among the post-war generation of American poets including Robert Bly, James Wright, James Dickey and W.S. Merwin. Like them, he incorporated more experimental language in his poetic verse. While Yeats was most notably an early influence, Whitman, Frost, and Rilke also inspired him; Whitman's Song of Myself, seen in The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World and Rilke's Duino Elegies in the ten-part The Book of Nightmares are two such examples. Preoccupied with death and man's relationships with nature, Kinnell writes toward resolving questions of immortality by creating a "panentheistic" theology in his verse. Kinnell won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Selected Poems in 1982. As Charles Bell said of his former student, "Of all the poets born in the twenties and thirties, Galway Kinnell is the only one who has taken up the passionate symbolic search of the great American tradition."
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1927, Kinnell grew up near Pawtucket, and his Christian upbringing figures into much of his early work. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-46, and in 1948 he graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, where Charles Bell served as an important mentor, as did W.S. Merwin. "He wrote poems; I wrote verse," he said of Merwin. Kinnell earned an M.A. from the University of Rochester in 1949, supervising the University of Chicago's downtown liberal arts program from 1951-54 and thereafter serving as Fulbright Professor at the Universities of Grenoble, Iran, Nice, and Sydney, Australia. Before settling into academic life, he worked registering black voters in the South in 1962. His first publication, What a Kingdom It Was, appeared in 1960. He went on to hold numerous poet-in-residency positions, awards and grants, among them the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1962; two Guggenheim Fellowships, 1962, 1974; a Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1968; a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, 1969-70; a MacArthur Fellowship; in addition to his Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for Selected Poems, in 1983. Kinnell married Ines Delgado de Torres and has two children, Maud Natasha and Fergus. He lives in Vermont and is among the eminent leaders of the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
Included in his first published work, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), is one of Kinnell's best known poems, the long, Whitmanesque "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World." Reflecting the plight of fellow urban residents, primarily Jewish, of Avenue C in New York City, the panacea for them as well as for all humanity becomes a need for reconciliation and a recognition of the universality of suffering. Transcendence accomplished through the intercession of everyday objects emerges as another solution, a theme that characterizes Kinnell's work. Likewise, religious symbolism common to his poetry and a unique vision surface in this volume. While Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964) did not represent new developments in Kinnell's writing; however, Body Rags (1968) extends his concern for loss and privation to an even darker realm, that of death. In two of Kinnell's most often anthologized poems, "The Porcupine" and "The Bear," the speaker identifies with two suffering, dying animals. If violence, death and nothingness are the essence of life and art, then as Kinnell writes in "The Bear," the only answer is intensity of experience.
The book-length poem The Book of Nightmares (1971) mollifies the poet's dark vision of death and rebirth by fire. Beginning with the birth of his daughter and ending with the birth of his son, Kinnell ties the ten sections of the book to the cycles of a human existence forced to reforge connections that have been broken by a society without community. As a carefully crafted sequence, it contains the poet's anxiety for the fragile lives brought into a world of "nightmares" and death, and captures his compassion for them. As a result, joy and sorrow, and life and death, become intertwined.
After nine years, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) was published, representing a shift in Kinnell's concerns. The angels and abysses of The Book of Nightmares give way to images from his private life, and with a lighter tone and looser style, he conversely is able to achieve greater emotional impact and thematic resonance in this collection. Throughout Kinnell hits the high and low notes of "the music of grace," a central motif, which sings out his belief in immersion in experiences of mortality. It is music to "touch and feel, things and creatures," "to heal," rather than the poetry of dreams and memories that vanish.
Selected Poems (1982) gathers work from Kinnell's five major collections to 1980, including poems from as early as 1946. It acts as both an introduction to as well as a "full dossier" of his writing. Winning the Pulitzer Prize prompted critics to reappraise his career, most noting three phases in his growth: the first two volumes forecasting the "major phase" of Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares; with Mortal Acts, Mortal Words beginning the last, "less ferocious" stage. The Past (1985) and Imperfect Thirst (1990) fall into the last stage. Appearing in The Past, "The Fundamental Project of Technology," treats the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, again touching on a theme vital to Kinnell: modern man's attempts to dominate nature and "purge" human nature of its "animal characteristics," in particular of death. The Past also takes up again the metaphor of music as an analogy for poetry itself, with animals serving as the true angels that mediate God for man. "The Seekonk Woods" is Kinnell's exploration of his own past. Imperfect Thirst, like previous collections, is concerned with the domestic, his life in smalltown Sheffield, Vermont, and simply "saying in its own music what matters most."
That Kinnell has made a lasting mark on American poetry there is no doubt. With What a Kingdom It Was came a change in American poetry. Ralph Mills wrote: "[I]t departed from the witty, pseudomythic verse, … of the 1950s to arrive at the more authentic, liberated work of the 1960s." "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" and The Book of Nightmares are generally considered his strongest works, with those following Selected Poems being termed "weaker," "uneven," or, as a Village Voice review described The Past, even guilty of too much "bad philosophizing" or "simple cutesiness." However, some critics defend his work since The Book of Nightmares, like Jay Parini who "finds a luxurious wholeness, a sense of grace" in the poetry that has turned less formal, increasingly personal. Thus the Kinnell of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words expresses an even "purer wish to live" and, as Peter Stitt notes, "an expressed love for the created world." Robert Hass, in response to Selected Poems, concludes, "Kinnell is widely read by the young who read poetry. If this were a different culture he would simply be widely read…. The common reader—the one who reads at night or on the beach for pleasure and instruction and diversion—who wants to sample the poetry being written in [his] part of the 20th century could do very well beginning with Galway Kinnell's Selected Poems." Susan B. Weston sees his poetry as "utterly healthy,….precisely because it confronts horrors—drunks dying of cirrhosis; war and destruction; the communal nightmare of a failing culture; the individual nightmare of the failure of love—along with all that is lovely and loving…. Kinnell's gift is a cursed awareness of time—not just of individual mortality but of geological time," the "facets of the single gem, the human condition…."
What a Kingdom It Was 1960
Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock 1964
Poems of Light 1968
Body Rags 1968
Far Behind Me on the Trail 1969
The Hen Flower 1970
First Poems 1946-1954 1970
The Book of Nightmares 1971
The Shoes of Wandering 1971
The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 1974
Three Poems 1976
Brother of My Heart 1977
Fergus Falling 1979
There Are Things I Tell to No One 1979
Two Poems 1979
Mortal Acts, Mortal Words 1980
The Last Hiding Places of Snow 1980
Angling, A Day, and Other Poems 1980
Selected Poems 1982
The Fundamental Project of Technology 1983
The Seekonk Woods 1985
The Past 1985
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone 1990
Three Books: Body Rags: Mortal Acts, Mortal Words: The Past 1993
Imperfect Thirst 1994
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SOURCE: A review of What a Kingdom It Was, in the New Yorker, Vol. 37, No. 7, April 1, 1961, pp. 29-31.
[In the following excerpt, Kinnell 's first book of verse is commended for its direct, colloquial language unfettered by contemporary influences.]
Galway Kinnell's … first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was is remarkably unburdened by this or that current influence. Kinnell is direct and occasionally harsh, and he keeps his syntax straight and his tone colloquial. His chief concern, we soon discover, is the enigmatic significance, more than the open appearance, of Nature and man. "Freedom, New Hampshire," an elegy for his brother—a full realization of country boyhood, in ordinary terms, with a boy's confrontation of cruelty and unreasonable happiness left intact—is also an affirmation of immortality. Kinnell's longest and most pretentiously titled poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World," deals with a most difficult subject—life in a city slum. Here pitfalls abound—sentimentality, insincerity, the possibility of mixed and unresolved feelings of pity and guilt. Kinnell bypasses all these. City streets are for a time his home; he feels the vitality of their people; he responds with extreme sensitiveness to multiple sights, sounds, smells; without any furtive condescension, he places Avenue C in the human context. Sympathy, identification, insight...
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SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell: Moments of Transcendence," in The Princeton Library Chronicle, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1963, pp. 56-70.
[In the following essay, a brief biography of Kinnell followed by an appraisal of his early work is presented.]
Galway Kinnell was born in 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island, and raised in Pawtucket. He came to Princeton in the summer of 1944 and after only one semester joined the Navy. Six months later he returned to Princeton in the V-12 program and graduated at midyears in 1948. He then took an M.A. at the University of Rochester. His life since then has followed an alternating pattern common among American poets of his generation: teaching and travel, academic appointments and foreign fellowships. For two years he taught at Alfred University, and for three more he was Director of the Liberal Arts Programs at University College in the University of Chicago. Then in 1955 a Fulbright Fellowship took him to Paris to translate the poetry of Villon, and he stayed for another year as a lecturer at the University of Grenoble. In 1957 he came back to America and to New York University, first as a research associate and then as a teacher in the adult education program. In 1960 he was appointed Fulbright Professor at the University of Teheran, and the journey there and back took him around the world. The same year, Houghton Mifflin brought out his first volume of verse, What a Kingdom It...
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SOURCE: A review of Body Rags, in Poetry, Vol. CXIII, No. 3, pp. 188-91.
[In the following excerpt, Benedikt notes a radical shift in Kinnell's work that moves from a preoccupation with urban life toward that which was to become a hallmark of the poet's verse, a celebration of nature.]
… In his third book, Body Rags, Galway Kinnell has effected one of the most radical transformations of both matter and manner we have. His first two collections, with their perturbed pictures of the junk-ridden modern city, and their relatively straightforward presentations of the landscape, seemed to recommend withdrawal from the urban syndrome in favor of nature. Now, we feel the breadth of his interpretation of the natural ideal. "Night in the Forest" is about an overnight camping trip, but one would hardly locate conservationism at the core of its concern:
sleeps next to me on the earth. A strand
of hair flows
from her cocoon sleeping bag, touching
the ground hesitantly, as if thinking
to take root.
The intensity of this yearning is almost supernatural. Still stranger are the particular natural aspects to which attention is directed. Kinnell writes about features ordinary nature poets, who are apt to moralize, deplore. "I can rejoice," he writes, "that everything changes,...
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SOURCE: An interview with Galway Kinnell, in The Ohio Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1972, pp. 25-38.
[In the following interview conducted after the publication of The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell discusses this long poem, as well as the influence of Yeats and Rilke on his work in general]
[OHIO REVIEW]: Public poetry readings enjoy an unusual popularity nowadays, and you seem to present your poetry very successfully at your own readings, judging from audience response. Also you seem to be giving a good many readings of late. I wonder, do you think that for your poetry, as you conceive it, the printed page is essential?
[KINNELL]: Yes, it is essential. We forget. But the printed page remembers. Gutenberg deprived us of verbal memory, but it's all right, perhaps even better, to have little memory but to have many books, since they can remember so much more than we can, provided that what we read passes into that part of us which would have remembered it—if we still were able to remember. Also, the printed page is quite useful, for once one has abandoned counted meter and rhyme, it's the only way by which the individual lines, the rhythmic units, can keep their integrity.
That seems particularly true, I think, with longer poems like your Book of Nightmares—written in units over a period of time. How long did it take you to do The...
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SOURCE: "The Structure of Galway Kinnel's The Book of Nightmares" in Field, No. 12, Spring, 1975, pp. 28-46.
[In the following essay, mythology as well as Kinnell's own comments on the poem's structure aid Hilberry in analyzing The Book of Nightmares.]
Writing about Galway Kinnell's long poem, I feel as I imagine I might feel if I were lecturing about Paradise Lost with John Milton in the back of the hall. Why doesn't everybody just turn around and ask him? In fact, Kinnell has said some helpful things about the structure of The Book of Nightmares (e.g. in the Ohio Review interview, Fall 1972)—and may say more. But I suppose, like other poets, he will leave a great deal unsaid. This, of course, is not coyness or obstinacy. When another person comments on a poem, we see that commentary as illuminating or not illuminating, right on certain points and wrong on others, etc. But no one sees it as the last word, equivalent to the poem itself. We always assume there is more to be said as the complexities of the poem take different configurations for other readers. But when a poet speaks about his own work, the statements sound with an uncomfortable finality. Who can dispute the man himself? And whenever a reading is taken as final, the poem is diminished.
I believe the best place to begin with a work as large as The Book of Nightmares is its...
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SOURCE: An interview with Galway Kinnell, in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, January 1976, pp. 6-7.
[In the following interview, Kinnell discusses The Book of Nightmares as well as the earlier What A Kingdom It Was.]
[INTERVIEWER]: "First Song" is the first poem in your first book, What a Kingdom It Was. It elicits an obvious first question. What kinds of impulses originally necessitated your writing poetry and under what kinds of circumstances did you start writing?
[KINNELL]: I remember wanting to write poetry long long before I had even attempted to write a poem. I suppose from the age of twelve on I knew that was all I wanted to do. It was a kind of funny situation, because I didn't have any idea if I could do it at all. It wasn't until I was around eighteen that I began to write what you might call "seriously". As for the original impulses, I'm not sure. I do know that I lived a kind of double life: my relations with everyone I knew, my brother, sisters, parents, friends, and so on—and a secret life with the poems that I would read late at night. It seemed to me that in those poems I had a deep communication, found my own most private feelings shared—much more than in the relationships I had in the world. In poetry it might be possible to say the things and express the things I didn't find it possible to in regular life.
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SOURCE: "Kinnell, Galway," in Contemporary Poets, 3rd Ed., New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980, pp. 835-37.
[In the following excerpt, Bell relates his intimate knowledge of his former student's career, up to and including The Book of Nightmares.]
In the winter of 1946-47, when I was teaching at Princeton University, a dark-shocked student, looking more like a prize fighter than a literary man, showed me a poem, maybe his first. I remember it as a Wordsworthian sonnet, not what the avant-garde of Princeton, Blackmur or Berryman, would have taken to—old diction, no modern flair. But the last couplet had a romantic fierceness that amazed me. The man who had done that could go beyond any poetic limits to be assigned. I was reckless enough to tell him so.
I was to lecture at Black Mountain that summer. He took a bit of his G.I. money and came along. Apart from some works of mine which seemed to move him, it was to Yeats that he gave himself with the totality that has always characterized him. By the fall he had written the first form of a four-page poem, "A Morning Wake among the Dead" (later called "Among the Tombs"), which foreshadowed in volcanic latency all his later long poems. The deathhaunted, tragic Kinnell had already spoken, though it would take years for the fact to be recognized.
In form, Kinnell was still using a romantic and Miltonic pentameter almost...
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SOURCE: A review of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, in Ironwood, Vol. 16, Fall, 1980, pp. 92-100.
[In the following review, Lazer praises as having "lighter" and "looser" poems than the much-acclaimed, unified work that preceded it, The Book of Nightmares.]
In "The Age of Criticism," Randall Jarre 11 writes that "most people understand that a poet is a good poet because he does well some of the time." That certainly is the case with Galway Kinnell's writing and with Kinnell's latest book. I'm sure that some readers will find it inferior to The Book of Nightmares, possibly because Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is lighter, less unified, and looser. But these two books are different. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is a collection of poems, in fact, of several different kinds of poems. The Book of Nightmares is a book of poems, a single sequence of poems intended to be read as a unified whole.
At their finest, Kinnell's new poems, as with many of his earlier poems, are testaments of faith. The second section of "There Are Things I Tell to No One," one of the best poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is the heart of Kinnell's faith:
I say "God"; I believe,
rather, in a music of grace
that we hear, sometimes, playing to us
from the other side of happiness.
When we hear it, when it...
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Commonweal, Vol. 110, No. 5, p. 157.
[In the following excerpt, Molesworth hails Selected Poems, a thirty-five-year retrospective of Kinnell's career, as a "paradigm of one of the major shifts in postwar poetry."]
… In Galway Kinnell's Selected Poems thirty-five years of poetry definitely originates in a single, identifiable sensibility. From the largely ironic and structured First Poems, on through the ecstatic longing for transcendence in Body Rags (1968) and The Book of Nightmares (1971), Kinnell's career develops as a paradigm of one of the major shifts in postwar poetry. This shift affected the work of many poets directly, such as Robert Bly and James Wright, but it also indirectly altered the major idiom of American poetry, moving as it did toward a language of empathy and celebration. Drawing on various sources such as Rilke, Whitman, Lawrence, and Frost, Kinnell's poetry gained prominence because of its Romantic scale and yearning. Throughout all of his volumes, this poet has known a central paradox:
It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all.
This is how we have learned, the embrace is all.
Emptiness answered by embrace: these are for Kinnell an emotion and a bodily gesture, a physical condition and a spiritual response. The...
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SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell Searches for Innocence," in Saturday Review, September/October 1983, pp. 14-16.
[In the following essay, Beckman gives an overview of Kinnell's career in light of his having received the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems.]
When Galway Kinnell showed his early poem "First Song" to the poet William Carlos Williams in the late 1950s, Williams told the younger poet that he had no business writing poems about "cornstalk violins" because he had never played one, nor should he write about fields in Illinois, where he had never lived. Williams suggested that Kinnell, who was living on New York's Lower East Side, take a pad and pencil and jot down notes about the neighborhood where he lived and walked, and write poems about what he knew best.
Following Williams' advice, Kinnell absorbed his neighborhood, specifically Avenue C between 14th Street and Houston Street. What emerged was a long, Whitmanesque, fourteen-part poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World." For Kinnell the poem was a breakthrough. Now, more than twenty years later, Kinnell has published eight volumes of poetry, one novel, four translations, and has been anthologized with the world's greatest poets.
Among the awards Kinnell has received are a grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963, the Brandeis...
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SOURCE: "'One and Zero Walk Off Together': Dualism in Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares," in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1985, pp. 56-71.
[In the following essay, HUdgins notes that a dualistic stance toward death—both the rational perception of our own extinction as well as our mystical union with the universe after death—is traced through The Book of Nightmares.]
In The Book of Nightmares Galway Kinnell explores from a contemporary perspective one of the great themes of romantic poetry: What is the proper human response to death? For Kinnell the answer to that question is complicated by his being possessed of a deep spiritual longing while living in an existential world. And death, that ultimate existential fact, is the stumbling block to spiritual aspirations because it implies utter nullity. But even with life ending in the apparent finality of death, people often intuit a harmony beyond death, a unity in the universe. Kinnell, in an interview, has stated the dichotomy succinctly: "death has two aspects—the extinction, which we fear, and the flowing away into the universe, which we desire—there is a conflict within us that I want to deal with."1 Or to state the proposition in explicitly Freudian terms, people are torn between a drive toward life and a drive toward death. Behind this dualism, however, lies a deeper one; the rational mind looks at the...
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SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell's Poetry of Transformation," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXX, No. 1, pp. 41-56.
[In the following essay, Kleinbard eaxamines The Book of Nightmares, specifically, as an example of Kinnell's poetry of a joyful acceptance of mortality as well as death 's redemptive power.]
At the time of its publication in 1971 Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares was praised as an evocation of a national trauma, the Vietnam war and its effects on this country. Now, after more than a decade, it seems more remarkable as an expression of private experience in visionary images. Cumulatively these images develop an epic scope and a timeless range of reference reminiscent of Kinnell's models, "Song of Myself" and Duino Elegies. Kinnell has said that The Book of Nightmares is an account of a journey whose starting point is dread and that "the book is nothing but an effort to face death and live with it."1 This does not mean stoic acceptance, but a rediscovery of the child's capacity for living with time, decay, and death "almost as animals do." Recurrently these ten poems suggest that one can "surrender to existence" only by letting go of the dread of extinction.
For Kinnell, as for Whitman and Rilke, dying is a return to the "oneness" with the world which we lose at birth. As he says in an interview, it may be seen as "the flowing away into...
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SOURCE: "Refuge in the Library, on the Farm and in Memories," in The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1986, pp. 14-15.
[In the following excerpt, Beaver praises The Past for its moments of "absorbed attention, " Kinnell 's ability to affix the present into the past and vice versa]
[In his work], Galway Kinnell enriches each anecdote. Always there is a narrative frame and skeletal story—a place, a time, a character:
When the little sow piglet squirmed free,
Gus and I ran her all the way down to the swamp
and lunged and floundered and fell full-length
on our bellies stretching for her—and got her!—
and lay there, all three shining with swamp slime—
she yelping, I laughing, Gus—it was then I knew
he would die soon—gasping and gasping.
In The Past, Mr. Kinnell nails down the present into the past and transfixes the past into the present:
The touch is always personal, sometimes opening like a letter—"We loaf in our gray boat in the sunshine. / The Canadian Pacific freight following the shoreline blows a racket of iron over Lake Memphramagog"—sometimes like an anecdote told at the fireside:
In those first years I came down
often to the frog...
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SOURCE: A review of The Past, in "On Poetry: Songs of Science," The New Leader, Vol. LXVIII, No. 16, pp. 19-20.
[In the following excerpt reviewing The Past, Pettingell highlights Kinnell's "biological perception of the world".]
History was the controlling trope for 19th-century writers: Novelists, essayists, poets, and playwrights all affirmed their hopes for mankind's progress, or their fears about the decline and fall of civilization, by pointing to the record. The discoveries of Darwin and Einstein seem, at first glance, to have shifted our metaphor to science. Even Biblical fundamentalists who reject evolutionary theory will often subscribe to "Social Darwinian" demonstrations of survival of the fittest in the marketplace. Though physics may be too technical for a mass audience, "relativity" has revolutionized moral attitudes. But literature still frequently shrinks from science. Old-fashioned narratives continue to treat time as if it operated like a piece of thread unwinding from a spool, and man as if he were a unique phenomenon of nature. In The Past Galway Kinnell reports a dinner table discussion on this problem with Richard Hugo shortly before his death:
Although Kinnell has not invented an evolutionary mode of speech, his poems certainly exemplify a way of thinking that has embraced a biological perception of the world. Much of The Past was...
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SOURCE: "From Irony to Lyricism: Galway Kinnell's True Voice," in Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell, New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996, pp. 218-25.
[In the following essay, Taylor traces Kinnell's "poetic evolution, " from a Christian theology to a sacramentalism that elevates "numinous moments,".]
To read the poetry of Galway Kinnell is to witness a poetic evolution. The Kinnell canon includes nine volumes of poetry and offers a paradigm for the present-day romantic struggling to free himself from his Christian inheritance yet to affirm that the world contains order, meaning, and the sacred. Kinnell's poetry begins with an attempt to reconcile Christian theology, particularly the resurrection, with human mortality and suffering. As this effort proves futile, he surrenders explicitly Christian references in favor of a natural theology that views the world as sacramental and emphasizes immanence over transcendence. Natural theology does not define the Absolute as a Being. Instead of Christian theism, Kinnell's notion of God is of Being itself which is embedded in creation. There is no transcendent realm over against creation. We might call Kinnell's sense of the holy a nontheistic sacramentalism, or echo Nathan Scott in calling it "panentheism."1 Charles Altieri offers perhaps the clearest description:
For the postmoderne, meaning and significance tend to...
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SOURCE: "The Poetic Milieu of Galway Kinnell: From Modernism to Postmodernism and Neoromanticism," in Galway Kinnell, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 8-16.
[In the following essay, Calhoun places Kinnell is placed among his predecessors and contemporaries as well as his poetic influences.]
Born in 1927, Galway Kinnell was one of a generation of American poets who were trying to establish themselves as published poets at a time when the modernist practice in poetry and the formalist New Criticism theory, in vogue during their college years, had come under attack. It is important to see his poetry in the context of the transition that was taking place when he began writing from modernism to postmodernism. Four decisive events that signified change in the 1950s were the appearance of Charles Olson's antiformalist Projective Verse manifesto in 1950; the publication of Philip Larkin's personal poetry in Poems in England in 1954; the sensationalism of Allen Ginsberg's Beat protest poem Howl in 1956; and the impact of Robert Lowell's apparently confessional Life Studies in 1959. By the late 1950s and the early 1960s Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were gurus for the Beat Movement; Robert Bly, James Wright, and Louis Simpson were exemplars for the Deep Image Movement; Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan were supporters of a movement away from formalism to freer,...
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SOURCE: "The Past and Other Works," in Galway Kinnell, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 111-16.
[Calhoun's explication of the poems in When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone follows in this excerpt.]
In Galway Kinnell's tenth major book of poetry, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, which appeared in late 1990 from a new publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, he confronts his own solitariness from other people, including family, and ultimately that terminal loneliness, his own mortality. A key line in the volume might well be "everything sings and dies," but it could also be "everything dies and sings," the decisive perception from "Flower of Five Blossoms" (WOHLLTA, 52). Dying is a characteristic humankind share with other creatures, but singing is a resource that the poet finds in people. In these poems Kinnell writes of loss, separation, death, aloneness after the breakup of the family he has celebrated in the antecedent poems. His trademark, the long poem, appears; but he also shows his ability to complete and master the short poem.
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone contains 22 poems, divided into four parts, the first three with seven poems each, and the fourth part consisting entirely of the long title poem, "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone." Three of the shorter poems strike me as especially fine, "Judas-Kiss," "The Cat," and "The Perch." I...
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SOURCE: "Poetry Roundup: Imperfect Thirst" in The Castle of Indolence, New York: Picado, 1995, pp. 208-21.
[In the following excerpt, Disch calls Imperfect Thirst Kinnell's "comfy" poetry.]
Readers with only a casual, or dutiful, interest in poetry seek out poets they can be comfortable with. Shades of the schoolhouse begin to close round such readers when poems require too much deciphering. So, according to their temperaments, they will gravitate to poets of amiability or moral earnestness, whose work they will reward with a knowing chuckle or an approving nod.
Among contemporary poets few can rival Galway Kinnell for sheer amiability. The press kit accompanying his twelfth collection, Imperfect Thirst, declares, "One of the foremost performers on the poetry circuit, Kinnell inevitably draws enormous crowds with his readings." He is a Pulitzer winner, a MacArthur fellow, and the poet laureate of Vermont, where Hugh Schultz, who owns the Wheelock Village Store, has saluted the poet as "a hometown body" and "a heckuva nice guy, real easy going, low-key." If ever a poet had to be found to endorse a new brand of bran flakes, here is the man.
In the world according to Kinnell death is, unproblematically, an aspect of life in Vermont.
One might ask of such a death where its sting is, but surely a poet is entitled to imagine his own...
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SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell: A Voice to Lead Us," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 1-15.
[In the following essay, Kinnell's career is surveyed in light of the publication of Imperfect Thirst.]
In this last decade of an apocalyptic century, many of us begin to search for the voices who can lead us away from despair for humanity and toward hope for the next era. The publication of Galway Kinnell's latest book, Imperfect Thirst, provides an opportunity to review the career of a poet who may turn out to be one of those voices. Few writers have embraced the contemporary existential view of life with as much grace and affirmation as Kinnell. In his poetry, he has made the shift successfully from the theistic framework of our forebears to the secular one our culture has claimed as its own, a shift, for Kinnell, that does not leave behind the sacred but weaves it into the very air we breathe. He is a poet who has taken the material of the self, delivered into our laps mid-century like an uncertain fetus, and taught it that it can survive, even flourish, on the earthly elements of human love and the knowledge of death. This affirmation stands as his major achievement. But Kinnell's contribution to American poetry touches formal aspects as well as content. An already acknowledged master of free verse, he displays in this latest book an even greater ability to put into practice his...
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Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 144 pp.
A ten-page "Selected Bibliography" is included.
Hawkins, Sherman. "A Checklist of the Writings of Galway Kinnell." The Princeton University Library Chronicle 25, No.1 (1963): 65-70.
An extensive list of pieces by and about the poet up to the publication of Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock.
Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 144 pp.
A chronology precedes Chapter One, "A Poet's Life and Backgrounds."
Comito, Terry. "Slogging Toward the Absolute." Modern Poetry Studies VI, No. 2 (Autumn 1975): 189-192.
A favorable review of The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World.
Derricotte, Toi. "Imperfect Thirst." Prairie Schooner LXXI, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 188-91.
Some verse in the volume is noted as Kinnell's self-questioning.
Flint, R.W. "At Home in the Seventies." Parnassus VIII, No. 2 (January 1980):...
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