Galway Kinnell Essay - Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 1)

Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 1)

Kinnell, Galway 1927–

American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

I [like] Galway Kinnell's poems mainly for their wholehearted commitment to themselves, and for what I can only call their innocence. Mr. Kinnell cares quite openly and honestly about almost everything he has ever seen, heard of, or read about, and finds it rather easy to say so. There is nothing very tragic or tearing about him, or nothing very intense, either. He seems to me a natural poet: humanly likeable, gentle, ruminative. But he is dishearteningly prolix….

Perhaps to a degree more than is true of other poets, Kinnell's development will depend on the actual events of his life. And it is a life that I think we should watch. It is warm, generous, reflective, and friendly. And as poetry it holds out some promise, largely because of this necessary involvement with the author's life, of being in the end magnificent. It is not entirely impossible that the Wave of the Future may turn out to have begun at Avenue C, or some place within walking distance of it.

James Dickey, "Galway Kinnell" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 134-35.

The charm and force of many of Kinnell's poems lies in his ability to watch himself do what he does with a wise, untroubled stare. A mystical disposition suggests a vision blurred. But Kinnell's eye is exact and exacting….

John Malcolm Brinnin, in Partisan Review, Winter, 1967, p. 159.

A speaking voice—genial, reflective, generous—is very much evident in the poems of Galway Kinnell. [Miss Taylor, in this essay, is commenting upon the books of poems preceding Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares.] He neither strives for the objectivity which presents "things" unrelated by rhetorical and narrative connectives, nor does he speak through assumed masks or personae. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about Mr. Kinnell is his simple confidence in the power and sufficiency of his perceptions: in his wholehearted commitment to what he is saying, one never finds a labored casting about for meaning and significance, nor the kind of evasive and deprecating self-scrutiny which ends in contempt for self and others. Kinnell's poems are expressive, outspoken, exuberant, informal. His language is almost entirely one of praise; few poems are exercises in anger, invective, sarcasm, or scorn. In his poems he continually shows a complex and thoughtful appreciation for the diversity of life, and repeatedly asserts his capacity for wonder.

Many of Kinnell's poems are about exploration, discovery, and vision. Most often they concern the poet's exploration of the natural world, of "primitive" nature (mountains, unsettled plains, sea coasts, deserts, fields and woods in snow). Frequently the challenge of exploring and living in a kind of wilderness incites the poet to thought and feeling, to an inner "voyage of discovery." A number of his poems are travel poems about setting forth, arrival, return. Often the poet's reflections are those of a man on a promontory or high place, or of a man who has just arrived somewhere or found something….

In many poems the dominant myth is that of the land itself. Often the poet deliberately "submits" himself to the natural world: he sets forth into unsettled land, land which both invites and frustrates attempts at exploration and discovery. In these poems the poet approaches his meaning gradually, characteristically through passages of description, association and memory. Usually only the conclusions to the poems are highly metaphoric, using the materials of the landscape and interpreting them as analogies to the discovered meaning in the poet's own inner voyage….

Although the distinctive features of Kinnell's poetry (the easy expansiveness of the poet's speaking voice, the slow accumulation of meaning, and the laxness of metrical and verse patterns) can sometimes become a poem's liabilities rather than its virtues (occasionally the poet indulges in casual reminiscence in his willingness to include everything about an experience and the reader sometimes misses the tightness of structure and exactness of vision found in other poems), nevertheless, the two collections of poems Kinnell has published make up an impressive body of work. The poet projects a rich and interesting personality in these poems; it is one we enjoy knowing.

Jane Taylor, "The Poetry of Galway Kinnell," in Perspective, Spring, 1968, pp. 189-200.

Galway Kinnell is the poet the young writer will now watch—for tips of voice and stance—as he might have watched W. D. Snodgrass five years ago. There are individual lines, images, and whole passages in nearly every poem in Body Rags that are unforgettably poignant. Kinnell's generosity of spirit—a keenly piercing reverence for society's derelicts—and his self-scalding empathy for the mutilated souls of the crushed, the beaten, the solitary proud victims of back alleys and backwoods, give all of his work the rare quality of that which has been profoundly seen, witnessed, lived to the bones, before being translated—however fumblingly or gracefully—into words.

Laurence Lieberman, in Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1968, p. 137.

Kinnell has echoed all the great, sad questions of the past concerning our destiny, and he has summoned up the famous masks of the poet, especially the crucified, freely confessing sinner-saint and the sufferer beyond all telling. Something like an astrologically oriented prophetic role attracts him too, and so we have a renewal of the poet as seer. But the real power of [The Book of Nightmares] comes from its pressure of feeling, its remarkable empathy and keenness of observation, and its qualities of phrasing—far more than from its structural thoroughness or philosophical implications. It needs stripping down. But no matter. Whatever its weaknesses, [The Book of Nightmares] grapples mightily with its depressive view of reality and with essential issues of love, and it leaves us with something splendid: a true voice, a true song, memorably human.

M. L. Rosenthal, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1971, p. 77.

Kinnell moves courageously into [the] nightmare world [in The Book of Nightmares] and brings its bloody flowers tenderly out into the light of language…. In these pulsing passages we know, as we have always known of Kinnell, that we are with one of the major modern poets.

Only when the vision of the "holy waters" rises straight up from the fire in the flesh does Kinnell give us the poetry that transforms our experience as it illuminates his. Here, in the main pulse of this rich and potent volume, we share the sacramental inter-relatedness of father and his child dying into life, of the eater and the eaten, the bear and the flower, of the sleeper with the dead who's shoes he wears, whose mattress he weights…. In this section and what follows, and over and over and over in this certainly major work, Kinnell succeeds in drawing the reader "beyond description" into that clearing in the forest of the night where the bear and the sheriff and the child and the reader meet—and perhaps find they can laugh.

Marion Kingston Stocking, in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall-Winter, 1971–72, pp. 70-1.