Kinnell, Galway 1927–
Kinnell is an American poet, novelist, and translator. A writer of lyric free verse, he has gradually developed a personal and symbolic mythology to replace the natural imagery of his earlier poetry. His philosophy is perhaps best exemplified in a line from his The Book of Nightmares: "Living brings you to death, there is no other road." Many critics feel that this acceptance of mortality paradoxically enables him to place more value on life itself. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Galway Kinnell does not dream into nightmares, he heads into them frontally. [The Book of Nightmares] strings on and on in non-metre; Kinnell's ear is good, but the lengths after a while cry out for more shape. We are exposed to repeated themes, such as dead hens full of eggs, bears eating flowers, babies being messily born. Kinnell can produce sufficiently revolting effects…. There is too much of this, and it becomes a weariness. I come out occasionally impressed, but never moved. (pp. 501-02)
Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1971.
In Galway Kinnell's poem "The Bear," a hunter stalks the bear to its death, falls asleep exhausted, dreams he becomes the bear, and then awakens somehow changed into a creature half-bear, half-man. The poem's strength and its problems hinge upon the hunter persona Kinnell adopts, attempting to fuse the consciousness of a modern man with that of a primitive Eskimo. This persona means that the poet must move through the technical realism of hunting to its metaphysical implications without spoiling one or the other, as he tries to illustrate man's sacred bond with nature by the simple, brutal hunting of the bear….
Speaking of the origins of "The Bear" in an interview, Kinnell said,
I guess I had just read Cummings' poem on Olaf, who says, "there is some shit I will not eat." It struck me that that rather implies that some of our diet, if not all, is shit. And then I remembered this bear story, how the bear's shit was infused with blood, so that the hunter by eating the bear's excrement was actually nourished by what the bear's wound infused into it.
Cummings' poem was … more an incidental stimulus than a source for "The Bear." Its moral is against killing while Kinnell's poem is about hunting, but its anal imagery and degrading torture do correspond to the agony first of the bear and then of the hunter in his dream.
Closer to "The Bear" is our next link between the metaphorical excrement of Cummings' poem and the actual excrement of the hunting story Kinnell recalled. Other versions of the action doubtless exist, but it appears likely that the story came from the first chapter of Top of the World, a popular adventure novel by Hans Ruesch. Ruesch fashions rudimentary characters and plots from the raw material of anthropological accounts of Eskimo life, emphasizing their most intriguing habits of diet, hygiene, and sex. (pp. 238-39)
The differences between Kinnell's hunter and [Ruesch's] two Eskimos are many…. These differences emphasize Kinnell's attempts to go beyond the realistic limits of his persona, the primitive Eskimo hunter.
This attempt can also be seen in the two crucial points at which poem and novel overlap—eating the bear's excrement, and preparing the coiled bone. Ruesch emphasizes how little hunger bothers the hunters, for "This was the Hunt—the very essence of life."… Contrast this matter-of-fact report with Kinnell's careful description:
On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and go on running.
The verb sequence—"bend down," "hesitate," "pick it up," "thrust," "gnash it down"—extends and slows the action, showing the balance between disgust and fatalistic acceptance. If this act was the origin of the poem, it might explain the emphasis that otherwise violates by delicacy the account of a tough, native hunter.
No such delicacy intensifies the parallel descriptions of making the bait in Ruesch and Kinnell…. Kinnell condenses this preparation to the basic details:
I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.
Again the verb sequence controls the description—"take," "whittle," "coil," "freeze," "place." Kinnell emphasizes the techniques of hunting in the first half of the poem. The weapon to kill the bear defines the relationship between hunter and prey. A gun would violate their bond while the device...
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Galway Kinnell is a poet of astonishing incarnations, he never seems to be where you last met him and he's always secure in his new adaptation. [The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World] brings together poems from his first three books, covering the years between 1946 and 1964, many of the earliest [having] been returned to their pre-revised form which, upon rediscovery, the author himself preferred…. By turn and with level facility, Kinnell is a poet of the landscape, a poet of soliloquy, a poet of the city's underside and a poet who speaks for thieves, pushcart vendors and lumberjacks with an unforced simulation of their vernacular. New England woods, the Oregon coast, Calcutta, T'ang Dynasty China, Wales and Manhattan's ghetto: his geography is global and it reveals, when paid close attention, a perennial dialogue of death and resurrection…. (p. 599)
Hard to believe, as we turn the pages in admiration, that the same poet wrote "The Wolves" or "Where the Track Vanishes" or "Koisimi Buddhist of Altitudes" or, above all, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" (I do think that title is a wounded snake), a masterwork of vocal effects, shared lamentation, unreserved closeups of ghetto characters who, after closing their junkshops and loading their pushcarts, withdraw into "chambers overhead" … and fluent panoramas that remind one of the swarming, funereal paragraphs of I. B. Singer. (p. 600)
Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.
In [Galway Kinnell] we see that the idea of paradise gets reborn in the cultivation of waste places. (pp. 161-62)
Life is found in death, fountains in deserts, gain in loss, spring in winter, light in darkness. All these matters are the recurrent subjects of Kinnell's verse. He is a hero of the Absolute whose civilization exists in a burning mind which dreams forever upon itself, its first imagining. (p. 162)
The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, as the publisher's note in the book says, "will provide the opportunity to know the poems which were the preamble to the famous poems of [Kinnell's] later books," Body Rags and The Book of...
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Galway Kinnell's "The Bear" can be read as a graphic account of a hunter tracking and eating the totemic animal, thus insuring himself of future benefits from the gods as well as practical benefits of food and clothing here and now. The poem can also be seen as the record of a shaman whose job it is to infuse himself with the sacred animal and, by so doing, take unto himself the beast's wisdom, strength, cunning, or terror. Such readings seem to find little to impede them unless it be the final section … where the speaker awakens; even here the difficulty is slight, because the person seeming to wake could be the hunter or the shaman fantasizing about the ritual of the hunt. However, an alternate reading...
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With The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World and The Book of Nightmares we have a clear view of Galway Kinnell's work from the beginning to the present; what's immediately apparent is that the work, although occasionally excellent, is very uneven.
The Avenue contains Kinnell's first three books. First Poems 1946–54 is the juvenilia its title augurs; except for a couple first-rate poems ("Indian Bread," "Walking Out Alone in Dead of Winter"), it's most remarkable for the unassimilated debts Kinnell incurs (Whitman, Frost, Williams, Eliot, Yeats, Roethke) and for the annunciation of an attitude [in "Conversation at Tea"] which will become the major...
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Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares … emerges as one of the best long poems of recent years. It represents an unforeseeable leap forward for Kinnell. Although the earlier work prepares us for it through its imagery and concern with nature, there is nothing on this scale, nothing that extends man's spiritual dimensions so high and so low, nothing that extends the range of man's connections so far into biological and cosmic process—though such connections are made in the earlier poetry…. The Book of Nightmares is Kinnell's Divine Comedy, a Divine Comedy without God but with soul, a soul inseparable from body and from man's life in nature. Unlike Dante but like the romantic poets to...
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