Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 29)
Galway Kinnell 1927–
American poet, translator, and novelist.
A highly esteemed contemporary poet, Kinnell received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1982). This volume provides a broad retrospective of his career. It includes selections from his five major collections: What a Kingdom It Was (1960), Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), Body Rags (1968), The Book of Nightmares (1971), and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980). In spite of significant changes over the course of Kinnell's career—most notably his movement from traditional to experimental verse—critics cite several thematic concerns that recur throughout his work. Of prominent importance is his preoccupation with death, which Morris Dickstein describes as Kinnell's "insistence on peering at the bones behind the face—death beneath the mask of life, yet also some kind of ecstatic survival beyond the mask of death."
Kinnell's reputation was established early in his career: his first collection contains "Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," a long poem which some critics still regard as his most important single work. The poem is a bleak vision of New York's East Side and, by inference, a political and social statement on the condition of contemporary society. Although in later works Kinnell's outlook becomes more affirmative, "Avenue C" foreshadows his concern with death and despair as well as his Whitmanesque regard for humanity. The religious symbolism evident in much of his work is also introduced in this poem.
Kinnell's earlier works exhibited, according to Peter Stitt, an "unrelenting seriousness, the pressure always to be deeply significant." As Kinnell's writing developed, his tone and style relaxed, and his works achieved increased emotional immediacy and thematic depth. A growing identification with nature becomes apparent with "The Bear" and "The Porcupine," two of the most esteemed poems in Body Rags. The Book of Nightmares, a highly acclaimed sequence inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies, reveals Kinnell's deepening acceptance of the inseparability of joy and sorrow, life and death.
Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Kinnell's first book of new poems after a silence of nine years, has elicited considerable critical response. Although some critics contend that the poems in this volume do not live up to the standards of excellence set by "Avenue C" and The Book of Nightmares, others find evidence of "an even purer wish to live," a heightened maturity of vision, and, according to Peter Stitt, "an expressed love for the created world."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
Ralph J. Mills, Jr.
Galway Kinnell's first collection, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), can be viewed in retrospect now as one of those volumes signaling decisive changes in the mood and character of Amer-ican poetry as it departed from the witty, pseudo-mythic verse, apparently written to critical prescription, of the 1950's to arrive at the more authentic, liberated work of the 1960's. Our recent poetry shows how closely and vulnerably aware of the palpable life of contemporary society poets have become, for, increasingly during the past decade or so, they have opened themselves as persons to the complex, frequently incongruous, violence-ridden ethos of the age in an effort to ground the poetic imagination in a shared, perceptible reality. This kind of openness—a sensitive receptivity in which the poet, to borrow a phrase of Heidegger's about Hölderlin, "is exposed to the divine lightnings" that can easily exact their toll on nerves and emotional balance—extends, in many instances, beyond matters of social and political experience to naked metaphysical confrontation: with the universe, the identity of the self, the possibilities of an absent or present God, or the prospect of a vast, overwhelming nothingness. In such poets as Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Patchen, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, James Wright, Anne Sexton, James Dickey, W. S. Merwin, and Sylvia Plath, for example, with all differences aside, the pursuit of personal vision often leads toward a...
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Of Galway Kinnell's poem 'The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World', Selden Rodman wrote: 'I do not hesitate to call this the freshest, most exciting, and by far the most readable poem of a bleak decade.' John Logan called it 'a remarkable 450 line poem hard to match in American literature, drawn from contemporary life around Avenue C in New York.' James Dickey, finally, remarked that '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' [see CLC, Vol. 1].
These judgements show more than the persistence of the American craving for the Great American Poem; they amount, I think, to a repudiation of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats as a whole. (The 'bleak decade' Rodman speaks of was among the richest in American writing this century.) Once again, the American literary establishment has failed its poets, as it had failed Crane, Lindsay, Rexroth and Patchen before. (pp. 210-11)
When we turn to Kinnell's poem, what do we in fact find? Something 'drawn from' the life around Avenue C in New York indeed…. Kinnell sees New York and its exotic Jews much as a tourist might savour Amsterdam's fleamarket or London's Petticoat Lane:
In sunlight on the Avenue
The Jew rocks along in a black fur shtraimel,
Black robe, black knickers, black knee-stockings,
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Susan B. Weston
In the recently published Walking Down the Stairs, selections from interviews with Galway Kinnell …, one of the interviewers asks Kinnell: "That loneliness you say you wrote out of—do you think that young poets today are less rich because they lack that?" Kinnell replies, "I never thought of it as richness." One of the charming things about these interviews is the way Kinnell changes a question by butting his head through the interviewer's premises. This particular question meant "richness for poetry," of course, but Kinnell refuses to distinguish lonely poets from lonely people: no one is richer for being lonely.
Questions like this one are generated by the notion that poets are a special breed who welcome suffering, madness, and poverty for the sake of their poetry…. It is refreshing, then, to watch Galway Kinnell sidestep such notions. (p. 95)
This integration of poetry with life informs all of Kinnell's more interesting responses in Walking Down the Stairs. Sensitive to "either/or" thinking, he is quick to give "both … and" answers that are in the same inclusive spirit as his poetry…. His commitment to relation—between poetry and everything else, between the poet and everyone else—makes this collection of interviews crucial reading for anyone interested in the survival of healthy literature.
Just this probing for relations, for coherent wholeness, characterizes...
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[During the two decades that span the second world war], changes began to occur [in American poetry]: Olson's "Projective Verse" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" were clear signs, at least with the comfort of retrospection, that a new poetics was developing. It might be instructive to trace some of the lineaments of this new idiom by focusing on one poet's career for a certain period, namely that of Galway Kinnell in the 1960s.
Kinnell's poetry of this period involves itself with a virtual rediscovery of how to view objects intensely, while continuing to avoid any prescribed system. Even as early as his long poem "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" … Kinnell's poetry has been celebratory and inclusive in its characteristic attitude toward the world of objects. "There are more to things than things," says one modern French philosopher, and the contemporary poet instinctively agrees; but how to discover that "more" without falling into mere attitudinizing remains problematic. Pound taught his successors, who include most American poets, that no authority could replace personal testament, especially when such testament involved accurate perception and attentive apperception. But poets could still remain estranged from things; they might fall into a glorified listing of the mundane, or make the operations of the mind so dominant that the poems would lose their subjects in a welter of "impressions." Pound's influence...
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Galway Kinnell once said, according to Donald Hall, that he had no use for any poem upon which the poet did not bring to bear the weight of his entire life. The results of such a standard are there to see in Kinnell's earlier books—the unrelenting seriousness, the pressure always to be deeply significant. It is exhausting sometimes, and has made Kinnell a poet best ingested in small doses. [Mortal Acts, Mortal Words] is different; its relaxed tone is apparent from the start and results in a number of lighthearted poems, poems one feels Kinnell could not have written before. He is now capable, for example, of poems like "On the Tennis Court at Night," a kind of elegy for all the good times, times of friendship and youth…. [The last stanza] is both effective and affective, part of what may be the best tennis poem in existence. But where is that lumbering hermit, that hunter-poet, willing to eat blood-soaked bear turds in his quest for the ultimate poem?
He may appear briefly towards the end of the book, where Kinnell seems to give over much of this wonderful physical specificity in favor of a series of relatively abstract, relatively theoretical poems. Although much more ambitious than the earlier poems, these are also less successful—partly because their abstractness pales beside the earlier poems' love of physical detail, and partly because their complexity is at times confusing—as in … "Pont Neuf at Nightfall."… The...
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It is 20 years now since Galway Kinnell published his first book of poems, "What a Kingdom It Was." The glory of that volume was a long poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World," an overtly Whitmanian celebration and lament that remains one of the major American visions of New York City. Rereading it alongside Mr. Kinnell's new book confirms the sense I remember experiencing two decades ago, that here was another phantasmagoria of the city worthy of its ancestry, in that line that goes from Poe's "The City in the Sea" through Whitman on to its culmination in Hart Crane's "The Bridge." Galway Kinnell had made a magnificent beginning, and held a remarkable promise.
Whether his subsequent work as yet has vindicated that promise is problematic, though there have been very good poems in all of his books, including his new "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words." His poetic virtues have remained constant enough, and have won him a deserved audience. Of his contemporaries, only the late James Wright and Philip Levine have been able to write with such emotional directness, without falling into mere pathos, the usual fate of American poets who speak straight forth out of the self. Mr. Kinnell is able to avoid the difficulties whose overcoming is necessary when we read John Ashbery, James Merrill and A. R. Ammons, among current poets, but whether his eloquent simplicities have the discipline of Mr. Levine's best poems is open to...
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In an interview in 1971, [Galway Kinnell] had this to say about The Book of Nightmares, the superb long poem published earlier that year:
I thought of that poem as one in which I could say everything that I knew or felt…. I didn't want to let that poem go. I felt I could spend the rest of my life writing it—revising and perfecting it…. Eventually I had to force myself to get rid of it, though I knew I would feel an unsettling emptiness for a long time afterward. I hope I feel as totally consumed again.
"Wait," in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, seems written out of that very complex of feelings. One might even hear overtones of Rilke, who meant so much to Kinnell when he was writing the Nightmares, in its closing lines:
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
The connection made in the last lines characterizes this new book even as it did the preceding volume. While suffering and song are tied up for any poet, Kinnell more than most has made that relationship an...
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Galway Kinnell's career gives the impression of continuity despite his transformations of style and tone, perhaps because he has held fast to a certain idea of the possibilities of poetry. Throughout his career he has minded his matter first, in the faith that feeling sincerely will produce words adequate to experience, and has seemed pretty much content to cast his material in the received style of the day. Kinnell addresses the great and eternal themes in a contemporary idiom, convinced, it seems, that familiar emotions need only be rephrased with passion to be made new.
The poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words partake of the autumnal mellowness that now threatens to become the standard for the poets of Kinnell's generation as they enter the "late period." These new poems are as muted and personal as much of his previous work was hyperbolic and overscaled. That their burden is lighter does not mean, sadly, that Kinnell has succeeded any better at carrying it. He seems, as always, to arrive at resolutions he ultimately falls short of earning. Kinnell continually announces the familiar in the rhetoric of discovery; there is much of the inexplicable oddity of birth and death, and other such topics, in these poems…. (pp. 298-99)
Kinnell hopes, by taking on the great, intractable facts of love and loss, to achieve the kind of embattled radiance associated with the line of grim realists exemplified by Robert Frost....
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One problem with [defining poetry] is ourselves: we keep getting in the way, obstructing the viewfinder with all these stray edges of selves. We cannot read without putting ourselves into the text, nor speak without letting loose a flood of idiosyncracies. So how should we ever find what poetry is, when we cannot stabilize our own vantage point …? (p. 355)
One answer is fairly simple. Perhaps when poetry is working at its best, it is simply drawing upon the world we live, in order to see and speak of the world we have…. This may even be the most positive answer for poetry, because it strives to work on established ground—the "given" of the realm that we are born to—and strives to make our participation in that realm somehow fuller and more aware…. But, whatever else it is, this life-connected choice is the choice taken by the poets Galway Kinnell and William Everson, although the latter travels from the immediate to the broad and hopeful possibilities of faith and the future, and the former sees our possibilities, our sins and our chances, in the items and shapes of the way we amass our lives. Going through their retrospective volumes—Everson's The Veritable Years  … and Kinnell's The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World  …—one is not only closer to what poetry is and where its possible participants fit in the pattern, but one also becomes more aware of the individual...
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[Some] 10 years ago, I witnessed a poetry reading so charged with high emotion and bardic intensity it left me both excited and exhausted…. [Galway Kinnell], scarcely looking down at the page, had chanted his way through the whole of "The Book of Nightmares," his book-length Rilkean sequence that remains one of the most ambitious works in contemporary poetry. This book, which exemplified Mr. Kinnell's belief that it is "the dream of every poem to be a myth," used material from his own life, such as the birth of his children, in ways that transcended autobiography and seemed to confront directly the rhythms of existence from birth to death. Especially as read aloud in one fell swoop, the poem gave powerful expression to the hopes and fears of a parent, husband and lover adrift in his own sense of mortality.
Later I came to feel that this remarkable book was less successful on the page than it had been in that momentous performance. But even in its special oral impact it could be seen as a culmination of the poetic revolution of the 1960's: the shift from formal poetry, with rhyme and regular meter, to a freer, more prosaic verse that follows the contours of the speaking voice; the turn from wit and irony to a more naked emotional urgency; the pursuit of sublimity through heightened language, memory and meditation; and a projection into nature. Even the book's profound anguish and sense of fatality placed it in the high Romantic vein...
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Trying to define for myself the particular excellence of Galway Kinnell's poetry, I thought of something Robert Lowell once wrote about Allen Tate, in many ways Kinnell's opposite. Tate's poetry was, Lowell said, "burly" and written in a style that "would take a man's full weight and that would bear his complete intelligence, passion, and subtlety." Kinnell's poetry has that impressive, "burly" masculinity. He has done that most difficult thing for a writer—he has achieved a style that does not restrict his range but rather a lows him to write on all sorts of subjects and to speak in many moods and tones of voice.
Kinnell's Selected Poems is the year's most important book of poetry, rivaled only by Charles Wright's Country Music (Selected Early Poems). There are very few living poets (James Merrill comes to mind) capable of lines whose music can compare to the great poetry of the past, lines such as "seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth" or "already in heaven, listen, the golden cobblestones have fallen still" or (of his daughter's birth):
she skids out on her face into light,
of stunned flesh
clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing
with the astral violet
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