Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Kinnell’s “The Sadness of Brothers” is part of a series of long confessional poems about both mortality and different members of his original family. He writes about his mother’s death and its effect on him in “The Last Hiding Place of Snow,” also published in the volume Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Even though he writes of death in “The Sadness of Brothers,” he does not seem particularly morbid. Instead, he seeks to overcome death, at least for a moment, by using the power of language to re-create a reunion with the dead brought to life in a poem. By writing such poems, Kinnell seems to believe that he can existentially protest seeing the dead as wholly separate from the living, since those who are gone can be brought back and immortalized in a work of art. The dead can regain life in the memory of the living.

Kinnell is by no means a unidimensional or wholly dark poet; he also writes well about human joys and about life in a family. Even in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, he pens lighter poems; one is about his own son, Fergus, and is entitled “Fergus Falling.” Kinnell also talks about his relationship with his first wife in “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” and “Flying Home.” Earlier in his career, he wrote political poems protesting the savagery of the Vietnam War, and his most famous early poem, “The Bear,” apparently was conceived in a southern sharecropper’s house while Kinnell was working for a civil rights group. Kinnell is deeply humanistic and a poet of many parts and moods.