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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Kinnell’s poems are known widely for their attempt to explore conflicts between the human and natural world, a world humans paradoxically feel both part of and separate from. Poems such as “The Bear” acknowledge a significant paradox imbedded in human nature—that humans are simultaneously subject to the contradictory demands of rational and irrational drives. Kinnell chooses a bear, a recognizable and forceful image, to represent the preconscious, instinctual side of the self that the rational mind is charged with keeping in check. How it is able to do this is the focus of the poem.

For centuries, poets have embraced what they see as an inherent physical and perhaps spiritual kinship between humans and animals. In contrast, the Western philosophical tradition has sought to eradicate categorically this intuitive connection, championing “consciousness” as a capacity that separates humans entirely from their animal kin. That humans are able to think, which is evinced by the ability to exchange ideas with other human beings through language, has traditionally suggested that human intuitive affinity with animals is ill-conceived and misguided.

However, poets such as Kinnell have never been satisfied with such a wholesale dismissal of the human being’s relationship to the natural world. After all, even if one’s mind is immaterial, it must be housed in a physical body, a “scraggled,/ steamy hulk” from which it cannot free itself without annihilating itself. In the logic of “The Bear,” it therefore follows that if one seeks to be more human one must embrace the intuitive, irrational dynamics of the self rather than reject them. Kinnell’s poem looks to the behavior of that most primeval of animals, the wild bear, as a source of understanding of one’s own preconscious dimension—what Carl Jung called the animus.

In “The Bear,” the speaker figuratively identifies with his own “bear-ness” in the most extreme and meaningful way possible. In a singular act of imaginative transformation, he projects himself into the bear’s world by attempting to fully internalize the animal. When merely tracking the beast fails to satisfy him he eats the bear’s blood-soaked feces,...

(The entire section is 546 words.)