Last Updated September 5, 2023.
It is good practice not to assume that the speaker of a poem is the poet, as this can lead the reader to draw conclusions which are not supported by the poem's actual content or cause the reader to miss interpretations which are valid but have nothing to do with the poem itself. In the case of this poem, it is possible to interpret the poem as Kinnell's own experience as a writer and reader of poetry. More obviously, though, the speaker seems to be a person who has an intense desire to connect with the wild side of human nature. He tracks a bear as though he is a predator, eating its feces, drinking its blood, and eventually even cutting it open so that he can crawl inside it and imagine its life more completely.
However, the speaker also relies, in part, on his higher-level human consciousness in order to fatally wound the bear, using the sophisticated tactic of creating a weapon and baiting the bear. The speaker wants to understand and respect his animal nature, but he cannot escape his human instincts either.
Like some animals do, he eats feces, perhaps so he can become closer to the bear. When he finds the bear, he drinks its blood and tears into its meat, making the speaker seem savage and brutal. However, he has to drag himself across the ground with "bear-knives" in his hands because he is human and lacks claws. He is pulled between his animal and human natures and acts, therefore, as both.
The speaker takes a rib from a wolf, sharpens it at both ends, and freezes it within blubber so that the bear will find and eat it, ensuring that it will bleed internally until it bleeds out and dies. From there, the bear leaves a trail of blood via which the speaker is able to track it. The bear represents the speaker's desire to understand animal nature and the bear itself, but the bear suffers greatly from the speaker's efforts.
On an allegorical level, the bear represents poetic meaning and understanding. The speaker wants to connect fully with poetry, but no matter how hard he tries, he can never achieve a perfect understanding in either writing or reading. While alive, the bear has agency of its own, and the speaker tracks and kills it in order to gain access to its feelings and experiences. Once it is dead, however, the speaker can only crawl inside of it and dream about what the bear must have experienced, having extinguished its life in pursuit of that connection. Just as putting an idea into words often imperfectly captures its meaning, the speaker's efforts to connect with bear have mangled the once proud and natural creature into nothing but a vessel for the speaker's own inferences.