The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Galway Kinnell’s poem “The Bear” consists of seven numbered sections of varying lengths that explore the disquieting relationship between the rational and instinctual selves. In the opening section, the speaker adopts the persona of a hunter seeking to “know” and thus pursue his prey, a bear that figuratively represents the primal self. As it progresses, the poem constructs and develops an elaborate metaphor in which the poet compares the spontaneous and untamed corners of the self to its more rational regions, those which infuse raw experience with order and meaning. The poem’s central image, a bear foraging the primeval wilderness for food, represents the unbridled, animalistic self in action. In deliberate contrast, the speaker embodies the rational self, which through the transformative experience of composing a poem seeks to integrate all aspects of consciousness, both reflective and intuitive, into a unified whole.

Despite its markedly introspective subject matter, “The Bear” follows a traditional narrative structure, borrowing as much from the short story as it does from the traditional lyric poem. The opening three sections establish a conflict and its two adversaries—a starving but driven speaker and the elusive wild bear that is for him the source of both physical and emotional sustenance. In section 1 the speaker detects the bear’s proximity, recognizing in “some fault in the old snow” its “chilly, enduring odor.” By...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Bear” is structured cyclically, reflecting a common motif in Kinnell’s poetry. Poets who work in free verse often face the challenge of sustaining rhythmical unity in a form that is by its nature more organic and abstract than traditional poetic structures. In “The Bear,” however, Kinnell achieves and maintains an exceptional coherence by employing a host of familiar cyclical images, including the seven-day cycle of the biblical Creation story. The poem contains seven sections, in which the speaker’s quest for the bear lasts seven days. This echoes the Judeo-Christian account of Creation, in which it takes God seven days to create the world and impose order on primeval chaos. Adopting such a familiar idea suggests that the speaker’s quest for inner resolution is not merely a personal one but also one that has more universal, mythic dimensions.

The diction of “The Bear” also stands out as one of its most distinctive technical features. In innovative and insightful fashion, Kinnell uses an ample amount of visceral, even scatological language in a poem that is conversely metaphysical in temper. This unexpected juxtaposition uniquely underscores the conflicts between mind and spirit, between primal and rational selves, around which the poem centers. “The Bear” is permeated with memorable physical imagery, particularly in its opening sections. Images of body excretions, organs, and functions—both animal and human—pervade the...

(The entire section is 489 words.)