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Last Reviewed on February 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

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There are two main interpretations of "The Bear," one being that the speaker's tracking of the bear is a metaphor for getting in touch with and embracing the speaker's animal nature. The other interpretation is that the bear and the speaker's tracking of it is an allegory for the relationship between the speaker and poetry.

If tracking the bear is read metaphorically, then the bear represents a side of the speaker that he wants to explore by actually engaging and interacting with an animal as another animal might. His pursuit of the bear is his effort to connect with his own animal spirit. The tension between human rationality and animal instinct plagues the speaker, and it is only by combining his human ingenuity—as when he tricks the bear with the sharpened bones—with his animalistic fervor—as when he tracks the bear by eating its blood scat—that he is able to fell the beast and reconcile the two sides of himself.

However, the poem can also be read as an allegory for the relationship between the speaker and poetry. The final lines, which would seem to link poetry to the bear's blood, suggest that a poet must engage with his topic in such a seemingly visceral way in order to write well. Perhaps the bear is a metaphor for the poem's subject itself: in order to be understood, it must be figuratively tasted, opened up, and minutely explored. However, the understanding is always imperfect; no matter how hard the speaker tries, he can never truly become the bear. Instead, he must content himself with dreaming about its life and briefly inhabiting its form.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

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 end of the second section, the speaker is in determined pursuit, “dragging [himself] forward with bear-knives in [his] fists.” Despite the extreme challenges he faces in stalking such daunting prey, he remains driven to “rise/ and go on running.”

In section 4, the speaker finally encounters his prey. To this point the poem has characterized the animal as strong and vital, a source of energy from which the speaker has gained increasing personal strength and resoluteness as his pursuit has narrowed. Ironically, by the time he actually sees the bear, nothing of its former stature and promise remains except an “upturned carcass”; his voracious pursuit has drained the animal completely of its life force. The speaker describes his once-awesome nemesis as “a scraggled,/ steamy hulk,/ the heavy fur riffling in the wind.”

After this narrative climax, the poem takes a distinctively metaphysical turn, abandoning its intense physical immediacy and becoming more abstract and introspective. At the end of section 4, the speaker attempts to fully internalize his prey, “hack[ing]/ a ravine in [the bear’s] thigh,” into which he climbs for shelter “against the wind.” The beast’s body is described as a kind of impenetrable sanctuary of comfort and resolution that allows the speaker to fully isolate himself from his own consciousness of himself. Curiously, however, the speaker does not take the ultimate step and fully metamorphose into the bear. Instead, a powerful wind that symbolizes self-awareness, the one characteristic no human being can fully shed, forcefully ejects him from the bear’s carcass and “blows off/ the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood” the speaker has willingly but haplessly allowed to permeate his being. The speaker emerges from the encounter able to “dance,” thus embracing the reconciliation between his formerly adversarial selves.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

“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 first three segments. The speaker is first made aware of the bear’s proximity by “lung-colored” steam rising from the earth. To entice the animal into revealing itself, he places “a wolf’s rib” frozen in “blubber” into its path. When he at last sees the bear’s footprints, punctuated by “splashes/ of blood,” he springs into a pursuit as ferocious and instinctual as any of which his adversary might be capable. This fittingly suggests that as the hunter nears his prey, it is he who becomes the animal—summoning within himself the capacity to blindly and instinctively stalk and kill, an absolute requisite for self-preservation. To transport the reader more convincingly into this experience, Kinnell chooses imagery and language that are in themselves both tacit and brutal.

The image that commands perhaps the keenest attention in “The Bear” occurs in section 3, just before the speaker finally sees the animal. Starved, but intensely aware that the climax of his quest is at hand, the speaker bends down “at a turd sopped in blood,” picks it up, and “thrust[s] it in [his] mouth,” only then rising to “go on running.” Many poets might shy away from such unabashed vulgarity, fearing that the sheer baseness of this image might alienate the reader. However, Kinnell employs it here precisely because it is both memorable and unsavory. It is thus even more effective, since the poem’s chief concern is the process of shedding everything human, everything decorous, in an attempt to reconnect with that part of the psyche that is preconscious, unfettered, animalistic.