Themes

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Last Updated on February 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

Human Nature

The speaker seems to thrive on the visceral experience of tracking the bear. Whether the tracking is read as allegorical or literal, it clearly satisfies some aspect of the speaker's identity that feels raw, savage, and untamed. He tracks the bear's blood and feces, ingesting both at times, feeding the animal life force within himself. Contrary to the belief that humans are elevated above other animals, this poem seems to claim that there is something intensely animalistic about humans that needs to be acknowledged and respected.

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Humans Rationality

As the speaker tracks the bear, he seems to increasingly identify with its animal identity, forsaking the trappings of human civilization in favor of eating bear scat and drinking fresh blood. However, despite the speaker's efforts to connect wholly with his animal nature, the way the speaker chooses to wound the bear, making it easier to track, is the result of some higher-order thinking on his part. A bear could not sharpen a wolf's rib at both ends, coil it up, and freeze it in fat to leave out as bait. However, a human being can. Though the speaker engages in intensely animal behavior, his rational thought processes and physical limitations prevent his complete identification with the bear. Thus, he must spend his life "wandering: wondering" what it would truly mean to live as an animal.

The Nature of Poetry

The poem is like a living thing that exists outside one's own life and world, a window into the life of someone or something else. It is made of viscera, as crucial to life as blood. Reading or writing poetry is like following some vital idea, tracking something that one desires to understand via the poem. One must try to live inside it, making an attempt to identify with its subject, just as the speaker crawls inside the bear's carcass and tries to imagine its life on the tundra. Only then can one develop the understanding necessary either to read or write poetic texts. The speaker's bear hunt, then, can be read as an allegory for the production and consumption of poetry: to find meaning, one must track and inhabit the poem, but even after gaining access and metaphorically climbing inside of the bear carcass, there is always a veil of separation—a disparity between being a bear and dreaming about being one—between the speaker and the poetic meaning that he seeks.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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, hoping that through this ritualistic act he may draw some of the animal’s life force, its animus, into himself. When he actually locates the animal, nothing is left of it but a decaying carcass framed only by “narrow-spaced, petty eyes.” Still, the speaker is undeterred—he gains further internal resolution by cutting the bear open and crawling inside to sleep “And dream/ of lumbering flatfooted/ over the tundra,” just as the living animal itself would. Through this act he absorbs into his own being the bear’s raw, primeval energy.

In its broader context, “The Bear” also comments on the nature of poetry, which is in itself merely a formal manifestation of the transformative capacity and will of the human imagination. In its final couplet, the poem refers to the speaker’s encounter with the bear as “that/ poetry, by which I lived,” suggesting that it is a poem very much about the process of making and experiencing poems. A poem such as “The Bear” offers both writer and reader an invitation to connect more vitally with their primal, intuitive selvesa process that indeed is the “poetry” by which humans all live.

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Characters