Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
In 1983 Galway Kinnell won both the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and the American Book Award for his Selected Poems. This volume of poems, which represents Kinnell’s work from 1946 to 1980, may be characterized best as an exploration of what is primitive, wild, and transient in human experience. Since his first volume appeared in 1960, Kinnell has attempted to assert the beauty in the act of living and the appropriateness in the act of dying.
Kinnell attended public schools in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, until his senior year in high school, when he received a scholarship to Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts. The following year, 1944, he enrolled at Princeton, from which he would receive a B.A. before earning his M.A. from the University of Rochester. At Princeton he met W. S. Merwin, a fellow student and aspiring poet. Their meeting was fortuitous, as was Kinnell’s contact with Charles G. Bell, a professor at Princeton who introduced Kinnell to the “open form” theories of Charles Olson at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Although Kinnell made use of traditional rhyme and meter in his earlier work, such formal considerations have never been the focus of his vision. Even in “The Feast,” one of his first published pieces (collected in First Poems: 1946-1954), Kinnell’s use of form seems at best perfunctory, while his attempts to understand how, having feasted on love, we must forever be “dying in each other’s arms” are all-consuming.
In his consistent endeavors to find some transcendence in death, at times Kinnell has used traditional religious imagery. In his use of such imagery, however, there remains an attachment to the mystery of the physical world. For example, “To Christ Our Lord,” published in 1960, demonstrates Kinnell’s ardent desire to reattach the physical world to the spiritual world. Driven by a distinct narrative, as are many of Kinnell’s poems, “To Christ Our Lord” depicts a young boy’s struggle to fathom how his act of killing a bird for Christmas dinner might be reconciled with the beauty of the wild creature’s life. As is often the case in Kinnell’s poetry, no clear answer comes to the youth; rather, in a moment of mysterious grace, a swan rises up in the night to spread her wings like a cross, offering a “pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.”
Such devotion to the physical world is exhibited in Kinnell’s life by his continued efforts to reform and transform the human condition. From 1951 to 1955, Kinnell worked in the University of Chicago’s downtown educational program, and in 1963 he was a volunteer for voter registration in Louisiana and played an active role in the Civil Rights movement. Since then he has organized and participated in readings in protest of the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. Kinnell is also a fine teacher. He has been a Fulbright Professor in Iran and France, and he has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.
During his career Kinnell has established a well-deserved reputation as a reader of his poems. As a teacher, he hopes to connect his words to the animal world in order that his audience might...
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