Born the fourth of four children to immigrant parents (his mother was from Ireland, his father from Scotland), Galway Kinnell spent most of his youth in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where his father, James Scott Kinnell, earned his living as a carpenter and woodworking teacher. Kinnell left home his senior year of high school to attend Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts on scholarship. From there he entered Princeton University, where for two of his undergraduate years, he was a member of the U.S. Navy, training as an officer, and where he also met W. S. Merwin and Charles Bell. Bell became Kinnell’s mentor. In 1949, following his graduation from Princeton summa cum laude, Kinnell received his M.A. from the University of Rochester. Between 1951 and 1964, Kinnell spent two years at the University of Grenoble in France as an instructor of American literature, two years in Iran as a lecturer and journalist, periods of teaching in Chicago and New York City, and periods of retreat to an abandoned farm he purchased in 1961 in northern Vermont. Kinnell’s commitment to social justice during the period was evidenced both in his poetry and his membership in the Congress of Racial Equality. Later he would be an active participant in Poets Against the Vietnam War.
Marriage to Ines Delgado de Torres in 1965, and the subsequent arrival of a daughter, Maud, in 1966, and a son, Finn Fergus, in 1968, temporarily stinted Kinnell’s wanderlust; in 1969, following two years...
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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...
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