Galway Kinnell’s earliest poems demonstrate his ability to express himself in traditional poetic forms governed by rhyme and meter. “A Walk in the Country,” “The Feast,” and “First Song” (from What a Kingdom It Was), among others, have each been critically acclaimed for their tenderness and delicacy. Citing constrictions on creative expression, however, Kinnell came to reject rhyme and meter—a position in agreement with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, all of whose influences can be traced in Kinnell’s poetry—and espoused free verse as the exclusive suitable medium for modern American poetry. Even in his “pre-enlightened” days, however, when the influence of William Butler Yeats was most evident, there was evidence of his preoccupation with secular sanctification of the material world and with humankind’s hope for regeneration after death, though he rejected the possibility of bodily resurrection; these themes would continue to mark his later work, though the form of that work would change considerably.
The last stanza of “First Song” carries suggestions of Kinnell’s more dramatic, mature voice found in his monumental achievement “The Bear” (Body Rags):
It was now fine music the frogs and the boysDid in the towering Illinois twilight makeAnd into dark in spite of a shoulder’s acheA boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalkThe first song of his happiness, and the song wokeHis heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.
Boy and frogs playing together become, in their primitive (or perhaps primeval) communication, as one. The boy’s “frogness” can be seen in his “hunched body,” emphasized by the mention of “a shoulder’s ache” and the “towering Illinois twilight.” Clearly not as visceral or brutal in vocabulary and imagery as the later narrative, this poem nevertheless suggests that it is the animal nature of human beings that accesses the unconscious (here referred to as “the darkness”) and brings wholeness to experience (“the sadness of joy”).
Here, too, is an inkling that the boy’s song flows from a place of suffering, just as the song that “blows across” the “sore, lolled tongue” of the dreaming poet of the “The Bear” flows from his wounded lurching across the tundra. “The Bear,” oozing gustatory imagery, takes a darker, lonelier route than “First Song,” but the two poems arrive at a similar life- and art-affirming destination.
Many of Kinnell’s most celebrated poems keenly observe the animal kingdom. Besides the odoriferous he-bear splashing a trail of blood, there is a hen killed by weasels (“The Hen Flower” from The Book of Nightmares); a porcupine gutted while falling, wounded, from a tree branch (“The Porcupine” from Body Rags); a sow with fourteen suckling piglets (“Saint Francis and the Sow” from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words); and a mutating bird (“The Gray Heron” from The Book of Nightmares). The graphic descriptions of all these creatures are intended as heuristic paradigms to expand the reader’s understanding of what it means to be an individuated human being.
Documenting humanity’s moments of wholeness is essential to Kinnell’s mode. His universe, absent a Father God on whom to heap blame or credit for what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, is lit instead by death’s ever-burning candle. While Kinnell displays a rudimentary knowledge of Christian myth and ritual—using concepts such as “grace” and “agape” in some poems and making reference to Christ to provide a framework for a series of images, as he does in “To Christ Our Lord” (from What a Kingdom It Was)—the hope and comfort he offers are based not in Christian orthodoxy but in a spirituality born of New Age pantheism. Christianity serves merely as fodder for irony.
Kinnell’s evident belief in a vast, mystical union of all things existing, tangible and intangible, stretches from the “dark afternoons” that precede “a bright evening” in his early poem “Westport” (from What a Kingdom It Was) to the fire blossoming out of wood that is “not things dying but just the dying,” in “Flower of Five Blossoms” (from When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone). It is from an acceptance of life as a brief journey that ends in nothingness—the loss of human identity and consciousness beyond the last breath, then a return into the creative essence of which all things earthly are derived—that Kinnell seems to draw the courage to live and die.
In “These Are Things I Tell to No One” (from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words), Kinnell describes his “God” (his own quotation marks) as a “music of grace” that plays “from the other side of happiness.” This music triggers worship of a “backward spreading brightness.” In an essay from The Poetics of the Physical World (1969), he attributes the human ability to “invent the realm of eternity” to “something radiant in our lives.” However, he celebrates “another kind of glory,” one that is connected to people’s inability to enter the paradise they have invented.That we last only for a time, that everyone around us lasts only for a time, that we know this, radiates a thrilling, tragic light on all our loves, all our relationships, even on those moments when the world, through its poetry, becomes almost capable of spurning time and death.
Besides reducing twentieth century divinity to human...
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