Galway Kinnell Kinnell, Galway - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Galway Kinnell 1927–

American poet, novelist, translator and essayist

A writer of lyric free verse, Galway Kinnell is among the post-war generation of American poets including Robert Bly, James Wright, James Dickey and W.S. Merwin. Like them, he incorporated more experimental language in his poetic verse. While Yeats was most notably an early influence, Whitman, Frost, and Rilke also inspired him; Whitman's Song of Myself, seen in The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World and Rilke's Duino Elegies in the ten-part The Book of Nightmares are two such examples. Preoccupied with death and man's relationships with nature, Kinnell writes toward resolving questions of immortality by creating a "panentheistic" theology in his verse. Kinnell won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Selected Poems in 1982. As Charles Bell said of his former student, "Of all the poets born in the twenties and thirties, Galway Kinnell is the only one who has taken up the passionate symbolic search of the great American tradition."

Biographical Information

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1927, Kinnell grew up near Pawtucket, and his Christian upbringing figures into much of his early work. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-46, and in 1948 he graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, where Charles Bell served as an important mentor, as did W.S. Merwin. "He wrote poems; I wrote verse," he said of Merwin. Kinnell earned an M.A. from the University of Rochester in 1949, supervising the University of Chicago's downtown liberal arts program from 1951-54 and thereafter serving as Fulbright Professor at the Universities of Grenoble, Iran, Nice, and Sydney, Australia. Before settling into academic life, he worked registering black voters in the South in 1962. His first publication, What a Kingdom It Was, appeared in 1960. He went on to hold numerous poet-in-residency positions, awards and grants, among them the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1962; two Guggenheim Fellowships, 1962, 1974; a Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1968; a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, 1969-70; a MacArthur Fellowship; in addition to his Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for Selected Poems, in 1983. Kinnell married Ines Delgado de Torres and has two children, Maud Natasha and Fergus. He lives in Vermont and is among the eminent leaders of the Creative Writing Program at New York University.

Major Works

Included in his first published work, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), is one of Kinnell's best known poems, the long, Whitmanesque "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World." Reflecting the plight of fellow urban residents, primarily Jewish, of Avenue C in New York City, the panacea for them as well as for all humanity becomes a need for reconciliation and a recognition of the universality of suffering. Transcendence accomplished through the intercession of everyday objects emerges as another solution, a theme that characterizes Kinnell's work. Likewise, religious symbolism common to his poetry and a unique vision surface in this volume. While Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964) did not represent new developments in Kinnell's writing; however, Body Rags (1968) extends his concern for loss and privation to an even darker realm, that of death. In two of Kinnell's most often anthologized poems, "The Porcupine" and "The Bear," the speaker identifies with two suffering, dying animals. If violence, death and nothingness are the essence of life and art, then as Kinnell writes in "The Bear," the only answer is intensity of experience.

The book-length poem The Book of Nightmares (1971) mollifies the poet's dark vision of death and rebirth by fire. Beginning with the birth of his daughter and ending with the birth of his son, Kinnell ties the ten sections of the book to the cycles of a human existence forced to reforge connections that have been broken by a society without community. As a carefully crafted sequence, it contains the poet's anxiety for the fragile lives brought into a world of "nightmares" and death, and captures his compassion for them. As a result, joy and sorrow, and life and death, become intertwined.

After nine years, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) was published, representing a shift in Kinnell's concerns. The angels and abysses of The Book of Nightmares give way to images from his private life, and with a lighter tone and looser style, he conversely is able to achieve greater emotional impact and thematic resonance in this collection. Throughout Kinnell hits the high and low notes of "the music of grace," a central motif, which sings out his belief in immersion in experiences of mortality. It is music to "touch and feel, things and creatures," "to heal," rather than the poetry of dreams and memories that vanish.

Selected Poems (1982) gathers work from Kinnell's five major collections to 1980, including poems from as early as 1946. It acts as both an introduction to as well as a "full dossier" of his writing. Winning the Pulitzer Prize prompted critics to reappraise his career, most noting three phases in his growth: the first two volumes forecasting the "major phase" of Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares; with Mortal Acts, Mortal Words beginning the last, "less ferocious" stage. The Past (1985) and Imperfect Thirst (1990) fall into the last stage. Appearing in The Past, "The Fundamental Project of Technology," treats the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, again touching on a theme vital to Kinnell: modern man's attempts to dominate nature and "purge" human nature of its "animal characteristics," in particular of death. The Past also takes up again the metaphor of music as an analogy for poetry itself, with animals serving as the true angels that mediate God for man. "The Seekonk Woods" is Kinnell's exploration of his own past. Imperfect Thirst, like previous collections, is concerned with the domestic, his life in smalltown Sheffield, Vermont, and simply "saying in its own music what matters most."

Critical Reception

That Kinnell has made a lasting mark on American poetry there is no doubt. With What a Kingdom It Was came a change in American poetry. Ralph Mills wrote: "[I]t departed from the witty, pseudomythic verse, … of the 1950s to arrive at the more authentic, liberated work of the 1960s." "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" and The Book of Nightmares are generally considered his strongest works, with those following Selected Poems being termed "weaker," "uneven," or, as a Village Voice review described The Past, even guilty of too much "bad philosophizing" or "simple cutesiness." However, some critics defend his work since The Book of Nightmares, like Jay Parini who "finds a luxurious wholeness, a sense of grace" in the poetry that has turned less formal, increasingly personal. Thus the Kinnell of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words expresses an even "purer wish to live" and, as Peter Stitt notes, "an expressed love for the created world." Robert Hass, in response to Selected Poems, concludes, "Kinnell is widely read by the young who read poetry. If this were a different culture he would simply be widely read…. The common reader—the one who reads at night or on the beach for pleasure and instruction and diversion—who wants to sample the poetry being written in [his] part of the 20th century could do very well beginning with Galway Kinnell's Selected Poems." Susan B. Weston sees his poetry as "utterly healthy,….precisely because it confronts horrors—drunks dying of cirrhosis; war and destruction; the communal nightmare of a failing culture; the individual nightmare of the failure of love—along with all that is lovely and loving…. Kinnell's gift is a cursed awareness of time—not just of individual mortality but of geological time," the "facets of the single gem, the human condition…."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


What a Kingdom It Was 1960

Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock 1964

Poems of Light 1968

Body Rags 1968

Far Behind Me on the Trail 1969

The Hen Flower 1970

First Poems 1946-1954 1970

The Book of Nightmares 1971

The Shoes of Wandering 1971

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 1974

Three Poems 1976

Brother of My Heart 1977

Fergus Falling 1979

There Are Things I Tell to No One 1979

Two Poems 1979

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words 1980

The Last Hiding Places of Snow 1980

Angling, A Day, and Other Poems 1980

Selected Poems 1982

Woodsmen 1982

The Fundamental Project of Technology 1983

The Seekonk Woods 1985

The Past 1985

When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone 1990

Three Books: Body Rags: Mortal Acts, Mortal Words: The Past 1993

Imperfect Thirst 1994

Other Major Works

Black Light (novel) 1966

Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews 1978

The Poems of Francois Villon [translator] 1977; reprinted, 1982

The Essential Whitman [editor] 1987

On the Motion and Immobility of Douve: Poems by Yves Bonnefoy [translator] 1968; reprinted, 1992

Louise Bogan (review date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of What a Kingdom It Was, in the New Yorker, Vol. 37, No. 7, April 1, 1961, pp. 29-31.

[In the following excerpt, Kinnell 's first book of verse is commended for its direct, colloquial language unfettered by contemporary influences.]

Galway Kinnell's … first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was is remarkably unburdened by this or that current influence. Kinnell is direct and occasionally harsh, and he keeps his syntax straight and his tone colloquial. His chief concern, we soon discover, is the enigmatic significance, more than the open appearance, of Nature and man. "Freedom, New Hampshire," an elegy for his brother—a full...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Sherman Hawkins (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell: Moments of Transcendence," in The Princeton Library Chronicle, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1963, pp. 56-70.

[In the following essay, a brief biography of Kinnell followed by an appraisal of his early work is presented.]

Galway Kinnell was born in 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island, and raised in Pawtucket. He came to Princeton in the summer of 1944 and after only one semester joined the Navy. Six months later he returned to Princeton in the V-12 program and graduated at midyears in 1948. He then took an M.A. at the University of Rochester. His life since then has followed an alternating pattern common among American poets of his generation: teaching and...

(The entire section is 4096 words.)

Michael Benedikt (review date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Body Rags, in Poetry, Vol. CXIII, No. 3, pp. 188-91.

[In the following excerpt, Benedikt notes a radical shift in Kinnell's work that moves from a preoccupation with urban life toward that which was to become a hallmark of the poet's verse, a celebration of nature.]

… In his third book, Body Rags, Galway Kinnell has effected one of the most radical transformations of both matter and manner we have. His first two collections, with their perturbed pictures of the junk-ridden modern city, and their relatively straightforward presentations of the landscape, seemed to recommend withdrawal from the urban syndrome in favor of nature. Now,...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Galway Kinnell with The Ohio Review (interview date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Galway Kinnell, in The Ohio Review, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1972, pp. 25-38.

[In the following interview conducted after the publication of The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell discusses this long poem, as well as the influence of Yeats and Rilke on his work in general]

[OHIO REVIEW]: Public poetry readings enjoy an unusual popularity nowadays, and you seem to present your poetry very successfully at your own readings, judging from audience response. Also you seem to be giving a good many readings of late. I wonder, do you think that for your poetry, as you conceive it, the printed page is essential?

[KINNELL]: Yes, it...

(The entire section is 5784 words.)

Conrad Hilberry (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Structure of Galway Kinnel's The Book of Nightmares" in Field, No. 12, Spring, 1975, pp. 28-46.

[In the following essay, mythology as well as Kinnell's own comments on the poem's structure aid Hilberry in analyzing The Book of Nightmares.]

Writing about Galway Kinnell's long poem, I feel as I imagine I might feel if I were lecturing about Paradise Lost with John Milton in the back of the hall. Why doesn't everybody just turn around and ask him? In fact, Kinnell has said some helpful things about the structure of The Book of Nightmares (e.g. in the Ohio Review interview, Fall 1972)—and may say more. But I suppose, like...

(The entire section is 6521 words.)

Al Poulin, Jr., and Stan Samuel Rubin (interview date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Galway Kinnell, in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, January 1976, pp. 6-7.

[In the following interview, Kinnell discusses The Book of Nightmares as well as the earlier What A Kingdom It Was.]

[INTERVIEWER]: "First Song" is the first poem in your first book, What a Kingdom It Was. It elicits an obvious first question. What kinds of impulses originally necessitated your writing poetry and under what kinds of circumstances did you start writing?

[KINNELL]: I remember wanting to write poetry long long before I had even attempted to write a poem. I suppose from the age of twelve on I knew that was...

(The entire section is 3528 words.)

Charles Bell (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kinnell, Galway," in Contemporary Poets, 3rd Ed., New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980, pp. 835-37.

[In the following excerpt, Bell relates his intimate knowledge of his former student's career, up to and including The Book of Nightmares.]

In the winter of 1946-47, when I was teaching at Princeton University, a dark-shocked student, looking more like a prize fighter than a literary man, showed me a poem, maybe his first. I remember it as a Wordsworthian sonnet, not what the avant-garde of Princeton, Blackmur or Berryman, would have taken to—old diction, no modern flair. But the last couplet had a romantic fierceness that amazed me. The man who had done that...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)

Hank Lazer (review date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, in Ironwood, Vol. 16, Fall, 1980, pp. 92-100.

[In the following review, Lazer praises as having "lighter" and "looser" poems than the much-acclaimed, unified work that preceded it, The Book of Nightmares.]

In "The Age of Criticism," Randall Jarre 11 writes that "most people understand that a poet is a good poet because he does well some of the time." That certainly is the case with Galway Kinnell's writing and with Kinnell's latest book. I'm sure that some readers will find it inferior to The Book of Nightmares, possibly because Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is lighter, less unified, and looser. But...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

Charles Molesworth (revew date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Commonweal, Vol. 110, No. 5, p. 157.

[In the following excerpt, Molesworth hails Selected Poems, a thirty-five-year retrospective of Kinnell's career, as a "paradigm of one of the major shifts in postwar poetry."]

… In Galway Kinnell's Selected Poems thirty-five years of poetry definitely originates in a single, identifiable sensibility. From the largely ironic and structured First Poems, on through the ecstatic longing for transcendence in Body Rags (1968) and The Book of Nightmares (1971), Kinnell's career develops as a paradigm of one of the major shifts in postwar poetry. This shift...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Madeleine Beckman (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell Searches for Innocence," in Saturday Review, September/October 1983, pp. 14-16.

[In the following essay, Beckman gives an overview of Kinnell's career in light of his having received the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems.]

When Galway Kinnell showed his early poem "First Song" to the poet William Carlos Williams in the late 1950s, Williams told the younger poet that he had no business writing poems about "cornstalk violins" because he had never played one, nor should he write about fields in Illinois, where he had never lived. Williams suggested that Kinnell, who was living on New York's Lower East Side, take a pad and pencil and jot down notes...

(The entire section is 2405 words.)

Andrew Hudgins (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'One and Zero Walk Off Together': Dualism in Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares," in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1985, pp. 56-71.

[In the following essay, HUdgins notes that a dualistic stance toward death—both the rational perception of our own extinction as well as our mystical union with the universe after death—is traced through The Book of Nightmares.]

In The Book of Nightmares Galway Kinnell explores from a contemporary perspective one of the great themes of romantic poetry: What is the proper human response to death? For Kinnell the answer to that question is complicated by his being possessed of a deep spiritual longing...

(The entire section is 5064 words.)

Harold Beaver (review date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Refuge in the Library, on the Farm and in Memories," in The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1986, pp. 14-15.

[In the following excerpt, Beaver praises The Past for its moments of "absorbed attention, " Kinnell 's ability to affix the present into the past and vice versa]

[In his work], Galway Kinnell enriches each anecdote. Always there is a narrative frame and skeletal story—a place, a time, a character:

When the little sow piglet squirmed free,
Gus and I ran her all the way down to the swamp
and lunged and floundered and fell full-length
on our bellies stretching for...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Past, in "On Poetry: Songs of Science," The New Leader, Vol. LXVIII, No. 16, pp. 19-20.

[In the following excerpt reviewing The Past, Pettingell highlights Kinnell's "biological perception of the world".]

History was the controlling trope for 19th-century writers: Novelists, essayists, poets, and playwrights all affirmed their hopes for mankind's progress, or their fears about the decline and fall of civilization, by pointing to the record. The discoveries of Darwin and Einstein seem, at first glance, to have shifted our metaphor to science. Even Biblical fundamentalists who reject evolutionary theory will often subscribe to...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Granville Taylor (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Irony to Lyricism: Galway Kinnell's True Voice," in Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell, New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996, pp. 218-25.

[In the following essay, Taylor traces Kinnell's "poetic evolution, " from a Christian theology to a sacramentalism that elevates "numinous moments,".]

To read the poetry of Galway Kinnell is to witness a poetic evolution. The Kinnell canon includes nine volumes of poetry and offers a paradigm for the present-day romantic struggling to free himself from his Christian inheritance yet to affirm that the world contains order, meaning, and the sacred. Kinnell's poetry begins with an attempt to reconcile Christian theology,...

(The entire section is 3284 words.)

Richard J. Calhoun (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetic Milieu of Galway Kinnell: From Modernism to Postmodernism and Neoromanticism," in Galway Kinnell, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 8-16.

[In the following essay, Calhoun places Kinnell is placed among his predecessors and contemporaries as well as his poetic influences.]

Born in 1927, Galway Kinnell was one of a generation of American poets who were trying to establish themselves as published poets at a time when the modernist practice in poetry and the formalist New Criticism theory, in vogue during their college years, had come under attack. It is important to see his poetry in the context of the transition that was taking place when he...

(The entire section is 3443 words.)

Richard J. Calhoun (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Past and Other Works," in Galway Kinnell, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 111-16.

[Calhoun's explication of the poems in When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone follows in this excerpt.]

In Galway Kinnell's tenth major book of poetry, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, which appeared in late 1990 from a new publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, he confronts his own solitariness from other people, including family, and ultimately that terminal loneliness, his own mortality. A key line in the volume might well be "everything sings and dies," but it could also be "everything dies and sings," the decisive perception from "Flower of Five...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)

Thomas M. Disch (review date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry Roundup: Imperfect Thirst" in The Castle of Indolence, New York: Picado, 1995, pp. 208-21.

[In the following excerpt, Disch calls Imperfect Thirst Kinnell's "comfy" poetry.]

Readers with only a casual, or dutiful, interest in poetry seek out poets they can be comfortable with. Shades of the schoolhouse begin to close round such readers when poems require too much deciphering. So, according to their temperaments, they will gravitate to poets of amiability or moral earnestness, whose work they will reward with a knowing chuckle or an approving nod.

Among contemporary poets few can rival Galway Kinnell for sheer amiability....

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Karen Maceira (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Galway Kinnell: A Voice to Lead Us," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Kinnell's career is surveyed in light of the publication of Imperfect Thirst.]

In this last decade of an apocalyptic century, many of us begin to search for the voices who can lead us away from despair for humanity and toward hope for the next era. The publication of Galway Kinnell's latest book, Imperfect Thirst, provides an opportunity to review the career of a poet who may turn out to be one of those voices. Few writers have embraced the contemporary existential view of life with as much grace and affirmation as Kinnell. In...

(The entire section is 4971 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 144 pp.

A ten-page "Selected Bibliography" is included.

Hawkins, Sherman. "A Checklist of the Writings of Galway Kinnell." The Princeton University Library Chronicle 25, No.1 (1963): 65-70.

An extensive list of pieces by and about the poet up to the publication of Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock.


Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 144 pp.


(The entire section is 719 words.)