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."
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.
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."
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…."