Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 5)

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Last Updated on June 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2867

Kinnell, Galway 1927–

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Kinnell, an American poet, novelist, and translator, delighted critics with a long Whitmanesque poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," in his first book and his reputation as a superior lyric poet, "the only one who has taken up the passionate symbolic search of the Great American tradition," has continued to grow. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The poetry of Galway Kinnell … is an Ordeal by Fire. It is fire which he invokes to set forth his plight, to enact his ordeal, and to restore himself to reality. It is fire—in its constant transformations, its endless resurrection—which is reality, for Kinnell as for Heraclitus: "The world is an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling and measures of it going out."… The agony of that knowledge—the knowledge or at least the conviction that all must be consumed in order to be reborn, must be reduced to ash in order to be redeemed—gives Galway Kinnell's poetry its astonishing resonance, the accents of a conflict beyond wisdom as it is beyond piety: "I don't know what you died of," one of the characters in his novel says, "whatever it was, that is what will bring you alive again." (pp. 259-60)

The fire opens Kinnell's first book, where it is seen benevolently enough as the vital energy of earthly things:

            Cold wind stirs, and the last green
            Climbs to all the tips of the season, like
            The last flame brightening on a wick.
            Embers drop and break in sparks

The sense of the self-consuming candle as the characteristic avatar of flame is one that will remain with Kinnell to the end—as in Black Light, where he speaks, about to blow out the candle, of "the point of the flame, that shifting instant where the flame was turning into pure spirit." (p. 261)

The ecstasy of knowing oneself a part of the world's physis, of knowing that within oneself there is the same pulse on which "the world burns," the radiant interchange between mind and love, between body and earth, between water and fire, is [in "Alewives Pool"] registered in Kinnell's happiest key, when Being is so wrought up in its oneness of possibilities—"the air flames forth"—that a man's "days to come flood on his heart as if they were his past." (p. 263)

By his ransacked, purified, literally inflamed imagination, Kinnell is able to ransom his world, having reached in his most sustained effort ["The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World"] that place where everything which is is blessed.

It is no easy thing to write a sequel to the apocalypse, and one feels, often, about Kinnell's second book, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, something of the strain, the broken impulse that commands the versification as well as the patchy moments of pyrophany…. By the time he gets to the title poem at the end of this short book, Kinnell has earned for himself what he says of Villon in the introduction to his "factual, harsh, and active" version: "He writes in a passion for reality and a deep anguish at its going … it is a cry not only over the brevity of existence and the coming of dark, but also over this dying life, this life so horrified by death and so deeply in need of it." In the final section of "Flower Herding," a ten-part journal of natural devotions, Galway Kinnell makes his penultimate accommodation of the life that is being consumed in the fire—it is an accommodation so transfigured that it can be expressed, finally, in a few simple declarative sentences, the ecstatic constatation of the death that is in being, the being that is in death. (pp. 266-68)

Humbled, reduced, but reduced in the sense of intensified , concentrated rather than diminished, life, having passed through...

(The entire section contains 2867 words.)

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Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 3)