Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 5)

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Kinnell, Galway 1927–

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 what Arnold called "the gradual furnace of the world," life for Galway Kinnell becomes a matter of sacred vestiges, remnants, husks—as he says in his third book of poems published in 1968, Body Rags. (p. 268)

In these poems of astonishing metamorphosis, Kinnell has been concerned to enact, by his "dance of solitude" as he calls the shaman's performance in "The Bear," to articulate the truth of Goethe's great dictum: One learns nothing, but one becomes something. Ever larger in these late poems bulks or—for bulk is not what we get, but rather a flickering ballet around the circumference of what is guessed at in the darkness—breaks in upon us the awareness that in order to achieve transformation the ritual imagination of burning must in our time be abjured for a natural process, with all its attendant waste and weariness: "our faces smudged with light from the fingertips of the ages." (p. 269)

Richard Howard, "Galway Kinnell," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 258-71.

In the decade and a half since his first book appeared, Galway Kinnell has emerged as one of the most powerful and moving poets of his generation. His is an elementary poetry—a poetry of dark woods and snow; of wind and fire and stars; of bone and blood. His subjects are perennial: love illumined and made more precious by the omnipresence of death…. Kinnell has posed the most anguished of all our questions: "Is it true/the earth is all there is, and the earth does not last?" If it does not, it can still be irradiated and somehow made sacred, if not by God then by the poet. (p. 24)

Patrick Keane, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 27 & August 3, 1974.

Galway Kinnell attained early fame with his very ambitious poem "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World", which is still arguably as good as anything he has written. It reminds one of Crane and early Lowell in its sonority, but more of "The Waste Land"—if, indeed, of anything in literature—in its ability to include a seething cauldron of urban sensations, of randomness and ugliness, yet hold its own poetic shape. What it lacks is an underlying vision or concern, beyond mere awe at the weight of humanity, the "instants of transcendence" and the "oceans of loathing and fear." At the rare points where it tries to conceal this lack through rhetoric, the poem becomes abruptly stagey. Both the strengths and the weaknesses here are prophetic for Kinnell's later work. He continues to have the most over-vaulting and Marlovian style of his contemporaries, but it is a double-edged advantage, since his share of the generational directness, and his personal fondness for metaphysical clichés, make any hamming more obvious, and less likely to be mitigated by surrounding beauties, than it would be in a poet like Crane. On the other hand, his later poems succeed in uncovering the real feeling behind the Avenue C poem and making it, itself, the subject. It is the sense of a violent, impersonal, unseemly energy behind life, stunning the ego and bringing both "transcendence"—because it makes a continuum of the personal self and the cosmos—and "loathing and fear," because it is inseparable from the threat of change and death, "the pre-trembling of a house that falls." In poem after poem, Kinnell resuffers one identical ordeal, accepting death in order to be able to accept life, and concomitantly—like his Thoreau in "The Last River"—accepting cruel appetites in order to accept his full animal being, and avoid a crueller sado-masochistic spirituality. At times the acceptance seems as negative as that, at least; but at other times it has its own special serenity, as at the end of "La Bagarede", where "the seventh / of the Sisters, she who hid herself / for shame / at having loved one who dies, is shining." Kinnell's form has not altered substantially since his second book, just as his central experience has not. It is a sequence of generally very short, always numbered free verse units; the isolations somewhat take the place of rhetoric in conferring a brooding intensity on details; and the poet is free to move quickly from himself to nature to vignettes of human life, while keeping our primary attention on the pattern that moves us into terror and out again into some form of resolution. Kinnell's poetry has a very narrow range of purely personal experiences. He can really handle only those that directly touch on his cosmic vision—passionate love, being with the dying and the newly born, political imprisonment in the South—but of these he writes extraordinarily well (offhand, at least, "Under the Maud Moon" seems as good a poem about the first year of life as I have read). But one looks in vain, in Kinnell's poetry, for the personal roots of his own vision and his repeated self-trial; though I am struck by the recurring theme of self-hatred, the special self-hatred of the large man presumed to be brutal by others, to be imprecise and blundering by himself—as it appears, for instance, in his feelings about his size at birth ("It was eight days before the doctor / Would scare my mother with me"). But I have dwelt too much on limitations, not enough on what makes the poetry convincing or overwhelming—the moments of stunned sensation in which human beings turn into force and object, and nature into embodied metaphysics, before our eyes…. (pp. 63-4)

Alan Williamson, "Language Against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (copyright © 1974 by Alan Williamson), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 55-67.

Galway Kinnell is a man who hungers for the spiritual, who has no special capacity for spiritual apprehensions, who has been culturally conditioned moreover to resist the very disciplines that might have opened him up to the spiritual apprehensions he hungers for. By writing poems which thrash in and out of the impasse thus created, Kinnell has made a great reputation—which suggests that there are many readers who are walled up in the same bind, and ask nothing better than to churn and agonize within it. (p. 9)

It is very hard to see what "Jesus" or "Christ" signifies for Kinnell. So far as I can make out, it means in his mouth roughly what it means in the mouth of a Unitarian. But it really would be nice to know. And until we do know, his making so free with it cannot but seem—and not just in the eyes of Christians—an unpardonable vulgarity. (p. 17)

No poet can be blamed for his inability to make the act of Christian faith. But what one can ask of any such poet is, first, that the impediments to faith be real, substantial, and such as to command respect; second, that having declared his incapacity for the sacramental and incarnational act of the imagination in the forms inherited from his own culture, he should be wary of pretending to make those acts in the terms presented by cultures that are not his at all; and, third, that he should not, having turned his back on the Christian dispensation, continue to trade surreptitiously in scraps torn arbitrarily from the body of doctrine he has renounced. On all three counts, whereas an honest atheist like Hardy is in the clear, Kinnell stands convicted. For in the first place, in both of the poems which most explicitly deny the validity of the Christian Incarnation (in "Easter" its invalidity is already taken for granted), the case is argued through the experience of a child; and in at least one of those cases, "First Communion," the objections are appropriately puerile, a misplaced matter-of-factness, materialistic and indeed mercenary. The claims of Christianity are nowhere in Kinnell brought to the bar of an adult intelligence. On the third count,… Kinnell continues to import a religiose fervor by tossing the name of Jesus around. But it's on the second count that the case against him is most flagrant and most far-reaching, since it's something that he shares with many other poets of his generation. (pp. 17-18)

[It's] obvious that poetry composed for or at "the podium" must be, as compared with poetry for the solitary reader, loose in weave and coarse in texture [Kinnell has said that most of his revisions were made, impromptu, while reading to audiences.] So it is in "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World." Certainly the poem is powerful, certainly it is inventive, yes it is keenly observed; but inevitably for the solitary reader it telegraphs its punches, as when, needing to allude to the Nazi extermination camps, it can do so only by printing in full a blank form announcing death over the signature of a Camp Commandant.

Kinnell may mistake this point, and his admirers certainly will. We are not asking for more beauty and less power, or for feelings that are tenuous and fugitive rather than those that are vehement; we are asking for feelings that shall be tracked with scrupulous and sinuous fidelity, rather than a general area of feeling expansively gestured at. (p. 20)

Donald Davie, "Slogging for the Absolute," in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 9-22.

Galway Kinnell [is] truly rural (and therefore good on cities)…. [He] began with a keen gratitude to William Carlos Williams, about whom he wrote a bad poem (its humor curdles to sarcasm), and likewise with a gratitude to Frost (ditto), and so to the most enduring of his gratitudes, to "the mystical all-lovingness of Walt Whitman."… Whenever Kinnell is doing the hushed bated-breath thing, all portentous self-attentive first-personry ("I wake in the night," or "I sit listening/To the surf"), the importance comes on as winsome self-importance, or "Song of My Self-Importance." The cosmic browbeats the comic. Yet … there were fine poems in which self-importance, the intelligent exclusion of humor, was dramatically right because the poems were about rapt young lovers and how they manage temporarily to exclude so much and are fearful of humor….

The best of Kinnell, which is very good, comes when he resists the expected humorlessness of rural-piety poetry (which often disguises its humorlessness behind wisps of whimsy), and when he is not claiming to be either a sensitive plant or a sarcastic cactus. There are such penetratingly humorous poems as the parable, half-town and half-country, "Indian Bread"; or the gruff aggrievedness of "Duck-Chasing"; or the teeming townscape, humane, fascinated and therefore fascinating, of "The Avenue Bearing the Initial…."; or the miniature country vignette, "Spring Oak"…, a tiny industrious earthquake, committing itself to the spring and revealing itself, all with affectionate banter and without any of the pomposity which the American Mother Earth sometimes gets from her poetic children….

Galway Kinnell is in the direct Whitman line. (p. 2)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is one of the most vivid legacies of [The Waste Land] in English, building its immense rhetorical power from the materials of several dialects, litanies of place, and a profound sense of the spiritual disintegration that Eliot divined in modern urban life. And like Eliot's, Kinnell's is a religious poem, in which the chaotic forces of survival (in this instance, the turbulent, jumbled life of New York's lower East Side, along Avenue C) ultimately preside over the terror latent in our late stage of civilization. Since it is impossible to isolate any single passage from the magnificent sprawl of this poem, I can only suggest its importance by stressing that my comparison of it to [The Waste Land] was intended to be less an arbitrary reference than an effort to estimate the poem's durable achievement.

The very early poems of his apprenticeship distinguish themselves from most such offerings in the quality of their feeling, their naturalness and depth of insight. Kinnell is in possession of a gift that so few poets have now, with their emphasis on subdued, laconic diction. Almost any stanza from his first two books yields the fierce vision refined later on…. (pp. 301-02)

There is a wonderful variety in [The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946–1964]; reading through them all at once, one becomes aware of how much he has struggled to exercise his imagination, writing out of the deepest sources of contemplation, sketching in the temper of an afternoon with a few fine strokes, recording his immense love of the texture of experience, awaking in a forest "half alive in the world", and knowing "half my life belongs to the wild darkness". As a companion to the diffuse and dream-like experiments of The Book of Nightmares and Body Rags, the publication of a Selected Poems is well-deserved; what is so remarkable is that these earlier poems should constitute in themselves such a major work. (p. 302)

James Atlas, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1975.


Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 3)