Galway Kinnell Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 2) - Essay

Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kinnell, Galway 1927–

American poet, author of The Book of Nightmares. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares … is a single long poem of 1400 lines which explicitly aspires to a single poetic vision. Its ten sections are interlinked in imagery. In this book, as in his earlier five, Kinnell writes as a man wandering by himself among mountains and cities, surfacing outside society. His vision takes the form of a succession of related nightmares, each of which brings together images of the present and the absent, the living and the dead…. Death and life interact over and over, both in the poem's imagery and in its skeletal structure. Unlike most contemporary imagery, Kinnell's is evenly balanced between indoors and outdoors, between the radiance of the sun and the gleam of the lamp….

Visions as radiant and rhapsodic as Kinnell's have difficulty in confining themselves within the bounds of language. Though he seems at first to have sacrificed clarity in the search for sweep, my rereadings of the poem disclose an intricately managed structure which unfolds in clarity as well as in intensity, I am not sure its ending is altogether worthy of what has come before, partly because Kinnell's hortatory style is better suited to rising incantation than to the dying fall, and I had a feeling at the end of having been thrown off while at full gallop. But it's an impressive piece of work, and I would advise any serious student of contemporary poetry to make its acquaintance.

Peter Davison, "Three Visionary Poets," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1972, pp. 104-07.

The Book of Nightmares … is a chilling volume and gets into those dark reaches of our selves which we would often prefer not to acknowledge. It insists on a vision of life not only as dream (illusion) but as nightmare (terrifying illusion). Like Mark Strand and Charles Simic, Kinnell is a poet of the "shadow life" who sees the shadows in Plato's cave and is not comforted by them. This is Kinnell's fifth book of poetry, not including several volumes of translations, and they have all been inclining in this direction. The Book of Nightmares is a culmination of the theme of insubstantiality already fully developed in Body Rags (1968), and although that work contains many memorable poems, it does not impress me quite as much as this latest collection. The Book of Nightmares is simply a stunning work, rich in its imagery, haunting in its rhythms, evocative and terrifyingly accurate in its insights. Each poem is more remarkable than the one preceding it. Actually, it is a mistake to speak of "poems" in this collection; the whole is a single ten-part poem….

Throughout the book, life is clutching at the emptiness, and in the final poem, Kinnell tells us once again the oldest story: "Living brings you to death, there is no other road." But despite the underlying terror of this realization, indeed, because of it, there is in Kinnell's work an absolutely awesome respect for the living, the organic, the act of creation.

Fred Moramarco, in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 189-90.

Much of [Book of Nightmares] should be familiar to readers of Galway Kinnell—the easy accumulative style, the long poems in several mutually-reflecting parts, the wilderness and slum settings, the preoccupation with violence, the loneliness of the wanderer-poet. The newness comes with the "gothic" folklore and the eschatology. Book of Nightmares draws heavily on the imagery of astrology, witchcraft, spells, the fear of "possession," and the concoction of potions; but it also (and this goes beyond the merely gothic imagery) is concerned with "last things," with death and the nightmare images of death which must be lived with.

As in his earlier books, Kinnell writes poems of wandering and exploration, where the meaning is allowed to accumulate through several parts (each of these poems is in seven parts and the poems are themselves continuous). But here a new mythology replaces, or rather supplements, the natural imagery, the "myth" of the land its creatures found in the earlier books. These poems are not primarily poems of exploration and discovery in which a place or thing is well seen, experienced, and understood, as in Kinnell's first two volumes, nor are they exactly like the more remarkable poems of Body Rags ("The Bear" and "The Porcupine", for example) where the lives of wild animals are used emblematically as images for the deepest fears of the poet. Now the poems are united, quite simply, by the consciousness of death….

Certainly Kinnell has achieved a new sort of success … in Book of Nightmares. This book is different from his others not only in its greater density and continuity of imagery, in its emphasis on horror rather than wonder, but also in its convincing personal assumption of our common nightmare.

Jane Taylor McDonnell, in Carleton Miscellany, Spring-Summer, 1972, pp. 153-56.

The book [The Book of Nightmares] rasps on all levels, first of all, in its overall sonic profile, though this is not necessarily the lowest level of our hypothetical archeology. Kinnell has always written a dark, "inward", which is to say, psychically rather than formally triggered variety of verse. Here, the verse is so free that one relatively metrical, balladic, Villonesque section—in which, appropriately, the poet makes his testament—seems the exception to the rule, rather than a ground bass against which the rest of the book is improvised….

The overall format of the book is also roughly improvised. This is not a collection at all, but a series of ten interrelated poems. Each is separated into six or seven sections, the movement of which is appropriately raspy. Logic is present, only agonized. Kinnell's is a decidedly baroque approach structurally, one relatively rare in recent verse….

Musical and organizational darkness aside, Kinnell's basic scenarios have the horror of the deliberately extravagant chiller, the grand guignol, or the wax museum….

Always, Kinnell darkens dark matter with darker manner. His nightmares are recounted with an eye for awful detail—a vital vision, in view of the fact that Kinnell's sites often do not exist anywhere on earth.

The riskiest of the raspings are probably philosophical. Kinnell is saying something terribly tough and hard here. The subject of most of the nightmares … is death. Still, Kinnell does not define death as physical death alone…. For all its apparent luridness, The Book of Nightmares is much more than a perverse memento mori. Its technical, philosophical, and metaphorical strengths forbid that.

Michael Benedikt, "The Apotheosis of Darkness vs. Bardic Privilege," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1972, pp. 105-11.

Galway Kinnell's Body Rags (1968) was a major poetic event. "The Bear" and "The Porcupine," which have already become anthology pieces, seem to me to have a peculiar excellence…. [because] Kinnell's animal poems are explorations of the poet's deepest self, a self he can only discover by identifying imaginatively with the sufferings of wild, alien creatures….

Kinnell's new book, The Book of Nightmares, is somewhat uneven…. As in his earlier poems, Kinnell uses images of nature in its most elemental forms—bloody hen feathers, spiders, bare black rocks, skulls, the corpses of animals—to discover the deepest instincts of the submerged self….

[At times] Kinnell dissipates the force of the dream-like vividness of his best passages: the emotion is recounted as if from a distance, rather than presented dramatically. The poet's voice loses its ecstatic urgency and becomes a shade precious. Nevertheless, Kinnell is one of the best poets writing today; because his risks are so great, his very lapses seem preferable to the limited successes of many other poets.

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.