Galway Kinnell Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 3) - Essay

Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kinnell, Galway 1927–

Kinnell, a sensitive and imaginative American poet, has written The Book of Nightmares and Body Rags. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares is partly an account of nightmares, partly songs or spells to be sung in time of nightmare, and partly perhaps, on the analogy of old dream books, a guide to interpreting nightmares. One interpretation is suggested in poem VIII: Each of us is a half self. If we are matched, we are mismatched, because we are moved by craving and accident rather than by a perfecting fate. You can see that Kinnell, like Yeats, has altered Plato's parable. But unlike Yeats, he reminds us that Aristophanes told the story at the banquet, and so it is a comic or satiric idea.

Another idea comes out of Kinnell's own myth, the root form of his poems and, like all myth, it can be analyzed but not interpreted. The power and originality of this myth unify and sustain the variety and strangeness of the best poems. Poem VIII says that if we were complete, we would turn inward like hens who "incline their faces/ when the heat flows from the warmed egg/ back into the whole being…." But we are incomplete, and the root form of these nightmares is the fear of being emptied….

At least the first five of these big poems are stunning and beautifully unified. They move easily, articulating each minute particular, which tells itself and then, like the skipping stone, starts to run as it goes under, letting go its energy to the life of the whole.

Rosemary F. Deen, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 24, 1971, pp. 308-09.

It is not unusual for a poet to develop his own tradition, his own mythology, over a number of years. This has been the case with Galway Kinnell, and it has served him well in The Book of Nightmares. Though his mythology begins to take shape long before Body Rags, it is there, in "The Porcupine" and "The Bear," that the myth jells. "The Porcupine" provides some early key imagery for The Book of Nightmares. Stars, tears, a fall (toss), nightmares, sucked eggs / sterile eggs all build here to a conclusion elsewhere.

"The Bear," too, sets precedent for Nightmares. The poet intrudes there as he did in "The Porcupine," as he will do two years later in Nightmares….

"The Porcupine" and "The Bear," like each section of The Book of Nightmares, are complete in seven parts. With these two poems in mind as examples of the artist's skill, backgrounds in tradition, development of unique mythology, I can only conclude that The Book of Nightmares is the finest next-to-final draft of a long poem that I have ever read. There are problems in the poem that are inherent in Kinnell's imposed structure (as there are inherent problems in any structure by virtue of its structure alone), a general example of which would be his superstitious or otherwise arbitrary seven-stanza divisions. Whether they are to be taken as the seven sisters or not, they limit his development in some sections and force undue expansion in others. His most consistent and most tightly-written, most admirable section is Part II, "The Hen Flower." It is here that Kinnell proves most true to form and expectation and is at once most free from digression….

[One] major oversight that I feel helps to mark the poem as unfinished is a blunder that Kinnell never would have overlooked in "The Bear." It is the mark of the amateur to not know when to quit, and, as I've pointed out, this fault seems to have returned to haunt Kinnell. The ending of the poem, that point at which we are to be most at one with poet and poem, is miserable. If he had only stopped at "Or else, cry," he would have redeemed the other sins in toto. I envy Kinnell; but still, for his sake, he should go over it one more time.

W. M. Ransom, in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1973, pp. 189-93.

Kinnell's poetry in [the 1960's] involves itself with a virtual rediscovery of how to view objects intensely, while continuing to avoid any prescribed system…. Pound taught his successors, which include most American poets, that no authority could replace personal testament, especially when such testament involved accurate perception and attentive apperception…. Kinnell took from Pound … only so much as could fruitfully be grafted onto the traditions of Blake and Whitman, and though for some Pound's concern with "technique" might seem inimical to inspiration, such need not be the case. Pound's concern with objective "vision" on the physiological level corrects rather than replaces the "visionary." But Kinnell was still faced with the problem of how to bring his poetry out of the modernist culde-sac of irony into a post-modernist aesthetic. He does this in large measure by two actions, which may appear contradictory but are in fact complementary: self-discovery and self-destruction, the heuristic and the incendiary actions of poetry. Kinnell became a shamanist, rather than a historicist, of the imagination….

Reading Flower Herding as part of a putative spiritual autobiography, the reader will decide that it is only when Kinnell escapes the city for the country that the possibilities of mortality become positive rather than negative. Regarding it as the barometer of other, larger currents at work in American poetry in the sixties, it clearly stands with Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields (1964) and Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963). These three books can be seen as developments away from the ironic mode practiced and perfected by, among others, Ransom, Tate, Nemerov, and Wilbur, and toward a poetic mode first announced by Theodore Roethke as early as 1950, but largely unheeded until ten years later….

[The] persistence of fire and death imagery throughout Kinnell's poetry forces us to disregard, or at least to minimize, our habitual expectation of ironic distance that we bring to much modern poetry. His obviously attempts to be a poetry of immersion into experience rather than suspension above it….

"The Poem," "The Porcupine," and "The Bear" [three poems in Body Rags,]… are the three poems in which Kinnell moves most clearly beyond the suspension of irony toward the immersion of empathy, and are, I believe, sure indicators of a new post-modern aesthetic in contemporary American poetry. By empathy I mean something other than Keats' "negative capability," though that concept forms part of Kinnell's poetic. Empathy in Kinnell's poetry results in an important way from contact with the edges of experience, that boundary along which the organism and the environment become interdefinitional….

Along with the images of burning, "build-soil," and painful scars that occur frequently in Kinnell's work, ["The Poem"] has two other images: the human face and a written text. Both these latter figures recur with increasing frequency in Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares, and their resonances are indicative of Kinnell's attempts to "register" experience with the most sensible recorders available….

Throughout his poetry there flows the awareness that growth involves a kind of dying, and The Book of Nightmares becomes the fullest statement of this theme….

Empathy as Kinnell employs it in his latest book makes most statements about his "themes" appear reductive. In a poem which uses ironic tension suspended throughout a logical structure, thematic argument still constitutes a weakened paraphrase of what the poem "really says," but this difficulty is geometrically increased when the poem uses an affective structure, articulated more by associative links rather than deductive sequence…. It might be possible to indicate the change from a thematic, "argued" poetry to the associative poetry, of which The Book of Nightmares represents such a brilliant example, by considering as symptomatic the change from a predominant use of visual imagery to a more and more frequent use of olfactory and gustatory images….

The Book of Nightmares, filled with obsessive images, carries back from the darkness a "languished alphabet." But this set of characters can spell more than objects; it speaks as well of people and events. The daughter who begins and the son who hears the final reflections of the poem are just two, though the two most important, people with whom Kinnell converses. Indeed if one were to formulate a thematic statement equivalent to the poem's energies, it would have to utilize the daughter's birth and the poet's own imagined death as the terminal points of the work….

Again, it should be pointed out that the book succeeds beautifully as a whole, but what makes the total more than the sum of the parts is the tough, but complexly responsive, sense of form that Kinnell has discovered for his own voice. Each of the ten poems is variously incendiary and heuristic. The attention burns through level after level, each vision catching up sparks and flashes from other sightings. The fires of the world must be met with fire if the poet is to truly discover all the edges of his possibilities. "Somewhere/ in the legends of blood sacrifice/ the fatted calf/ takes the bonfire into his arms, and he/ burns it."

Destructive though the element of fire may be, Kinnell's forms are always instructive. There is an almost didactic tone in some parts of this book, a didacticism close to the evangelical. (That alone should make the book distinct from the dominant modern mode of irony.) But the poet draws back from priesthood because he continually rediscovers himself, and discovers in himself "the hunger to be new."…

Kinnell has discovered his own way to look at things here, and though irony may be weakened, certainly American poetry is the stronger for it.

Charles Molesworth, "The Rank Flavor of Blood: Galway Kinnell and American Poetry in the 1960's," in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 225-39

Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares extends this poet's ventures, in previous books and in talking and writing about poetry, in the creation of a shared persona, an inclusive "I" which will be selfless. Movement in this ten-section book, or long poem, is toward the achievement of voice and voicelessness, a feat beyond taste and tastelessness which the British poet, Ted Hughes, achieves on his own terms in his own book of nightmares and song, Crow….

If [The Book of Nightmares] is a violent, dark dreams book, it is also a gentle book. Kinnell is too good a psychologist of the waking and dreaming life not to know how much love and death, and tenderness and violence, have to do with one another. Beyond that, the book is inspired by some terrible "inner generosity," a phrase which Kinnell used to talk about Allen Ginsberg's Howl. The book has a unifying text, and that text is never in doubt. Kinnell offers the book as love book not just for his daughter and son, but for the love child in all of us…. Out of the "concert of one/divided among himself," which continually threatens the poet throughout every page of the poem, Kinnell manages a music which moves toward another music of tragic gaiety where contrary states find their radiant oneness. The book is full of sustained, achieved writing that matches anything in the earlier books of Kinnell which have always impressed me most, Body Rags and that strange, haunting poetic prose tale, Black Light…. This is major poetry, and it derives from what informs the entire book, a personal and cosmic vision which rejoices in the "celestial cheesiness" of the new, bloody baby and in "the one flea which is laughing" on the blued, living and dying flesh.

Arthur Oberg, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1973, pp. 85-7.