Galway Kinnell

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Galway Kinnell with Thomas Hilgers and Michael Molloy (interview date 1982)

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Galway Kinnell with Thomas Hilgers and Michael Molloy (interview date 1982)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Galway Kinnell,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, Nos. 1 and 2, 1982, pp. 107-12.

[In the following interview, Kinnell addresses the issues of poetic inspiration and the relationship of the poet's personal life to his poetry.]

\Hilgers:] I'd like to begin by talking not about poetry, but about poets. Does a poet ever stop being a poet?

\Kinnell:] It's hard to stop. Many poets should. Wordsworth, for example who did all his best work as a young man, continued cranking out verses during his long life; and none of the late verses were of any use. But poetry is not a profession in the ordinary sense. It's so much a part of what you are. Nothing else takes its place. Being a poet is in part a state of mind. Many people are in such a state; probably everybody is a poet to some degree or another. It's part of being itself. That's why it's so hard to stop.

How is “everybody” a poet? What is there about that state of mind, or what is there in every man's state of mind, that's poetic?

Well, we all use language; and at those moments when we're really deeply affected by something, we often express our response in words. When these come directly out of our feelings, whether we write them down and work them up into a poem that can have a public life or not, in some way we've uttered poetry.

Do you at any time in your own life feel yourself in a super-poetic frame of mind? When you're actually in the process of writing poetry, are you in a different state from what you are right now when we're talking prose?

Yes, I think when one writes well, there does come upon one a kind of heightened state of aliveness, a surge of energy and exhilaration. It may come before you start writing, but it's a sign that you should start.

\Molloy:] Does that surge come often after you've decided to start writing rather than before?

No, I think the surge actually comes when writing is the farthest thing from your mind and something in the world or in your memory of the world or fantasy of it engages your attention very intensely. In the interaction between yourself and whatever it is that you've been excited by comes some kind of strange psychological chemical infusion of energy and then you want to express that relationship.

It must happen often that you have such a feeling, such a surge, and the poem never emerges. Are there many unspoken poems in you?

I think there are. I think there are many unspoken poems in everyone. The best layer of existence consists of unspoken poems.

\Hilgers:] In today's literary world, we often hear prose spoken of as “poetic prose.” We also have prose poems, and we have poetry. Do you think the former distinctions between the prose writer and the poet are breaking down?

Yes, I think so. The conventional novel proves to be somewhat unsatisfactory to most modern novelists. They want to achieve in their novels moments of poetry—intense, direct expressions of feelings—rather than to accomplish everything through naturalistic narrative. Also, poets often write at a secondary level of intensity, and produce a kind of secondary poem, almost the notes for a poem. These are called “prose poems”—unfortunately so, because the name implies that these notes are the completed thing in itself. To my mind, prose poems are unfulfilled poems, prose-y poems,...

(This entire section contains 2114 words.)

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and they should be so called.

Our conversation so far has been skirting around the big question, the question of just what a poet is. Maybe we can have a go at it in just one other way. Someone like the Russian poet Yevtushenko, for example, may be criticized for being an apologist for political purposes. Does this make him any less a poet?

I'm not in a position to judge the question of a Russian poet's relationship to his society. It's such a difficult relationship. Since I don't experience the same burden, I can't judge how well a Russian poet copes with it. I don't feel that Yevtushenko's work is very interesting, at least as it comes through in translation.

Let's say we had a poet laureate in this country who wrote paeans to Ronald Reagan periodically. Would that be a compromise of the poet's integrity?

I don't know. It depends how the poet feels about Ronald Reagan. He may be currying favor, or he may actually love Ronald Reagan. It makes all the difference. Poetry should enter the political realm; poems should be able to contain one's political opinions. But poetry which doesn't do that may be fine poetry. And poetry which exclusively does that may be fine poetry too.

Is the poet's voice an individual voice?

Yes, in our time and in the modern world, it is necessarily an individual voice. What goes on in a poem is, generally speaking, a very personal struggle between what a poet wants to be and what he's able to be.

\Molloy:] You said earlier that certain things engage a poet and bring about, perhaps, a “surge” of feeling. What would you say are the things that have particularly engaged you and brought about the surge for you?

It's hard to say. When I glance back at the poems I've written, they seem to have sprung from many different sources. I can't, for instance, say that animals are the principle source.

Although animals are very important in your poetry, surely.

Animals occur often in my poems, but putting myself in a farmyard will not start me writing poems. If one knew the answer to your question, there would be no such thing as a dry spell. One would just go down to the local pigfarm, or whatever.

\Molloy:] Or over to the zoo. I remember reading that when Rama Krishna would go to the Calcutta Zoo, he would be sent off into a trance if he would hear the lion roar. It seemed to be for him some great manifestation of the Divine.

\Hilgers:] Besides animals, are there other objects that have particularly attracted you?

On the whole, creatures (earthly creatures) and children (my own children) have been great sources of poetry for me. But also any aspect of life which seems to have a tradition to it—whether a continuing tradition, as one finds in Vermont farms, for example, or broken traditions, as one finds in the slums of New York. The sense of tradition, however distorted, seems to awaken something.

\Molloy:] Does that come from your background in religious structures which place great importance on tradition?

It may; but it's characteristic of poetry as a whole. Poetry tries to connect with the sacred past. It tries to find in the present the sacred which the prose glance can't see any longer.

\Hilgers:] As you walk around your kitchen, as you walk around the campus, do you see poetic possibilities? Do you ask about what you see, does this thing go beyond itself?

No. I think, as I said earlier, that it's when writing is the last thing in your mind that you tend to start writing. If you begin to think, what use can this kettle of boiling water that I'm making my coffee with this morning have for my poems?, you might write a poem, but it might be a self-conscious exercise. If you're thoroughly absorbed in the boiling of water, on the other hand, that might set you off to write a poem that comes forth more spontaneously.

What is the relationship of your everyday existence to what you write? I know that you don't talk a lot about your private life. But does it come through in your poetry?

Well, yes. At one time I would recast experience and make it quite impersonal; I did that often in my earlier poetry. Now, for better or worse, I write more directly about my own experiences. When I feel like writing about my children I don't try to imagine a fictitious family, and write about that; I just write about my own family and my own children. Some readers are upset that there should be, in my poems, the actual names of my children and my wife, and my own name. They find that close a connection to life inappropriate for poetry. But that's just the way I happen to be writing at this time.

On what grounds is that inappropriate?

Some readers want poetry to be more objective, cast in a more universal mold and not tied to a particular family and a particular place—to have everything be a type rather than another particular.

I'd like to talk a little about other American poets. Recently, when I was talking with Marvin Bell, he mentioned you and the late James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Ann Sexton as part of the still dominant generation in American poetry. He spoke of himself as part of the next generation which is still trying to make itself heard. Would you make a distinction along generational lines when you describe the American poetry world?

There are a few of the very old poets still thriving, most notably Robert Penn Warren. And then there are a number of people who turned out to be poets who were born in 1926, 1927, and 1928. I don't know why. It may have had something to do with the Depression. That we spent our childhoods in poverty and social dislocation may have given us some longing for a transfigured life. And poetry is an avenue to a transfigured life. Then there is Marvin's generation, which has fewer poets who stand out, I think. Maybe the generation younger than that has even fewer, but it's too early to tell.

Are there any differences beyond the chronological which determine these generations?

It's hard for us to say. A critic in the twenty-first century will see much we hold in common. But what has a poet like Creeley got in common with a poet like Ginsberg? It's hard for us to see through all the obvious differences.

\Molloy:] You used the word transfigured when you talked about these people who were raised during the Depression. They seemed to have a need for a transfigured world. Could you elaborate on that?

I just mean that growing up in grim surroundings, as I think most of us did, produced some kind of intense desire for a world that was better, for a recovery of beauty. Poetry seemed the way to find it. My speculation, based on my memories of my own desires, is that I wanted in poetry to find a purity of existence which I didn't find in the world around me. Now it's possible that in a later generation, for whom life was easier, there was no longer that intensity of desire to transfigure the world. In fact, one characteristic of the poetry of the young seems to be a kind of contentment with the world—the daily experiences of average life seem to be regarded as adequate. That's unlikely to be the case in the poetry of my generation.

\Hilgers:] Do you sense in your own life more of a contentment coming through? It seems to me that certain poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words reflect some sort of contentment.

It's hard to make such judgments about one's own work. I think that Mortal Acts, Mortal Words contains many poems that are easygoing; some of them are basically humorous. Other poems, though, deal with things that are difficult—the deaths of my parents, my relationship to my brother, things of that kind. It's not exactly a peaceful book, but there is no attempt to exacerbate the harshness of life, and there is an attempt to come to terms with the difficult things.

\Molloy:] Does the title of the book show a greater willingness to express your subjectives?

Yes. My own life, place, time, and people I'm living with are the subject of that book.

I remember reading at one time something you said about eros and thanatos—that the sensitive person felt both and wanted to reconcile the problems they raised by identifying them. What did you mean by that identification?

I'm not sure what I meant. But there is a point where eros and thanatos are the same thing, where the love of existence passes beyond the love of that part of existence which is one's own time on earth and includes existence beyond one's own time. Of course, at that point one becomes the sprouting Irish grass.


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Galway Kinnell 1927-

American poet, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Kinnell's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 13, and 29.

Galway Kinnell, is known for the transcendent nature of his work and his ability to render the essence of the commonplace in flowing lines of verse. This Rhode Island-born “poet-laureate” of Vermont harmoniously mixes concrete and metaphysical issues in his work, offering readers simple yet profound and challenging poetry. Individual poems like “The Bear,” “The Porcupine,” “The Last River,” and “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” have appealed to readers over the years, and his most appreciated collection, The Book of Nightmares (1971), stands as a major achievement of American verse in the opinion of many commentators. Kinnell works in the American poetic tradition of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, yet has affinities with poets like William Blake and Rainer Maria Rilke, and moves beyond the American transcendentalists' anthropomorphic concerns. He has been characterized as a post-Romantic extending the Romantic vision of life as death-and-metamorphosis and provides a depiction of the natural world that is not found in his predecessors. Some critical discussions of Kinnell's work have focused on his depiction of gender, and Kinnell is seen as one of few male poets of his generation who in clear verse can present “fearless emotion,” as one critic put it. The source of Kinnell's power as a poet has been identified by David Lee Garrison in Commonweal as the ability to raise “a scene, through metaphor, into the realm of vision.”

Biographical Information

Galway Kinnell was born in 1927 in Rhode Island. He took an early interest in poetry, which he later developed at Princeton studying under poet Charles C. Bell who noted and encouraged his talent. At Princeton he met poet W. S. Merwin who introduced Kinnell to the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Kinnell saw military service in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946 and after graduating with highest honors from Princeton and with a graduate degree from The University of Rochester, he spent the first phase of his career focused on academic work—as a professor, lecturer, visiting poet, and director at several Universities in the U.S. and abroad, notably in Spain, France, Australia and Iran. A slight move away from academic-related work led Kinnell to odd jobs, which included registering Southern blacks for the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963. This was followed by activity in the anti-war demonstrations of the time. He never completely abandoned teaching, however, and has continued to perform academic functions, such as the directorship of writing programs like that of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. The development of Kinnell's poetic voice parallels his life experiences. Stylistically, Kinnell moved from an early influence of W. B. Yeats to Robert Frost and the open aesthetic of William Carlos Williams. The most significant influence, however, is Walt Whitman. Kinnell has commented on this issue: “Under Whitman's spell I stopped writing in rhyme and meter and in rectangular stanzas and turned to long-lined, loosely cadenced verse; and at once I felt immensely liberated.” Daniel Schenker writing in the Mississippi Quarterly claims that Kinnell shares with Whitman “the conviction that the self remains the key to social reconstruction.” After a couple of early poetry books, What a Kingdom it Was (1960) and Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), and Black Light (1966), a novel, Kinnell found critical favor and a wider reading public with Body Rags (1968). The Book of Nightmares followed and has, many critics believe, remained his best work to date. His other works include the much admired The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 (1974), Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), The Past (1985) and Imperfect Thirst (1994). Kinnell has received many awards, notably a Pulitzer prize, an American Book Award, and a National Book Award for Poetry for Selected Poems (1982), and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986 for The Past.

Major Works

A connecting thread or “abiding vision” of all Kinnell's work is identified by Susan B. Weston in Literary Review as one centering on the fact that “the nature that simultaneously links us to the biological community and condemns us to decay and death is the voice of art.” Furthermore, David Schenker in American Poetry points out Kinnell's commitment to the “traditional objectives of lyric poetry,” which he identifies as “the exploration of the self, the desire to possess the other, the redemption of self and other from the passing of years, the denial of death itself.” This vision, combined with Kinnell's social concerns honed in his experience of the world, reached full expression in his first great book, Body Rags. Kinnell's experiences reverberate in selections such as “The Last River,” a 400-line poem dealing with the civil rights movement. When it appeared, fellow poet Hayden Carruth called it “the strongest single piece of writing the Movement has produced so far,” and critical commentary suggests that it has not been surpassed. Body Rags was followed by The Book of Nightmares which was written after the birth of Kinnell's two children and explores the theme of death-in-life and documents the poet's attempts to come to terms with it. The German post-romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke served as model, and in the book we see the full development of the Romantic strain in Kinnell's work both in terms of theme and treatment. Andrew Higgins wrote that “Kinnell struggles with the separation of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind.” Death is the largest looming theme, however. Kinnell, himself, referred to the book as “nothing but an effort to face death and life with it.” The evocative power of poems such as “The Last Hiding Places of Snow” evince a quality identified by T. S. Eliot as the “auditory imagination,” i.e., “the feeling for syllable and rhyme, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling,” David Kleinbard suggests. Kinnell added that The Book of Nightmares was his effort to regain the “natural trust in life's rhythms.”

The Past, Kinnell's next book, was characterized by David Lee Garrison in Commonweal as “an especially American poetry,” with echoes of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, W. C. Williams, Robert Penn Warren, and James Wright. Garrison wrote: “It is a poetry that combines the pragmatic with the visionary,” and it is one that presents a “transcendent understanding” of our relationship to objects of this world. On this same subject Susan B. Weston noted that Kinnell is a visionary not via “his mind's abstracting eye, but with his body.” Kinnell's expression involved, as the poet put it, a “pre-Darwinian language... [to] speak for mute things.” In this lies Kinnell's divergence from an American poetic tradition of “solipsistic seers” like Thoreau and Emerson in that he manages to dissolve “barriers between self and non-self, or seeing the individual as part of a process whereby everything in the world is on its way to becoming something else.” More concerned with issues of domesticity and gender, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words has been characterized as a study of the male writer confronting his feminine side. Imperfect Thirst is a mature work wherein the forms are a development of his previous many-sectioned poems, with the appearance of more shorter poems, several one-stanza in form. One critic sees in this a simplification in Kinnell's work that “goes back to Whitman's influence.” Karen Maceira claims that the book's thematic focus “represents a readjustment from a rational-theistic perception of the world to an awareness of the sacred in the traditionally secular.” In this shift Maceira sees a refinement of what Kinnell has identified as the purpose of his art; i.e., to say “in its own music what matters most.”

Critical Reception

Critical commentary on Galway Kinnell's work is consistent in its praise of the poet's achievements in matters of style, theme, and the furthering of a poetic tradition. Charles Bell, Kinnell's teacher at Princeton and life-long mentor, observed that Kinnell's early poetry was marked by “a romantic and Miltonic pentameter almost totally remade under impacts from Donne and the moderns,” and in this he saw a “a demonic wrestling with traditional measures.” Developing from this early style, with W. C. Williams and Whitman as models, Kinnell produced freer, more public statements. Thematically, Kinnell's work is admired for its depiction of the domestic and the natural worlds. In poems about parenting, Kinnell represents a new direction for male writers. Lorrie Goldensohn finds in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words an appealing “human warmth, a generous and caring soul,” although Goldensohn tempers this observation with the point that Kinnell's domestic poems still depict “a family romance where most of the parts are played by men.” Adrienne Rich, quoted by Goldensohn on this issue, finds that Kinnell's problem is one faced by “the masculine writer” and “the closed ego of man in its most private and political mode: his confused relationship to his own femininity, and his fear and guilt towards women.” Kinnell's perspective on the human relationship to nature and its cycles has drawn comparisons to Blake. In The Book of Nightmares, writes Andrew Higgins, Kinnell “exalts the wisdom of the body which taps into the unconscious,” and sees in this a reaction to a belief that “in the modern world the logical mind has grown too powerful at the expense of the unconscious.” David Kleinbard in Centennial Review maintains that Kinnell comes close in some of his lines to “the spirit in which Blake radically revised the mythology, the values, and the visionary expectations of traditional religion.” Similarities to Rilke have been noted, but there are differences; Kleinbard points out that poems that derive from Rilke have “none of the weightiness of metaphysical implication” that characterizes the German poet. A significant claim for Kinnell's importance as an American literary figure is made by Karen Maceira who believes that Kinnell is one of few voices in a time of “pseudo-sophistication and cynicism” that can “lead us away from despair for humanity and toward hope.” Kinnell “has never been easy to categorize,” Maceira admits, but he is a “dynamic and surprising poet,” whose work “reverberates” with a “bone-deep confidence in the human.”

Lorrie Goldensohn (essay date Summer 1984)

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SOURCE: “Approaching Home Ground: Galway Kinnell's Mortal Acts, Mortal Words,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Summer, 1984.

[In the following essay, Goldensohn reviews Mortal Acts, Mortal Words considering its themes and their connections to Kinnell's previous work and the larger context of American poetry.]

In a 1975 interview with The Colorado State Review, Galway Kinnell signalled the turn of his subjects to private or domestic event when he said: “My circumstances are such that I live most of my life rather busily in the midst of the daily and ordinary … whatever my poetry will be, from now on it will no doubt come out of this involvement in the ordinary.” A little bald; more than a little uncompromising in its avoidance of anything that could smack of a hankering after the sublime, or the titanic. Yet from within new subjects, the best of Kinnell's poems remain alert to “The moment / in the late night,” as in “The Poem” (1968), when:

… objects
on the page grow suddenly
heavy, hugged
by a rush of strange gravity.

Language, in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), is still the negotiation between flesh and spirit, making up the tracks that spirit lays down in the flesh of the word. Or, looks for that curious double moment when language flashes out to the quick of things, only to show in another and reciprocal pulsation how things themselves exist as a language. Here are lines from “Blackberry Eating”:

… as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
 fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Within the objects of Kinnell's language, there is an insistence on the ordinary object as the right carrier for meaning; as if more exalted objects could only blur or distort the precise fitting, the exact adjustment of language to reality. It is a language so understated that it seems proof against unintentional ironies, a speech fully armored by republican modesty for any necessary raids on the heavenly palace. A milk bottle, for instance, bearing a resemblance to the jar in Tennessee, works up to transcedence from just this deliberately prosy beginning:

… It's funny,
 I imagine I can actually remember one certain
quart of milk which has just finished clinking
against three of its brethren
in the milkman's great hand and stands,
freeing itself from itself, on the rotting
doorstep in Pawtucket circa 1932,
by one in whom time hasn't completely
woven all its tangles, and not ever set down … 
The old bottle will shatter no one knows when
in the decay of its music, the sea eagle
will cry itself back down into the sea
the sea's creatures transfigure over and over.
Look. Everything has changed.
Ahead of us the meantime is overflowing.
Around us its own almost-invisibility
streams and sparkles over everything.

Whatever the language is doing, it still admits the higher continuities. Ordinariness does not signal a rejection of significant subject, but gives notice instead of Kinnell's intention to broaden the space of subject where that significance is to be found. In the diction of this poetical discourse, “ordinary” means universal, means egalitarian.

But the ordinary also contains the time-bound, and from within it, Kinnell advances his central preoccupation: the conflict between eternity and human death. Broadly shaping all the new poems towards the elegiac, he takes these lines from Petrarch as his epigraph: “moral beauty, acts, and words have put all their burden on my soul.” In “There Are Things I Tell To No One” (a distressingly coy title for one of the more ambitious poems in the book), he says:

I say “God”; I believe,
 rather, in a music of grace
that we hear, sometimes, playing to us
from the other side of happiness.
When we hear it, it flows
through our bodies, it lets us live
these days lighted by their vanity
worshipping—as the other animals do,
who live and die in the spirit
of the end—that backward-spreading

The new book's task is to understand that “backward-spreading brightness,” and to balance the longing heavenward against the down-pulling anchor of earth's subjects, and to be determined to pay earth its measure of honor.

In 1972, in his essay “The Poetics Of The Physical World,” these intentions were phrased:

The subject of the poem is the thing which dies. … Poetry is the wasted breath. This is why it needs the imperfect music of the human voice, this is why its words have no higher aim than to press themselves to us, to cling to the creatures and things we know and love, to be the ragged garments.

It is through something radiant in our lives that we have been able to dream of paradise, that we have been able to invent the realm of eternity. But there is another kind of glory in our lives which derives precisely from our inability to enter that paradise or to experience eternity. That we last only for a time, that everyone around us lasts only for a time, that we know this, radiates a thrilling, tragic light on all our loves, all our relationships, even on those moments when the world, through its poetry, becomes almost capable of spurning time and death.

As that “thrilling, tragic light” spreads over the poems that deal directly with the death of various people important to the poet—brother, mother, and indirectly, the father—how do the concessions made to poetry's limited reach eventually affect the style of Kinnell's tenderness to earthborn subjects? Given the modest possibilities enumerated here, the invention but not the occupation of heaven, poetry's “wasted breath,” how will the poet keep expressive faith in his bleaknesses; or will the dark mortalities have their edges bleached by sentimental compromise? If we take seriously Stevens’ premise that death is the mother of beauty, an analogous premise shaped a little flatfootedly by Kinnell into “another kind of glory in our lives”—then any poetics becomes at best a poetics of tragedy; but in dilution, a poetry of cloying pathos.

If we follow Kinnell in the things he tells to no one, God is a distant concept to be set off with inverted commas. The only knowable part of “God” is the “music of grace that we hear”—or, all that is knowable of grace is the music or poetry of life. Yet in this prose, frequently at variance with the speech of his poems, Kinnell limits poetry's capacity to fuse connections between life and eternity: poetry is only “almost capable” of beating back time and death. Kinnell is not consistently certain where, or if, the poetic act should be divinized. In this essay, a doubt about the transfigurative powers of language eventually registers in the poetry as the lesser force of nostalgia; a conceptual scheme of reality in which language is never more than the etiolations of print. In Kinnell's secularized humanism, uncertainty cuts edge away from the blade. Skepticism becomes a blurring diffidence where poetry denuded of religious authority, of security within Blake's “Human Form Divine,” cannot sustain or accept the merely human as a style of holiness without gods. Suspended homelessly between invention and experience, between speaking and being, Kinnell's poets drop their prophetic mantles. Within this space, Yeats’ searing lines from “The Tower” can only survive in very troubled fashion:

Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul.

Yeats' lines represent a clear conviction about the uses of art no longer as accessible, perhaps, to a late 20th century poet as to one cresting in the high phases of Romanticism or Modernism. An inheritor of “l'univers concentrationnaire,” and wary of anything leading to a religion of art, Kinnell does not toss us bon-mots in the style of Pound: “Religion: another of the numerous failures resulting from an attempt to popularize art.” About “God” Kinnell isn't sure; about poetry, its fitful illumination flows from what becomes “in the bedraggled poem of the modern … the images, those lowly touchers of physical reality, which remain shining.” Or, in the nominalist tradition, poetic images flow and shine in the apparent power of thing over word.

Given this perspective on the bedraggled language of the modern, to what degree can Kinnell's prose be said to rule, or over-rule the convictions of his poetry? It is instructive to begin by comparing a strong elegy for a brother; “Freedom, New Hampshire,” from 1960's What A Kingdom It Was, with family elegies from the current book. The early poem is quite explicit in its refusal to have its grief mitigated by belief in the comforts of the resurrection:

When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring
The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes—
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.

Similarly, the theme of resurrection, or incarnate flesh as immortal spirit, is passed upon ironically in “The Supper After The Last,” again from the early book, where Kinnell has Christ speak this doctrine:

From the hot shine where he sits his whispering drifts:
You struggle from flesh into wings; the change exists.
But the wings that live gripping the contours of the dirt
Are all at once nothing, flesh and light lifted away.
You are the flesh; I am the resurrection, because I am the light.
I cut to your measure the creeping piece of darkness
That haunts you in the dirt. Step into light—
I make you over. I breed the shape of your grave in the dirt.

In both of these poems, the energy gained is the energy of their unbelief. Earth is read uncompromisingly as the site that confers meaning. Heavenly transfiguration is not our dominion because our turf remains turf.

“The Sadness Of Brothers” picks up the death of a brother again, but this time, twenty-one years later, loss is differently approached:

He comes to me like a mouth
speaking from under several inches of water.
I can no longer understand what he is saying.
He has become one
who never belonged to us, someone
it is useless to think about or remember.

The task of this elegy is to accept the absolute loss and suffering that the living experience. The dead brother is not lost merely to himself, or to some limited point in time, nor is imagination seen as an adequate substitute for real loss, because poetry is only an “almost capable.” From within the poem, there is clear acknowledgement that all moves at assuming the consciousness of others can only be partially or totally blocked: and then the poem enacts that blockage. When memory picks up an isolated picture of the dead brother, and tries to animate that body with what would be its living voice—projecting the long dead into the present moment—the real nature of loss is sustained. The speaker of section 4, playing at supposing his brother alive, and training his eyes on that resurrected image, says:

I think he's going to ask
for beer for breakfast, sooner
or later he'll start making obnoxious
remarks about race or sex
and criticize our loose ways
of raising children, while his eyes
 grow more slick, his puritan heart more pure

Then dismisses that imagining: “But no, that's fear's reading.” And returns his brother to the mute and unknowable dead. What is dead is dead, not only to itself, but more crucially, and more persuasively this time, to us. We long for the company of those who are dead, but fruitlessly:

…—if it's true
of love, only what
the flesh can bear surrenders to time.

Both the earlier and later elegy offer a richness of life gathered in for observation, and a steady clearsightedness. But the second elegy, unlike the first, highlights much more complex personal and familial relationships over a longer arc of time. The earlier elegy, freshly within the experience, shaped its retrospective pastoral icon from childhood material, and interwove an account of its grief with farm imagery and animal life. Both are lovely poems; but the one less fierce, and written in middle age, draws closer to people, farther from nature, while it continues the earlier poem's stoic resignation to the rule of severance over our lives and language.

But in the elegies for the poet's mother, the subject tests other relations and perceptions, with strained results. These elegies and the poems that deal with children and friends prefer conventional bromides, or conventional evasions and discretions. Nearing the conclusion of “The Last Hiding Places Of Snow,” a patchy, if intermittently interesting poem, Kinnell shifts from his earlier view of the flesh as perishable, declaring the mother “beloved dross promising heaven,” and describes her ultimate transmutation from dead woman to eternal presence:

Every so often, when I look
at the dark sky, I know she remains
among the old endless blue lightedness
of stars; or finding myself out in a field
in November, when a strange
 starry perhaps the first snowfall blows
down across the darkening air, lightly,
I know she is there, where snow
falls flakes down fragile softly
 falling until I can't see the world
any longer, only its stilled shapes.

This soft falling skitters uncomfortably close to bathos, and matches other sections in “Fisherman” and “Two Set Out On Their Journey” where there are similar forced marches heavenward. More convinced by his religious skepticism than by his half-hearted religious faith, I would rather wait for the Kinnell who ends the poem on the human side of the grave as “the memory / her old body slowly executes into the earth.” With the marvelous turn on execute, the poem conforms to its darker finalities, and briefly, the language is once again invested.

But invested in a way that underlines the whole problem of the new book. While faith in the existence of a language, of existence itself as code is named, nevertheless the constraints that Kinnell has voiced earlier in prose eventually close in on poetry, and shut down faith in language just as he gives himself no other ground to stand on as his junction between flesh and all forms of spirit. The hop from “lowly touchers of physical reality” to “images” is all we have left as passage over the gap between ideas and things. The only way that the nominalist doctrine that all American poets have inherited—“No ideas but in things”—can be subverted is to take it seriously enough; to submit to its inherent realism and to believe that being and saying are one and the same. To see that blackberries are an order of language; and that word is a form of blackberry.

When Kinnell refuses to walk on that water, to rest on the constitutive powers of language, the whole game finishes. What we get next, in this book—and so many others like it plumping the domestic, the filial, the ordinary and the private—is not the shaping, visionary imagination—but after-images on the retina, the secondary vision that sadness produces. What we get is tragedy's younger and flabbier brother nostalgia, that de-energized heir of late civilizations.

There are other problematic exclusions and refusals in “The Last Hiding Places Of Snow,” and most of these cluster around the treatment of women and children. To take the women first, “The Last Hiding Places Of Snow” steps uneasily around the identification of woman as earth-symbol; the mother-spirit issues from “a place in the woods” which is at first quite a scary place; then, while “mother love” is invoked, and perceived as protecting the speaker, gradually, other feelings emerge:

My mother did not want me to be born;
afterwards, all her life, she needed me to return.
When this more-than-love flowed toward me, it brought darkness;
she wanted me as burial earth wants—to heap itself gently upon
but also to annihilate—
and I knew, whenever I felt longings to go back,
that is what wanting to die is. That is why
dread lives in me,
dread which comes when what gives life beckons toward death,
dread which throws through me
of utter strangeness, which wash the entire world empty.

In this stance, Kinnell is not Antaeus, deriving strength from a reaffirmation of the ground of earth which is his being. While the lines depend on a basic identification of woman as earth-mother, they also follow the traditional misogynist conflation of womb/tomb, where the chthonic female is not muse, but instead the fixedly mortal part: the dread mother who in giving life beckons toward death. Kinnell's mother is a blurred, and softened, but still recognizable form of Blake's Tirzah:

Thou Mother of my Mortal Part
With cruelty didst mould my Heart.
And with false self-deceiving tears,
Didst bind my Nostrils Eyes & Ears.
Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay
and me to Mortal Life betray:
The Death Of Jesus set me free.
Then what have I to do with thee?

In Kinnell's poem, while he has declined both conventional Christian terms, as well as Blake's idiosyncratic enactment of the dialectical struggle of heaven and earth, in its allegorized reading of gender, he still makes use of this significant convergence of symbols, womb/tomb, but finally neither denies nor develops its misogynist coloring. Kinnell's mother dread just sits there.

Finally, the mother is absorbed into the Empyrean, and her fearful parentage subsides into the poet's resolute acceptance of his own parenting as a way of transcending despair and discontinuity. Kinnell introduces, then backs away from the explicit gender alignment and its problems. Although in the poem he seems uneasy about his inability to be there at the last and say goodbye, the whole argument of gender relationship in parenting, and what it negatively represents, and negatively enforces, is slipstreamed, or bypassed, as the poet simply wishes to be blessed at his own deathbed by his children's presence. Refusing to respond to the dread that has broken loose, Kinnell dissolves the gender issue into a spongy prose whose firmest and most vivid moment is this image:

… memories these hands keep, of strolling down Bethune Street in spring, a little creature hanging from each arm, by a hand so small it can do no more than press its tiny thumb pathetically into the soft beneath my thumb …

But implicitly, in the context of the poem, Kinnell shows that the suicidal despair that the earth-religion of the devouring mother evokes can be turned aside, its energy blessedly reconverted into an unproblematic, non-smothering father love. The female womb, and earth's asphyxiating ownership, however, explicitly put in an appearance as the cause of death and failed transcendence, as they did in The Book Of Nightmares, where the womb/tomb of earth becomes a shroud for the newborn. In two books, now, foetal life, in agreement with Wordsworth's “Intimations Ode,” represents attachment to a primary great world of memory and being. Born, “memories rush out,” as the newborn

… sucks
air, screams
her first song—and turns rose,
the slow,
beating, featherless arms
already clutching at the emptiness.

As babies leave the kingdom of the infinite, and pass through the bone gates of the woman, they diminish, and enter mortality: still touched, if fadingly, with the greater life of the non-human, and trailing those clouds of glory.

Finally, the ground of the poem of family relationships muddies in the space between the transition from one eschatological belief to another. In Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, the belief that an individual human existence is a flower that blooms but once, hence its singular sweetness, tangles with the belief suggested in The Book Of Nightmares that life is part of a birth-death cycle wherein we die to be born, and in which death returns us to our higher life in eternity, where we are free of the circling of generations of mere matter. There is a strong pull in this view towards a gender-polarized description of human nature, where the good parts are assigned to longing for celestial transcendence (male) and the wicked parts to a quietist chthonic restriction (female).

In Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, except for the passage on dread of the female, quoted from “The Last Hiding Places Of Snow,” Kinnell does not wholly retreat to an overtly sexist position. This is only brushed in lightly for flashed seconds. Instead, for Kinnell, and for Blake on occasion, the negative symbology of woman/nature can be shelved in favor of a happier postulate: that sexual union of male and female is the iridescent emblem of the ruling principle of love made indwelling and physically manifest, as sexual love transforms the impermanence of the flesh through time-eating ecstasy:

… the last cry in the throat
or only dreamed into it
by its thread too wasted to cry
will be but an ardent note
of gratefulness so intense
it disappears into that music
which carries our time on earth away
on the great catafalque
of spine marrowed with god's flesh,
thighs bruised by the blue flower,
pelvis that makes angels shiver to know down here we mortals make love
with our bones.

In terms more casual, but no less convinced, from “Flying Home”:

in the airport men's room, seeing
the middle-aged men my age
as they washed their hands after touching
 their penises—when it might have been more in accord
with the lost order to wash first, then touch—

Only through mortal flesh is flesh made immortal, as human birth, fueled by holy sexual desire, cancels human death. If, in another poetics, language is finally too unreliable to be the conveyor of the eternal real, sex is not. And from this elevation of sexuality as death's death-blow, it also seems an easy transit to a usually phallocentric world, and to the elimination of woman as muse, or energy source, in literary terms. Not an enriching move: as Kinnell and so many other American male writers use their masculinity, often with crushing innocence, as an occluded representation of the human state. Self-consciousness about sexism has driven the more robust misogyny underground, but the old vision, still stubbornly retained in pieces, has not yet been replaced with one more generous or inclusive. For many, the choice simply becomes retreat to a human effigy with the genitals either conspicuously male, or blurred, or lopped.

A muse figure, except as a flickering possibility, does not exist for Kinnell. As we have seen earlier, deity as the origin of grace or song is equally remote. While earlier poems drew from his animals the most resonant cry longing for immortality, longing for the artifice of eternity, that cry originated in a male totem: a porcupine or a bear. Philip Slater, in The Glory Of Hera, traces the birth of Dionysos from the hiding-place of Zeus’ thigh as one of the classic feints of the male narcissist, as he attempts to expunge his dreaded mother as inheritance, and to deny his need for parental love: in this mythic replay of birth, the Greeks displaced women altogether. It is interesting to see that Kinnell similarly displaces women from the birth-role in “The Bear,” by claiming the male totem as his source of creative energy. In “The Bear,” Kinnell's speaker literally climbs into the carcass, to be re-born as poetic speech; more overtly later, but in an analogous displacement, in “The Last Hiding Places Of Snow,” the generative line dissolves from the problematic mothering into the speaker's fathering. (As usual, more is hunkering down in the American woodlot than first meets the eye.)

In The Book Of Nightmares, the source of transcending mortality through mortality begins to thrust forward in Kinnell's mythology of children, where the births of his daughter Maud and son Fergus provide the framework for the sequence opening and closing the book. Speaking inWalking Down The Stairs about The Book Of Nightmares, and after remarking that the book is “nothing but an effort to face death and live with death,” Kinnell goes on to describe the special connection that infants have to transcendence:

These little lumps of clinging flesh, and one's terrible, inexplicable closeness to them, make one feel very strongly the fragility of a person. In the company of babies, one is very close to the kingdom of death. And as children grow so quickly, as they change almost from day to day, it's hardly possible to put mortality out of mind for long.

Approximately eight years after saying this, Kinnell's concern with babies as emblem of the human link to death has altered, and broadened to stress generational and familial continuity. The focus on eternal co-presence is returned earthside; out Kinnell's way, however, parenting is mostly something that fathers do by themselves.

Up to The Book Of Nightmares and including all of the previous work, Kinnell's personae live comfortably within the American macho: boy, tramp, convict, logger, skier and hiker—these solitary speakers wander quite naturally and without any sense of excluded life. If in poems about parenting Kinnell later becomes the celebrant of domesticity, it is certainly not that he does so after having served a term as the poet of marriage. The adult female, abstractly celebrated as a featureless sexual partner, is only fleetingly invoked as part of Kinnell's cosmos. (An early exception to this is the vivid little poem dedicated to Denise Levertov, reading her poetry.) If in the new book we are slowly working up to a family romance, it is still a romance where most of the parts are played by men.

In the work of some poets, it would be easy to construct an argument defending this practice. As many worlds exist that can legitimately be characterized by the acute absence of either sex, it seems fruitless to demand equal time at all times. But Kinnell suggests a poetics yoking physical and imaginative creativity, and fusing poems and human generations within a single energy source. If mothers, wives and daughters are obliterated, except for equivocal traces, within this set-up, Kinnell invites the return of the repressed in significant lapses in the story; important gaps, and because of the gaps, distortions. You can't take on children, parents and the family without installing the ladies somewhere. From the recent book, the short poem “Saint Francis And The Sow,” moves to fill this absence, as the sow is lifted into the series of animal totems including porcupine and bear. In the poem, the speaker firmly tells the mama pig the old story of her beauty:

… Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
 to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing
beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

But Saint Francis may be casting out more than the poet bargains for, as this poem appears to transform mother dread, or a potentially fearsome and devil-ridden sow into a nurturant, if phallically lengthy, “perfect loveliness.”

Kinnell has elsewhere pleaded for a poetics that will be personally inclusive. In “Poetry, Personality and Death” he says:

If we take seriously Thoreau's dictum, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality,” if we are willing to face the worst in ourselves, we also have to accept the risks I have mentioned, that probing into one's own wretchedness one may just dig up more wretchedness. What justifies the risk is the hope that in the end the search may open and transfigure us.

What is most appealing in Kinnell's new book is not wretchedness, but a persona that exudes human warmth, a generous and caring soul. What creates the dilemma of sentimentality, though, is exactly what charm excludes: that core of faith in language's ability to reflect directly on the relation of men and women, in the minute particulars of what is to constitute, in Kinnell's phrase from The Book Of Nightmares, “tenderness to existence.” Clearly a tenderness that has to make its way through fears that are also conceivable by the poet, right in the midst of sexuality, in these terms:

Just as the supreme cry
of joy, the cry of orgasm, also has a ghastliness to it,
as though it touched forward
into the chaos where we break apart

Without a better map of that ghastliness, and its kindred cohesions and disintegrations, as they are played out in the man-woman relationship, and as they re-play earlier family roles, the book fits too comfortably into its tendernesses; without the risk-taking that this expanded subject might have provided, the book's larger ambition parks itself for a while, giving us more intermittent pleasure, but not the pleasure that readers of this copiously gifted poet might have expected. In response to “Poetry, Personality and Death,” Adrienne Rich said:

The problem for Kinnell, I believe (and if I single him out in this essay it is not because I think his blindness is greater but his potential for vision more)—the problem for Kinnell is the problem of the masculine writer—To become truly universal, he will have to confront the closed ego of man in its most private and political mode: his confused relationship to his own femininity, and his fear and guilt towards women.

These are subjects Kinnell touches gingerly at points; indeed, the closing poem of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words looks to be a partial engagement with Rich's program. “Flying Home,” however, instead of returning both poet and poetry to the full resonance of the home ground—the last two words of the book—manages bald platitude in place of the male-female engagement, as most of the charm of this poem is located elsewhere.

In The Book Of Nightmares, both daughter and son, Maud and Fergus, become emblems of continuity; but in the new book the son becomes the emblem of the on-going continuity of father generations. While it is true that people, even poets, have to live their lives as people, rather than as symbolic portents, nevertheless, the absence of one of the earlier symbolic people belonging to this story of lives becomes noticeable. What happened to the memorable girl-child detailed in “Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair In The Moonlight”:

In a restaurant once, everyone
quietly eating, you clambered up
on my lap: to all
 the mouthfuls rising toward
all the mouths, at the top of your voice
you cried your one word caca! caca! caca!
and each spoonful
stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering

Shame on Kinnell for forgetting this pungent little critic of transcendence, echoing as she does the earlier feelings of her father:

The great thing about Whitman is that he knew all of our being must be loved, if we are to love any of it. I have often thought there should be a book called Shit, telling us that what comes out of the body is no less a part of reality, no less sacred, than what goes into it; only a little less nourishing. It's a matter of its moment in the life cycle: food eaten is on the cross, at its moment of sacrifice, while food eliminated is at its moment of ascension.

(Kinnell, “The Poetics Of The Physical World”)

But while on the subject of problematic exclusions in Kinnell's American romanticism, and his failure to avoid entrapment in some of its aesthetic positions, I'd also like to point to successful adaptations and continuities, especially in the parts of Kinnell's work that overlap Thoreau. In the necessarily revisionist strategy of our late age, the best answer for difficulties that the tradition offers may well not be to sink the offending antecedent, as Kinnell tried to do with Thoreau in “The Last River,” or to bury him in your prose, but to keep a wary eye on him up front. In “The Last River,” Kinnell dismissed Thoreau and what Thoreau himself called the “excrementitious” truths of his gravel bank in a Spring thaw, and which Kinnell re-labeled the failure of “Seeking love …”; accusing Henry David of “failing to know I only loved / my purity.” Nonetheless, Kinnell has him come back to inhabit the fisher child of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. In one of the most successful new poems, “Fergus Falling,” Kinnell outlines in fairly compact form what both the strengths and dilemmas are of accepting the full flowering of the isolato, to borrow another American writer's term for the revolutionary persona in question.

In this poem, written with a deceptively casual music, Kinnell begins:

He climbed to the top
of one of those million white pines
set out across emptying pastures
of the fifties—some program to enrich the rich
and rebuke the forefather
who cleared it all once with ox and axe—
climbed to the top, probably to get out
of the shadow
not of those forefathers but of this father,
and saw for the first time,
down in its valley, Bruce Pond, giving off
its little steam in the afternoon

After completing this magical climb out of the order of the generations, in full Oedipal revolt, the poem stalls the engine of ascent for a moment to look at Bruce Pond. In effective, rhythmically irregular strophes, Kinnell describes the pond. In service to a belief in the fusion of letter and literal within the real, and with the intent of tracing the same intersection between the real and the symbolic, Thoreau drew Walden Pond for us in fidelity to its deceptive ordinariness, and then told us:

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

Kinnell follows the same intention of reflecting in language the order of language within the order of nature:

pond where Clarence Akley came on Sunday mornings to cut down
the cedars around the shore, I'd sometimes hear the slow spondees of
his work, he's gone,
where Milton Norway came up behind me while I was fishing and
stood awhile before I knew he was there, he's the one who put the cedar
shingles on the house, some have curled or split, a few have blown off, he's

In banging home that refrain, “he's gone,” Kinnell puts us in the book's preoccupation, mortality, but here, the mortality of a serenely repeating human order, in a persuasive syntax of continuity:

pond where an old fisherman in a rowboat sits, drowning hookedworms,
when he's gone he's replaced and is never gone

And then we get to the moment of recognition preceding the fall which gives the poem its title:

when Fergus … saw its oldness down there
in its old place in the valley, he became heavier suddenly
in his bones
the way fledglings do just before they fly,
and the soft pine cracked … 

Fergus falls into his own mortality, anticipating what his adult body will do later. But the pond remains for the transfixed child an exchange of gazes with the eye of earth. The pond also remains an emblem in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau as a fusion, or crossing-place of self and world, where through nature's mediation, both become known, even though in the ending, emphasis shifts from the optimism of having achieved knowledge, or spirit-food, to the more phlegmatic angling and waiting for it:

Yes—a pond
that lets off its mist
on clear afternoons of August, in that valley
to which many have come, for their reasons,
from which many have gone, a few for their reasons, most not,
where even now an old fisherman only the pinetops can see
 sits in the dry gray wood of his rowboat, waiting for pickerel.

In this poem, which takes the child protagonist into the romantic struggle to know self through nature, Kinnell only briefly touches on the intersection of that task with the style of self-knowledge gained through contrasting one's knowledge of identity through family order. In this poem, the father generations are the muted backdrop. As he evades an open treatment of the family themes that have met with such partial success elsewhere, Kinnell in this poem converts avoidance into advantage: “Fergus Falling” comes into its own by freshly acknowledging an aspect of harmony which has more to do with our place in the non-human, physical world, and much less to do with our relations to each other.

In a similar mutation of Romantic convention, two other poems, “Daybreak” and “The Grey Heron,” direct the focus away from the relentless anthropomorphizing that too close an imitation of Thoreau might have engendered. In these poems, stripped of the pathetic fallacy, there is an impersonal pleasure as the work bespeaks an order of things which modestly contains, rather than prominently features Man. “The Grey Heron” notes the rhyme of heron form with “a three-foot lizard / an ill-fitting skin / and with linear mouth expressive of the even temper / of the mineral kingdom.” The poem then places the final line recognizing the principle of mutability in the mouth of a mutable speaker on equal terms with his bird brother. “Daybreak” is likewise interested in the flux and permeability of natural order:

On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfish
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.

This small, quiet poem contains the same echoing large-scale satisfactions as the famous passage about nightfishing in Walden, where that ardent angler sinks his line down in the mysterious element only to realize that he has hooked heaven in the deep sky-water of his local pond. If in the next book, Kinnell sustains the re-ordering intensity of these last spatial paradoxes, he may yet advance Thoreau out of the woods and into a family cabin, and in another arc of motion, get the homebound airplane of this book to complete the trajectory promised.

Principal Works

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What a Kingdom it Was (poetry) 1960

Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (poetry) 1964

Black Light (novel) 1966

Body Rags (poetry) 1968

Poems of Night (poetry) 1968

The Hen Flower (poetry) 1969

First Poems: 1946-1954 (poetry) 1970

The Book of Nightmares (poetry) 1971

The Poetics of the Physical World (essay) 1971

Poetry, Personality, and Death (essay) 1971

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 (poetry) 1974

Walking down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews (interviews) 1978

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (poetry) 1980

The Poems of François Villon (translation) 1982

Selected Poems (poetry) 1982

The Fundamental Project of Technology (poetry) 1983

The Past (poetry) 1985

The Essential Whitman (editor and author of introduction) 1987

When One Has lived a Long Time Alone (poetry) 1990

Imperfect Thirst (poetry) 1994

Andrew Hudgins (essay date Fall 1985)

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SOURCE: “‘One and Zero Walk Off Together’: Dualism in Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares,” in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1985, pp. 56-71.

[In the following essay, Hudgins explores the spiritual and psychological features of Kinnell's work.]

In The Book of Nightmares Galway Kinnell explores from a contemporary perspective one of the great themes of romantic poetry: What is the proper human response to death? For Kinnell the answer to that question is complicated by his being possessed of a deep spiritual longing while living in an existential world. And death, that ultimate existential fact, is the stumbling block to spiritual aspirations because it implies utter nullity. But even with life ending in the apparent finality of death, people often intuit a harmony beyond death, a unity in the universe. Kinnell, in an interview, has stated the dichotomy succinctly: “death has two aspects—the extinction, which we fear, and the flowing away into the universe, which we desire—there is a conflict within us that I want to deal with.”1 Or to state the proposition in explicitly Freudian terms, people are torn between a drive toward life and a drive toward death. Behind this dualism, however, lies a deeper one; the rational mind looks at the world and sees that life, to all evidence, ends with death, while the irrational mind intuits a mystical oneness in death.

Throughout The Book of Nightmares Kinnell struggles with the separation of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind, trying to develop a coherent view of life and death, and his examination of his own ambivalences leads him to unravel a string of connected dualities—conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, mind and body, and ultimately life and death. Like Carl Jung, Kinnell feels that in the modern world the logical mind has grown too powerful at the expense of the unconscious. He therefore exalts the wisdom of the body which taps into the unconscious, but finds the mind often blocks his access to it. All through the volume the poet honestly confronts both sides of the dichotomy, and never slides off into glib lyricism or the intellectual fuzziness of fashionable mysticism.

The book begins with Kinnell, after the birth of his daughter Maud, going out into the woods, where “by this wet site / of old fires,” he starts a fire for his daughter:

                                                            for her,
whose face
I held in my hands
a few hours, whom I gave back
only to keep holding the space where she was,
I light
a small fire in the rain.(2)

While the fire built on the ashes of an earlier fire hints at immortality through one's offspring, the speaker's main concern is about having brought a life, represented by the fire, into a world hostile to it. In spite of the rain, as an act of affirmation, he is able to start the fire. As the wood burns, the deathwatch beetles inside it “begin running out of time” (p. 3). Relishing the wordplay of deathwatch, Kinnell introduces a theme he will return to frequently: In the hour of our birth is the hour of our death. But why? The answer, which he will expand on later, is implicit in his description of what happens when the rain falls on the fire. The fire changes the rain as people's attitude to their suffering can change it into a means of attaining wisdom:

The raindrops trying
to put the fire out
fall into it and are
changed: the oath broken,
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit,
to be sworn again,
over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,
over and over, on earth. (p. 4)

In transcending earthly suffering and rising into the clouds, flesh and spirit join, but on earth, which is imperfect and subject to mortality, the joining breaks down, resulting in the uneasy division of the human psyche between mind and body. At death, however, one returns to the universe, unity is restored, and the oath is sworn anew.

The harmony to be found in death can also be seen, though it fades rapidly, in newborn children. The poet's thoughts return to his daughter, who was born just hours ago. Before birth she was whole, “somersaulting alone in the oneness” of the womb (p. 5). Kinnell's description of the child as she is separated from oneness by birth is powerful and moving:

                    she skids out on her face into light,
this peck
of stunned flesh
clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing
with the astral violet
of the underlife. And as they cut
her tie to the darkness
she dies
a moment, turns blue as a coal,
the limbs shaking
as the memories rush out of them. (p. 6)

The memories of the collective unconscious are lost or made subservient to the rational mind, and the child dies for a moment, suspended between the life of the unconscious mind and the life of the conscious mind. Once she is born, she is inevitably thrust into the emptiness that follows the loss of the oneness she enjoyed in the womb. While the doctors hold her up by the feet, she draws her first breath, “the slow, / beating, featherless arms / already clutching at the emptiness” (p. 7). Forced out of the harmony and fullness of the womb, she instinctively embraces the emptiness of the existential world.

Later, the poet hears Maud crying in her crib and attributes her crying to “a sadness / stranger than ours, all of it / flowing from the other world” (p. 7). Behind this description and the description of Maud at birth—“clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing / with the astral violet / of the underlife”—I hear the voice of Wordsworth, another poet who felt intimations of immortality when recollecting early childhood and who described children as born “trailing clouds of glory” that diminish as the conscious mind grows.3 The longer Maud lives, the more she loses of the dark knowledge of the unconscious from which she came and to which she may, perhaps, return. To provide for Maud when she needs that knowledge and finds herself cut off from it by the blindness of her own rational mind, Kinnell sings to her so, when the time comes,

                         you will remember,
in the silent zones
of the brain, a specter, descendant
of the ghostly forefathers, singing
to you in the nighttime—(p. 7)

The song she will hear is not the bright song of the unconscious mind but the dark song of the unconscious, which speaks through dream and nightmare, telling us the often frightening truths that we have forgotten. The songs that come back to Maud will be

not the songs
of light said to wave
through the bright hair of angels,
but a blacker
rasping flowering on that tongue. (p. 7)

Kinnell is really giving himself the advice he addresses to his infant daughter: Trust the voice of the unconscious as it sings to you in the night.

In “The Hen Flower,” the second of ten sections of The Book of Nightmares, the poet meditates on death and the human inability to embrace death's inevitability. In the dead hen—the hen flower—that he holds in his hand, the poet sees a parallel to the human situation. When asked in an interview why he is so fond of bird imagery, Kinnell responded that “like everyone” he experiences “the contest between wanting to transcend and wanting to belong.”4 The hen's situation is more complicated, even, than that, and oddly comic too because, though winged and built for flight, it cannot fly. Similarly, humans, though they long to transcend their own earthbound nature, are held to earth by the weight of their bodies.

At the same time that he wants to transcend, the poet longs to live the purely animal life of the hen and not worry about death until it is immediately at hand.5 “If only / we could let go,” he exclaims, and “throw ourselves / on the mercy of darkness, like the hen” (p. 11). But letting go is easy for the hen; it has no rational mind to keep it from being a good animal. In another image, though, the poet merges the two aspects of the psyche when he uses the rational mind to see the world through the body of an animal. Looking through the thin, lucent part of a ram's spealbone—the shoulderblade, a bone sometimes used by primitives as a means of divination—he has a vision of nature and natural processes unchanged by death:

I thought suddenly
I could read the cosmos spelling itself, … 
and in a moment,
in the twinkling of an eye, it came to me
the mockingbird would sing all her nights the cry of the rifle,
the tree would hold the bones of the sniper who chose not to climb down,
the rose would bloom no one would see it,
the chameleon longing to be changed would remain the color of blood. (p.

He has his moment of existential insight, but he cannot let go, cannot accept what he sees. In despair at his vision, the poet takes the body of a chicken killed by weasels and flings it into the air in a grotesque simulation of flying, as if to assure himself that death will provide the gift of flight that the chicken—and he—was denied in life. The effect, of course, is just the opposite. Again he tells himself to “let go” and accept death, even though he is afraid of it; after all, everyone and everything is afraid of dying, of nonexistence: “even these feathers freed from their wings forever / are afraid” (p. 15).

Deciding to put his fear behind him, the poet, in “The Shoes of Wandering,” begins his existential quest. Where is he going? He knows only that he must first lose his way. What is he looking for? He knows only that he will not find it. His quest is not his alone but the quest everyone makes in trying to come to terms with life. In what seems to be a reference to the archetypal nature of his search, the poet goes to a Salvation Army store and, after sampling “these shoes strangers have died from” (p. 19), he buys shoes for his journey:

                                                            I discover
the eldershoes of my feet,
 that take my feet
as their first feet, clinging
down to the least knuckle and corn. (p. 19)

As he wears the used shoes, walking “on the steppingstones / of someone else's wandering” (p. 19), he trusts the instinctive wisdom of the body. When he becomes frightened that he may have lost the way, he remembers the Crone who said “the first step … /shall be / to lose the way” (p. 19). To find what he is seeking, he will have to forsake the established paths of the rational mind and pick his way across the “swampland” (p. 21) of the unconscious.

On the journey, every step is
                                                            a shock,
a shattering underfoot of mirrors sick of the itch
of our face-bones under their skins,
as memory reaches out
and lays bloody hands on the future, the haunted
shoes rising and falling
through the dust, wings of dust
lifting around them, as they flap
down the brainwaves of the temporal road. (p. 21)

As he walks down the road, the “wings of dust” around his feet hint at the possibility of a limited transcendence rising from the fear of death. The poet expounds on the connection between wings and feet when he goes on to ask:

Is it the foot,
which rubs the cobblestones
and snakestones all its days, this lowliest
of tongues, whose lick-tracks tell
our history of errors to the dust behind,
which is the last trace in us
of wings? (pp. 21-22)

The urge to transcend has been, in many ways, deflected into an earthbound restlessness. But the quest is both internal and external; it is not solipsistic. If it were, the poet would have a much easier time deluding himself about his ability to transcend himself. The poet's sense of the outside world is too sharp for any such self-deception. Also, he is clearly aware of the dangers of solipsism and is prepared to avoid them. Though he “longs for the mantle / of the great wanderers” (p. 22) of myth and legend who always, whatever mistakes they made, found the way, he knows the Crone—the outside voice—is right when she tells him, “you will feel all your bones / break / over the holy waters you will never drink” (p. 23).

The problem of delusion is examined in more detail in section IV, “Dear Stranger Extant in Memory by the Blue Juniata.” In this section, Kinnell reacts to the claims of mystics with irony and some mockery, but it is irony that is sympathetic and even partially self-directed because he would like to believe in these shortcuts to the infinite. Kinnell quotes, in the poem, from letters he has received from Virginia, a mystic. Explaining who Virginia is, Kinnell says in an interview:

Virginia is an actual person I've had a long correspondence with. She is a mystic, a seer. She is one of those born without the protective filtering device that allows the rest of us to see this humanized, familiar world as if it were all there is. She sees past the world and lives in the cosmos.6

This statement may at first sound like approval of Virginia, but, though Kinnell does no doubt admire her, it is worth pointing out that their first and only meeting was unsuccessful. Through letters, Virginia and Kinnell had to “reestablish an intimacy, though we now knew it was in part illusory, being purely platonic.”7 The same criticism applies to Virginia's mysticism, which leads her to reject the world she actually lives in. While Kinnell is compelled by courtesy to be polite in his statements about the actual Virginia, the stance of the poem, as I read it, is that Virginia, with her single-minded commitment to the cosmos is as wrong as those who can only see the world “as if it were all there is.”

Two letters from Virginia are quoted in the fourth section of The Book of Nightmares. In the first of them she describes a session of automatic writing and her reaction to it. As her hand grows numb, she finds herself drawing, without conscious control, circles, figure-eights, and mandalas. She drops the pencil, tries to relax, and then:

I felt my mouth open. My tongue moved, my breath wasn't
my own. The whisper which forced itself through my teeth said, Virginia, your eyes shine back to me from my own. world. O God, I thought, My breath came short, my heart opened.
O God, I thought, now I have a demon lover.
                                                  Yours, faithless to this life,
                                                  Virginia (p. 28)

The sentence about the demon lover is wonderfully comic. That is not to imply, however, that Kinnell does not sympathize very deeply with Virginia's desire to be one with the universe; indeed, he shares it. But he realizes that that desire comes at the expense of the body. Virginia herself admits as much in her second letter when she says,

God is my enemy. He gave me lust and joy and cut off my hands.
My brain is smothered with his blood. I asked why should I love this body
I fear. He said, It is so lordly, it can never be shaped again—dear, shining casket. …
Forgive my blindness.
                                                  Yours, in the darkness,
                                                  Virginia (pp. 30-31)

Virginia seems to be apologizing for her earlier excesses in response to Kinnell's yearning but cautious question: “Can it ever be true— / all bodies, one body, one light / made of everyone's darkness together?” (p. 30).

As if to reemphasize that his journey is inward, section V, “In the Hotel of Lost Light,” opens with the speaker still in the bed he was sleeping in when, in section III, he began his journey. Having taken the Crone's advice and lost the way that is illuminated by the light of the intellect, he resides now in the “Hotel of Lost Light.” While lying in bed in his room, he sees and identifies himself with a fly

                                                            whining his wings,
concentrated wholly on
time, time, losing his way worse
down the downward-winding stairs, his wings
whining for life as he shrivels
in the gaze
from the spider's clasped forebrains, the abstracted stare
in which even the nightmare spatters out its horrors
and dies. (p. 35)

The poet lost on his inward quest is represented by the fly lost on its downward spiral, and what makes the fly shrink is the “abstracted stare” that comes from the spider's brain. The proposed analogy is that the conscious mind is to the unconscious mind as a spider is to a fly: the latter is the prey of the former.

But Kinnell also realizes that the conscious mind is indispensable to our understanding of our situation and that the light it provides must be brought to bear, sympathetically, on the nurturing darkness of the unconscious. The rub is that light shone on darkness destroys the darkness. The poet's task—the human task—is to reconcile the irreconcilable.

“The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible,” section VI, is a grim consideration of what happens when the healthy impulses of the unconscious are repressed by adherence to a conscious creed. The result is “Christian man,” who revels in violence and death. The Biblical quotation that Kinnell takes for the title of this section pinpoints the false reasoning that has led to the Christian susceptibility to violence. Saying that “the dead shall be raised incorruptible” implies that people in their human, embodied form are corrupt—that mortality and moral failing are intrinsically linked. Kinnell maintains, in other words, that Christianity is based on contempt for the body. This section also seeks to establish a Freudian connection between anality and “Christian man,” who is afflicted by, as Kinnell speaks for him, “my iron will, my fear of love, my itch for money, and my madness” (p. 44). The madness derives from Christian man's development being arrested in the anal phase, something that is made clear in the beginning of the section, where the speaker sees a corpse smoking in a field and reacts with a list of words that make explicit the connections between death, dirt, food, and money:

caput mortuum,
gurry dumped from hospital trashcans. (p. 41)

At the center of this emphasis on decay and its scenes of warfare is a savage attack on the mentality that has produced these abominations. Using a form derived from Villon's Testament, which he has translated into English, Kinnell speaks as Christian man in “the Twentieth Century of my trespass on earth” (p. 42). He recounts the people whom he has killed, including “a whole continent of red men for living in unnatural community / and at the same time having relations with the land” (p. 42). Later in his testament, in one of the sharpest stabs of the volume, he leaves “my flesh to the advertising man, / the anti-prostitute, who loathes human flesh for money” (p. 43). There is something, though, some living essence, that resists death. An unidentified voice, apparently that of a wounded GI, says:

my neck broken I ran
hold my head up with both hands I ran
thinking the flames
the flames may burn the oboe
but listen buddy boy they can't touch the
notes! (p. 44)

The same point is made, even more dramatically, by an image that frames this section of the book; the section begins and ends with the image of a burning corpse, perhaps a victim of napalm: “Lieutenant!/ This corpse will not stop burning!” (pp. 41 and 45).

After the nightmare of section VI, the poet turns to his daughter, and his love for her, as Robert Langbaum points out,8 restores him: “my broken arms heal themselves around you” (p. 49). Section VII primarily consists of the poet's meditations on his daughter and his advice to her. Remembering when he heard her tell a flower not to die, he says he would, if he could, keep her from dying. But, by calling her with odd and compelling tenderness “O corpse-to-be” (p. 50), he acknowledges that she—like everyone—will die:

                              perhaps this is the reason you cry,
this the nightmare you wake screaming from:
being forever
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls. (p. 50)

Already she seems to grasp and be disturbed by the existential realization that life has no intrinsic meaning.

As Maud grows, the poet sees her entering the Freudian anal phase, in which the mind strives to dominate, even exclude, nature; he sees that she might become estranged from nature and the body, might even become as dangerously divorced from nature as to be like “Christian man.” He remembers a time when, in a restaurant, Maud climbed into his lap and cried at the food, “caca! caca! caca!” (p. 50). The child reacts so enthusiastically to the restraints of the anal phase that Kinnell fears she might, like Christian man, get stuck there, confusing nourishment and excrement. The connection is made much clearer when Kinnell describes the reaction of the other diners to his daughter's cry: “each spoonful / stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering / steam” (p. 50). The image evokes the opening lines of the previous section, lines that are followed by the list of archaic or unusual words that have associations with anality: “A piece of flesh gives off / smoke in the field” (p. 41).

Kinnell can foresee a time when these natural maturing processes will cut Maud off from nature. He imagines her standing in a field,

                    the raindrops
hitting you on the fontanel
over and over, and you standing there
unable to let them in. (p. 51)

When and if this alienation occurs, he advises her to let her knowledge of death and “the sorrows / to come” cause her to embrace the present. In short, his advice is carpe diem:

learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come—to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
the mouth
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This
laughter. These temple
The still undanced cadence of vanishing. (p. 52)

The insight implicit in this passage is stated explicitly as the section ends. Out of the pain and suffering caused by death there arises one compensation: “the wages / of dying is love” (p. 53).

From this crucial insight, the poet progresses to “The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing,” a title that brings to mind Kierkegaard's “leap to faith.” Though Kinnell does not leap across his valley, he calls across it and receives in reply intimations that harmony is possible in the world beyond. Occasionally he experiences something that lets him sense the possibility of wholeness, as he did once while in love with a woman whom he thinks of as the other half that completes his divided nature. The allusion, of course, is to Plato's speculation that the two sexes were once united beings whose union made them powerful enough to challenge the gods. Kinnell found, briefly, the half that made him whole but had to leave her because of “cowardice / loyalties, all which goes by the name of ‘necessity’” (p. 58)—reasons in which mind dominates instinct.

Expanding on the idea that “the wages of dying is love,” he sees that it is death and suffering that gives us the power to reach, temporarily, beyond ourselves and feel flashes of oneness, even though we are not with the exact other half we are looking for and have to settle for our “misfit”:

it must be the wound, the wound itself,
which lets us know and love,
which forces us to reach out to our misfit
and by a kind
of poetry of the soul, accomplish,
for a moment, the wholeness the drunk Greek
extrapolated from his high
or flagellated out of an empty heart,
that purest,
most tragic concumbence, strangers
clasped into one, a moment, of their moment on earth. (p. 58)

The union of two people in love and in sex is the closest people come to experiencing the integration of mind and body, but it is also tragic—it will not last, it hints at a unity that everywhere else eludes those seeking it. But in one such moment of love Kinnell has a vision of total integration. He thinks of a time when he and his wife were young and “not yet / dipped into the acids / of the craving for anything” (p. 58). They lay under a pear tree, “on the grass of the knowledge / of graves” (p. 59), where they felt perfect harmony of mind and body, felt the perfect interpenetration of the two opposing aspects of the self:

And the brain kept blossoming
all through the body, until the bones themselves could think,
and the genitals sent out wave after wave of holy desire
until even the dead brain cells
surged and fell in god-like, androgynous fantasies—
and I understand the unicorn's phallus could have risen, after
directly out of thought itself. (p. 59)

As if to emphasize that this vision is a vision and not the normal state of affairs, the poet recounts the story of a Southern sheriff in a civil-rights march, curses and spits. What he remembers most about the sheriff, though, is “the care, the almost loving, / animal gentleness of his hand on my hand” (p. 59) as he was finger-printed. The sheriff's racist beliefs have overwhelmed and perverted his natural kindness, or, to put it another way, his mind has been tainted by pernicious ideas that have squelched the natural goodness that still resides in his body. He has let his mind become so alienated from his body that, in effect, he no longer has a body:

Better than the rest of us, he knows
 the harshness of that cubicle
in hell where they put you
with all your desires undiminished, and with no body to appease them. (pp.

Cut off from the body, he is cut off from that which brings people together, that which affirms life even in the face of death. If we listen, even standing in a field “where the flesh / swaddles its skeleton a last time / before the bones go their way without us,” we still might hear

                                                            even then,
the bear call
from his hillside—a call, like ours, needing
to be answered—and the dam-bear
call back across the darkness
of the valley of not-knowing
the only word tongues shape without intercession,
yes … yes … ? (p. 61)

The only word the body forms without the intercession of the brain is one of affirmation and the instinctive but tentative response of one human being to another.

If section VIII considers the relationship of humans to the beyond, “The Path Among the Stones” explores the relationship of people to the present, inanimate world, and the poet ponders the curious fact that he himself has been inanimate and will be again. At one point he speaks of arrowheads; they are

which shuddered and leapt forth
to give themselves into the broken hearts
of the living,
who gave themselves back, broken, to the stones. (p. 65)

Later, in an image that provides the descent into the underworld of this inner epic, the poet imagines entering the earth—a reversal of the arrowhead entering the human body. Going down into the earth, he encounters an old man who is foolishly using his intellect—the light at his forehead—in an attempt to avoid death. Inevitably he fails:

An old man, a stone
lamp at his forehead, squats
by his hell-flames, stirs into
his pot
chopped head
of crow, strings of white light,
opened tail of peacock, dressed
body of canary, robin breast
dragged through the mud of battlefield, wrung-out
blossom of caput mortuum flower—salts
it all down with sand
stolen from the upper bells of hourglasses … (p. 67)

The amused irony of “salts it all down” reveals the poet's response to the old man's efforts. The attempt, by logic, to conjure from their dead bodies the birds’ ability to fly, and therefore to transcend the world, is doomed to failure; as is the attempt to extract immortality from the unexpended sand in the top section of the hourglass. All these efforts, the poet says, result in “nothing. / Always nothing” (p. 67). Immediately, however, he sees that something is gained by the striving, even, perhaps especially, if failure is unavoidable. Climbing up from the underground, he realizes the struggle has taken him to the essence of life: “I find myself alive / in the whorled / archway of the fingerprint of all things” (p. 68).

At this insight, “the hunger / to be new lifts off” (p. 68) his soul; at long last he seems to have reconciled himself to mortality. He sees in the sacrifice of his life, a sacrifice every human has to make, the chance for a greater realization of self than would otherwise be possible:

in the legends of blood sacrifice the fatted calf takes the bonfire into his arms, and he burns it. (p. 68)

To understand this enigmatic passage, I find an observation by Jungian scholar Marie Louise von Franz helpful. Speaking of sacrifice, von Franz says, “It is the possibility for the ego to experience the superior presence and reality of the self.”9 By suffering, the ego realizes that it is not paramount but is part of a larger whole; and by sacrifice it acknowledges that fact. Therefore, it is through suffering and sacrifice that people move toward the integration of the psyche. This pragmatic insight is what the book has been working toward throughout the first nine sections.

With “Lastness,” the tenth and final section, the book comes full circle; but it more closely resembles a Mobius strip than it does a circle. While the setting the poet has returned to is more or less the same—the fire he started in the first section is “somewhere behind me” (p. 71)—and while time has passed, what seems to be the same bear is performing what seem to be the same actions he performed then. This odd wrinkle in time points up the inner nature of the poet's journey. He returns to the same place and events and finds that though they have remained the same, he has changed. He has a more profound and empathetic feeling for the world around him. His mind reaches out and he becomes the bear he is watching. The scene also suggests the ease that the poet has acquired with the natural side of himself:

                                                  He sniffs the sweat
in the breeze, he understands
a creature, a death-creature
watches from the fringe of the trees,
finally he understands
I am no longer there, he himself
from the fringe of trees watches
a black bear
get up, eat a few flowers, trudge away, … (pp. 71-72)

By imagination, he breaks down the subject-object dichotomy and abridges his alienation from the world outside himself. The circular movement of the volume takes the speaker back to where he began, but in his internal odyssey he has come out in a different place. The process of suffering has allowed him the opportunity to acquire knowledge, perhaps wisdom, and to achieve glimpses of himself as a whole person.

But that sense of unity is momentary and far from absolute. About this last section, the poet asserts:

This is the tenth poem
 and it is the last. It is right
at the last, that one
and zero
walk off together,
walk off the end of these pages together
one creature

walking away side by side with the emptiness. (p. 73)

This stunning and witty image powerfully brings together the ideas of individuation and death, personal oneness and existential emptiness. To some extent, then, the dichotomy that has defined his struggle through the first nine sections of the book is resolved. He has achieved some integration of his own psyche, but then there rises a new dichotomy: The whole man lives in an empty world. The human condition is to be suspended between the two extremes, but in the end the poet has a stronger sense of his oneness than he has ever had before.

How, then, does this knowledge reflect itself in an attitude toward life? How does a sense of oneness exist “side by side with the emptiness”? The answer is embodied in the image of a skydiver who is both one and divided as he plummets through the air toward the ground, as we—all of us—plummet through life toward death. His life is a

                              concert of one
divided among himself,
this earthward gesture
of the sky-diver, the worms
on his back still spinning forth
and already gnawing away
the silks of his loves, who could have saved him,
this free floating of one
opening his arms into the attitude
of flight, as he obeys necessity and falls … (p. 75)

He is compelled to assume the “attitude / of flight” though he knows the transcendence he longs for is impossible. The best he can hope for is that the worms, which represent his fear of death, don't eat away the parachute of “his loves, who could have saved him.”

The imagery here becomes a bit ungainly as the poet tries to jam too much information into it, to qualify the image. But the poet's risking awkwardness to be as exact as possible points up a very great strength of the book: its honesty. Kinnell never slides into a facile vision of mystique unity. And what tenuous unity he does attain is matched by the emptiness without. But the zero added to the one raises it to a higher power, forming a new and much higher number than they do separately.


  1. Galway Kinnell, Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978), 23.

  2. Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 3. Page citations of all subsequent quotations from this book will be given parenthetically in the text of the article.

  3. Other instances of Wordsworth's influence on Kinnell are mentioned in Robert Langbaum, “Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares,American Poetry Review 8 (March-April 1979), 30.

  4. Galway Kinnell, “An Interview with Galway Kinnell,” conducted by Thomas Gardner, Contemporary Literature 20 (1979), 427.

  5. Langbaum, 30.

  6. Walking Down the Stairs, 108.

  7. Walking Down the Stairs, 109.

  8. Langbaum, 31.

  9. Marie Louise von Franz, C. G. Jung: His Myth in Our Time, trans. William H. Kennedy (New York: Putnam, 1975), 229.

David Lee Garrison (review date 15 August 1986)

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SOURCE: “Speaking with Tongues of Memory,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXIII, No. 14, August 15, 1986, pp. 441-42.

[In the following review of The PastGarrison comments on the thematic motifs of Kinnell's work and considers the poet's contribution to the development of an American poetic.]

In an earlier collection of his verse, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-64 (1974), Kinnell has a lovely poem for Robert Frost which contains certain lines that seem a fit epigraph for his own work in the mid-eighties:

He turned. Love,
Love of things, duty, he said
And made his way back to the shelter
No longer sheltering him, the house
Where everything was turning to words. …

Everything, in a gentle, graceful, unassuming way, is turning into words: words about the days of a child, about the many relationships of love in our lives (or lives in our love); and about how time rewrites all relationships. We find in this latest volume a preoccupation with what Coleridge cared about in his finest “conversation” poems. We find a poet intent on making himself and children and nature whole, on making words that reveal that wholeness, and on using those words to burn some kind of purification into us all.

This is a book that pleases, even surprises, by gathering weight in the reading, that seems to take on layers and layers of meaning gradually, almost without acknowledging that movement. The early poems are derived from what seems to be simple, even simplistic memories—chasing a piglet, rocking a child to sleep, rowing across a lake as a child to return home with milk for breakfast—while the poems that conclude the book bring us to less concrete, more evocative meditations on the relationship of those memories to the journey toward death. Kinnell never loses sight of just how closely we rely on memory to give value to life, nor of how important death is for helping us give value to the immediate, the daily, the passing.

As those familiar with Kinnell's work might expect, almost every poem places us in some relationship with land and water, or, almost as often, with air and fire. Consequently, even the simple poems are set in the context of a larger significance. But there is no overstatement in such poems; instead, the simple and the real are given fresh value by that wider context, somehow raised just slightly into prominence. A good example of the poet's desire for the presence of things, and for the gift of presenting things, appears in the brief poem, “Prayer,” that opens the second of the book's three sections:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

This is an especially American poetry. (There are echoes here, for example, of Whitman, Frost, Williams, Robert Penn Warren, and James Wright.) It is a poetry that combines the pragmatic with the visionary, that combines the solid object that we must first attend as image with the transcendent understanding the poet brings to our relationship with those defining objects. Kinnell provides us with long lines of catalogued memories, as well as sharply etched, pointed details. In “Cemetery Angels,” for example, he gives us what to my ear is a lovely integration of Frost's lessons about the heat of death, of William's best eye for imagery, and of James Wright's revelation about the short moment between death and flight:

On these cold days
they stand over
our dead, who will
erupt into flower as soon
as memory and human shape
rot out of them, each bent
forward and with wings
partly opened as though
warming itself at a fire.

But despite lessons of earlier poets (or perhaps partly because of them), this “American” sound is richly Kinnell's own. His ability to mitigate the impact of a direct image by raising the scene, through metaphor, into the realm of vision, as in “Cemetery Angel” is his own particular American poetic. We see this in isolated phrases that ring true: “We have to hold our children up to lean on them. / Everyone who could help goes or hasn't arrived.” In the first poem of the volume, appropriately titled, “The Road Between Here and There,” we find the poet listing significant memories attached to places along the “road,” a road that begins in concrete, but ends solely in the mind. The break between the two sorts of description comes in this long, prose-like line:

Here I sat on a boulder by the winter-steaming river and put
my head in my hands and considered time—which is next to nothing, merely
what vanishes, and yet can make one's elbows nearly pierce one's

The last three “lines” of the poem bring us to the beginning of the book and deliver us to our own considerations of that which is next to nothing:

Here I arrive there
Here I must turn around and go back and on the way back look carefully
to left and to right.
For here, the moment all the spaces along the road between here and
there—which the young know are infinite and all others know are not—get
used up, that's it.

As we learned from his earlier Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Galway Kinnell is a moral poet as well as one of pragmatism mixed with vision. There is a responsibility in his work enforced by our recognition of death and our unhesitating plunge toward it. I've tried to choose for one final quotation a passage that evokes not only that moral responsibility which Kinnell places in memory and language, but also the understanding of what Donald Hall has so gracefully referred to as “taking one's place in the story of leaves.” A poem late in the volume, “First Day of the Future,” ends this way:

I don't know about this new life.
Even though I burned the ashes of its flag again and again
and set fire to the ticket that might have conscripted me into its ranks
even though I squandered all my talents composing my emigration papers,
I think I want to go back now and live again in the present time, back
where someone milks a cow and jets of intensest nourishment go squawking
into a pail,
where someone is hammering, a bit of steel at the end of a stick hitting
a bit of steel, in the archaic stillness of an afternoon,
or somebody else saws a board, back and forth, like hard labor
in the lungs of one who refuses to come to the very end.
But I guess I'm here. So I must take care. For here
one has to keep facing the right way, or one sees one dies, and one
I'm not sure I'm going to like it living here in the future.
I don't think I can keep on doing it indefinitely.

David Kleinbard (essay date Winter 1986)

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SOURCE: “Galway Kinnell's Poetry of Transformation,” in Centennial Review, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 41-56.

[In the following essay, Kleinbard considers Kinnell's thematic and visionary concerns, comparing them to those of other poets, most notably Rainer Maria Rilke.]

At the time of its publication in 1971 Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares was praised as an evocation of a national trauma, the Vietnam war and its effects on this country. Now, after more than a decade, it seems more remarkable as an expression of private experience in visionary images. Cumulatively these images develop an epic scope and a timeless range of reference reminiscent of Kinnell's models, “Song of Myself” and Duino Elegies. Kinnell has said that The Book of Nightmares is an account of a journey whose starting point is dread and that “the book is nothing but an effort to face death and live with it.”1 This does not mean stoic acceptance, but a rediscovery of the child's capacity for living with time, decay, and death “almost as animals do.” Recurrently these ten poems suggest that one can “surrender to existence” only by letting go of the dread of extinction.

For Kinnell, as for Whitman and Rilke, dying is a return to the “oneness” with the world which we lose at birth. As he says in an interview, it may be seen as “the flowing away into the universe which we desire. …” (Walking, p. 23). Kinnell's most compelling poem on this theme is “The Last Hiding Places of Snow,” an elegy for his mother published in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Drawing upon the traditional associations between the foetal “underlife” and death as a return within maternal earth or nature 2, this poem recognizes not only the power but the danger of the longing to be with the mother again, particularly when the mother's desire for reunion, her desire to engulf her child, nurtures that longing in him:

My mother did not want me to be born;
afterwards, all her life, she needed me to return.
When this more-than-love flowed toward me, it brought darkness;
she wanted me as burial earth wants—to heap itself gently upon
but also to annihilate—
and I knew, whenever I felt longings to go back,
that is what wanting to die is. That is why dread lives in me,
dread which comes when what gives life beckons toward death,(3)

This mother's “more-than-love” is all the more fearful because she is dead. Dying is the only way to be reunited with her. In the darkness of the woods Kinnell hears his mother's sorrows and her love sighing and moaning:

from the darkness of spruce boughs,
from glimmer-at-night of the white birches,
from the last hiding places of snow,
a breeze,
that's all, driving across certain obstructions:
every stump speaks, the spruce needles play out of the air
the sorrows cried into it somewhere else.(4)

In the resonant simplicity with which it lets one hear and feel the living presence of the dead in nature “The Last Hiding Places of Snow” has powers of evocation which bring to mind T.S. Eliot's concept of the “auditory imagination,” “the feeling for syllable and rhyme, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking back to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back,” combining “the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.”5

As the elegy suggests, Kinnell's conception of death and of the longing for the various forms of darkness which his poems define is at least partly a response to the “mother-love” which “every stump / speaks” and “the spruce needles play out of the air.” This “more-than-love” exerts such a strong pull towards death because it has such power to protect and redeem.

The memory of his mother's love crying out of the darkness in the woods makes the poet feel “annointed” and “lighted” as if by sunlight in the deserted house of the world from which she is gone, so that he can wander through any “foulnesses” and “contagions” “and find my way back and learn again to be happy.”6

The dead mother's sorrows cried out of “the last hiding places of snow” recall the strange sadness of the poet's infant daughter in “Under the Maud Moon,” the first poem in The Book of Nightmares. When she cries, Maud's sadness flows “from the other world,” “the darkness” of the foetal life “in the oneness under the hill, under / the old, lonely belly button” (pp. 7 and 5). Here, too, Kinnell draws on traditional associations between the foetus’ existence and death, mother and earth.

Thinking of this incomprehensible sadness from “the other world,” the poet remembers that he used to sing to his daughter the song that he learned listening to the “long rustle of being and perishing” on riverbanks where the marshy land sent up “the underglimmer / of the beginning” (pp. 7-8). The “underglimmer / of the beginning” recalls “the astral violet / of the underlife” which Maud brings with her at birth. This may be the glimmer of the moon and the stars in the “cold streaks” which the “earth oozes up” (p. 8). But “underglimmer” also brings to mind the glow of marsh gas as these are the marshes along the “riverbanks.” The marsh fire rises from the decay of dead things, but it is also “the underglimmer / of the beginning” of life under the soil where the decay nurtures new sprouts and newly hatched creatures. For Kinnell it is a sign of the unity of “being and perishing.”

Maud's birth, too, has helped to teach him that the processes of dying, change, growth, ripening, aging, death, and decay, are vital and inextricable elements of life, of living. The song which has begun to glimmer in Kinnell's mind at the time of her birth, his “only song,” is a response to this discovery. Rilke, whose influence is pervasive in The Book of Nightmares, formulates the same wisdom in terms which offer a clear and precise statement of Kinnell's implicit argument:

And so you see, it was the same with death. Experienced, and yet in its reality not to be experienced … never rightly admitted by us … death, which is probably so near us that we cannot at all determine the distance between it and the life-center within us without its becoming something external, daily held further from us. … Now this might still have made a kind of sense had we been able to keep God and death at a distance, as mere ideas in the realm of mind; but Nature knew nothing of this removal we had somehow accomplished—if a tree blossoms, death blossoms in it as well as life, and the field is full of death, which from its reclining face sends out a rich expression of life. … love too takes no heed of our divisions … . Lovers do not live out of the detached here-and-now; as though no division had ever been undertaken, they enter into the enormous possessions of their heart, of them one may say that God becomes real to them and that death does not harm them: for being full of life, they are full of death (the italics are the poet's).7

Implicitly, like Rilke's Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus, the ten poems of The Book of Nightmares are saying that a culture which ignores the closeness of death to “the life-center within us” shuts out a large part of the richness of existence. The “ladies and gentlemen who would never die” in the tenth poem, “Lastness,” recall the people in Rilke's tenth Duino Elegy who throng the market of empty diversions and drink a bitter beer called “Deathless,” which is sweetened by ever new distractions.

At the end of “Under the Maud Moon” Kinnell imagines his daughter in the future, “orphaned,” tasting the “cursed bread” which is the knowledge of death. He expresses the hope that out of the bitterness and emptiness of this experience a voice will come back to her, “spectral, calling you / sister! / from everything that dies” (p. 8).

Here the awakening to death is reminiscent of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” where Whitman recalls his response as a boy to the song of a mocking bird grieving for its dead mate. The bird's grief in bringing the boy the awareness of death makes him hear “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,” and hear them with such imaginative empathy that “A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.”

At the end of his poem Whitman recalls that it was the consciousness of death which first enabled him to see the bird as his “dusky demon and brother” and to “fuse” his song “With the thousand responsive songs at random, / My own songs awakened from that hour.”

The dominant theme of The Book of Nightmares might well be defined by the last words of the seventh poem, which is also devoted to Maud: “the wages of dying is love” (the italics are the poet's).


Earlier I mentioned Kinnell's statement that The Book of Nightmares is an account of a journey whose starting point is the dread of death. The journey, which gets underway in the third poem, “The Shoes of Wandering,” takes the protagonist (really the poet, himself) through a series of encounters with death. Like Dante at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, he has lost his way. But unlike the voyager in The Divine Comedy, he affirms his confusion as the “first step” towards finding a new way of living (p. 19).

The poet makes his journey in a pair of secondhand shoes bought at a Salvation Army store, and these become a metaphor for his desire to leave behind the life he's led. He tells us that the stranger who first wore these shoes “died from” them (p. 19). This leaves one wondering. Did they cause his death? Did they wear him out? In casting off the shoes, the poem suggests, the stranger shed a part of himself or an earlier existence.

In the last part of “The Shoes of Wandering” a crone gazing into the crystal ball of Kinnell's skull tells him that he lives “under the Sign / of the Bear” (pp. 22-3). His fantasy of wearing shoes that a stranger has “died from” recalls his earlier poem, “The Bear,” in which he imagines that by crawling into the dead animal he may find out what it's like to be a bear and absorb some of its nature. The shoes of wandering will take him into another life. This is primitive magic. It's also a metaphor for casting yourself upon the mercy of the darkness, for letting instinct take you on “this path / inventing itself” (p. 22). The poet longs to join the great wanderers, like Whitman, Lawrence, and Rilke, whose “lamp,” he believes, was “pure hunger and pure thirst.” “ … whichever way they lurched was the way” (p. 22).

In the fifth poem, “The Hotel of Lost Light,” the quester, who has wandered in the shoes of the stranger, lies in the bed where an unknown drunk has died in a freeway motel room. He watches a fly dying in the web of a spider that becomes, as Kinnell describes it, a fearful embodiment of death and destructiveness.

Lying in his bed, the quester seeks to identify himself with the drunk who cast off all the confinements of middle-class life along with its comforts and saving graces before casting off in death even the confinement of the self-conscious ego.

He assures those of us who recoil from this descent into “The Hotel of Lost Light” that “To Live / has a poor cousin, / … who pronounces the family name / To Leave …” and changes her body rags each visit, as the poet dies to an earlier existence when he sets off on the freeway of his imaginative life, finding his way to a new birth of poetry (p. 37).

In his journeying Kinnell's protagonist calls to mind Rilke's surrogate in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte commits himself to a life of desperate poverty after coming to Paris, associating with homeless, uprooted grotesques, husks, the sick, and the dying in the belief that only by going through an experience as fearful and radical as death or madness, no less complete in its destruction of customary logic and meaning and of all the familiar links between words and the things they name, can one come to the new and different ways of perceiving and thinking about oneself and the world which are the primary source of genius.


The last three poems in The Book of Nightmares follow Kinnell's acknowledged model, the Duino Elegies, more closely than poems I through VII (see Walking, pp. 35 & 41). The eighth, “The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing,” takes up Rilke's concept of “the open,” the focal theme of the eighth Duino Elegy. The ninth, “The Path among the Stones,” is concerned with the idea of transformation, the main subject of Rilke's ninth elegy. The tenth, “Lastness,” recalls the tenth Duino Elegy's exploration of a fantastical realm of death and lamentation.

For Rilke, the experience of “the open” obliterates boundaries and barriers which commonsense puts between the living and the dead.

In the eighth Duino Elegy Rilke defines this kind of consciousness paradoxically, likening it to the life within the womb. A small insect, such as the gnat, he says, lives as if it never left the womb (”die immer bleibt im Schoosse,” “which always remains in the womb,” line 53). For it the infinitely spacious and timeless world is like a “maternal body” within which, completely secure, “it does nothing but leap for joy.” 8

The eighth elegy contrasts human and animal consciousness. Rilke observes that we take children and turn them away from the timeless existence which animals enjoy, free from the prospect of death. We face them into a world constricted by mental constructs and distinctions, such as time; oppositions between self and other, subjective and objective, human and natural; moral and social prescriptions; ideas of property and possession.

Haunted by death, we “are always taking leave” (line 75). At home nowhere, we live like tenants subject to eviction at any time. Unlike the small insects in their womb of security, we are “spectators” or “onlookers” always and everywhere, without relief.

Free from our deadening self-consciousness, our superego-burdened lives, the more primitive animals live without any sense of being watched over in “das Reine, Unuberwachte,” “the pure, unwatched-over,” which Rilke also calls “Nirgend ohne Nicht,” “nowhere without not,” an existence which is completely free in the absence of spatial limitation, time, and any form of negation (11. 17-18). Being nowhere in particular, one has the feeling of being everywhere, of encompassing and flowing all through the cosmos, as in this description of a mystical experience:

… the cry of a bird … did not, so to speak, break upon the barriers of his body, but gathered inner and outer together into one uninterrupted space. … That time he had shut his eyes, so as not to be confused in so generous an experience by the contour of his body, and the infinite passed into him so intimately from every side, that he could believe he felt the light reposing of the already appearing stars within his breast.9

Though the eighth poem in The Book of Nightmares is a variation on Rilke's focal theme in the eighth Duino Elegy, it has none of the weightiness of metaphysical implication which interested Heidegger in Rilke's letters and poems about “the open.” 10In its focus on a close personal relationship Kinnell's approach to this theme is characteristically different from Rilke's.

“The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing” contrasts Kinnell's marriage with an ideal, largely imagined relationship with a woman he met once in Waterloo, Iowa. The comparison and contrast between the reality of marriage and the ideal of the imagined relationship develop around the Greek myth that our primordial ancestors were hermaphrodites, that these were torn in half, and the longings of men and woman for each other arise out of the desire to be reunited with one's lost other half and the craving for psychic wholeness which the primordial hermaphrodites must have enjoyed.

Kinnell's marriage, like so many others, has brought together “two mismatched halfnesses.” At the beginning of the poem the poet is lying beside his wife, whose pregnancy both connects and separates them. She “sleeps on / happy, / far away in some other, / newly opened room of the world” (p. 57).

Though he feels excluded from this “newly opened room” and thinks of his wife and himself as “mismatched halfnesses,” in her blissful pregnancy she becomes for him a luminous and sensuous image of wholeness and plentitude:

Her hair glowing in the firelight,
her breasts full,
her belly swollen,
the sunset of firelight
wavering all down on one side, my wife sleeps on. … (p.

In part 6 of the poem Kinnell imagines a meeting between himself and the “woman of Waterloo.” They meet “in our own country,” a phrase which suggests metaphorically that they are at home with each other and consequently also feel at home in the world. They look “into each other's blindness” (p. 60). This inversion, typical of Kinnell, calls to mind D. H. Lawrence's conception of the blind, mindless instinctiveness of passionate lovemaking and Kinnell's remark during an interview that Lawrence's “best love poems move into mystery … into acts of cosmic adoration” (Walking, p. 54).

If this had been a real meeting, the poet imagines, he might have “moved / from then on like the born blind, / their faces gone into heaven already” (p. 60). In this ultimate vision of psychic wholeness the poem conceives of a life lived entirely by the sure wisdom of instinct in unreflective, unselfconscious bliss like that of the pregnant mother's waking sleep or the foetus in the darkness of his underlife or the gnats leaping for joy in the womb of Rilke's cosmos.

In a deceptively simple passage, which recalls “The Hen Flower,” the second poem in The Book of Nightmares, the faces of the poet and the woman of Waterloo incline toward each other “as hens, incline their faces when the heat flows from the warmed egg / back into the whole being” (p. 60). This comparison with the hen and the egg giving back the maternal warmth implicitly links the poet and the woman of Waterloo with the pregnant mother and her foetus in part 1 of the poem, and in particular it links them with the sense of wholeness and fullness which she enjoys.

But “The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing” does not set up a simple contrast between the marriage and imagined perfection. Paradoxically, the mismatch of marriage so intensifies the pain of the open wound, which is the consciousness of being fragmentary, incomplete and insufficient, that it “forces us to reach out to our misfit / and by a kind of poetry of the soul, accomplish / for a moment the wholeness” defined by the myth of the hermaphrodite (p. 58).

In part 4 of the poem Kinnell recaptures one such moment in which he and his wife experience an ecstatic intimacy with nature and each other:

we two
lay out together
under the tree, on earth, beside our empty clothes,
our bodies opened to the sky,
and the blossoms glittering in the sky
floated down
and the bees glittered in the blossoms
and the bodies of our hearts
open (p. 59).

“the bodies of our hearts” suggests that the division between sublimated feeling and egocentric desire was healed and that these were fused in this ecstatic experience. The next verse paragraph in part 4 has the brain “blossoming all through the body …” (p. 59). This conceit describes the cure of that basic evil, the split between body and mind. With characteristic wit Kinnell imagines that as a result of the brain's blossoming all through the body, “the bones themselves could think.”

The healing of the rift between reflective thought and instinctive body and the curing of the sense of alienation from all other human beings and from nature frees sexual desire from the infection of sin, guilt, and shame: “and the genitals sent out wave after wave of holy desire” (p. 59). The line reveals how close Kinnell comes in this poem to the spirit in which Blake radically revised the mythology, the values, and the visionary expectations of traditional religion.

The new sense of self which the experience generates reverses the puritanical myth of the fall of the sexes into hostility through their sexuality. It takes the form of “androgynous fantasies” which are “god-like.” With this result the remembered ecstatic communion of the husband and wife brings to a culmination the poem's development of the myth of hermaphroditic wholeness. Kinnell's celebration of their “god-like, androgynous fantasies” calls to mind the traditional conception of poetic genius as hermaphroditic. The most memorable American expression of this idea is the daring image of the poet's narcissism in “Song of Myself”:

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning.
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd overupon
And parted my shirt from my bosom bone, and plunged your tongue to my
bare-stript heart.
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held
my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own … 
(The “you” in this passage is “my soul”).


Such openness and tenderness toward oneself, other persons, and all things in nature as “The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing” defines are essential to the poet's gift for transformation. The ninth poem in The Book of Nightmares, “The Path among the Stones,” manifests this gift with consummate mastery.

Thinking about Whitman, Kinnell conceives of the poet as a kind of shaman who can transform himself into anything, not only another person or an animal, but even a stone (Walking, p. 23). Mastering the language to describe what it is to be stone would be among the most difficult tasks of the poet seeking to encompass all existing things.

Accomplishing this task would involve such complete absorption and transmutation of the qualities of stone into one's physical and mental being that, in the words of Rilke, the stone will have “turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.”11 If the poet accomplishes this transformation, the language of his poems “truly accords to the stones their own existence” (Walking, p. 63). “If a stone could speak your poem would be its words” (Walking, p. 23). This is the primary aim of “The Path among the Stones.”

In part 3, the poet discovers “great, granite nuclei, / glimmering … with ancient inklings of madness and war” (p. 67). Kinnell may be thinking of megaliths such as those at Stonehenge. The giant rocks seem images of irrationality and violence within nature and within himself, irrationality radiating through all human culture and history.

“Ancient inklings of madness and war” also brings to mind “Ancestral voices prophesying war” which Kubla Kahn hears through the tumult of the sacred river in Coleridge's poem about the fearful shaping and destroying power of poetic genius.

These “inklings of madness” and violence prepare for the poet's descent, in part 4, into a place filled with “everything I ever craved and lost,” where “hell-flames” burn up out of a brew full of dismembered parts of bodies, reminiscent of the broth made by the witches in Shakespeare's tragedy of insane destructiveness, Macbeth (p. 67).

The broth is stirred by an old man with a stone lamp on his brow, who seems to be associated with time as he salts his concoction with sand “stolen from the upper bells of hour glasses.” It is time that dismembers and devours all things.

Having descended into this hell of craving and loss, dismemberment and devouring time, having, perhaps, attained to something like the kind of understanding that Dante found in hell, the poet emerges in part 5, surprisingly “alive” and finds himself “in the whorled / archway of the fingerprint of all things, / skeleton groaning, / blood strings wailing the wail of all things” (p. 68).

This is to say that through his journey represented in the eight preceding poems and its microcosm in the four preceding parts of this poem, he has become so closely identified with “everything that dies,” that their voices have all become part of his own wailing, part of the “concert of one / divided among himself,” as he calls his “music” in the next poem, “Lastness” (p. 75).

“The whorled / archway of the fingerprint of all things” means literally that stone, in its fossils, contains the prints of all forms of life. But the line also alludes to and echoes a passage in the preceding poem, “The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing,” as so many lines in “The Path among the Stones” allude to earlier passages in the book, gathering major themes and motifs and metaphors of the first eight poems into a coherent culmination.

“the whorled archway of the fingerprint of all things” echoes “whorls/and tented archways” of fingerprints, which is one of the images of openness in “The Call across the Valley of Not-Knowing” (p. 59). They open into “the tabooed realm, that underlife / where the canaries of the blood are singing.”

Kinnell is remembering being fingerprinted by a southern sheriff, a jailer who seems a projection of himself. He imagines that this jailer knows better than anyone else the hell experienced in a cell “with all your desires undiminished, and with no body to appease them” (p. 60).

But the jailer's sense of the life in the men whose fingerprints he presses into the police-blotter becomes a way out of that hell. The poet's fantasy is that the memory of all those hands the jailer took in his hands with “almost loving, / animal gentleness” to fingerprint them will make him feel the creation touching him all over his body. In this way he will enter, through “the whorled archways of / all those / fingerprints” the “underlife,” (his own and theirs), the “darkness” of ordinarily buried consciousness where the “moan of wind / and the gasp of lungs” and the wailings and sighs of all beings “call to each other” in communion (p. 60).

Now that he has stood in that archway and has learned the sounds and other resonances of “all things” in his very bones and “bloodstrings,” in the last two parts of “The Path among the Stones” the poet achieves the task of transformation, which gives to all things a new life and at the same time, as he says, “accords to” them “their own existence” in his poem (p. 68).

The image of this transformation is the “eerie blue light” of “the hunger / to be new,” which lifts off his soul and “blooms / on all the ridges of the world” (p. 68). In achieving this metamorphosis the passionate imagination consumes the “bonfire” of destructiveness, of “madness and war,” in its own fire of creative energy (pp. 68, 67).

Having arrived at this version of the saving power of poetic genius, Kinnell concludes the poem with images which are metaphors for the healing love of all things for one another and metaphors for the resurrection of the dead to life.

In part 3 of “The Path among the Stones” the stones send up “ghost-bloom / into the starlight … / … seeking to be one / with the unearthly fires,” the stars (p. 66). But their reflected light falls back, an image of the poet's sadness at his inability to sing in the register of the glorious and sublime and of his need to express the existence of ordinary things, “the glitter of the bruised ground” (p. 66).

In part 7 of the poem the stones attain their yearning, but not because they ascend. Instead, the stars “kneel down in the star-form of the Aquarian age: / a splash / … on the grass of this earth even the stars love, splashes of the sacred waters …” (p. 68). Literally the rain or dew of early morning reflects the light of “the last scattered stars,” including the constellation Aquarius, the water-bearer, sign of our eleventh-hour epoch.

Speaking about the ninth Duino Elegy in one of his interviews, Kinnell observed, “Rilke says, in effect, ‘Don't try to tell the angels about the glory of your feelings, or how splendid your soul is; they know all about that. Tell them … something that you know better than they, tell them about the things of this world’” (Walking, p. 35). The stars, “unearthly fires,” in “The Path among the Stones,” are images of the glory and splendor of the visionary imagination. Their kneeling on the grass expresses the love of the visionary imagination for the ordinary things of this world. The dew or rains which transfigure these things with the reflected fire of the stars are “sacred,” healing waters.

As Seamus Heaney says of another poem, these lines “cunningly” make their “cast” and raise “Blake in the pool of the ear.”12 They echo lines from “The Tiger”: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And water'd heaven with their tears.” This echo reflects the close affinity between the concluding stanzas of this poem and Blake's writings.

For, the concluding stanzas of the “The Path among the Stones” express a visionary conception of the world's redemption which is shaped by feelings and ideas that derive from the Bible and Christian eschatology as well as the religious and visionary literature that has grown out of them.

Despite this heritage (Kinnell's earliest poems are explicit expressions of his Christian background), like Blake's visions of the world's redemption, this one creates a universe without a deity. Implicitly the poet's imagination has taken the place of the Divine Savior who resurrects the dead.

In the last stanza of “The Path among the Stones,” the stones, which have been the protean central metaphor developing the argument and journey of the poem through an extraordinarily fertile and coherent variety and range of images and meanings, are grave markers. Here, however, they are not symbolic of death, but have been transformed with delicacy and limpid simplicity into moving images of the miraculous new life which poetic genius can bring to a dead world in a nightmarish time:

So below: in the graveyard
the lamps start lighting up, one for each of us,
in all the windows
of stone (p. 68).


  1. Galway Kinnell, Walking Down the Stairs (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press. 1978), pp. 46-7, Hereafter this book will be designated Walking and the page(s) will be indicated in parentheses in the text.

  2. Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 6. Hereafter page numbers will be indicated in parentheses in the text.

  3. Galway Kinnell, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), pp. 42-3.

  4. Ibid., pp. 41-2.

  5. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933).

  6. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, p. 42.

  7. Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910-1926, trans. Jane Bannard Green and M.D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1947, 1948), pp. 148-9.

  8. I have consulted Leishman-Spender, MacIntyre, and Garney-Wilson translations of the Duino Elegies before translating them for this essay.

  9. Rainer Maria Rilke. Duino Elegies, trans. J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (New York: Norton, 1939), p. 126.

  10. See Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans, and introd. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), chapter 3, “What Are Poets For?”

  11. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1949), p. 27.

  12. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), p. 157.

David Schenker (essay date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: “Technology versus Technique: The Fundamental Project of Galway Kinnell's Recent Poetry,” in American Poetry, Vol. 5, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Schenker argues that Kinnell's poetics present a “post-Darwinian” view of human civilization's relationship to nature.]

The poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words and The Past continue Kinnell's progress away from the Modernist aesthetics which dominated the literary landscape of the nineteen fifties, the decade when he began his writing career. Two features in particular characterize this departure from the past. First, although the tone of Kinnell's poetry sometimes approaches the apocalyptic, his peculiar vision is not so much world-historical as it is domestic. On only a few occasions does Kinnell seem to have been seriously tempted by the project of telling the tale of the tribe, or purifying its dialect, or doing much of anything on an epic scale. Moreover, Kinnell has consistently renounced the established myths that might have allowed him the semblance of such mastery. In an early poem, “First Communion,” Jesus becomes “a pastry wafer” and the church “a disappointing shed” where men conjure the Lord into “inferior bread”; 1 “The Last River” and other poems dramatize Kinnell's understanding that the myth of “the American dream” which once inspired Whitman “will not come true.”2 Family matters, on the contrary, have provided the occasions for his most widely acclaimed work, as in The Book of Nightmares, which begins with the birth of his daughter and ends with the birth of his son. Poems to William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost—and a stony silence with regard to their contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot—further testify to the character of Kinnell's literary ambitions.

But if less culturally ambitious than The Cantos or The Waste Land, Kinnell's writing aspires to an inclusiveness lacking in these literary monuments. Western man's two thousand year trespass on earth may be past redemption, but the horizon of Kinnell's world extends considerably beyond Western man. Bears, porcupines, and hens, ocean waves, snowfalls, and lava flows share the space of Kinnell's poems with men in a democracy of presence. The poet of culture searches for ways to heal the wound that separates persons; Kinnell looks for that, too, but also seeks to heal the rift that isolates man from the rest of creation. This careful attention to the bonds between the human and non-human worlds helps to account for Kinnell's visible preoccupation with his own death. “Knowledge beforehand of the end,” Kinnell writes in “The Seekonk Woods,” “is surely among / existence's most spectacular feats.”3 Part of the spectacle for Kinnell is the awareness that death represents not extinction but rather dissolution, a redemptive physical union with the whole of life.

Kinnell's redemptive vision nonetheless remains vulnerable to the forces in culture that place little value on a man's domestic or transcendant life. Recognizable stock villains occasionally appear in poems, such as the Southern sheriff in “The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing” who curses Kinnell as he books the poet on a charge connected with his civil rights activities. Yet Kinnell tells us that what he remembers most about his jailer “was the care, the almost loving, / animal gentleness of his hand on my hand.”4 In the last analysis, he directs his anger less toward particular individuals than against what he sees as the basic cultural imperialism which defines Western civilization: a will to immortality which demands the transformation of the world into an image of the self. He further suggests that this desire to leave a permanent self image in the universal flux lies behind our impressive technological accomplishments. Kinnell's suspicion that man's fall from grace occurs at the moment he attempts to use nature's power to forestall natural processes (including even death) informs Kinnell's numerous poems of social and political protest. “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond,” for example, opens with a description of a pond as a balanced natural community, the mature frogs living in accordance with the phases of the moon, the tadpoles shivering through the water as if rejoicing in the newness of life itself. Across the surface of the water then “creeps” the reflection of a SAC bomber; the plane's drone heard high above in the “immaculate ozone” confirms the sacrilegious nature of this trepass.5 In the second section of the poem, the imposition of the bomber's image on the landscape becomes a paradigm of America's relationship to the rest of the world (and even to itself), one that violates as it attempts to control. The soldier in Vietnam “poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs / the rice of the world,” sheriff's deputies apply cattleprods to disaffected people at home, and voices on the television that bring us news of these events groan at the smell of our most natural and intimate possession, the human body.6

Kinnell wants to be understood as more than a social critic, however, and in other poems he seeks a corrective for these selfish and ultimately self-destructive impulses in Western culture. In one of his best known poems, “The Bear,” an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter's bait.7 When the hunter comes upon the bear's carcass he eats voraciously of the animal's flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and through a dream intensively recapitualtes the life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it's like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of newborn cubs. Although this poem comes close to presenting a mystical vision, it remains distinct from mysticism since Kinnell proposes not the elimination of desire, but the substitution of knowledge for power as the goal of human desire. Kinnell has expressed this preference more aphoristically in a recent poem in The Past entitled, significantly, “Prayer”: “Whatever happens. Whatever / what is is what / I want. Only that. But that.”8

One problem remains with “The Bear” and the poems that succeed it in The Book of Nightmares, which carry forward Kinnell's attempt to reconcile self and other (especially when that other encompasses the frightening mystery of one's own death). While protesting the aggressive behavior of Western man, the tone of these poems often remains incantatory and evangelical. Kinnell abandoned a traditional religious vocabulary for a more rigorously naturalistic language early on but the bardic assertiveness persists. “Stop. / Stop here. / Living brings you to death, there is no other road,” Kinnell writes in “Lastness.”9 Although the message is Kinnell, the voice could amost be that of Whitman, whose prophetic stance has become untenable in a time when the American dream has become strictly a nightmare. In addition, all the poems of The Book of Nightmares (and the last three poems in Body Rags) exhibit a consistent seven part structure. Kinnell has downplayed the significance of this pattern, noting “some … could as easily have been in eight or six parts;”10 nonetheless the symmetry of these poems and perhaps the magical associations of the number seven itself convey an impression of a poet still seeking absolute mastery over experience.

The direction that Kinnell has taken in the last decade suggests his own awareness of the contradiction between his commitment to a sort of ideal negative capability and the lingering desire to employ language as a means to control the wholly other. Inevitably, some readers will be disappointed when they move on to Kinnell's more recent work. Cary Nelson, who finds The Book of Nightmares the fullfillment of everything Kinnell had wanted to do, comments that “Mortal Acts, Mortal Words—reads like it predates The Book of Nightmares.11 There seems little question that the poems in this collection represent a falling off from the lyric intensity of some of this earlier work, if for no other reasons than that the newer poems confront the questions of life and death more obliquely, often through the prism of memory. The Book of Nightmares ends with a poem about the birth of a child and the anticipated death of his father. “Fergus Falling,” the poem that opens Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, includes the same child and meditates upon the transitory character of existence, but the mishap of Kinnell's son falling from a tree branch, though momentarily frightening, is not so dramatic as his birth, and the thoughts about death are less immediately personal, having been displaced into nostalgic recollections of departed neighbors. The rhythms have also slackened from the near breathlessness of poems in The Book of Nightmares. “Fergus Falling” includes an extended description of a body of water called Bruce Pond

where Gus Newland logged in the cold snap of ’58, the
               only man willing to go into those woods that never
               got warmer than ten below, he's gone,
pond where two wards of the state wandered on Halloween,
               the National Guard searched from them in November,
in vain, the next fall a hunter found their
               skeletons huddled together, in vain, they're
pond where an old fisherman in a rowboat sits, drowning
               hooked worms, when he goes he's replaced and
               never gone. (12)

While the length of these lines recalls Whitman, the rambling syntax creates a voice that is more folksy than prophetic, one that can accommodate comedy as well as tragedy. In the poem entitled “Lava” Kinnell again seems to be probing his resources, conducting an experiment in both language and earth science. A note beneath the title gives us the pronunciation of the three Hawaiian words upon which the success of the poem depends: “pahoehoe” (pä-hō-ā-hō-ā, “aa” (ä-ä), and “heiau” (hā-ē-ou). The second stanza reads:

When I approach the dismal shore
all made, I know, of pahoehoe,
which is just hoi polloi of the slopes,
I don't want to call, “ahoy! ahoy!”
and sail meekly in. Unh-unh.
I want to turn and look back
at that glittering, black aa
where we loved in the bright moon,
where all our atoms broke and lived,
where even now two kneepcaps gasp,
“ah! ah!” to a heiau's stone floor,
to which the stone answers,
“aaaaaah,” in commiseration
with bones that find the way very long
and “aaaaaah” in envy of yet unbroken bones.(13)

This poem wants to remind us of the continuity between the atoms that compose our bodies and the atoms in rocks and stones. Kinnell has presented the idea before but never in language quite as playful as this. The interlinguistic puns and oblique onomatopoeia, not unlike similar wordplay in Finnegans Wake, suggest a language that does not so much order experience as participate in it. This more closely approximates the poem's sense of man as only one of the physical universe's many forms of expression than the almost heroic diction of The Book of Nightmares.

The price Kinnell pays for resisting the language of myth and ritual is the occasional descent of his poems into sentimentality. In Mortal Acts, Mortal Words Kinnell seems to be taking stock of himself before moving on, and part of this self examination involves a number of poems that look back upon his family. One of these, “The Sadness of Brothers,” begins when Kinnell's mind drifts to the image of his long deceased brother who, he admits, “has become one / who never belonged among us, someone / it is useless to think about or remember.”14 But though perhaps useless, Kinnell imagines his brother returning after an absence of twenty-one years, looking vaguely like a man who has spent the last two decades in the grave. As the poem develops we learn that there was always something a little pathetic about this brother: that though dreaming through boyhood of learning to fly, he washed out of pilot training during the war and spent the next dozen or so years wandering until (apparently) an auto accident in Wyoming put an end to his less than fruitful life. At this point Kinnell refuses to mythologize the departed brother, admitting that he had left behind “only / old goods, few possessions, / matter which ceased to matter.”15 In the next section of the poem memories of his brother lead to thoughts of his mother and father:

… this man who had dragged himself to the earth's
so he could end up
in the ravaged ending-earth
of Pawtucket, Rhode Island; where the Irish wife willed
the bourgeois illusion all of us dreamed
we lived, even he, who disgorged
divine capitalist law
out of his starved craw
that we might succeed though he had failed
at every enterprise but war,
and perhaps at war(16)

This painful satire continues in the following section as Kinnell once again thinks about his brother appearing at his door, now fearing that he would make obnoxious remarks to Kinnell just as he had done to their mother in the old days when he staggered home from the Narrangansett Track and his trysts with rich men's wives. It might be interesting here to note briefly the contrast between this poem and Kinnell's earlier elegy to his brother, “Freedom, New Hampshire,” an almost classical poem with its pastoral setting and a decorum which hardly admits specific biographical detail, much less the exposure of family skeletons.17 Indeed, in “The Sadness of Brothers,” Kinnell comes as close as he ever has to the confessional mode of Robert Lowell in Life Studies, running here the same risk as Lowell of allowing realism to shade over into self-indulgence. Yet in the poem's final section Kinnell manages to pull back from this without falling again into the heroic diction of “Freedom, New Hampshire.” “But no, that's fear's reading,” Kinnell says of the scenario that hears the brother making his usual obnoxious remarks. Instead the episode ends in a fraternal embrace:

… and in large,
fat-gathering bodies, with sore, well or badly spent,
but spent, hearts, we hold each other, friends to reality,
knowing the ordinary sadness of brothers.(18)

To confront sadness or any other experience in the domain of the ordinary, to accept it for what it is and not the mythological beast which aggrandizes as much as threatens thus becomes a primary goal of Kinnell's verse. He comes close to achieving this in the last part of his most recent book, The Past. “On the Oregon Coast,” an elegy to the late Richard Hugo, opens with a description of a log rolling down the beach to the water's edge only to be pushed back by the force of the waves. Though not without a certain richness of descriptive language—Kinnell observes that the wind “batters a pewtery sheen on the water”—expressions like “maybe” and “sure enough” give the verse a colloquial movement.19 Moreover, since each line of the poem is a single complete sentence (or pair of sentences), the reader is denied the sense of a rising action that comes when meaning, or the anticipation of meaning, carries over from one line to the next. Having patiently observed the almost willful behavior of a log attempting to throw itself into the sea, Kinnell turns to a specific recollection of his departed friend:

The last time I was on this coast Richard Hugo and I had dinner
together just north of here, in a restaurant overlooking the sea.
The conversation came around to personification.
We agreed that eighteenth-and nineteenth-century poets almost had to personify, it was like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,
the only way they could imagine to keep the world from turning into dead matter.
And that as post-Darwinians it was up to us to anthropomorphizethe world
less and animalize, vegetablize, and mineralize ourselves more.
We doubted that pre-Darwinian language would let us.(20)

In Kinnell's capsule history of poetry, the Romantic poets who attempted to forestall the desecration of nature in the name of human advancement had inadvertently repeated the error they sought to correct by finding an anthropomorphized spirit in nature. After Darwin, the pivotal role of the human spirit in the evolutionary process can no longer be assumed, though the poet who accepts this, and even sees the hope such an insight offers the human species, remains bound by a poetic language that hardly knows how to speak of man except as lord over creation. The paratactic structure of this poem, its leisurely shop talk, and its willingness to conceive of a loved one as a log rolling into the sea (the image that Kinnell returns to at the end of the poem) suggest that “On the Oregon Coast” is itself an excursion into the post-Darwinian world where man no longer has the hero's role. Indeed, Kinnell's refusal to lyricize here reminds one of the language of poet David Antin whose work has a flatness of diction and transparency of motive in the extreme. What Charles Altieri has written of Antin's so-called “talk” poems might almost be said of Kinnell's recent work:

As form and as content, these talk poems carry the testimony of a specific mode of personal presence confronting some of the deepest fears characterizing contemporary life. Yet Antin recognizes that these fears need not be theatricalized (or that our theatrical modes of self-presentation need not trap us into self-defeating models of expression). We begin to understand such fears when we see how deeply they are embedded in the circumstances of ordinary life. Traditional reliance on the lyrical ego would trivialize them precisely by casting them as if they were the province of heroes, to be handled only by elaborate conceptual systems or extreme personal acts. But once we drop our stilts and turn to really basic and simple experiences, it becomes possible to explore our shareable domestic resources.21

As a measure of Kinnell's commitment to the spirit of “post-Darwinian language” let us consider one final poem from The Past, “The Fundamental Project of Technology.” An exhibition of artifacts from Japan that survived, in a manner of speaking, the atom bomb blasts—“bundles of wire become solid / lumps of iron; a pair of pliers; a ring of skull- / bone fused to the inside of a helmet”—furnishes the occasion for an elegy to the whole of humankind.22 Kinnell's earlier anti-war poems tried to convey their message through an unexpected juxtaposition of images, or the poet's adoption of a grotesque persona. But this poem, while built around the repeated image of the white flash from the Nagasaki explosion, avoids the heroic posturing that made Kinnell's earlier political poems among his least convincing. The speaker here is neither the avatar of Walt Whitman in “Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond” who has returned to “hear … America singing” of its atrocities against Asians and Africans, nor the Dantescan pilgrim of “The Last River” who survives a hellish night in a Southern jail to awaken us to the problems of racial injustice, nor even the pathetic figure of Christian man in “The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible” who confesses his sins against humanity in the course of his last will and testament.23 Rather, in these lines Kinnell presents us with an anonymous persona who offers an almost clinical analysis of the irony that the perfection of skills intended to protect us from the harshness of nature now threatens the survival of the species:

To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete
evolutionary characteristics, in particular of death,
which foreknowledge terrorizes the contents of skulls with,
is the fundamental project of technology; however,
psuedologica fantastica's mechanisms
to establish deathlessness it is necessary to eliminate
those who die; a task attempted, when a white flash sparkled.(24)

As in “On the Oregon Coast,” the long lines, prosaic direct statements and frequent repetitions undermine the poem's lyric intensity, and lend it a ruminative quality strongly reminiscent of Theodore Roethke's late poems.25 Kinnell also succeeds in maintaining a human perspective throughout the poem despite the apocalyptic scale of his subject. For most of us nuclear war never becomes more immediate than the newsreel image of a mushroom cloud boiling over some remote atoll, yet this picture is both distracting and unreal: distracting because the awful beauty of the thing allows us to forget for a moment its destructive potential and unreal because in the event of war only a few remotely placed observers might actually see the fully developed cloud. The white flash, though less dramatic than the newsreel footage, represents the image—the last image—that would appear on the retinas of its victims’ eyes. The prominence given to various household objects mentioned in the poem—beer bottles, pliers, scorched uniforms, lunch tins—further registers Kinnell's desire to keep our fears of war “embedded in the circumstances of ordinary life,” as Altieri puts it, and thus to allow at least the possibility of finding solutions within “our shareable domestic resources” rather than looking to supernatural agents or (what amounts to the same procedure) not looking at all.

The prospect of human self-extinction presents Kinnell with a subject that beyond all others obliges him to confront the potential contradictions between his verbal skill and his ideological commitments. From the outset of his career Kinnell has been drawn to the traditional objectives of lyric poetry; the exploration of the self, the desire to possess the other, the redemption of self and other from the passing of years, the denial of death itself. Not surprisingly, Kinnell remarks in an interview that as a young man he adopted W. B. Yeats as a model, finding him “not only the greatest of all poets, but also in a manner of speaking, poetry itself.”26 In one of Yeats's best-known poems, “Sailing to Byzantium,” the speaker expresses his preference for mechanical over natural birds, and looks forward to the hour when he will be liberated from the accidents of nature and gathered into “the artifice of eternity.”27 Although it would be unfair to caricature a poet who also wrote the “Crazy Jane” poems as a worshipper of abstract ideas and cultural artifacts, Yeats's work does often present us with an image of carefully structured experience, something that Kinnell alludes to when he admits his continuing admiration for the way that Yeats's complicated poems “resemble the Platonic dialogue.”28 Kinnell finds similar virtues in Rainer Maria Rilke who allows himself “nothing trivial, no bright chatter, no clever commentary” and whose poetry “gropes out into the inexpressible, like the late music of Beethoven.”29

Yet Kinnell also observes a dialectical movement in this kind of poetry, noting that the successes of Rilke's poetry also prophesy its failure. In a later interview he recounts the story of Rilke's refusal to attend his daughter's wedding “for fear that he would thereby miss writing the poem that might come to him that day were he to remain in his study.”30 Though he goes on to call Rilke the greatest poet of the century, he confesses: “sometimes when I read one of his poems I feel it's exactly the poem a man would write while staying away from his daughter's wedding—very spiritual so as to transfigure what in lesser spirits might be taken for callousness.”31 The potential callousness expressed by the poet's transfiguration of experience has long troubled Kinnell and tended to pull him from the orbit of the Yeatses and Rilkes toward more generous spirits like Whitman whose poems lack the same appearance of formal structure. Kinnell seems to be telling us that the impulse to reshape one's personal life into the formal perfection of a poem is not unrelated to Western civilization's evident desire to exercise control over every aspect of life on this planet. Accordingly, he has for some time sought to develop an artistic technique which does not repeat the errors of modern technology: he rejects Christianity in favor of a natural religion which, as in “The Bear,” promises knowledge of the world without the illusion of power over it, he transforms the elegy (as perhaps Whitman had done before him) into an instrument that celebrates rather than conquers death, and most importantly, he seeks a language which refuses to immortalize (and therefore kill) its subject.

Kinnell's project might be summarized as an attempt to exorcise the will to power from modern verse. To what degree he will succeed with this seemingly impossible task remains to be seen. The history of literature since the Romantics has been a series of attempts to transcend what Kinnell in The Book of Nightmares calls the “iron will” of Western man,32 and it seems that each effort only displaces the ego behind another mask. But perhaps now when man has become so dangerous that a poet can actually imagine a time when “the day flashes and no one lives / to look back and say, a flash, a white flash sparkled,” the task of resigning power for knowledge might have to succeed.33


  1. Galway Kinnell, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 42-3.

  2. Kinnell, Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978), pp. 98, 87.

  3. Kinnell, The Past (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), p. 56.

  4. Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 59.

  5. Kinnell, Body Rags (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 7.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., pp. 60-3.

  8. Kinnell, The Past, p. 19.

  9. Kinnell, Nightmares, p. 73.

  10. Kinnell, Walking, p. 41.

  11. Cary Nelson, Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 76.

  12. Kinnell, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 3. 13. Ibid., pp. 22-3.

  13. Ibid., pp. 22-3.

  14. Ibid., p. 33.

  15. Ibid., p. 34.

  16. Ibid., p. 35.

  17. Kinnell, Avenue, pp. 96-9.

  18. Kinnell, Mortal Acts, p. 37.

  19. Kinnell, The Past, p. 316.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Charles Altieri, “The Postmodernism of David Antin's Tuning,” College English 48 (January 1986), 24.

  22. Kinnell, The Past, p. 48.

  23. Kinnell, Body Rags, pp. 7-8; 3347; Nightmares, pp. 41-5.

  24. Kinnell, The Past, p. 48.

  25. Roethke's presence is evident in the rhythms of the poem's last stanza which begins, “The children go away. By nature they do. And by memory …” and recall the opening lines of the last stanza of Roethke's “The Waking”: “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. / What falls away is always. And is near.” The quiet homage to Roethke continues in the next poem, entitled “The Waking,” which like “The Fundamental Project of Technology” also meditates upon the proximity of life and death, though in more ordinary circumstances.

  26. Kinnell, Walking, pp. 42-3.

  27. W. B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 191.

  28. Kinnell, Walking, p. 43.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid., p. 84.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Kinnell, Nightmares, 44.

  33. Kinnell, The Past, p. 48

Daniel Schenker (essay date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: “Galway Kinnell's ‘The Last River’: A Civil Rights Odyssey,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 207-19.

[The following essay traces the development of a political strain in Kinnell's work.]

The successes of the film Mississippi Burning and of Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Parting the Waters have refocused public attention on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a period of American history that has been in eclipse for the past decade or so. Returning now to the literature of that time, we might expect to find a number of major poems which address the problems of racial justice chronicled, accurately and otherwise, in these recent works. Yet the poetic canon is rather impoverished. It turns out that despite its putative role in shaping the political consciousness of many established and soon-to-be-established writers, the Civil Rights movement itself has been the subject of few major works by white American poets. Certainly black poets have addressed these events; and many poets, black and white, wrote with conviction about the Vietnam War just a few years later. But poets of the dominant literary culture have had little to say about Civil Rights.

One distinguished exception to what Aldon Lynn Nielsen calls this “silence about race” that characterizes much American poetry1 is Galway Kinnell, whose 400-line poem “The Last River” is rooted in Kinnell's experience as a civil-rights worker in Louisiana. Kinnell, born in 1927, has published several books of verse since the early 1960s, including his Selected Poems, which won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award in 1982. Broadly speaking, Kinnell belongs to the poetic tradition that descends from Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. His work explores the possibilities of redemption in the social diversity and individual isolation of the American experience. For instance, Kinnell's most important early poem was the ambitiously titled “Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” a Whitmanesque panorama of New York's Lower East Side that surveyed the lives of the Jews, blacks, and Puerto Ricans whom the American dream had left behind.

It was no doubt this strong sense of social responsibility that motivated Kinnell to apply to the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) for a job registering new black voters around Hammond, Louisiana, in the summer of 1963. When the project ended in August and his co-workers went home, Kinnell stayed on alone in Hammond through December “trying to integrate some of the downtown businesses through behind the scenes negotiations.”2 Kinnell made at least one other trip South during this period. In March 1965, he was in Montgomery, Alabama, protesting the attack on Civil Rights demonstrators at the Pettus Bridge in Selma and Governor George Wallace's subsequent refusal to allow Dr. Martin Luther King to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery. The authorities’ response to the Montgomery protest was also violent, and a photograph in a 1965 issue of Life magazine shows a bloodied Kinnell receiving first aid in the aftermath of a beating by a sheriff's posse.3

“The Last River” is a dramatic expression of the passion of those times. When the poem appeared in Kinnell's 1968 collection, Body Rags, Hayden Carruth called it “the strongest single piece of writing the Movement has produced so far.”4 Since by that time the Vietnam War was absorbing most of the energy that writers (including Kinnell) devoted to political poetry, “The Last River” probably remains the premier work on the subject of Civil Rights by a white poet. Yet besides being an important personal testament of the Civil Rights experience, the poem, because Kinnell has published it in three different versions, also seems to chronicle the evolution of his generation's attitude toward these events. “The Last River” first appeared as “The Mystic River” in the April 1965 issue of Poetry; it was substantially revised for Body Rags in 1968; and in 1982, Kinnell brought out a shorter version in his Selected Poems. Our discussion here will focus on the text in Body Rags, because it comes after both of his trips to the South, and because Kinnell's note in Selected Poems indicates that the latest version is an abridgement, not a revision (though the question remains why he chose not to reprint the poem in its entirety). After considering the Body Rags text, I will turn back to “The Mystic River” and then forward to the Selected Poems text to note how the various strata of the poem register changes in political sensibility from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

“The Last River” is essentially a narrative poem interspersed with lyric and visionary episodes. The action centers on a night that Kinnell, later identified by name as the speaker, spends in jail “for creating a disturbance and endangering life on the Mississippi River” (he had refused to accept segregated waiting rooms on a ferry).5 While he shares a cell with an assortment of petty criminals, his thoughts wander from the immediate circumstances of his imprisonment—“Rumble of trailertrucks / on Louisiana 1”—to the stark contrast between the smiling billboards of the American dream and the faces of those for whom, having been denied even the right to vote, “the chance to live as men / does not ever come.”6 Kinnell is no dour moralist, however, as his righteous indignation is tempered by a South that appeals to his sensual nature. Of an old ex-convict who worked in voter registration, Kinnell, falling asleep, remembers

his shanty under the levee, standing
in the sun on the dirt road … 
a crepe myrtle tree,
a passion flower,
a butterfly … (p. 37)

The erotic potential of this landscape is realized in the next section as the poet recalls an interlude on the banks of the Mississippi:

A girl and I are lying
on the grass of the levee. Two
birds whirr overhead. We lie close,
as’ if having waked
in bodies of glory.
And putting on again
its skin of light, the river
bends into view. We watch it, rising
between the levees, flooding for the sky,
and hear it,
a hundred feet down, pressing its long weight
deeper into the world. (p. 38)

Kinnell's Mississippi is also the river of an earlier visitor to the South, Walt Whitman (just as the two birds are descendants of Whitman's “feather'd guests from Alabama”). The Mississippi binds a divided nation together, providing a natural connection between North and South. It also furnishes a thread through the varied events of Kinnell's life, by evoking memories first of the sluggish Ten Mile River near his family home in Rhode Island, and then of all the rivers he has known from “the Drac hissing in its bed of sand” (an allusion to a year Kinnell spent in the Middle East) down to the immediate realities of “the flesh-dark Tallahatchie” and “the bone-colored Pearl” (pp. 39, 40).

Here at the midpoint of the poem begins an extended dream sequence. Wrenching a tassel of moss from a limb (a gesture that recalls both Whitman's finding a token of comradeship on the Louisiana live oak in Calamus and Aeneas’ taking the golden bough in The Aeneid) Kinnell enters a landscape where he is soon greeted by a young black boy, probably the victim of a lynching, who calls himself Henry David. The boy takes Kinnell to the bank of a swampy river where a Charon-like figure, visualized as a partially rotted corpse whose limbs are tied together with “knots and rags,” poles them across to an underworld that presents the visitor with a tableau of the nation's ills. Less indebted to Dante's Inferno, Ralph Mills notes, than to Ezra Pound's “Hell” Cantos,7this section depicts the sufferings of both the victims and the perpetrators of racial violence:

On the shore four souls
cry out in pain, one lashed
by red suspenders to an
ever-revolving wheel, one with
red patches on the seat of his pants
shrieking while paunchy vultures
stab and gobble at the bourbon-squirting liver,
one pushing uphill
his own belly puffed up with the blood-money
he extorted on earth, that crashes back
and crushes him, one
standing up to his neck
in the vomit he caused the living to puke … 
“Southern politicians,” Henry David says,
“Yonder, in Junkie's Hollow,
you'll find Northern ones …” (p. 42)

During this underworld tour Kinnell also sees the fate of those who, perhaps like the poet himself, have responded inadequately to injustice:

Off to one side there's a man
signing restrictive covenants with his fingernails
on a blackboard. “That one,”
says my guide, “was
well-meaning: he believed
in equality and supported the good causes;
he got a shock, when he found out
this place is run by logicians …”
Hearing us talk, the man half turns … 
“Come on,” I say, sweating, for I know him. (p. 44)

The tour concludes when Henry David leads Kinnell to the banks of another river:

“What river is it?” I ask.
“The Mystic River,” Henry David says,
“the Healing Stream free to all
that flows from Calvary's Mountain … the liquor
that makes you forget …”
“And what's that over there,
on the far shore?” “That?”
he says, “that's Camp Ground …” (p. 45)

Kinnell asks his guide what it's like in “Camp Ground,” a name that evokes the spirit of religious renewal, but Henry David disappears back into the mist before he can answer. Kinnell is now plunged into total darkness save for a single brain cell that lights up and illuminates a vision of the one he describes as his “old hero.” This is Henry David Thoreau himself, sitting on an iron bunk in what is presumably the Concord jail cell where he was once jailed for an act of civil disobedience. Thoreau sits there, trying to remove the blood of victims of America's manifest destiny from a pile of knifeblades:

“Why you,” I ask him,
“You who, in your life, loathed our crimes?”
“Seeking love … love
without human blood in it,
that leaps above
men and women, flesh and erections,
which I thought I had found
in a Massachusetts gravel bank one spring … 
seeking love … 
failing to know I only loved
my purity … mein herz’ mein
fucking herz!” (p. 46)

This vision of Thoreau abruptly disappears when a harsh word from one of Kinnell's fellow prisoners takes him back to his own cell. Returned from his journey, a stunned Kinnell finds in his hands a “letter for the blind,” presumably from Thoreau, that apprises him of his complicity in the social injustice he seeks to eradicate.

The brief text reads:

For Galway alone.
I send you my mortality:
Which leans out from itself, to spit on itself.
Which you would not touch.
All you have known. (p. 47)

The poem's final section summarizes in a single vision all that has come before. Kinnell sees “the last river,” on whose banks stand a black man and a white man; between them is a rarefied “man of no color” who begins to deliver a prophecy in high-flown rhetoric:

There will come an agony upon you
beyond any
this nation has known;
and at that time thy people,
given intelligence, given imagination, given
given … (p. 47)

But here the voice falters and the poem ends as this mysterious figure literally falls to pieces, turning back into the decrepit ferryman who had earlier poled Kinnell and his young guide, Henry David, into Hell.

Speaking to a group of writing students at the University of Vermont in 1974, Kinnell noted two requirements of a successful political poem: “one must learn something from it, learn something about the political event, and if possible in the best poems, about oneself as well.”8 He goes on to note in reference to Robert Duncan's “Uprising,” an early poem about the Vietnam War, that the work must be “written in passion, not for the ages, but for its moment. This is precisely why it's a useful political poem. It may also be the reason it will last” (Walking, p. 60).

In these comments there is an obvious paradox that reveals a tension in Kinnell's political poetry, and in American political poetry more generally. Politics is a collective and transcendent enterprise, concerned with the life of the community through time. But Kinnell claims that the political poem begins with the life of the individual and the passion of the moment. Although the body politic is composed of individual members, the question remains whether or not a poetic rooted in the experience of the individual adequately confronts issues that by their nature require a transcendent outlook.

A similar conflict runs throughout the work of Walt Whitman, the American poet with whom Kinnell shares the strongest affinity (and whose voice at times threatens to overwhelm Kinnell's). Writing about his relationship to the Civil War, his biographer Justin Kaplan has noted:

Whitman's war—“the war of attempted Secession”—had not been about slavery at all, never about slavery, he was to say over and over again, but about democracy and union, organic principles of personality as well as politics, preconditions of his psychic wholeness and the validity of Leaves of Grass. … Like the nation “proved” by the war, his evolving life work reflected an evolving consciousness of self. Given the Whitman analogy of psyches and polities, Lincoln's call for “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations,” could be heard as a call for the poet to resume the building of what he described … as “a gigantic embryo or skeleton of Personality, fit for the West, for native models.”9

As Kaplan suggests, the conflict between the particular and the general, the personal and the political, was resolved for Whitman through his belief in the analogy between psyche and polity. A myth of integrated selfhood could always serve as a myth of political union because the nation was, after all, a “gigantic … Personality.”

Writing in the 1960s, the former civil-rights worker knew that much less had been “proved” by the Civil War than Whitman once believed. Asked in an interview if “The Last River” were an attempt “to update the American landscape in the Whitman fashion,” Kinnell responded:

It's not possible to speak of America the way Whitman did. He spoke for the country, as it was and also as he dreamed it, which is what gave his voice its peculiar authority and amplitude, what you could call its sense of destiny. The difference is that we know this dream will not come true. (Walking, p. 87)

But while Kinnell is less sanguine than his predecessor about the future, he continues to share with Whitman the conviction that the self remains the key to social reconstruction. Consider Kinnell's own criteria for the political poem applied to “The Last River.” Although one does learn something about voter registration drives in the South, Kinnell's recollection of the circumstances surrounding his arrest is as impressionistic as the poem's dream sequences. This translation of the political and the personal to the same level of consciousness implies that all knowledge in “The Last River” is a species of self-knowledge: we learn about the political event so that we can learn more about the self. At one point, for example, Kinnell recalls looking through the windows of a train from Chicago that had stopped on the tracks near Ponchatoula:

I think I saw three
of my kinsmen from the North
in the drinking car, boozing their way
down to New Orleans,
putting themselves across,
selling themselves,
dishing up soft soap,
plump, manicured, shit-eating, opulent, razor-sharp … 
Then the train
lurched and pushed on, carrying them off,
Yankee … equalitarian … 
grease in the palm of their golden aspirations. (p. 35)

While these lines try to expose the hypocrisy of the North, they also reveal a potentially annoying self-righteousness in the Civil Rights worker who now “knows” the South and recognizes that the North has no claim to moral superiority. Yet when he sees these same three men in Hell “peddling bits of their flesh,” he refrains from any comment because he finally understands that he, too, is one of them. Indeed, the lesson of the journey through Hell is as much psychological as moral. Kinnell learns “the world-braille of \his] complicity” not because of something he has done but because of what he is: the self is the other, it is the “gigantic embryo or skeleton of Personality” that contains all other selves. (This erasure of boundary between self and other accounts for the oddly amoral design of Kinnell's Hell, which accommodates both the guilty and their innocent victims.)

Thoreau's “letter” to Kinnell, which brings the poem to its climax, further details the poet's struggle with the self in this ostensibly political poem. Kinnell has noted that his presentation of a penitent Thoreau in section 26 was intended as a critique of the “self-reliant Yankee spirit” that can lead to “personal coldness, aloofness, and distaste for fellow beings,” an attitude that he found in both Thoreau and himself.10 Yet the text of the letter, significantly addressed to “Galway alone,” urges union, not between self and other, but between the alienated halves of the individual self. Only when the mind admits that love is impossible without the body, as Thoreau acknowledges when he admits the perverseness of his quest for purity and abstraction, can one even begin to address matters of social justice. Indeed, to the extent that moral idealism has led Kinnell away from “love / without human blood in it,” he is partly to blame for the kind of violence he himself opposes.

And yet, self-knowledge, perhaps because it never quite bridges to the other, leads to despair, not action. The apocalyptic “man of no color” (whose attributes include “body of beryl, / face of lightning, eyes lamps of wildfire” \p. 47]), and the powerful oratory that attends his appearance recall exactly the kind of speeches by leaders like Martin Luther King that propelled the Civil Rights movement into national prominence. This figure's inability to complete his address and his physical dissolution in the closing lines suggest Kinnell's disenchantment with movement politics. Not only has Kinnell shown us the flaw in “self-reliant Yankee spirit” underlying the moral idealism of the movement, but his very preoccupation with the condition of the self indicates the difficulty of connecting politically—and racially—to the other.

The somber conclusion of “The Last River” is typical of the changes that Kinnell introduced when he revised his earlier text, “The Mystic River”—changes that contemplate the futility of politics. To begin, “The Mystic River” employs a narrative structure that more closely follows the story of Kinnell's incarceration and release. Sections 10 and 11, for example, which recall the ex-convict who teaches voter registration and the girl with whom Kinnell shares a day by the river, were originally transposed and located at the end of the poem. Immediately preceding these episodes (and following the dissolution of the “man of no color”) is an exhortation occasioned by Kinnell's release from jail:

And supposing
There is only the earth left?
Then let thy will be done on earth
Lest it not be done anywhere-on this earth
By poem-shaped, death-going, joyously burning trees … 
Let us tear down the old stations … 
Status … Money … Heaven … 
And lay new track
Through the yellow grasslands of Eros
And by Agape's light-filled streams
Toward Caritas, the sun under the hill,
The heavenly city in our flesh.(11)

In “The Last River,” this speech disappears completely, and is replaced by the vision of Thoreau doing penance for his false idealism. (Thoreau now has the words “mein fuckingherz” which originally came to Kinnell as he lay on his bunk early in the poem.) One other minor change also deserves mention. When the “man of no color” speaks in “The Last River,” he never completes the clause that begins “and at that time thy people. …” But in “The Mystic River,” this figure is able to add “Shall be delivered” before he falls apart (“The Mystic River,” p. 67).

All in all, “The Mystic River” seems a good deal more optimistic about “the Movement” than its successor. It is in fact a good example of what Sacvan Bercovitch has called the “American jeremiad,” a genre whose origins reach back to Puritan New England. The traditional European jeremiad, Bercovitch notes, “was a lament over the ways of the world” which exhorted listeners to follow God's commandments for fear of suffering His wrath.12 Of course, the Medieval or Renaissance priest or preacher knew equally well what had been known to the Hebrew prophets, that men were fallen creatures who could be depended upon to ignore these warnings. The distinctiveness of the American jeremiad lay in the assumption that the colonists (and later citizens) were God's chosen people and that His wrath was corrective, not destructive. “In explicit opposition to the traditional mode,” explains Bercovitch, “\the American jeremiad] inverts the doctrine of vengeance into a promise of ultimate success, affirming to the world, and despite the world, the inviolability of the colonial enterprise” (p. 7). This irrepressible optimism, in Bercovitch's view, informs most classic American literature. Even an obvious example of dissent, such as Thoreau's Walden, ends up affirming the all-American values of progress, ingenuity, and self-reliance.

The tone of the jeremiad is present in the opening section of both versions of Kinnell's poem, but especially so in “The Mystic River.” Kinnell observes the Mississippi as he crosses it on a ferry “And wave\s] to a Norwegian deckhand gawking at the New World / Of sugar cane and shanties and junked cars” (p. 53). The mere presence of shanties and junked cars suggests that the inhabitants of this new world have not fulfilled its promise. This sense of failure is powerfully re-enforced a moment later with a pair of lines that Kinnell excised in his revision: “I glimpse Huck and Nigger Jim, there at the bend, / Rafting down as of old” (p. 53). Uttered against the background of the Civil Rights movement, the lines imply that one hundred years after the Civil War, nothing has really changed. Black people remain exiles in their own land. The sacred errand into the wilderness has been betrayed.

From this point, the text of “The Mystic River” closely anticipates that of “The Last River” with the important exception, noted above, that sections 10 and 11 have been transposed and placed at the end. This means that instead of leaving the reader in Hell with the dismembered figure who fails to resolve racial difference, Kinnell instead shows us his hero (himself) released from both his horrific vision and his prison cell. The feeling in these closing sections is one of physical and spiritual rebirth, even in the farewell to the old man (he's not an ex-convict in this version) who teaches voter registration: “He laughs gently, I receive his love. / He is so old we both know this is truly goodbye” (p. 69). Here the sadness of departure is mitigated by the awareness that something has been passed on. Receipt of the old man's love can empower Kinnell to “lay tracks / Through the yellow grasslands of Eros / And by Agape's light-filled streams / Toward Caritas” (p. 68). The poem closes with the idealism of the Civil Rights worker intact.

In sum, the journey through Hell in “The Mystic River” reassures us of ultimate success. It is corrective. We share a vision and then go forward, just as Kinnell goes forward from both his jail cell and a benighted South. But “The Last River,” as its title implies, is about termination, not correction and renewal. In this sense, it inclines toward Bercovitch's opposing term, the “anti-jeremiad,” a genre that includes Melville's Moby Dick, Twain's Connecticut Yankee, and other works that call into question the fundamental soundness of American values (Bercovitch, p. 191). The climax of Kinnell's “anti-jeremiad” occurs when Thoreau, the poet's “old hero,” appears in his prison cell trying to clean the pile of knifeblades. For all the criticism he levelled against his countrymen in Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau remained the quintessential American through his adherence to the “self-reliant Yankee spirit.” So, too, did Kinnell in “The Mystic River”: there he walks out of his jail cell and launches into an oration about building a sort of mystical railroad toward “Caritas … / The heavenly city in our flesh” (p. 68). It's not surprising that when Kinnell returned to “The Mystic River” he found it “smug and self-righteous” (Parris, p. 5). In the process of revision, Kinnell identified Thoreau as “one who is spiritually responsible for the situation” (Parris, p. 5), insofar as his exemplary self-reliance underlies the hubris that leads the dominant culture to ignore the plight of its minorities. To the degree that Thoreau recognizes his fault, he remains something of a hero in “The Last River,” though the poem has re-defined “hero” in an apolitical way: Thoreau is admired not because he commits an act of civil disobedience but because he sees the ambiguous value of such an act.

The transition from “The Mystic River” to “The Last River” marks not only Kinnell's personal farewell to the Civil Rights movement but also the more general turning away from politics that characterized American writing in the 1970s and 1980s. Kinnell's next volume, The Book of Nightmares (1971), is essentially apolitical. Although the ten-poem sequence does include one important anti-war poem, Kinnell is primarily concerned here with the issue of individual mortality which he explores through his relationship to his own children. While the speaker in these poems is not wholly indifferent to the larger context of his personal drama, politics in this text is either domesticated or distanced; the idea of politics as a prelude to collective action seems hardly to exist. In the eighth poem, “The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing,” Kinnell remembers his encounter with the law in Louisiana, but only as an illustration of how the power of eros transcends the boundaries of conventional heterosexual relationships:

Of that time in a Southern jail,
when the sheriff, as he cursed me
and spat, took my hand in this hand, rocked
from the pulps the whorls
and tented archways into the tabooed realm, that underlife
where the canaries of the blood are singing, pressed
into the dirty book of the
police-blotter, afterwards what I remembered most
was the care, the almost loving,
animal gentleness of his hand on my hand.(13)

Neither do the poems in Kinnell's two most recent books, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) and The Past (1985), engage political issues directly. (The one possible exception, “The Fundamental Project of Technology,” looks beyond politics to apocalypse, and presents a chillingly real vision of nuclear holocaust.) Whether or not Kinnell, like other activists from the 1960s, was swept up in what the historian Christopher Lasch dubbed “the culture of narcissism,” the fact remains that these books explore the self in domains no larger than that of family and friends. As one reviewer noted, this is work “to be read in the musing, browsing spirit in which the best of it is written.”14

In closing, let us briefly note the latest appearance of The Last River in Kinnell's Selected Poems (1982). All the poems in this volume follow the texts of earlier editions with one exception: “The Last River” has been abridged to about two-thirds of its original length. Specifically, Kinnell has left out sections 6-9 (his thoughts before dropping off to sleep) and sections 17, 19, and 21-24 (the bulk of his underworld journey). Also, the numbers of the individual sections have been removed and replaced with diamond-shaped bullets. While practical considerations may have dictated these changes, Kinnell could have eliminated one or two shorter poems from the volume for the sake of presenting “The Last River” in its entirety. The fact that he chose not to suggests that his abridgement is quite deliberate. And since it is probably the case that over the years the Selected Poems will have wider circulation than Kinnell's other books, we can speculate that this is the version Kinnell wants to be read.

Indeed, this version seems to fulfill the logic behind the earlier revision. The removal of section numbers further weakens the narrative momentum of “The Mystic River” and renders it still more inward and impressionistic. Instead of a gathering storm we now have a series of poignant vignettes. The much abbreviated tour of Hell also makes this a far less angry poem than its predecessors. Kinnell has evidently given up the role of Jeremiah, though it is hard to know whether to interpret this as a sign of disillusionment or maturity. At all events, twenty years after dreams of building railroads to Caritas (and risking his life in a hostile South to do so), the poet-prophet now leaves the task to others, if it is to be done at all.


  1. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), p. 163.

  2. Galway Kinnell, letter to the author, 3 February 1990.

  3. Life, 26 March 1965, pp. 36-37.

  4. In Howard Nelson, ed., On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987), p. 75.

  5. Kinnell, letter.

  6. Galway Kinnell, Body Rags (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), pp. 33, 37.

  7. Ralph J. Mills, Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975) p. 179.

  8. Galway Kinnell, Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978), p. 59.

  9. Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Bantam, 1982), p. 300.

  10. Peggy Parris, “Rags of His Body: Thoreau in Galway Kinnell's ‘The Last River,’” Thoreau Society Bulletin, 161 (Fall 1982), 5.

  11. Galway Kinnell, “The Mystic River,” Poetry, 106 (April 1965), 68.

  12. Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), p. 7.

  13. Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 59.

  14. R. W. Flint, “At Home in the Seventies,” Parnassus, 1980, p. 51.

Elizabeth Lund (review date 7 September 1995)

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SOURCE: “Stanzas Spun from Inspiration,” in Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Lund reviews Imperfect Thirst and offers brief comments on Kinnell's thematic interests and stylistic evolution.]

Imperfect Thirst, Galway Kinnell's 12th book of poems, has the rare distinction of having gone into a third printing. Kinnell covers a lot of familiar themes—mortality, the preciousness and fragility of life—with the sensitivity and honesty that has made his reputation as a major poet (the Pulitzer is among his honors). He is someone with whom readers feel a great sense of kinship.

Many of the poems seem filled with a familiar sense of sweetness and regret, as are these lines about an adult daughter who cares for her ill father:

Standing behind him, she presses
her cheek to his, kisses his jowl,
and his eyes seem to stop seeing
and do nothing but emit light.
Could heaven be a time, after we are dead,
of remembering the knowledge
flesh had from flesh?

There are some quietly satisfying poems in this collection, but many are looser, flatter, and less compelling than the highly polished gems of the poet's earlier work. Some even feel a bit self-conscious.

Kinnell is too gifted to need techniques such as addressing himself in his poems and relying on long buildups, as he does toward the end of the book. But despite such weaknesses, there's enough in this offering to satisfy readers who don't want to be either spoonfed or left in the dark.

Karen Maceira (essay date October 1995)

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SOURCE: “Galway Kinnell: A Voice to Lead Us,” in Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Maceira considers Kinnell's work up to Imperfect Thirst and assesses his development as a significant poetic voice.]

In this last decade of an apocalyptic century, many of us begin to search for the voices who can lead us away from despair for humanity and toward hope for the next era. The publication of Galway Kinnell's latest book, Imperfect Thirst, provides an opportunity to review the career of a poet who may turn out to be one of those voices. Few writers have embraced the contemporary existential view of life with as much grace and affirmation as Kinnell. In his poetry, he has made the shift successfully from the theistic framework of our forebears to the secular one our culture has claimed as its own, a shift, for Kinnell, that does not leave behind the sacred but weaves it into the very air we breathe. He is a poet who has taken the material of the self, delivered into our laps mid-century like an uncertain fetus, and taught it that it can survive, even flourish, on the earthly elements of human love and the knowledge of death. This affirmation stands as his major achievement. But Kinnell's contribution to American poetry touches formal aspects as well as content. An already acknowledged master of free verse, he displays in this latest book an even greater ability to put into practice his own definition of poetry, “Saying in its own music what matters most.”

Kinnell's has been a quiet career. Allied with none of the various schools of poetry which often monopolize the attention of critics, his work has only in the last several years begun to receive the serious critical consideration it deserves, despite the Pulitzer awarded his Selected Poems in 1983. Born in 1927, he came to maturity at the beginning of the postmodern movement away from the tighter forms and distanced, ironic voices which predominated in American poetry in the earlier decades of this century. Kinnell began by writing traditional verse, though even his early poems displayed characteristically aggressive rhythms. In one essay of Howard Nelson's collection, On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying, Charles Bell, an early teacher at Princeton and a lifelong mentor and friend, speaks of the poet's first efforts: “In form, Kinnell was … using a romantic and Miltonic pentameter almost totally remade under impacts from Donne and the moderns—meter purposely broken up, rhymes concealed—a demonic wrestling with traditional measures” (26).

But even as early as his first book, What a Kingdom It Was, Kinnell began to alternate the use of free verse with iambic pentameter in some of the long, multi-part poems which were the hallmark of the first half of his career, and when he did, he employed the same kind of discordant musicality in free verse as he did in pentameter. “Freedom, New Hampshire,” an elegy for Kinnell's older brother, Derry, who was killed in an automobile accident at age 32, evinces some characteristics of this musicality. Kinnell uses onomatopoeia, repetition and clustered stresses to make sound echo and enhance the sense of what he is saying. In part three of the poem, he describes some childhood pastimes shared with Derry, here involving the making of music on combs, ultimately referring, as his poems usually do, to darkness and mortality:

Though dusk would come upon us
Where we sat, and though we had
Skirled out our hearts in the music,
Yet the dandruffed
Harps we skirled it on
Had done not much better than
Flies, which buzzed, when quick
We trapped them in our hands,
Which went silent when we
Crushed them, which we bore
Downhill to the meadowlark's
Nest full of throats
Which Derry charmed and combed
With an Arabian air, while I
Chucked crushed flies into
Innards I could not see. …

Another long poem in the same book, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” brought him recognition. Composed of fourteen sections ranging from eight to sixty-one lines each, the poem is an ironic commentary on the reality of an immigrant neighborhood in New York City, a reality unredeemed by either Christ or the American democratic ideal. The tone of the poem is modernist; Kinnell's narrator is a distanced, omniscient voice, reminiscent of Eliot's in The Waste Land, who describes the dense, squalid life of the “Jews, Negroes, (and) Puerto Ricans” of Avenue C. The narrator not only sees the exterior reality, but also the interior one:

The figures withdraw into chambers overhead—
In the city of the mind, chambers built
Of care and necessity, where hands lifted to the blinds,
They glimpse in mirrors backed with the blackness of the world
Awkward, cherished rooms containing the familiar selves.

This interior reality is isolated and bereft of grace. In a reinterpretation of the Old Testament Abraham and Isaac story, Kinnell says,

A child lay in the flames
It was not the plan. Abraham
Stood in terror at the duplicity. 
Isaac whom he loved lay in the flames.
The Lord turned away washing
His hands without soap and water
Like a common housefly.

Here, Kinnell associates the figure of the fly with betrayal of the spirit. In later poems, written after he has made the existential shift to acceptance of an unmitigated death, he uses the fly as a symbol of the last of earthly vitality. In his essay “The Poetics of the Physical World,” Kinnell discusses the fly in Emily Dickinson's poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.” He says, “The poetics of heaven agrees to the denigration of pain and death; in the poetics of the physical world these are the very elements.” He adds, “The most ordinary thing, the most despised, may be the one chosen to bear the strange brightening, this last moment of increased life.”

In “Skunk Hour,” the poem which closes Life Studies, the landmark book published just a year before Kinnell's first book, a normally “despised” animal is also used by poet Robert Lowell as a figure of affirmation, though the mother skunk and her “column of kittens” in that poem represent an “ambiguous” affirmation, Lowell's own word to describe it. Important differences exist between the two poets; Kinnell, for one thing, hasn't explored the self in terms of mental illness in the way that Lowell was compelled to do. And while Lowell returned to the undergirding of traditional form in the unrhymed sonnets which comprise most of his books after Life Studies, Kinnell for the most part has continued to move further away from traditional form. Both poets, however, represent the postmodern trend towards a dependence on the self for redemption, a salvation likely to come from identification with the least of earth's creatures.

Kinnell concludes this section of “Avenue C” with the only passage in the entire poem in which the narrator, still an unidentified, disembodied voice, speaks directly:

Maybe it is as the poet said,
And the soul turns to thee
O vast and well-veiled Death
And the body gratefully nestles close to thee—
I think of Isaac reading Whitman in Chicago,
The week before he died, coming across
Such a passage and muttering, Oi!
What shit! And smiling, but not for you—I mean,
For thee, Sane and Sacred

Whitman would turn out to be the major influence in Kinnell's work. But while he invokes Whitman here and mimics Whitman's use of inclusive catalogue in the poem, Kinnell is not yet prepared to fully embrace Whitman's affirmative vision and still operates within the ironic mode. Granville Taylor is right when he says that for Kinnell

Existence is to be an ongoing revelation of a natural grace, but his revelation only occurs if one accepts death. These early poems hint at this vision but fail to give it adequate expression because of their concern with showing the inadequacy of a Christian concept of resurrection and immortality. Irony, after all, is rarely a vehicle for grace.

Christianity and Literature. Summer, 1988).

Kinnell moves closer to a vision of “natural grace” in the poems of his second book, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, and especially in his third book, Body Rags, published in 1968. The title of this latter book recalls Yeats (“the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”; “A tattered coat upon a stick”) with whom Kinnell shares an Irish heritage, and who provided him an important early model. Kinnell attributes his interest in long, sectioned poems to Yeats. But Kinnell departs from Yeats in a fundamental way. “In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats yearns for the sublimation of the mortal, the transient, into the permanence of art:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling.

Kinnell, on the other hand, asserts:

… for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
to open himself, to be
the flames

No permanence exists, no possibility of anything except the warmth and illumination of what is. But instead of the limitations of human life leading to meaninglessness, the major limitation, death, leads Kinnell to an assertion of the value of a fragile existence, providing a basis for his neo-romanticism. (Both Richard Calhoun, in Galway Kinnell, and Lee Zimmerman, In Intricate and Simple Things, discuss Kinnell as a neo-romantic.) Kinnell's neo-romanticism is characterized by many of the traditional tenets of that movement—belief in the importance of the imagination and of the natural world, rejection of prescribed parameters for subject matter and form—with the crucial addition necessary in our era, the ability to come to affirmation despite no hope of an afterlife. Contemporary neo-romanticism does not contrast with realism; instead, the new romantic vision embraces and incorporates a realistic perception. Indeed, affirmation gains validity from the ability to gaze unwaveringly at the worst, and most of the poems in Body Rags take on this function.

Two of the poems, “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond” and “The Last River,” deal with political issues. In the first one, Kinnell conveys his condemnation of the Vietnam War and its political era, invoking again the voice of Whitman in an ironic manner:

And I hear,
coming over the hills, America singing,
her varied carols I hear:
crack of deputies’ rifles practicing their aim on stray does at
sput of cattleprod,
TV groaning at the smells of the human body,
curses of the soldier as he poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs
rice of the world,
with open mouth, crying strong, hysterical curses.

This 34 line, three part poem of varied line lengths reveals a general tendency of the poems in Body Rags. Though sectioned poems still predominate (17 of 23), many poems are shorter on average, and there is one poem, “The Burn,” comprised of a single long stanza, a form Kinnell turns to increasingly in later work, and almost exclusively in Imperfect Thirst. Kinnell's movement toward simpler form goes back to Whitman's influence. In his introduction to The Essential Whitman, a book published in 1987, he says,

Under Whitman's spell I stopped writing in rhyme and meter and in rectangular stanzas and turned to long-lined, loosely cadenced verse; and at once I felt immensely liberated. Once again, as when I first began writing, it seemed it might be possible to say everything in poetry. Whitman has been my principal master ever since.

For Kinnell, internal form, the argument of the poem, is just as important as external form, perhaps even more important. He says, in his self-edited collection of interviews, Walking Down the StairsWDS) published in 1978, “poetry is a matter of vision and understanding, even awkwardly expressed, if need be …” (78).

One of the most interesting poems in Body Rags, “The Last River,” explores Kinnell's experience as a civil rights worker in Louisiana in 1963. The poem takes place in a jail cell, where Kinnell spent a week as a result of his voter registration activities, and it depicts a Dantean journey. Kinnell chooses Thoreau as his guide, but where Dante's poem ends in Paradise with the immortality of the spirit, Thoreau can leave Kinnell only a legacy of death: “For Galway alone / I send you my mortality.” Kinnell chooses Thoreau so that he can point out Thoreau's transgression in “Seeking … love / without human blood in it, / that leaps above / men and women, flesh and erections.” Thoreau held to the eastern belief in the wisdom of ridding the self of desire. He says in Walden, “We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms, which even in life and health, occupy our bodies.” Thoreau was not impressed with Whitman, as one can imagine, knowing Whitman's blatantly sexual poems. Kinnell has Thoreau repent and realize that “he \Thoreau] loved most \his] purity.” For Kinnell, Whitman's embrace of human sensuality provides one basis for affirmation.

Sensuality, because it pertains to the body, provides a connection with the animal world, and it is here that Kinnell finds another basis for affirmation, a possibility for transcendence. Kinnell says, “If the things and creatures that live on earth don't possess mystery, then there isn't any. To touch this mystery requires, I think, love of the things and creatures that surround us: the capacity to go out to them so that they enter us” (WDS 52). Body Rags concludes with two animal poems which have been among the most popular of Kinnell's, “The Bear” and “The Porcupine.” In both, the poet ultimately becomes the animal, especially in terms of a fearless acceptance of the physical. In “The Bear” the speaker eats bear feces soaked in blood. In “The Porcupine” Kinnell describes what a porcupine (read human being) loves:

Adorer of ax
handles aflow with grain, of arms
of Morris chairs, of hand
crafted objects
steeped in the juice of fingertips,
of surfaces wetted down
with fist grease and elbow oil,
of clothespins that have
grabbed our body rags by underarm and crotch … 
by the whirl of the stars, by these
he's astonished, ultra-
Rilkean angel!

By the end of the poem, the speaker has become the porcupine:

the fatty sheath of the man
melting off
the self-stabbing coil
of bristles reversing, blossoming outward—

In these two animal poems, Kinnell has left behind his ironic voice. He is making his way toward “natural grace.” But the journey involves a descent into the darkness of mortality which he accomplishes in his next book, The Book of Nightmares, a descent which yields the greatest possibility of transcendence in the births of his children.

Kinnell began writing The Book of Nightmares with Rilke in mind. He explains, speaking of the Duino Elegies:

In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke says, in effect, ‘Don't try to tell the angels about the glory of your feelings, or how splendid your soul is, they know all about that. Tell them something they'd be more interested in, something that you know better than they, tell them about the things of the world.’ So it came to me to write a poem called ‘The Things.’ Like the Elegies it would be a poem without plot, yet with a close relationship among the parts, and a development from beginning to end” (Walking Down the Stairs 35).

What began as a single ten-part sequence, after Rilke's poem which is in ten parts, eventually became the book length poem which many consider Kinnell's best work. Kinnell retains Rilke's ten-part organization, further dividing each part into seven sections. As a whole, the poem represents a meditation on spiritual isolation and corporeal decay, as well as on the one thing which ultimately rescues human existence from meaninglessness and despair—love, in this case, a parent's love for his children. But the rescue does not wipe away terror and loneliness. The “I” of the poem dwells alternately within the uncompromising reality of the natural world and the sordid confines of seedy hotel rooms, which, for Kinnell, represent the hell of human isolation. And the affirmation which rises is “a love-note / twisting under my tongue, / like the coyote's bark, / curving off, into a / howl.” The affirmation provided by twentieth-century neo-romanticism still frames a tragic view of life, In “Poetry, Personality and Death,” Kinnell quotes Simone Weil: “Love is not consolation, it is light.”

The most beautiful passage of The Book of Nightmares is also certainly among the loveliest and most compelling passages in contemporary American poetry—Part VII, “Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” which describes the father coming to answer his small daughter's cries in the night:

You scream, waking from a nightmare.
When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
as if clinging could save us. I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

The innocent faith of the child and the knowledge through experience of the adult become one, yielding the powerful bond of love between them.

I have heard you tell
the sun, don't go down, I have
stood by
as you told the flower, don't grow old,
don't die. Little Maud,
I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
I would let nothing of you go, ever. …

Here Kinnell's passionate, sincere voice sounds a note as far from irony as possible. He satisfies his definition of poetry, rising to the ability to “get past the censors in one's mind and say what really matters without shame or exhibitionism” (WDS 105).

Part VII concludes:

Back you go, into your crib.
The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.
Your eyes close inside your head,
in sleep. Already
in your dreams the hours begin to sing.
Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.

The nature of salvation here differs radically from the traditional Christian one. For Kinnell, it is a salvation into mortality, not immortality. The epigraph that he uses from Rilke at the beginning of the book explains:

But this, though: death,
the whole of death,—even before life's begun,
to hold it all so gently, and be good:
this is beyond description!

Acceptance of death allows the freedom to live in a spirit of grace and simplicity. And a special power inheres in the birth of one's child—the self and yet not-self—for although salvation must be self-referenced, it must also lead outwardly, away from solipsistic obsession. Kinnell says in Part IV,

So little of what one is threads itself through the eye
of empty space.
Never mind.
The self is the least of it.

In The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell said he would sing “not the songs / of light said to wave / through the bright hair of angels, / but a blacker / rasping flowering on that tongue.” In the interim between that book and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Kinnell seems to have given himself permission to sing the “songs of light,” as well. The distinguishing characteristic of this 1980 book is its intense lyrical quality, exemplified in poems such as “Saint Francis and the Sow,” “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” “Wait” and “There Are Things I Tell to No One.” The poems are overall much shorter and simpler in design.

In the first poem mentioned above, Kinnell turns to a full, neo-romantic acceptance of what is. He states, “everything flowers from within, of self-blessing.” Everything (including everyone) must by necessity endorse his own life which is, like the sow's, homely, broken and earthy because it is mortal, vulnerable:

as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing
beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Kinnell's short lyric poems have sometimes been held in less esteem than his long poems. But their simplicity is often deceptive. In “Saint Francis and the Sow,” while Kinnell seems to be speaking of something less significant, he is actually making clear the connection of the earthly with the spiritual, that they are one and the same, thus setting out a rationale for his uncompromising acceptance of the physical. He does this partly through the use of sound. The sounds in “from the earthen snout all the way / down through the fodder and slops …” typify the hard, Anglo-Saxon edges Kinnell like to put on his often stark descriptions of the physical. But “the spiritual curl of the tail” follows immediately with its lilting, “L” sounds. Who else would think to call the curl of a pig's tail “spiritual”? And yet, as soon as we read it, we know we have always believed it to be so.

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words contains several elegies—for Etheridge Knight, for friend Allen Planz, another for his brother Derry, and for his mother. Her poem, called simply “Goodbye,” ends with lines which sum up Kinnell's philosophy: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.”

Reading The Past, I enjoyed the gentle, and for Kinnell rather rare, humor of the first poem, “The Road Between Here and There” (Maud and Fergus, both names associated with Yeats, are Kinnell's children):

Here I reread Moby Dick, skimming big chunks, in a single day,while
Maud and Fergus fished.
Here I abandoned the car because of a clonk in the motor andhitchhiked (which
in those days in Vermont meant walking thewhole way with a limp) all
the way to a garage where I passed the afternoon with ex-loggers who had stopped
by tooil the joints of their artificial limbs and talk.
Here the barn burned down to the snow. “Friction,” one of
the ex-loggers said. “Friction?” “Yup, the mortgage, rubbingagainst
the insurance policy.”

But the poem that struck me hard, “Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak,” did so because it possesses a fearless emotion all too rare in contemporary American poetry. Instead of the pseudo-sophistication and cynicism concerning the ability of language to communicate that many writers now cling to like a new god (as if something could hold back death, after all), I found genuineness of feeling:

We could turn to our fathers,
but they protect us only through the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can't, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold up our children to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn't arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That man was me.

The Past came out in 1988, when Kinnell was 61, an age at which one naturally assumes the past contains more of one's life than the future, an age given to contemplation of that past, and there is a meditative quality to these poems. In the last poem, a three-and-a-half page, single-stanza meditation called “The Seekonk Woods,” Kinnell returns to the subject of “what is,” which opened Body Rags twenty years earlier. Vision has matured and developed after the passage of a generation in time, but the consistency of the message and the same distinctive diction and rhythms come through. The poem opens:

When first I walked here I hobbled
along ties set too close together
for a boy to step naturally on each.
When I grew older, I thought, my stride
would reach every other and thereafter
I would walk in time with the way
towards the meeting place of rails … 

And it closes

The rails may never meet, O fellow Euclidians,
 for you, for me. Never mind if we groan.
That is our noise. Laughter is our stuttering
in a language we can't speak yet. Behind,
the world made of wishes goes dark. Ahead,
if not now then never, shines only what is.

The present moment, the embrace, is what counts.

After breaking with traditional meter and the long, sectioned poem in The Past, Kinnell returns to both in his 1991 book, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone. The title poem consists of eleven parts, each of which contains thirteen iambic pentameter lines. The poem can be viewed as a recounting of the part of Kinnell's Dantean journey which readies him to enter Paradise, the realm of love. Perhaps, then, we can see it as his Purgatorio. This poem comes after poems like the already mentioned “Wait,” which is an argument against suicide, and “The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak,” which communicates the loneliness and isolation after divorce. As he says in part ten, he learns, after long solitude and the company only of animals, that all creatures “live to mate with their kind.” In part eleven he says, after the estranged one returns to “live again among men and women,” that “they (the man and woman) stand in a halo of being made one: kingdom come,” signaling entrance to Paradise. In this book and in poems since, Kinnell has explored the paradise of sexual love.

Some critics, attributing a lessening of intensity to Kinnell's poems after The Book of Nightmares, have concluded that his career has since gone into decline. While I see that book as a seminal work both for Kinnell and for contemporary American poetry, I see his work since not as a diminution of poetic powers, but as a satisfying and fitting extension of knowledge and ability gained, both in content and form. Imperfect Thirst bears this out, containing poems which display a mature talent at its height, poems which are deadly serious yet full of the tenderness born out of an emotional courage which comes, if one is fortunate, with age. Kinnell's dedication to the clarity of the internal argument of the free verse poem has never produced better work. His wide-ranging lines of thought are as certain as spider's silk, lending an enriching complexity and delicacy to his message.

The book begins with “The Pen,” a poem which quickly brought to mind a personal story. After a reading a couple of years ago, I approached Kinnell to have him sign a book of his poems. I held out the book along with my Bic pen. To my surprise, he looked rather alarmed and swiftly drew out a small leather pouch containing an obviously fine fountain pen. I felt immediately embarrassed at my transgression, though he, always gracious, obviously did not intend to cause me discomfort. “The Pen”, therefore, had special significance for me, and I smiled as I read it.

The poem illustrates the ease with which Kinnell assumes what is true and important for him is so for everyone, an ability to include personal details as though they were universal references: “the pen dreams of paper, and a feeling of pressure comes into it, and, like a boy dreaming of Grace Hamilton, who sits in front of him in the fifth grade, it could spout,” It also confirms that Kinnell can now speak of even the darker elements of his own life without taking himself too seriously, a charge some critics have made in the past: “I called it ‘my work’ when I would spend weeks on the road, often in the beds of others. / This Ideal pen, with vulcanite body, can't resist dredging up the waywardness of my youth. / Fortunately pens run out of ink.” But mostly this poem, like so many others in the book, demonstrates how Kinnell can take a far-reaching, meditative approach and bring all the components together satisfyingly and without fanfare.

In one group of poems, the Sheffield Ghazals, Kinnell again illustrates a new mastery in terms of leaving behind the self-consciousness which some critics have pointed to in earlier work. He addresses himself, using his own name near the end of each poem. Kinnell did this in “The Last River” and The Book of Nightmares, to name two previous examples, and there it seemed awkward and overly self-important, but here, perhaps because the Ghazal form requires self-address, the technique fits, enhancing the touching effect of each poem:

Not many are able to die well, not even Jesus going back to his
And yet dying gets done—and Eddie Jewell coming up the road with
his tractor on a flatbed truck and seeing an owl lifting its wings as it alights
on the ridgepole of this red house, Galway, will know that now it is you being
accepted back into the family of mortals.

This poem also shows, again, Kinnell's ability in this book to address his mortality, but not be ruled by it.

Kinnell, and the reader, have a lot of fun in some poems even while mindful of serious issues. “The Deconstruction of Emily Dickinson” vents his frustration with language cynics. “Holy Shit” quotes many other thinkers on the subject before Kinnell delivers his own message:

                                        Of course, as cummings’
Olaf, ‘whose warmest heart recoiled at war,’
 declared, 'there is some s. I will not eat.’
Like the s. of having to print it as s.
Or of imagining we are a people who don't die,
who come out of the sky like gods and drop
not shit but bombs on people who shit.

“Holy Shit” may be a surprise in terms of its range of humor, but not in that it addresses the physicality of human existence or makes the political statement in the last three lines quoted above. But the subject Kinnell addresses in “Lackawanna,” parental sexual abuse, is a surprise, simply because it is a new subject for him. Kinnell concentrates on the effects throughout a life, even throughout generations, of the memory of such an act:

It may be that the past has the absolute force
of the law that visits parent upon child
unto the third or fourth generation, and the implacability of vectors,
which fix the way a thing
goes reeling according to where it was touched.
What is called spirit may be the exhaust-light
of toil of the kind a person goes through
years later to take an unretractable step
out of that room. …

It is a great pleasure to see this master poet grow beyond the parameters of his own accomplishments and weaknesses of the past. Kinnell has never been easy to categorize; he remains a dynamic and surprising poet. But one thing does remain constant: Kinnell's bone-deep confidence in the human—after Darwin and Nietzsche, after Marx, after the great wars, the racial atrocities and assassinations of this century, after the marginalization of the human in practically every arena—reverberates throughout his work.

The closer we get to the millennium, the harder we look for those voices who can lead us away from cynicism. It may be that those who can lead us now are the quiet ones who've had sense enough to stay close to the earth, close to the music of love and desire, close to a language the body remembers. After reading Imperfect Thirst, and rereading his other books, I am more convinced than ever that Galway Kinnell is one of those voices.

Additional coverage of Kinnell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 10, 34, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 87, and Major 20th-Century Writers,Vols. 1 and 2; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 26.


Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 1)


Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 13)