Galway Kinnell Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 129) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lorrie Goldensohn (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Hudgins (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Lee Garrison (review date 15 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Kleinbard (essay date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Schenker (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Schenker (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Elizabeth Lund (review date 7 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karen Maceira (essay date October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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