Galway Kinnell

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Galway Kinnell 1927–

American poet, translator, and novelist.

A highly esteemed contemporary poet, Kinnell received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1982). This volume provides a broad retrospective of his career. It includes selections from his five major collections: What a Kingdom It Was (1960), Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), Body Rags (1968), The Book of Nightmares (1971), and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980). In spite of significant changes over the course of Kinnell's career—most notably his movement from traditional to experimental verse—critics cite several thematic concerns that recur throughout his work. Of prominent importance is his preoccupation with death, which Morris Dickstein describes as Kinnell's "insistence on peering at the bones behind the face—death beneath the mask of life, yet also some kind of ecstatic survival beyond the mask of death."

Kinnell's reputation was established early in his career: his first collection contains "Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," a long poem which some critics still regard as his most important single work. The poem is a bleak vision of New York's East Side and, by inference, a political and social statement on the condition of contemporary society. Although in later works Kinnell's outlook becomes more affirmative, "Avenue C" foreshadows his concern with death and despair as well as his Whitmanesque regard for humanity. The religious symbolism evident in much of his work is also introduced in this poem.

Kinnell's earlier works exhibited, according to Peter Stitt, an "unrelenting seriousness, the pressure always to be deeply significant." As Kinnell's writing developed, his tone and style relaxed, and his works achieved increased emotional immediacy and thematic depth. A growing identification with nature becomes apparent with "The Bear" and "The Porcupine," two of the most esteemed poems in Body Rags. The Book of Nightmares, a highly acclaimed sequence inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies, reveals Kinnell's deepening acceptance of the inseparability of joy and sorrow, life and death.

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Kinnell's first book of new poems after a silence of nine years, has elicited considerable critical response. Although some critics contend that the poems in this volume do not live up to the standards of excellence set by "Avenue C" and The Book of Nightmares, others find evidence of "an even purer wish to live," a heightened maturity of vision, and, according to Peter Stitt, "an expressed love for the created world."

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

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Galway Kinnell's first collection, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), can be viewed in retrospect now as one of those volumes signaling decisive changes in the mood and character of Amer-ican poetry as it departed from the witty, pseudo-mythic verse, apparently written to critical prescription, of the 1950's to arrive at the more authentic, liberated work of the 1960's. Our recent poetry shows how closely and vulnerably aware of the palpable life of contemporary society poets have become, for, increasingly during the past decade or so, they have opened themselves as persons to the complex, frequently incongruous, violence-ridden ethos of the age in an effort to ground the poetic imagination in a shared, perceptible reality. This kind of openness—a sensitive receptivity in which the poet, to borrow a phrase of Heidegger's about Hölderlin, "is exposed to the divine lightnings" that can easily exact their toll on nerves and emotional balance—extends, in many instances, beyond matters of social and political experience to naked metaphysical confrontation: with the universe, the identity of the self, the possibilities of an absent or present God, or the...

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prospect of a vast, overwhelming nothingness. In such poets as Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Patchen, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, James Wright, Anne Sexton, James Dickey, W. S. Merwin, and Sylvia Plath, for example, with all differences aside, the pursuit of personal vision often leads toward a precipitous, dizzying boundary where the self stands alone, unaided but for its own resources, before the seemingly tangible earth at hand with its bewildering multiplicity of life, the remoteness of space, the endless rhythms of nature, the turns of night and day, and within, the elusive images of memory and dream, the irrationality and uncertainty of human behavior, the griefs and ecstasies that living accumulates. Here the poet—and Galway Kinnell is certainly of this company—is thrown back upon his own perceptions. His art must be the authoritative testimony to a man's own experience, or it is meaningless; its basic validity rests upon that premise.

"Perhaps to a degree more than is true of other poets, Kinnell's development will depend on the actual events of his life," James Dickey remarked prophetically in a review of What a Kingdom It Was [see CLC, Vol. 1]. For what we encounter as an essential ingredient in his work as it grows is not only the presence of the poet as man and speaker, but also his identification, through thematic recurrences, repeated images revelatory of his deepest concerns and most urgent feelings, with the experiences his poems dramatize…. Kinnell, using the considerable imaginative and linguistic powers at his command from the beginning, explores relentlessly the actualities of his existence to wrest from them what significance for life he can. Through the compelling force of his art, we find ourselves engaged in this arduous search with him. (pp. 134-35)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "A Reading of Galway Kinnell" and "A Reading of Galway Kinnell: Part 2" (copyright © 1970 by The University of Iowa; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in The Iowa Review, Vol. 1, Nos. 1 and 2 (Winter and Spring, 1970) (and reprinted in his Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, pp. 134-91).

Geoffrey Thurley

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Of Galway Kinnell's poem 'The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World', Selden Rodman wrote: 'I do not hesitate to call this the freshest, most exciting, and by far the most readable poem of a bleak decade.' John Logan called it 'a remarkable 450 line poem hard to match in American literature, drawn from contemporary life around Avenue C in New York.' James Dickey, finally, remarked that 'It is not entirely impossible that the Wave of the Future may turn out to have begun at Avenue C, or some place within walking distance' [see CLC, Vol. 1].

These judgements show more than the persistence of the American craving for the Great American Poem; they amount, I think, to a repudiation of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats as a whole. (The 'bleak decade' Rodman speaks of was among the richest in American writing this century.) Once again, the American literary establishment has failed its poets, as it had failed Crane, Lindsay, Rexroth and Patchen before. (pp. 210-11)

When we turn to Kinnell's poem, what do we in fact find? Something 'drawn from' the life around Avenue C in New York indeed…. Kinnell sees New York and its exotic Jews much as a tourist might savour Amsterdam's fleamarket or London's Petticoat Lane:

  In sunlight on the Avenue
  The Jew rocks along in a black fur shtraimel,
  Black robe, black knickers, black knee-stockings,
  Black shoes. His beard like a sod-bottom
  Hides the place where he wears no tie.
  A dozen children troop after him, barbels flying,
  In skullcaps. They are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah,
     Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Napthali, Gad,

There seems more than a suspicion that Kinnell is using people here, these dramatically poor Jews whose exotic headgear and outlandish names have to be pointed out.

      The Downtown Talmud Torah
      Blosztein's Cutrate Bakery
      Areceba Panataria Hispano
      Peanuts Dried Fruit Nuts & Canned Goods
      Productos Tropicales
      Appetizing Herring Candies Nuts
      Nathan Kugler Chicken Store Fresh Killed Daily
      Little Rose Restaurant….

This whole passage (there is as much again in the same vein as I have quoted) fails in its purpose to evoke the 'rich' life of the neighbourhood; it is a jumble of assorted names; rhythm has vanished, and the phenomena and names named merely clutter what they are meant to illumine. Poetry is a viciously exacting art: we apprehend as irrelevance not any technical offence against a norm of economy, but the poet's fundamental lack of engagement in the subject. Kinnell has tried to conjure up a ghetto here, in the way that Tadeusz Rozewicz conjures Warsaw, William Saroyan Chicago, or Izaac Babel Odessa. The poet here simply has not 'seen' or appropriated these things, because he has not loved them enough. He is exploiting them, even if he is doing it 'sincerely', and the result is offensive, especially when he comes to refer to the Nazi concentration camps.

The point is reinforced when we come to consider what Kinnell can do well, what he does see, as he has not seen these Jews in their historical agony. For Kinnell specializes, inevitably, in bits of observation 'well done' in the mid-century manner, though somewhat after the manner of Crane's 'The Tunnel'…. 'A propane- / gassed bus makes its way with big, airy sighs.'… and 'a crate of lemons discharges lights like a battery'. Such effects are competent in themselves, but they are certainly not welded by a presiding consciousness, or made to play their part in a scenario of values. They sacrifice what vitality they might have had to the demands of an unrewarding context.

What this means is that Kinnell—at this stage, at least—has no real voice or creative personality. The verse is free of rhetoric, it eschews the 'poetic' as studiously as the Pre-Raphaelites sought it, and seems to think that in doing so it has done its job. But in fact no matter how rhetorical (Milton) or hieratic (Eliot) it may be, verse can only live through 'voice', and Kinnell has none to offer. It has a certain egotism in place of the reserve of the older academic—this much has been gained. So what? The successes in Kinnell's later poetry are in the Eberhart neo-Platonist vein. An example is the last poem of the sequence 'Flower Herding on the Mountain'…. The piece as a whole is one of Kinnell's most successful, though it is characteristic of his manner that one is constantly reminded of other poets—of Levertov here and her 'almost silent / ripping apart of giant sheets / of cellophane'. No-one of course has a monopoly on the word 'cellophane', but there is a disturbing similarity in the two poets' exploitation of its transcendental possibilities. Levertov's angle on the transcendental is altogether more natural, human and involved than Kinnell's. Kinnell's metaphysicality reminds one rather of René Char…. As in Eberhart's 'The Groundhog', the phenomenal flower (hog) [in Char's 'Poème pulvérisé'] is conceived in its Platonic essence as it burns its way to purity. Behind this way of thinking is the late symbolist tradition: the Valéry of 'Cimetière Marin' and Valéry's French successors, Supervielle and Char himself. Levertov, we recall, included a version of a Supervielle poem ('A Horse Grazing') in her collection, The Jacob's Ladder. Thus, Kinnell's poem takes its place in a complex enough tradition, but one which always founded its validity upon the poet's being able to draw the Platonist themes into direct relationship with himself and his own destiny. Valéry's great poem comes to a climax in the pained reflection, 'Il faut tenter de vivre'; Levertov—humorously, half-mockingly—catches herself out: 'The authentic! I said rising from the toilet-seat'. And the whole sequence ('Matins') turns upon the poet's need to redeem from banality a life which at all times threatens to subordinate the identity of the poet within that of the housewife.

It is this kind of relevance that Kinnell's verse characteristically lacks, and the reason is not so much that he hasn't thought about it or doesn't care enough, as that he has not really got an identity or a 'destiny' to relate it to. In this he is typical of a great majority of contemporary American writers.

In 'The Supper After the Last', the egotism referred to above lends a certain weight to the poem: the Valéry-ian platonism is there, but the sexual encounter the poem celebrates gives it body…. It is worth noting that such effects are very much Kinnell's own: eclectic as he is, he has his own way with certain physical transformations and he can show the physical turning into the immaterial as few modern poets have.

But the metaphysics nevertheless seem confused…. Mr Kinnell hardly endears himself to us by the tone with which he casts himself as Saviour, 'wild man' etc. The whole poem is too evasive to make it easy to attribute identities and roles, but the impression is of a heavy egotism—the speaker/saviour/Kinnell figure is clearly meant to be admired if not revered, and it is a tone we don't easily accept from anybody. Certainly nothing of the guru's authority comes through here, and to succeed the poem badly needed something like it.

Nevertheless, 'The Supper After the Last' is one of the best poems in Poems of Night, and the eclecticism so characteristic of the poet is comparatively well absorbed. Crane and Frost are relevant forbears. But one thinks of many others as one works through the volume—Shelley, James Joyce (viz. the ubiquitous Bloom figure in section II of 'The Avenue C'), the English transcendentalists—à bien d'autres encore! Every poet needs his precursors and heroes, and an intelligent recognition and selection of them are a significant part of any young poet's maturation. But all too often Kinnell fails to absorb his influences: he will 'do over', say, Levertov, or Shelley (witness the moon 'crazed with too much child-bearing' in Kinnell's 'Freedom, New Hampshire—3') or Hart Crane (witness the liberal borrowings from 'Harbour Dawn' in Kinnell's 'The River That is East') much as he consciously 'does over' Robert Frost in 'For Robert Frost'.

What emerges is the care to get the description right which is so typical of mid-twentieth-century verse on both sides of the Atlantic, what we see in Richard Wilbur in America or in Geoffrey Hill in England. This is one of the more distressing symptoms of mid-century malaise—a copying of externals, after the methods of the older masters, without any of the significance-conferring transcendentalism of those masters. In Kinnell's case, it is again 'The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World' which best demonstrates the point. At the end of the poem Kinnell strives after movement, movement springing from conviction and imparting authority:

       Listen! the swish of the blood,
       The sirens down the bloodpaths of the night,
       Bone tapping the bone, nerve-nets
       Singing under the breath of sleep—

So far so good: it is a distinguished passage, but one needing to lead somewhere for its implications to be redeemed. Kinnell needs to open up America here. And he tries to do so:

          We scattered over the lonely seaways,
          Over the lonely deserts did we run,
          In dark lanes we did hide ourselves….

Presumably what is striven after here is something of that camaraderie of the night so warmly evoked in 'HOWL'. The mention of Ginsberg's poem—which gets steadily more remarkable as we withdraw from it in time—is enough to demolish the card-house Kinnell has been with some skill putting together. The burning conviction of having lived a confused but spiritually rewarding life that generates the tension and drive of 'HOWL' has given way to a slightly self-congratulatory in-group feeling: 'We scattered over the lonely seaways….' Reading 'HOWL', an intelligent square ought to feel stopped in his tracks; reading Kinnell's poem, he could be excused for shrugging, 'So what?' (pp. 212-16)

Kinnell's poet y shows that it is possible to satisfy a good many of the accepted critical criteria without really touching the nerve of human feeling, and that there is a huge difference between ease of movement and voice, between absence of rhetoric and the communication of a human personality. It is superficially impressive and occasionally it is impressive without being superficial, but its absence of any real creative personality, of any deeper spiritual orientation, is typical of much American poetry of its time. (p. 217)

Geoffrey Thurley, "Devices Among Words: Kinnell, Bly, Simic," in his The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century (© 1977 by Geoffrey Thurley; reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.; in Canada by Edward Arnold (Publishers) Limited), Edward Arnold, 1977 (and reprinted by St. Martin's Press, 1978), pp. 210-28.∗

Susan B. Weston

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In the recently published Walking Down the Stairs, selections from interviews with Galway Kinnell …, one of the interviewers asks Kinnell: "That loneliness you say you wrote out of—do you think that young poets today are less rich because they lack that?" Kinnell replies, "I never thought of it as richness." One of the charming things about these interviews is the way Kinnell changes a question by butting his head through the interviewer's premises. This particular question meant "richness for poetry," of course, but Kinnell refuses to distinguish lonely poets from lonely people: no one is richer for being lonely.

Questions like this one are generated by the notion that poets are a special breed who welcome suffering, madness, and poverty for the sake of their poetry…. It is refreshing, then, to watch Galway Kinnell sidestep such notions. (p. 95)

This integration of poetry with life informs all of Kinnell's more interesting responses in Walking Down the Stairs. Sensitive to "either/or" thinking, he is quick to give "both … and" answers that are in the same inclusive spirit as his poetry…. His commitment to relation—between poetry and everything else, between the poet and everyone else—makes this collection of interviews crucial reading for anyone interested in the survival of healthy literature.

Just this probing for relations, for coherent wholeness, characterizes Kinnell's best poems, and Walking Down the Stairs should send his readers back to the poetry with enhanced understanding. It strikes me that Kinnell's is an utterly healthy poetry, with none of the suppression of self that characterizes Eliot or Stevens and none of the perfecting of psychic wounds that characterizes much contemporary poetry. It is healthy precisely because it confronts horrors—drunks dying of cirrhosis; war and destruction; the communal nightmare of a failing culture; the individual nightmare of the failure of love—along with all that is lovely and loving. These facets of the single gem, the human condition, are examined with a jeweler's sense not only of their beauty but also of their dimension…. Kinnell's gift is a cursed awareness of time—not just of individual mortality but of geological time that lends special poignance to even the most hostile of human encounters. Thus when he concludes The Book of Nightmares with the message to his son, "the wages of dying is love," the moment is more than individual, more than parental; it looks back at all the nightmares recorded in the book and transforms them.

Less satisfying than Kinnell's general remarks in the interviews are his interpretations of specific lines in the poetry. The best reading in the book is his interpretation of the famous conclusion to "How Many Nights." The crow calling "from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life" elicits either-or questions: is the crow benign or evil? welcome or awful? Kinnell sweeps them all together in his answer that "whether or not the crow's cry is beautiful mattered less to me than that this hitherto mute region comes into consciousness." That's a wonderful reading, far superior to his comments about lines in The Book of Nightmares. (pp. 95-6)

Kinnell's title, Walking Down the Stairs, is a confession of the interviews' fictional quality. He has tinkered with the actual conversations the way one does one's evening repartee after it's delivered—while walking down the stairs, that is. In fact, the difference between these and the original interviews is not as great as the title would suggest …, and is worth noting only because the unedited versions confirm what one suspects from Walking: the public man—good-natured, eager to help the interviewer, optimistic—has few of the acerbic, ironic, or horror-stricken moments that possess the hugely foundering, hugely loving, hugely possessed speakers of Kinnell's poetry. If there is a fiction here, it is less that the poet has revised his conversations than that he himself has been revised by the occasion, the circumstance of being interviewed. The occasion creates a "public" figure whose views of the poetry cannot be those of the "private" man who created it.

What the interviews obscure by eliciting this polite public figure is Kinnell's essentially sexual vision. Though he says much the same thing in the interviews—that what we fear from death is extinction, what we welcome is absorption—the sexual basis of this idea is presented more explicitly in his two essays, "Poetry, Personality, and Death" and "The Poetics of the Physical World." These essays are useful for a glimpse of Kinnell seen neither in the privacy of creation nor in the publicity of exchange, for they show how Laurentian is Kinnell's desire for union with the "other." In "Poetry, Personality, and Death," for example, Kinnell analogizes: "As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it." (p. 97)

For some readers, perhaps the most interesting remarks in these interviews will be those about the poets most important to Kinnell. Yeats, Whitman, and Rilke are the three: Yeats for the associative linking device that Kinnell uses so brilliantly in "The Porcupine," "The Hen-Flower," and other of his longer poems; Whitman for the inclusive, "through the personality to the universal humanity" vision; and Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, like some angel who haunts this earth-bound man. Much of Kinnell's poetry, especially that written after the birth of his children, is a meditation on Rilke's vision of the inseparability of life and death. The Book of Nightmares stands as a tribute to Rilke's Duino Elegies, particularly the ninth, which sparked the composition of Kinnell's book.

Kinnell's transformation of Rilke's vision into the terms of his own earthier temperament is recorded in his every comment about Rilke. Both poets accept mortality as the very condition for rejoicing; "the subject of the poem," Kinnell says in "The Poetics of the Physical World," "is the thing which dies." This echoes, as so much of Kinnell's work does, Rilke's ninth Elegy: "… The things that live on departure / are aware of your praising; transitory themselves, they count / on us to save them, us, the most transient of all." Kinnell's participation in the world of things and animals is, however, more visceral than Rilke's, less spiritual, less intellectual. For Rilke the poem is the means to the transformation of the world; for Kinnell it is a means to participation. (pp. 97-8)

Susan B. Weston, "Kinnell's 'Walking Down the Stairs'" (copyright © 1979 by The University of Iowa; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in The Iowa Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 95-8.

Charles Molesworth

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[During the two decades that span the second world war], changes began to occur [in American poetry]: Olson's "Projective Verse" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" were clear signs, at least with the comfort of retrospection, that a new poetics was developing. It might be instructive to trace some of the lineaments of this new idiom by focusing on one poet's career for a certain period, namely that of Galway Kinnell in the 1960s.

Kinnell's poetry of this period involves itself with a virtual rediscovery of how to view objects intensely, while continuing to avoid any prescribed system. Even as early as his long poem "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" … Kinnell's poetry has been celebratory and inclusive in its characteristic attitude toward the world of objects. "There are more to things than things," says one modern French philosopher, and the contemporary poet instinctively agrees; but how to discover that "more" without falling into mere attitudinizing remains problematic. Pound taught his successors, who include most American poets, that no authority could replace personal testament, especially when such testament involved accurate perception and attentive apperception. But poets could still remain estranged from things; they might fall into a glorified listing of the mundane, or make the operations of the mind so dominant that the poems would lose their subjects in a welter of "impressions." Pound's influence dominated developments in American poetry so completely that poets as diverse as, say, Robert Creeley and William Meredith could easily refuse to yield to each other in their admiration for Pound's accomplishments…. Kinnell took from Pound, however, only so much as could fruitfully be grafted onto the traditions of Blake and Whitman; and, though for some Pound's concern with "technique" might seem inimical to inspiration, such need not be the case. Pound's concern with objective "vision" on the physiological level corrects rather than replaces the concern with the "visionary." But Kinnell was still faced with the problem of how to bring his poetry out of the modernist cul-de-sac of irony into a postmodernist aesthetic. He did this in large measure by two actions, which may appear contradictory but are in fact complementary: self-discovery and self-destruction, the heuristic and the incendiary actions of poetry. Kinnell became a shamanist, rather than a historicist, of the imagination.

The first volume to contain poems Kinnell wrote in the sixties was Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), a book divided into two parts, the first heavily concerned with cityscapes and urban consciousness, and the second almost totally rural in its subjects and locales. The last poem of the first section, "For Robert Frost," offers a convenient transition into the second section, a transition important for the next volume, Body Rags (1969), filled as it is with a poetry of nature rather than of history. Such a reductive distinction can be misleading, of course, and it may help to look briefly at the poem for Frost to see in part how Kinnell views America's most famous "nature poet."… [Kinnell] sees Frost as "cursed," not perhaps as the same sort of poète maudit as Melville, but as someone tied to, perhaps bound down by, his bourgeois virtues of self-reliance and rugged individualism. The obverse of those virtues reflects the loneliness, the alienation, in Frost's life, the "desert places," against which confusion the poems offer only a "momentary stay." This surely is the side of Frost that most attracts Kinnell …, and he almost appears to be exorcising those other, civilized virtues of Frost that made him such a master ironist. When we look back on this poem from the perspective of Kinnell's two latest books, the most stringent criticism of Frost he proposes may be when he says that the older poet was "not fully convinced he was dying." Such an affirmation of life against death will become for Kinnell a weakness, a mark of the weak self-love, an unwillingness to accept the "last moment of increased life." (pp. 98-100)

Along with death, Kinnell places pain at the base of his poetics, and pain plays a large part in the poems of Flower Herding. The first section of the book is concerned with pain as a subject, or at least as a surrounding condition of other subjects. Chief among these subjects, Kinnell places an awareness of time's ongoingness, an intense awareness that this particular moment, this now is isolate, thrown up by itself to baffle and defeat human expectations…. The images [in the first poem of the book, "The River That Is East,"] of mists, scum, and shrouds should remind us of how early Kinnell was involved in a poetry obsessed with death and pain, a product of a consciousness in which sharp juxtapositions and sudden changes of perspective appear endemic. The root and the flower of his experience exist without any system except what they may discover for themselves in an existential framework.

It is in section II of Flower Herding that we find the first seeds of Kinnell's "poetics of the physical world," as that poet concentrates on natural, as opposed to urban, objects, moments, and landscapes. Here, too, pain and death are present, almost omnipresent. But the isolate moments, the "leaked promises" of continuity, or of wholeness, become, in the rural setting, moments of ecstasy. The perspective of the future as "a vague, scummed thing / we dare not recognize" fades into a more empty perspective, perhaps; but it is that very emptiness that constitutes such promise for Kinnell. As Kinnell suggests in "The Poetics of the Physical World," death represents the last, absolute perspective; its very finality makes it a magnificent possibility, or rather, the source of magnificent possibilities…. Reading Flower Herding as part of a putative spiritual autobiography, the reader will decide that it is only when Kinnell escapes the city for the country that the possibilities of mortality become positive rather than negative. When we regard Flower Herding as the barometer of other, larger currents at work in American poetry in the sixties, it clearly stands with Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) and Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963). These three books can be seen as developments away from the ironic mode practiced and perfected by, among others, Ransom, Tate, Nemerov, and Wilbur, and toward a poetic mode first announced by Theodore Roethke as early as 1950, but largely unheeded until ten years later. Here is Roethke characterizing the lyric poet in "Open Letter," from On the Poet and His Craft:

He must scorn being "mysterious" or loosely oracular, but be willing to face up to a genuine mystery. His language must be compelling and immediate: he must create an actuality. He must be able to telescope image and symbol, if necessary, without relying on the obvious connectives: to speak in a kind of psychic shorthand … He works intuitively, and the final form of his poem must be imaginatively right.

Such phrases as "psychic shorthand" and "telescop[ing] image and symbol" illuminate the shifts in perspective and the imagistic density that make the typical Kinnell poem…. [In the final lines of the title poem of Flower Herding, heaven] and the void vie with each other to be the flower's proper domain; the flower makes claims it cannot demonstrate, and yet it forgives itself; it needs its covertness in order to survive, and yet it must utter itself, make known and articulate its "invisible life." All of these contradictory impulses suggest that we can "interpret" the flower as an image from the processes of nature and as a symbol for the act of writing the poem, or even for the psychic paradoxes of the poet himself.

Nowhere are such leaps from the imagistic to the symbolic made clear; in fact, the tone of the poem occasionally works against such leaps, especially in the last line. But the pain and the ecstasy of the consciousness that employs such telescopings tell us that aspiration and acceptance are two aspects of the same intentionality. We might even say that the dialectic between aspiration and acceptance provides the central energy of the poem and that that dialectic reveals its terms most clearly in the tone of a line such as "A wrathful presence on the blur of the ground," where overtones of an almost biblical phrasing terminate in the flatness of the final five words. But the flatness of such a termination, along with phrases like "breaks off," can't be called ironic, at least not if we use irony to mean a kind of qualifying defensiveness. If anything, the variations in texture in these lines reflect quite openly the actuality of the circumscribed transcendence in the poem, circumscribed because it sustains itself only through an acceptance of death. And the persistence of fire and death imagery throughout Kinnell's poetry forces us to disregard, or at least to minimize, the habitual expectation of ironic distance that we bring to much modern poetry. His obviously attempts to be a poetry of immersion into experience rather than of suspension above it.

Kinnell's next book after Flower Herding presents several difficulties; these result in part simply because several of the single poems in Body Rags are difficult ("The Last River" and "Testament of the Thief"), but also because the mode of expression throughout can seem half-formed, occasionally alternating between the densely remote and the flatly commonplace. At least seventeen (out of twenty-three) of the poems are constructed in "sections," and the section becomes the organizing principle of The Book of Nightmares as well as of the best poems in Body Rags: "The Poem," "The Porcupine," and "The Bear." But eight of the poems in Body Rags contain only two sections each, and these represent, I think, some of Kinnell's least successful poems. At the same time, the concentration of imagery and attention that they contain, along with the multiple and shifting perspectives, eventually culminates in what remains Kinnell's typical strength…. Postmodernist poetry insofar as it rejects or moves beyond irony, runs the risk of sentimentality on the one hand and of being "loosely oracular" on the other. [In "Night in the Forest"], the "blood winding / down its ancient labyrinths" is susceptible to either charge, though perhaps especially the latter. Such resonance as the poem does have originates in the subtly controlled tone and syntax of the last few lines. But, considering the total statement of the poem as a dialectic between its two "sections" doesn't particularly increase our appreciation of it. The poem goes beyond descriptive prettiness only by hinting at emotions that would probably be mawkish if further explored.

But it is ungracious to consider at too great a length any failings in Body Rags when that volume contains at least three poems that have already come to enjoy a wide and deep esteem: "The Poem," "The Porcupine," and "The Bear." These are the three poems in which Kinnell moves most clearly beyond the suspension of irony toward the immersion of empathy, and they are, I believe, sure indicators of a new postmodern aesthetic in contemporary American poetry. (pp. 100-04)

Charles Molesworth, "'The Rank Flavor of Blood': The Poetry of Galway Kinnell," in his The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry (reprinted by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 98-111.

Peter Stitt

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Galway Kinnell once said, according to Donald Hall, that he had no use for any poem upon which the poet did not bring to bear the weight of his entire life. The results of such a standard are there to see in Kinnell's earlier books—the unrelenting seriousness, the pressure always to be deeply significant. It is exhausting sometimes, and has made Kinnell a poet best ingested in small doses. [Mortal Acts, Mortal Words] is different; its relaxed tone is apparent from the start and results in a number of lighthearted poems, poems one feels Kinnell could not have written before. He is now capable, for example, of poems like "On the Tennis Court at Night," a kind of elegy for all the good times, times of friendship and youth…. [The last stanza] is both effective and affective, part of what may be the best tennis poem in existence. But where is that lumbering hermit, that hunter-poet, willing to eat blood-soaked bear turds in his quest for the ultimate poem?

He may appear briefly towards the end of the book, where Kinnell seems to give over much of this wonderful physical specificity in favor of a series of relatively abstract, relatively theoretical poems. Although much more ambitious than the earlier poems, these are also less successful—partly because their abstractness pales beside the earlier poems' love of physical detail, and partly because their complexity is at times confusing—as in … "Pont Neuf at Nightfall."… The general idea—perhaps—comes through, but the details, the images, are not at all well-handled. Ideas, in these later poems, dominate things in an unfortunate violation of the doctrine expressed at the end of "The Apple."

Elsewhere Kinnell's very relaxation gets him in trouble; a stanza like this—on his dead mother's love—leaves me gasping for breath:

     So lighted I have believed
     I could wander anywhere,
     among any foulnesses, any contagions,
     I could climb through the entire empty world
     and find my way back and learn again to be happy.

There is this kind of thing here, but mostly not; mostly this is a volume of wonders, of poems like "Kissing the Toad."… There is an endless pleasure in such poems. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is a new departure for Galway Kinnell, on the whole a successful one. It is permeated by an expressed love for the created world—love for nature, love for family, love for woman. This is Kinnell's answer to set against the mortal winds that always are ready to blow across the face of this earth. (pp. 891-92)

Peter Stitt, "Dimensions of Reality," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1980, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 887-94.∗

Harold Bloom

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It is 20 years now since Galway Kinnell published his first book of poems, "What a Kingdom It Was." The glory of that volume was a long poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World," an overtly Whitmanian celebration and lament that remains one of the major American visions of New York City. Rereading it alongside Mr. Kinnell's new book confirms the sense I remember experiencing two decades ago, that here was another phantasmagoria of the city worthy of its ancestry, in that line that goes from Poe's "The City in the Sea" through Whitman on to its culmination in Hart Crane's "The Bridge." Galway Kinnell had made a magnificent beginning, and held a remarkable promise.

Whether his subsequent work as yet has vindicated that promise is problematic, though there have been very good poems in all of his books, including his new "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words." His poetic virtues have remained constant enough, and have won him a deserved audience. Of his contemporaries, only the late James Wright and Philip Levine have been able to write with such emotional directness, without falling into mere pathos, the usual fate of American poets who speak straight forth out of the self. Mr. Kinnell is able to avoid the difficulties whose overcoming is necessary when we read John Ashbery, James Merrill and A. R. Ammons, among current poets, but whether his eloquent simplicities have the discipline of Mr. Levine's best poems is open to some question.

The poet and critic Richard Howard once characterized Galway Kinnell's poetry as being an Ordeal by Fire, which is to give him a generous accolade he may not have earned, or not fully as yet. The characterization points not only to Mr. Kinnell's most pervasive metaphor, the flame of Pentecost, but also to his largest poetic flaw, a certain over-ambition that makes of each separate poem too crucial an event…. Mr. Kinnell's gifts, whatever they will yet be, do not gracefully sustain such enormous tensions. Some of his best earlier poems, such as "The River That Is East" and "The Bear," had design and diction firm enough to outlast their own intensities, but most of the more recent verse does not….

But I grow a little uneasy at my own ingratitude as a reader, when confronted by a lyric meditation as beautiful and gentle as "Wait" in this new volume. It is difficult not to be grateful for a poem as generous, honest and open as "There Are Things I Tell to No One," or for a lyrical closure as precise as that in "The Gray Heron."…

Something also has to be said for Mr. Kinnell's descriptive powers, which are increasing to a Whitmanian amplitude. The last poem in the book, "Flying Home," will convey an authentic shock of recognition to anyone who has shared recently in that experience. But to sum up, this does seem to me the weakest volume so far by a poet who cannot be dismissed, because he seems destined still to accomplish the auguries of his grand beginnings.

Harold Bloom, "Straight Forth Out of Self," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1980, p. 13.

Stephen Yenser

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In an interview in 1971, [Galway Kinnell] had this to say about The Book of Nightmares, the superb long poem published earlier that year:

I thought of that poem as one in which I could say everything that I knew or felt…. I didn't want to let that poem go. I felt I could spend the rest of my life writing it—revising and perfecting it…. Eventually I had to force myself to get rid of it, though I knew I would feel an unsettling emptiness for a long time afterward. I hope I feel as totally consumed again.

"Wait," in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, seems written out of that very complex of feelings. One might even hear overtones of Rilke, who meant so much to Kinnell when he was writing the Nightmares, in its closing lines:

  Only wait a little and listen:
  music of hair,
  music of pain,
  music of looms weaving all our loves again.
  Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
  most of all to hear
  the flute of your whole existence,
  rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

The connection made in the last lines characterizes this new book even as it did the preceding volume. While suffering and song are tied up for any poet, Kinnell more than most has made that relationship an explicit subject. At times, song remedies suffering, as in "The Still Time."… At other, more distinctive moments, sorrow and music seem one, as they do also in the fifth section of the last of the Nightmares, where so many of the elements in the poem come together: when "the violinist / puts the irreversible sorrow of his face / into the opened palm / of the wood, the music begins."… It is as though crying were singing. (pp. 123-24)

What then saves Kinnell's poetry—as something assuredly does—from being melodramatic and maudlin? For one thing, for all his talk about sorrow, he never makes it appear that his sorrow differs from anyone else's…. That recognition encourages a poetry that, however personal in its references, continually expands into larger statements…. His need to see his own feelings in a larger context can lead him into inflation and platitude, as I think it does in "Flying Home."… But usually his generalizations rise out of striking images and crystallize in aphorisms, as in "Wait."… (pp. 124-25)

Then, too, rather than trying "to intensify and perfect" his sorrow, Kinnell tries to understand its relationship to joy. For him as for Yeats the two seem interdependent: "It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all." If true song involves crying, it also entails laughing, as it did even for Amos, the old hobo in "Memory of Wilmington."… Suffering, happiness, song: it sometimes seems that all of life might be summed up in a single utterance, as in "There Are Things I Tell to No One":

   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, so the death-groan
   sounding into us from another direction carries us back
   to our first world….

That cry or groan—they are really "one sound"—reverberates throughout this book, often in onomatopoetic forms, as Kinnell, who has sent us to the Oxford English Dictionary as often as any contemporary poet, resorts to the most primitive exclamations in order to get to the heart of the matter. (p. 125)

If Kinnell cannot cast out remorse altogether ("I know now there are regrets / we can never be rid of, / permanent remorse"), he still finds himself "blessing the misery" and able to imagine that "the last cry in the throat … will be but an ardent note / of gratefulness." This attitude differs slightly but significantly from that in the Nightmares. The earlier book attests to what he once observed in Whitman, "the double thought of death," the simultaneous fear of and desire for it. As Whitman grew older, Kinnell thinks, "he was able to transfigure both the fear and the desire into a willingness to die and an even purer wish to live," and something of the same change has taken place in his work.

He must find himself on easier terms with mortality partly because he finds it easier to see the universe as a whole. "Can it ever be true," he wonders in the Nightmares, "all bodies one body, one light / made of everyone's darkness together?" Now he can answer more certainly in the affirmative…. To put it perhaps too succinctly, to feel that the universe is a whole is to begin to transcend the self, and to go beyond the self is to mitigate the fear of death. (pp. 126-27)

This view of things has permitted some of the finest poems that Kinnell has ever written. In one way or another it has let him write, in addition to ["Wait" and "There Are Things I Tell No One"], "Fergus Falling" (a little tale of death and continuity that includes a catalogue in which the details link and contrast so nicely that somewhere Whitman himself nods and smiles), "On the Tennis Court at Night," and "The Apple." Just look at this last poem's final stanza if you think it unlikely that this book can equal the Nightmares. Or look even at "The Gray Heron," a short, modest poem built of nuances. Kinnell goes searching in the brush for a heron he has glimpsed but finds only "a three-foot-long lizard / in ill-fitting skin."… As surely as the observing poet has merged with the bird/lizard now changing before our eyes into a watching stone, Kinnell has changed into something else in this book. American literature is richer and stranger for the transformation. Grand as it is, The Book of Nightmares could only, after all, be written once. Kinnell was determined not to repeat himself but to go on, and he has gone on. It took him about nine years to write these poems, but if it had taken him thirty, none of the time could have been counted lost. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words might just give its title the lie. It is certainly one of the chief indications that all is well in American poetry. (pp. 127-28)

Stephen Yenser, "Recent Poetry: Five Poets," in The Yale Review (copyright 1980 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 70, No. 1, October, 1980, pp. 105-28.∗

Vernon Shetley

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Galway Kinnell's career gives the impression of continuity despite his transformations of style and tone, perhaps because he has held fast to a certain idea of the possibilities of poetry. Throughout his career he has minded his matter first, in the faith that feeling sincerely will produce words adequate to experience, and has seemed pretty much content to cast his material in the received style of the day. Kinnell addresses the great and eternal themes in a contemporary idiom, convinced, it seems, that familiar emotions need only be rephrased with passion to be made new.

The poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words partake of the autumnal mellowness that now threatens to become the standard for the poets of Kinnell's generation as they enter the "late period." These new poems are as muted and personal as much of his previous work was hyperbolic and overscaled. That their burden is lighter does not mean, sadly, that Kinnell has succeeded any better at carrying it. He seems, as always, to arrive at resolutions he ultimately falls short of earning. Kinnell continually announces the familiar in the rhetoric of discovery; there is much of the inexplicable oddity of birth and death, and other such topics, in these poems…. (pp. 298-99)

Kinnell hopes, by taking on the great, intractable facts of love and loss, to achieve the kind of embattled radiance associated with the line of grim realists exemplified by Robert Frost. Yet the ruthless skepticism that such a stance demands is not among the weapons that Kinnell brings to the struggle; too often he resorts to rhetoric as a substitute for imaginative energy. The result might be likened to a fixed fight; no matter how good the show, and much of Kinnell is not without a certain power, the outcome rings hollow in the end. (p. 299)

Vernon Shetley, "Take but Degree Away" (© 1981 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVII, No. 5, February, 1981, pp. 297-302.∗

Joe Marusiak

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One problem with [defining poetry] is ourselves: we keep getting in the way, obstructing the viewfinder with all these stray edges of selves. We cannot read without putting ourselves into the text, nor speak without letting loose a flood of idiosyncracies. So how should we ever find what poetry is, when we cannot stabilize our own vantage point …? (p. 355)

One answer is fairly simple. Perhaps when poetry is working at its best, it is simply drawing upon the world we live, in order to see and speak of the world we have…. This may even be the most positive answer for poetry, because it strives to work on established ground—the "given" of the realm that we are born to—and strives to make our participation in that realm somehow fuller and more aware…. But, whatever else it is, this life-connected choice is the choice taken by the poets Galway Kinnell and William Everson, although the latter travels from the immediate to the broad and hopeful possibilities of faith and the future, and the former sees our possibilities, our sins and our chances, in the items and shapes of the way we amass our lives. Going through their retrospective volumes—Everson's The Veritable Years [1978] … and Kinnell's The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World [1974] …—one is not only closer to what poetry is and where its possible participants fit in the pattern, but one also becomes more aware of the individual responses to the material, the independent chords, the separate questions. One becomes aware of the difficulties of individual choice—there is no final, saving consensus, we have to try for ourselves.

Reading the poets apart from each other and then returning to them in tandem, one may come to suspect that the operative element in their art is captured in a conjunction—"what poetry is and where its … participants fit in the pattern," as I wrote earlier. That small word is so important. These are not poets who will expend all their souls in pursuit of poetry's place or who will scurry down every philosophic rag-tag alleyway in search of metaphysical assurances alone. These are poets—people whose outlet happens to be words first and foremost, but people just the same. They are struggling with the questions of perception and expression and significance. They are asking after the human situation in a pattern that is not exclusively poetic but also cosmic, historical, social, cultural, individual. Poetry for these poets is inextricable from common human need. But they are perhaps most genuinely poetic because their craftsmanship, their poetic efficacy is not blatant. Finish The Veritable Years or Kinnell's Avenue and you do not throb and race along with memories of the artworks. Finish them and you think for some moments on the questions, you begin to ask the same things. (pp. 355-56)

Both are religious poets in their confrontations with the substance behind whatever we behold. Kinnell sees the sadness and the individual estrangement in our inadequate grasp and in our inability to do much but hold on for an instant and experience the passing. Everson is the more passionate—he rails, he roars, he pummels forth with passion and fear and burning needs. He will not be quiet, he will not go gently down the dwindling pathways. His perspective is not the same as Kinnell's, and yet they are the same, in a sense. Theirs is the same word, ultimately, despite the differences—the word of all poets, the word of all art, the word "now"—and both do what they can to savor it, encounter and embrace all its messages and significances, whatever they can do to make it continue to speak…. [As] Kinnell puts it in the title poem of his collection—

         It is cold suddenly, we feel chilled,
         Nobody knows for sure what is left of him.

The God sought is sought because of man's condition, and sought either as a cure or as a reason. The reality confronted is one of loneliness, helplessness, uncertainty, pain. And the peace at the end of the junket is not welcomed, because it only stills, it does not resolve…. [Kinnell and Everson] are religious poets but not of the Hopkins or George Herbert variety. They yank at the temple curtains, uncover the Holy of Holies, and are frightened even in the act of revelation, frightened for finding nothing there but a wall. And is the wall ours—or God's? (pp. 357-58)

[Kinnell's religion] is not so much Christianity as it is philosophical humility and understanding, not so much pantheism as openness to wonder and change. Everson sounds at times very much like John of the Cross; often in reading Kinnell, I will think of Augustine in his preconversion rumblings (not the excesses, but the confusions and askings), or some of those medieval religious writers who came closer to God by delineating the rapture and the trial of their everyday lives…. Kinnell is still "telling what is told," is still working out the strategies for continuance needed and utilized by "lesser" folk, by those not powerful enough to shout at heaven or proud enough to want to see God wherever He is. That may be the comfort of his "faith"—yes, it continues to be dark and narrow and suddenly-ended, but others have gone by before and man still finds himself agreeable to singing and smiling…. [The] question Kinnell's belief inspires [is] not Where is God, but Why do we think Him there, What does that say about us.

These are also two poets of geographies. Everson's is primarily the contours of California, every poem—even those set in the Bible, such as the retelling of Christ's Passion—evoking the mountains, the valleys, the ever-present ocean. Kinnell, on the other hand, ranges farther afield, taking scenes from New England, New York, Europe, even Asia. He is not so much a poet of place as he is a poet of people, and the Indian beggar who appears at the end of a street and runs towards him, calling out, "Galway!" could have been born in any Kafka-ish country. It is what we do in those places and what those places reflect of us that is tantamount to these men. (pp. 359-60)

The last section from the title poem of his collection will show clearly enough Kinnell's orientation with geography. The locale is Avenue C in lower Manhattan, the time seems to be all time and the interminable present of stifledness (shades of Bloomsday, perhaps). Section fourteen looks out towards the East River, "into which fishes leak" and which is mostly in darkness despite being in the vicinity of a power station. The fish are rank sewage, bypassed even by the gulls…. The ancient mother of man, the ocean—and the seed she collects for her rebirth is only a flow of dead and dying fish…. Akin to the seaward-floating fish are the panhandlers and winos, also drifting by in masses towards the open anonymity of death…. Not only is the sea infertile, so is womankind, and the Incarnation has become a threat, a distasteful oath. We next board a taxi for the ride through the city at night, past familiar traffic lights blinking together to nearly compose "one complete Avenue of green" when "The little green stars in the distance blinked." The stars are traffic indicators, not dreams in the sky, not diamonds in the evening, and just when we feel the way ahead is clear, they begin to change, to halt us. Nature is manufactured, unsynchronized, seemingly random and bothersome. From the avenue, the addressed "you" of this section gazes downtown, "Towards Houston in the rain, the living streets," the places where the fishes recur as "instants of transcendance" that

   Drift in oceans of loathing and fear, like lanternfishes,
   Or phosphorus flashings in the sea, or the feverish light
   Skin is said to give off when the swimmer drowns at night.

There are moments, scant, precious moments in the overall dread, moments that will glimmer for a short time before guttering in on themselves. (pp. 362-63)

The image of the mass of desperate lives carries throughout the remainder of this section…. The fury of the last few stanzas may be disconcerting in the light of the leisurely, if despondent, opening of this section. We seem to have found Ulysses' Nighttown on Avenue C. But we should not let the pace lessen the intensity of the desperation…. There is no Eden, no new land, no paradise near the ocean like Everson's California. There is only a landscape of hopelessness and stagnation, the Waste Land of particular New York lives. The hand of Providence has been stayed, but we have not, mortal and brutish and hungry as we are. We have no place to go, nowhere to hide or to be, and our casements, our body is coming apart, snuffing the only light our small world recognizes—the light in life. And yet we smile and sigh at the neighborhood, we pride ourselves on the amiable place of our deaths. We have settled here (in more than one sense) and have little to occupy us until the end. There is no room for poetry in this world. Man is the perpetual vagrant, the transient, and his burden as well as his glory is his homelessness…. Kinnell sees all our land as the embodiment of the rootless, meager drifting towards doubt and death that ends the cycle. But what, he yet asks, of that comfort, that hope, that pride? Where does that particle go? Is it as important as it feels?

And finally, these are poets of the self, and master craftsmen at singing its stories. Everson treats of the self in agonized, lonely, sometimes frenzied search, and Kinnell dwells on the loneliness of the search, the disappointment, the failure and the minor triumphs. And both are in full control of their mechanisms—when running at full speed, at greatest effectiveness, when functioning at their peaks, both poets fashion poems that speak, that take all of man's languages and make art out of them. An example of this for Everson might be "A Frost Lay White on California," his clearest and most Freudian poem about the search for God and the need to feel as if in control, and for Kinnell, his "Homecoming of Emma Lazarus," where he works on the theme of the ultimate ineffectiveness of poetry to contribute to life and on the idea of a life's ruling dream, and emerges with a poignant imagining of the end of a certain existence. Both poems are deliberate, skillful evocations of self and both are technical achievements of high order. They come closest to being "pure" poems in that they have their own terms upon which to function and do not need the impulsion to be "useful" and "contributing." They are rooted in life, they throw light back upon it, but they do not need to come to it for excuses or justifications. These are poems that "live" despite life's reactions, if any. (pp. 363-65)

["The Homecoming of Emma Lazarus"] is not as orally complex as [Everson's "Frost"], it is more metaphorical, more personal. Poetry is seen as a kind of opponent, perhaps, who is at bay perpetually for all the sadness this poet has wept. She shrugs—acceptance? resignation? weariness?—and there is an image of the jerking motion scattering birds which "weren't intending / To alight," joining Emma with Liberty's statue, a perch for birds that no longer choose to settle there. A sense of abandonment, exclusion? And then, what Kinnell does best—the interweaving of symbol and abstraction in a physical setting. The "conscript bugler" sounds the "old vow of acceptance into the night," and in its going out, the intaken strangers hear, as do all our other "wounds," and the pains "open" and throb in remembrance. That bugler, that instigator of a fond yearning, is not even a volunteer—he is a "conscript," he is made to sound his horn. And the lives that have alighted compare promises with the found actualities, and bleed anew.

The poem is full of such keenly evocative moments…. (p. 367)

There are other poems in these collections that will reward scrupulous readings—Everson's "Falling of the Grain" …, and Kinnell's "The River That is East" and "For Robert Frost," sad but receptive studies of human ways, whether in a style of life or a reaction to a place…. And there are instances here that will possibly disappoint or disenchant some readers, no poet being always or everywhere perfect. I, for instance, more than once found Kinnell's world-weary sympathy with loss a little hard to take, smacking a bit of surrender before the contest is half-through. He was able to smirk effectively at the literary art of "manful" resignation in "For the Lost Generation" (with its excellent concluding line, "No generation was so gay as the lost"), but when I got to his "For William Carlos Williams" and "For Denise Levertov," with their elements of tactical reservation, the superficial hardness that makes functioning easier but may close out emotion and compassion, I could only ask, "But what does he want them to do?" "You seemed / Above remarking we were not your friends," he recalls of Williams, but I do not understand what else he would expect. He warmly, delicately paints the portrait of the medieval poet Guillaume de Lorris, a man who declined to seize his goal because he had been too long in reaching it and was wistful for the quest, but Williams is somehow not allowed the stiffness that probably came from his didactic temperament but could also be a fruit of his attempt to practice literature and medicine concurrently. Both worlds just demand too much—is a slight on either side such a horrendous sin? It hurts, yes, but isn't it one of a piece with being human and therefore limited in one's subtlety? What else would you have us do?

Everson, in my view, tends to sin on the side of the angels. I may be uncomfortable with a faith, a belief so obviously more comprehensive and vital than my own…. But I am more seriously put off by his lapses in craftsmanship, which (given his intentions and modes) can seem colossal. I find his major poem, "River-Root" … not only too long for its purposes, but somehow inconsistent in voice…. There is also an unfortunate tendency towards abstraction that does not speak as vividly as sensations do. (pp. 368-70)

But these are minor points to poets who have spoken so clearly and honestly on so many occasions. Minor points for poets who have used the languages, the disparate worlds in synthesis…. These poems cannot speak to everyone, but they have made, and are still there to keep on making, the attempt to take the languages of life and use them to construct passageways between the worlds. That attempt says something about our possible willingness to try and take up various articulations and, through them, try to see. (p. 370)

Joe Marusiak, "Where We Might Meet Each Other: An Appreciation of Galway Kinnell and William Everson," in The Literary Review (copyright © 1981 by Fairleigh Dickinson University), Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 355-70.∗

Morris Dickstein

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[Some] 10 years ago, I witnessed a poetry reading so charged with high emotion and bardic intensity it left me both excited and exhausted…. [Galway Kinnell], scarcely looking down at the page, had chanted his way through the whole of "The Book of Nightmares," his book-length Rilkean sequence that remains one of the most ambitious works in contemporary poetry. This book, which exemplified Mr. Kinnell's belief that it is "the dream of every poem to be a myth," used material from his own life, such as the birth of his children, in ways that transcended autobiography and seemed to confront directly the rhythms of existence from birth to death. Especially as read aloud in one fell swoop, the poem gave powerful expression to the hopes and fears of a parent, husband and lover adrift in his own sense of mortality.

Later I came to feel that this remarkable book was less successful on the page than it had been in that momentous performance. But even in its special oral impact it could be seen as a culmination of the poetic revolution of the 1960's: the shift from formal poetry, with rhyme and regular meter, to a freer, more prosaic verse that follows the contours of the speaking voice; the turn from wit and irony to a more naked emotional urgency; the pursuit of sublimity through heightened language, memory and meditation; and a projection into nature. Even the book's profound anguish and sense of fatality placed it in the high Romantic vein that the poetry of the 60's had boldly revived.

Literary revolutions can prove just as transient or tyrannical as political ones. Once established, new styles can become routinized, timid and vulnerable to the mockery of the next avantgarde. The poets who gave up conventional form for the existential vagaries of inspiration found that even the language of passion, the alphabet of the sublime, could be mechanically simulated, or could fall imperceptibly into self-imitation. The literary landscape of the 70's is littered with the remains of poets who tried to wing it on affect or sincerity alone; by and large they produced shapeless poems that totter from experience to experience, written either in oracular bombast or a flat, ungainly language innocent of wit, imagery, rhythm and ideas.

The extremity of the new poetry, the reckless, even suicidal intensity of living and feeling it sometimes demanded of its creators, seemed by the early 70's to have induced a crisis in Galway Kinnell's career. The very achievement of "The Book of Nightmares" (1971) put a period to the kind of poetry it represented….

It was nine years before Galway Kinnell's next book of new poems, "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words," appeared. Here Mr. Kinnell managed to lower the volume without retreating to formalism or triviality. Though the book shows his continuing preoccupation with death, especially in poems about his late mother and long-dead brother, much of its wry humor, anecdotal directness and quiet simplicity reminded one more of Robert Frost (one of Mr. Kinnell's early models) than of the intensity of "The Book of Nightmares." He had concluded the earlier book with a stunning evocation of his son's birth, which led him to imagine his own death. In these later poems we glimpse the same boy, Fergus, discovering a pond, going on a fishing trip or trundling in on his parents after they have made love. The unassuming charm of this book caused it to be undervalued, even ignored, by many critics, especially by academic critics who had never really accepted the great shift in contemporary poetry. Yet, to my mind, it was Mr. Kinnell's best book, a collection that proved that at least one poet in the Whitman-Williams mode of the 60's had survived not only intact but triumphant.

The same impression emerges from ["Selected Poems," a] rich new volume of poems selected from every phase of Galway Kinnell's career, including four early poems in the stiff, formal mode of the postwar period and then 25 to 30 pages from each of five major volumes published between 1960 and 1980. The book includes his famous shamanistic set pieces "The Bear" and "The Porcupine" (from "Body Rags," 1968), which epitomize the intensely primitivistic nature poetry he wrote during the 1960's. It also contains about half of "The Book of Nightmares" and 14 of the 32 poems of "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words" (leaving out some of my favorites). On grounds of quality alone, a selection more weighted to the later poems would have been preferable; the inclusion of the earliest poems, with their hollow echoes of Yeats, is especially questionable. By printing immature poems to which he remains attached, Mr. Kinnell seems determined to show us how far from precocious he was and how much he suffered under the prevailing forms and conventions, which did little to inspire him.

Galway Kinnell's breakthrough came in the late 50's with a long poem called "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," where he turned away from literary imitation, religious themes and fictional situations to record instead the sights and sounds of his own neighborhood, along Avenue C on the Lower East Side. The formless, documentary quality of this 15-page poetic album makes it only intermittently effective. Moments of forced sublimity add only a slight gloss to the pedestrian material. "The Avenue" is less a poem than a vast poetic notebook that enabled Mr. Kinnell—by a discipline of attention to the world around him—to slough off the artificialities and tired literary devices of the old style. (p. 12)

A more authentic Kinnell voice can be heard in two striking poems from his first two books, "Freedom, New Hampshire," an elegy for his dead brother, and "Spindrift," another young-man's poem about death…. [With] many shifts of emphasis, [death] has remained Galway Kinnell's principal theme for more than two decades. In 1971 he told an interviewer that, as he saw it, "death has two aspects—the extinction, which we fear, and the flowing away into the universe, which we desire." (pp. 12, 33)

The style of "Spindrift" also foreshadows the later Kinnell…. [His] poetry gets better as the lines get shorter: The literary mannerisms diminish, the diction loses its stiffness, and the poems take on a kind of stripped-down purity. Even the choppy look of the poem on the page reflects Galway Kinnell's fascination with the moment, the quantum of time that nevertheless implies all that is past, passing or to come. His theme is not death as a discrete event but death as the indwelling terminus that conditions our being from birth onward….

There is a shocking line in "The Book of Nightmares" in which Mr. Kinnell imagines lovers who "whisper to the presence beside them in the dark, O corpse-to-be …" In "Selected Poems" … the same lovers "whisper to the one beside them in the dark, O you-who-will-no-longer-be …" Both versions epitomize Galway Kinnell's eerie second sight, his insistence on peering at the bones behind the face—death beneath the mask of life, yet also some kind of ecstatic survival beyond the mask of death…. This Tiresias-like burden of vision, with its curse of prophetic in-sight, leads to what is strongest in the language of the mature Kinnell: a telescopic foreshortening of time into a single descriptive flash….

Some of the most stunning poems in "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words," such as "The Rainbow" and "The Apple" (both curiously excluded from this selection), are written in a style so foreshortened yet so chillingly percipient that they have the effect of puzzles or riddles. In "The Rainbow" … he telescopes birth, copulation and death into a single "misery-arc" that is completed only when "the carcass expels / defeated desire in one final curve / of groaning breath." On the other hand, "The Apple," which begins with Adam and Eve "poisoning themselves / into the joy / that has to watch itself go away," ends triumphantly with the bodies of dead lovers subsumed in the cycle of nature, yet also surmounting nature, transfigured….

"Selected Poems" is more than a good introduction to Galway Kinnell's work; it is a full-scale dossier for those who consider him, at 55, one of the true master poets of his generation and a writer whose career exemplifies some of what is best in contemporary poetry. He has not been seduced by modernist obfuscation, technical cleverness or earnest, thin-lipped confessional self-display. There are few others writing today in whose work we feel so strongly the full human presence. His language tantalizes us with a foretaste of meaning, an underlying emotional logic that recalls Whitman's "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there." Like all good poetry, his finest poems attract and mesmerize us before we really understand them. (p. 33)

Morris Dickstein, "Intact and Triumphant," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1982, pp. 12, 33.

Richard Tillinghast

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Trying to define for myself the particular excellence of Galway Kinnell's poetry, I thought of something Robert Lowell once wrote about Allen Tate, in many ways Kinnell's opposite. Tate's poetry was, Lowell said, "burly" and written in a style that "would take a man's full weight and that would bear his complete intelligence, passion, and subtlety." Kinnell's poetry has that impressive, "burly" masculinity. He has done that most difficult thing for a writer—he has achieved a style that does not restrict his range but rather a lows him to write on all sorts of subjects and to speak in many moods and tones of voice.

Kinnell's Selected Poems is the year's most important book of poetry, rivaled only by Charles Wright's Country Music (Selected Early Poems). There are very few living poets (James Merrill comes to mind) capable of lines whose music can compare to the great poetry of the past, lines such as "seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth" or "already in heaven, listen, the golden cobblestones have fallen still" or (of his daughter's birth):

             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.

Prosiness is the damnation of many contemporary poets—no, most contemporary poets. (It is a flaw that Kinnell himself does not always avoid.) A great deal of nonsense is written about poetry these days, such as the claim of "language poets" that "grammar is prosody," but I still hold with Coleridge's assertion that "'The man that hath not music in his soul' can indeed never be a genuine poet." Kinnell has music in his soul, and he is a genuine poet—one of the best.

Even more important than Kinnell's musical sense is the seriousness and the deep emotion of his work…. Poets from Wordsworth to Yeats to Lowell have infused their poetry with an awareness that, while it addresses itself most directly to that well-known stranger, the reader, it also functions as the poet's will and testament, the gift he bequeaths to his flesh and blood across time and death. The Book of Nightmares, especially, is Kinnell's gift to his children. I can think of no more moving statement of a parent's heartbreakingly illogical hope of shielding a child from the death he accepts for himself:

   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….

The weight of these emotions is leavened by Kinnell's ability to laugh, to lighten occasionally the essential gravity of his vision…. There are lighter poems as well, such as "The Correspondence School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students."…

This book is proof that poems can still be written, and written movingly and convincingly, on those subjects that in any age fascinate, quicken, disturb, confound, and sadden the hearts of men and women: eros, the family, mortality, the life of the spirit, war, the life of nations. I mention the last two because Kinnell has a vision of America in the tradition of Whitman, and is a visionary social critic in the tradition of Blake, as he shows in his justly renowned long poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," and in the widely anthologized 1960s anti-war poem, "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond."…

One of his finest pieces is his poem to Robert Frost, which captures both the silly and the sublime side of the old poet….

Kinnell has his faults. He lapses into prosiness, as he at one point admits, speaking of "this poem, or chopped prose." His recent poetry, with striking exceptions, lacks the consistent power of his two best collections, Body Rags (1967) and The Book of Nightmares (1969). But he always meets existence head-on, without evasion or wishful thinking. When Kinnell is at the top of his form, there is no better poet writing in America.

Richard Tillinghast, in a review of "Selected Poems," in Boston Review (copyright © 1983 by the Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. VIII, No. 1, February, 1983, p. 36.


Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 2)


Kinnell, Galway (Vol. 3)