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.)