The evolution of Galway Kinnell’s poetry has a few things in common with that of some of his contemporaries. James Wright, W. S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich, for example, began their careers, as Kinnell did, in an era when the “well-made poem” was metrical, precise, and responsive to the inquiries of the New Criticism. All four poets, as well as others, found in the 1960’s various reasons for casting aside the strictures of meters; several of them published defiant statements of their purposes in doing so, and Kinnell, for one, went so far as to indicate that he was stating principles that ought to apply to all poetry of our time, not only to his. Having begun with poems displaying ease and confidence with formal devices, these poets (some of whom, such as Wright, never completely forsook them) found ways of establishing the integrity of their lines and of maintaining the uniqueness of their voices; Kinnell is among the most versatile handlers of open forms now writing in English. Though he has striven for a quality of speech which might have the immediacy and urgency of the first words spoken by humans, he is also quite at ease with the language of cultural sophistication. If many of his poems are set in the woods, or in rural areas, among animals, and take up ancient themes of love, parenthood, and mortality, he has no problem mentioning in passing such cultural totems as George Frideric Handel’s concerto for harp and lute, Australopithecus robustus, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or “the angle the bow makes/ when the violinist effleurages out of the chanterelle/ the C three octaves above middle C (“The Seekonk Woods”).
Including such details in poems that strive for primal intensity has never been easy, and Kinnell’s mastery of his broad vision has been gradual; even in such a masterpiece as “The Bear,” first collected in Body Rags (1968), the powerful simplicity of the vision is shattered by the phrase “parabola of bear-transcendence,” as if the poet had momentarily forgotten that he was not William Butler Yeats.
The ease with which Kinnell now achieves difficult things might partly be attributable to a certain relaxation that characterizes his recent work. (Relaxation is not slovenliness, as any sprinter knows who has learned to increase his speed by relaxing as he runs.) Kinnell is now prepared to accept images and narratives which must not be rendered with fierce intensity; humor, rare in Kinnell’s work before Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), now greatly enlarges the humanity of his vision and gives individual poems an emotional scope much richer than pure solemnity could achieve.
The Past opens with just such an inclusive poem; “The Road Between Here and There” picks out, on a familiar route between, say, work and home, private landmarks that evoke responses:
Here a barn burned down to the snow. “Friction” one of the ex- loggers said. “Friction?” “Yup, the mortgage, rubbing against the insurance policy.” ....................Here I hurt with mortal thoughts and almost recovered.Here I sat on a boulder by the winter-steaming river and put my head in my hands and considered time—which is next to nothing, merely what vanishes, and yet can make one’s elbows nearly pierce one’s thighs.
These almost-prose lines, all beginning with “Here” and ending with periods, sinuous and energetic, make a fine invitation into the book, which is divided with unusual symmetry into three sections of eleven poems each. Part 1 touches on many of the themes and preoccupations taken up in the other two sections—a deepening sense of mortality, handled with a remarkable honest wistfulness; moments when the awareness of love—of a woman, a child, a friend—is almost too much to bear; and brief anecdotes of rural existence, pointing toward something that endures. The second section consists of shorter poems, most of them moments of piercing awareness, as some natural event takes place. “Prayer,” the first poem in the section, though it is only three lines, seems to speak for most of the rest: “Whatever happens. Whatever/ what is is is what/ I want. Only that. But that.”
It is easy to make too much of a poem as short as this, but it is noteworthy that its clarity and urgency emerge from what might have been a game or a challenge: In fourteen words, three of them...
(The entire section is 1927 words.)