The Past

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927

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”).

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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 appear twice each, one pair to a line; “is,” in defiance of expectation, appears three times in a row. Despite this careful exercise of artifice, the poem at first seems to speak conversationally, though with memorable conviction.

The final section of The Past contains the title poem and several others whose meditations on the passing of time and of friends are as moving as any poems recently published. Yet even here, where things are at their most serious, the occasional joke appears. The tact with which Kinnell has found the place for humor is among the most interesting developments in his poetry; there is a calm assurance about that difficult matter which would have been hard to predict from a reading of even his best earlier work.

In part 3, for example, there is a stunning series of three poems in memory of several fellow poets. The first, “December Day in Honolulu,” is the shortest of these, though its tone is perhaps the most complex of the three. It begins with a conversational comparison of the days’ lengths in Honolulu and in Sheffield, Vermont; the longer day in Honolulu allows time for three separate postal deliveries. This day, each mail delivery brings something connected with the deaths of James Wright, Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Hayden. The last is touchingly eccentric:

Last, around the time of stars in Sheffield, a package holding four  glass doorknobs packed in a New York Times of a year ago,  which Muriel Rukeyser had sea-mailed to me, to fulfill if not  explain those mysterious words she used to whisper whenever  we met: “Galway, I have your doorknobs.”

The poem ends with the wail of a cat in heat and the speaker’s speculations on the noise’s meaning. The balance here between literalism and oracular affirmation that, paradoxically, “this one or that one dies but never the singer” is a beautiful embodiment of the necessity to accept “whatever happens.”

“On the Oregon Coast” and “Last Holy Fragrance” are dedicated to the memory of Richard Hugo and of James Wright, respectively; the one is written in the same one-sentence line form as “December Day in Honolulu” and “The Road Between Here and There,” while the other is composed of some 120 lines which range from seven to perhaps sixteen syllables, set without stanza breaks. This progression seems arbitrary in the context of these three poems, but since they are a series only in that they appear together, it is more important that the forms surge forward toward the remaining six poems in the collection. “On the Oregon Coast” evokes an amusing yet serious memory of a conversation between the speaker and Richard Hugo on the problem of personification in poetry in a post-Darwinian age. There is some indication in the recollection that, in retrospect, the speaker finds parts of the conversation pretentious, but his sense is balanced with the conviction that they were on to something that day and that poets with any ambition had better think about these things.

The James Wright memory, however, complicates this issue a little further, in its portrayal of a man struggling to say the unsayable:

But poetry sings past even the sadnessthat begins it: the drone of poetry readingsor the mutterings coming from poets’ workrooms—as oblivious to emotion as the printed page—are only seeking that chant of the beginning,older than any poem, that the song menof Arnhem Land, who jolt their clapstickswith a rebuking force like a spank, thinkthey summon, or the shaman in Point Barrow,Alaska, having trance-learned it, translates,or gopher frogs put to us in parellelismus membrorum,or, now and then, a pure poem glories in.As do those last, saddest poems of his,which overtake the chant, synchronizewith its happiness, and, as when first light bloomsclouds of night, give us mourning’s morning.“How am I ever going to be able to say this?The truth is there is something terrible,almost unspeakably terrible in our lives,and it demands respect, and, for some reasonthat seems to me quite insane, it doesn’t hate us.There, you see? Every time I tryto write it down it comes out gibberish.”

It is conventional in workshops to advance the dictum that, since all poetry is ultimately about itself, one should not write overtly about poetry. Though this is usually sound advice, it is well to remember that direct treatment of poetry as subject is conventional in certain kinds of elegies; it might be added that when such direct treatment is as splendid as the foregoing, it should be welcome almost anywhere. It is hard to recall, in the work of contemporary poets, a more moving evocation of what poets strive to do.

From these three poems dwelling on the deaths of contemporaries, Kinnell passes to poems that touch on his own approaching death and on recollections of intense living-in-the-present. The title poem and “The Seekonk Woods,” with which the volume concludes, are masterful meditations that shift with graceful fluidity from now to then; “The Waking” and “That Silent Evening” re-create moments between lovers and speak strongly for now. In the midst of this progression, terror intrudes in “The Fundamental Project of Technology.” This poem begins in a museum of the aftereffects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; its epigraph, from Tatsuichiro Akizuki’s Concentric Circles of Death, is “A flash! A white flash sparkled!” Variations upon this oddly ambivalent phrasing appear in the last lines of each of the poem’s seven stanzas, gathering force as the context moves from mere objects to old people to children. The “project” of the title is not, however, expressed directly as the extinction of the human race; it is described more ominously as the removal from human mentality of our connection with other animals, to disconnect us from natural processes, especially of death. Yet to eliminate death, “it is necessary to eliminate/ those who die; a task attempted, when a white flash sparkled.”

This brave poem is in many ways not up to the standard met by most of this collection. Several passages in it seem products more of the will than of the deeper imagination that informs most of Kinnell’s poems; the final stanza, however, comes close to those in its sad near resignation, imagining the day when there will be no one to look back and say what happened. Nevertheless, the effect of this poem’s presence, among personal meditations on what is lost and what persists, is extremely powerful, for it raises questions—indirect ones, as words may be inadequate to the task of raising them directly—about what meaning life can have when contemplation of the future results in fear and grief. In “December Day in Honolulu,” it is suggested that the cat’s wail may be saying “one singer falls but the next steps into the empty place and sings.” The inclusion of “The Fundamental Project of Technology” requires that one consider the absence of all singers, and of all listeners.

Such a prospect can be put in words, but truly to imagine it is nearly impossible. It is one of this wonderful collection’s many triumphs that it sings toward the emptiest of places.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26

Booklist. LXXXII, November 15, 1985, p. 462.

Library Journal. CX, November 15, 1985, p. 100.

The New York Times. CXXXV, November 2, 1985, II, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 4, 1985, p. 65.

Vogue. CLXXV, November, 1985, p. 280.

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