Selected Poems

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715

From his earliest poems included in this volume to his most recent, Galway Kinnell’s poetry looks for meaning in the physical acts of life. To Kinnell, these acts are basic and vital, and they are part of making poetry itself.

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Early in the collection, Kinnell makes use of the image of supine lovers, perceiving that they are “shapes dying in each other’s arms” (“The Feast”). He sees that a poet’s energy may in fact go into forging a romantic link with dreary objects such as graveyards, but that the nature of death itself is unromantic. Becoming intimate with things by laying one’s hands on them, so that their physical feel and odor intensify the poet’s perception of them, reminds Kinnell of decay and the vitality of the organisms it fills. He finds the killing and eating of living forms an apt and powerful example of mortality and feeling. To kill to eat generates “wonder” in “To Christ Our Lord,” and the teacher in “The Schoolhouse” who eats the apple of the knowledge of death communicates emotion, as does the holy wild man in “The Supper After the Last” who “Devours all but the cat and dog.”

By and large, the scene Kinnell chooses for his probing of intense physical experience is the wilderness, and even when he focuses on human places such as cities, he defines them through nonhuman images. Thus, when he writes about outcasts and their pain and endurance in “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” he dwells on raw fish and vegetable life as emblems of his characters’ physical and emotional experience, as well as on New York City’s East River as an image of detritus and renewal. In “The Last River,” though he uses the river in the poem in the manner of Vergil and Dante for a trip to the Underworld, Kinnell says, “All my life, of rivers/ I hear/ the longing cries, the rut-roar,” here as elsewhere choosing images from nature to embody human feeling and speech.

Kinnell’s intimacy with the rawest examples of the physical move him to consider the meaning of beauty. He does not leave beauty to the eye of the beholder, which usually means that the mind cleanses and abstracts that in which it finds beauty, but rather to the senses insofar as they actually experience objects repulsive to the mind. Beauty, Kinnell discovers, is an object’s or creature’s ability to drench the observer’s senses with its physical presence. The river in “The River That Is East” derives its beauty not only from the “beautiful” (or clean) snow falling on it, but from the “dirty water” which composes it and from the garbage which fills it. Moreover, beauty in the human world inheres in the victims of neglect and oppression, and also in speaking out for and lending one’s physical aid to these victims (“To a Child in Calcutta”).

As earnest as Kinnell seems to be in allying himself with all that is physically impressive in his experience, he often feels separated from its sources: “I love the earth, and always/ . . . I am a stranger” (“Ruins Under the Stars”). His sense of exile, however, has a positive side in that it may signal independence (which, in “For Robert Frost,” for example, characterizes a rugged sort “who would be his own man”) and includes love—a virtue which sets man apart from the creatures with whom he shares decay.

Though his openness to the natural world joins the poet to it, and though the human aspect of his nature separates him from it, death is still the over-whelming fact of human existence. Kinnell works toward seeing this fact as a kind of blessing rather than a terror to be held at bay by irony. Admitting in “Spindrift” that “time . . . kills” the old man in the poem, and that “Everything he loved was made of it,” Kinnell comes to the notion that mortality is, as it were, its own excuse for dying, that “The appeal to heaven breaks off./ The petals begin to fall, in self-forgiveness” (“Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock,” from the collection by the same name, 1964).

That one is simply what one does, that one is thereby an individual entity, are ideas that seem to lead Kinnell in the poems from Body Rags (1968), his fourth collection, to favor a kind of monistic rather than dualistic sense of the world (the “monad” in the “Monadnock” of his preceding collection also suggests this). Once one realizes that “for a man/ . . . his one work/ is/ . . . to be/ the flames”—that is, to be the energy he expends in the act of being—and that there are thus no gaps in one’s being, then, paradoxically, it becomes easier to empathize with other creatures, to bridge the space that separates them. This sense of mutual identity allows Kinnell, when he is considering human victims, to condemn the reversal of Walt Whitman’s vision of exuberant oneness, for in the contemporary poet’s vision, “America singing” has become the “crack of the deputies’ rifles . . ./ TV groaning at the smells of the human body” (“Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond”). Similarly, Kinnell chides Henry David Thoreau, having him admit to his complicity in America’s moral decay by “failing to know I loved most/ my purity” (“The Last River”).

Kinnell’s most famous, and perhaps most striking, poems about intimately sharing the being or experience of fellow creatures are “The Porcupine” and “The Bear.” In “The Porcupine,” Kinnell suggests by subtle personification that the porcupine and man are the same—irritating, independent, in love with rank tastes and odors, hard to kill, and, when dying, melodramatic. “The Bear” takes this empathy to great lengths as the hunter in the poem, having tracked the dying bear and fed on its blood-soaked excrement, finally climbs inside its corpse to keep warm, and there dreams that he is the bear itself in its pain and obdurate passion for life. This imagined identity impels the poet to suggest that his own work is included in it: “that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived.”

Underlying Kinnell’s concern with life as a phenomenon characterized by the physical and by sentience, as well as by separateness and intimacy, is the theme of responsibility. The selections from Body Rags envision this responsibility as a personal need: the poet insists that his responsibility is to bare himself to life as an experience as vital as it is in nature and in the lives of human victims. From The Book of Nightmares (1971) on, Kinnell gives the theme of responsibility a domestic focus. Moreover, in experiencing the ongoing love implicit in marriage and in sharing the awakening feelings and perceptions of his infant daughter Maud and son Fergus, Kinnell is led to postulate archetypes for living beings, whereas before he had focused on the exclusiveness of these beings, at least insofar as he emphasized his own mortality in the face of them. Through his son’s discovery of the pond in the woods, the poet discovers the archetype of the old fisherman who is always there, even though the particular renditions of him die. Indeed, the word “again” seems to have an archetypal force for Kinnell. Speaking of his son, he writes, “this blessing love gives again into our arms.” Also, advising himself to be patient when boredom and lassitude overwhelm him, he concludes that “Personal events will become interesting again” (“Wait”).

Besides leading him to entertain the notion of archetypes, Kinnell’s children and his domestic life in general help him to focus once again—perhaps in a more mature way than when he was younger—on natural processes, to refresh his sense of them and to see how his poetry is part of or implicit in these processes. To ground his work in such a perception, Kinnell reaffirms the idea that living itself is a constant present tense and is physical above all else; thus, he feels that it is crucial for him to give his “soul” to—to accept—the forms of physical death and to commit his attention to the forms of moral death in human society. His poetry, then, becomes the edifice that he builds upon these affirmations, or the mode whereby he expresses them: his daughter “puts/ her hand/ into her father’s mouth, to take hold of/ his song”—thus providing his poetry with a responsible function beyond itself and in tune with the affective life he shares with other creatures. Nature itself as a system of organic movements includes his poetry: “riverbanks, their long rustle/ of being and perishing . . ./ . . . there [I] learned my only song,” Kinnell writes in “Under the Maud Moon”; he calls words which come unbidden to him “lumps,/ which I squeeze, squinch open . . .” like blackberries (“Blackberry Eating”). The poem may be little in itself inasmuch as it is “Living . . . brings you to death . . . no other road,” but the poem is as intimate with mortality and its pain as is Bach’s violin music, which arises “from the sliced intestine/ of cat” (“Lastness”). Indeed, accepting mortality can provide the poet with an ecstacy by virtue of which his poems are “grace-notes blown/ out of the wormed-out bones” (“There Are Things I Tell to No One”).

In the tradition of American poets from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell is anxious to find and name a vision of abiding which complements the ravages of time confronting him on all sides and especially in himself. Kinnell’s strategy is to locate this vision in mortality itself, in its specific examples. These examples reproduce themselves; thus, mortality itself is what abides. The events of the past abide in the present of him who experienced them, at length “blessing the misery/ of each step . . . into the world” (“The Still Time”). Also, one episode of love—since it is defined by yearning or onwardness—leads to another. Sexual love repeats itself and leads to birth, just as the apple in “The Apple Tree” produces through its seeds not only a fruit which outlasts its own death, but also an image for the poet’s vision that abides beyond his own death.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

Booklist. LXXVIII, May 15, 1982, p. 1220.

Commonweal. CX, March 11, 1983, p. 157.

Library Journal. CVII, May 15, 1982, p. 998.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 6, 1983, p. 2.

New Leader. LXV, September 20, 1982, p. 16.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 19, 1982, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, May 7, 1982, p. 68.

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