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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,754 words.)