Galway Kinnell, who died in 2014, was by any reasonable measure one of the most significant American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. His vital and influential work ranged widely yet was always distinctly his, recognizable by the quality of his vision, by the precise craftsmanship he invested into his language, and above all by a copious compassion, a kind of spiritual abundance that permeated his writings. A poet who mixed the spiritual and metaphysical with the mundane and the commonplace, Kinnell not only recognized but celebrated aspects of human nature — our animalistic urges, our complicated attitudes toward time and death — that other writers, in the attempt to render human experience comfortable and palatable, too often shied away from or showed little interest in. Of his best work — the work of the late ’60s and early ’70s, collected in Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares — we could say what Kinnell once said of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Rilke writes only what is for him a matter of life and death. There’s nothing trivial . . . He writes at the limit of his powers. There are moments when he seems to write beyond the limit. His poetry gropes out into the inexpressible.”
Collected Poems gathers the nine primary collections Kinnell published during his life, from 1960’s What a Kingdom It Was to 2006’s Strong Is Your Hold, along with a selection of early poems dating as far back as 1946, and a selection of late poems, the latest of which was published in the year of his death. It is a substantial book, in more senses than one. At 563 pages plus notes, index, a biographical afterword, and a helpful and insightful introduction by Edward Hirsch, the book is, in merely physical terms, a weighty tome. But what will matter more to readers, and what, really, it is difficult to praise highly enough, is the density, richness, and ambition of — not to mention the sheer pleasure provided by — the work contained within.
Kinnell’s first collection of poems, What a Kingdom It Was, appeared in 1960, when he was thirty-three. His final collection, Strong Is Your Hold, was published in 2006, eight years before his death. Between these career bookends he published seven additional books of poetry, books that won him many readers, and awards including National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur Foundation grant.
Kinnell’s earliest poems are on the whole regular in rhyme and meter and mostly conventional in their imagery and diction. They evince, as one might well expect from an Irish-American poet in the mid-twentieth century, the strong influence of Yeats. But Kinnell moved quickly and decisively past this somewhat constricted starting point: in What a Kingdom It Was he was already taking considerable liberties with both form and diction, and the book contains at least one highly significant and enduring accomplishment, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World.” A nineteen-page paean to the multiethnic hurly-burly of the New York neighborhood where Kinnell was living at the time, “The Avenue” strives for and mostly achieves a raucous and deliciously gritty Whitmanesque splendor:
Through dust-stained windows over storefronts,
Curtains drawn aside, onto the Avenue
Thronged with Puerto Ricans, blacks, Jews,
Baby carriages stuffed with groceries and babies,
The old women peer, blessed damozels
Sitting up there young forever in the cockroached rooms,
Eating fresh-killed chicken, productos tropicales,
Appetizing herring, canned goods, nuts;
They puff out smoke from Natural Bloom Cigars
And one day they puff like Blony Bubblegum . . .
Kinnell might well have spent his entire career mining the rich vein of poetic material he had discovered on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But he was an itinerant wanderer by nature, both in his physical existence and in his mental life, and he found himself being continually called away: to other parts of the United States, to other countries — he lived for a while in Iran and spent considerable time in France — and to diverse intellectual and spiritual territories. In the early 1960s, when he went to Louisiana to witness and take part in the political struggles around segregation, his activism landed him in jail for five days. The experience, perhaps unsurprisingly, gave rise to a poem, “The Last River,” which was included in his 1968 book, Body Rags.
It was a time when large numbers of poets in the U.S. found themselves becoming more political, both in their writings and in their lives. The poetry itself was changing in other ways as well, experiencing a rapid multidirectional expansion on a variety of fronts. Via Robert Bly, James Wright, and a number of others, the influence of foreign language poets was making its way into the American literary scene. (Kinnell himself would publish his translations of the fifteenth-century French poet François Villon in 1965, and would go on to publish translations of poets including Yves Bonnefoy and Rainer Maria Rilke.) Many of these poets were influenced by surrealism, and alongside the streams of political and environmental awareness that fed the poetry of Kinnell and so many others during this time ran the powerful current of the so-called “deep image” tradition, an approach to poetry that de-emphasized conventional rational thought and expression in favor of the attempt to make contact with, and draw upon, the primitive and the dreamlike landscapes of the unconscious.
Mixed like so many potions in the human cauldron that was Galway Kinnell, these various potent forces resulted in a pair of epoch-shaping works: 1968’s Body Rags and 1971’s The Book of Nightmares. In these books Kinnell contemplates human beings and their actions from a perspective that acknowledges and attempts to negotiate between the animal and the civilized. In his vision, humankind’s animalistic nature, severely repressed by social conventions in our ordinary dealings with one another, found savage expression in the wars America waged abroad and in social violence here at home. Kinnell’s poetry reminded us that the animal is the foundation of civilization and contains the necessary grounds for its renewal, Rather than denying that we are part animal, we needed to find a way to integrate it into our lives in order to find wholeness and peace.
The seething troubles of the ’60s — the civil rights struggles, the cultural and political turmoil, most centrally the war in Vietnam — are constantly present in these poems:
And by paddies in Asia
wearing a few shadows
walk down a dirt road, smashed
bloodsuckers on their heel, knowing
flesh thrown down in the sunshine
dogs shall eat
and flesh flung into the air
shall be seized by birds . . .
-(“Vapor Trail Reflected in Frog Pond”)
For the most part, however, these disruptions lie in the background, ceding center stage to more personal moral and spiritual dramas. Indeed, what surprised me most, on rereading these books, was how quiet and gentle so many of these poems are: they seem set predominantly in vast, desolate landscapes pervaded by silence and traversed by solitary wanderers. In the winter scene of Kinnell’s tiny masterpiece “How Many Nights,” the poet wakes to
. . . the frozen world,
hearing under the creaking of snow
faint, peaceful breaths . . .
bear, earthworm, ant . . .
and above me
a wild crow crying ‘yaw yaw yaw’ . . .
Bloodsuckers, dogs, birds, snake, bear, earthworm, ant — Kinnell’s poems from this point forward are filled with animals, a veritable menagerie. In “On the Oregon Coast,” a poem from his 1985 volume The Past, he recalls a dinner with the late Richard Hugo:
The conversation came around to personification.
We agreed that eighteenth and nineteenth century poets almost had to personify, it was
like mouth to mouth resuscitation, the only way they could think up to keep the world from becoming dead matter.
And that as post-Darwinians it was up to us to anthropomorphize the world less and animalize, vegetablize, and mineralize ourselves more.
In Kinnell’s poems the borders between human and animal life are softened, weakened, and at times annihilated altogether. Humans are analogized with animals, they pursue animals, they eat and are eaten by animals. They wrap themselves in the skins of animals, becoming animals, and finding power and liberation in doing so. Kinnell is apt to describe nearly any human phenomenon — the look on a woman’s face, for instance, or an awkward embrace — in terms of some nonhuman animal:
. . . On the landing
she turned and looked back. Something
in her of the sea turtle heavy with eggs,
looking back at the sea. The shocking dark
of her eyes awakened in me
an affirmative fire . . .
(“Middle of the Night”)
At the San Francisco airport,
Charlotte, where yesterday
my arms died around you like
old snakeskins . . .
In the midst of the prison experiences related in “The Last River,” a fellow prisoner metaphorically becomes a bird, being playfully described in terms straight out of a Roger Tory Peterson guidebook:
“Listen!” says Henry David.
“Shee-it! Shee-it!” a cupreous-
throated copbeater’s chattering far-off in the trees.
(“The Last River” )
In “The Porcupine,” from Body Rags, the poet himself seems to be transformed into the animal named in the title. Even more striking is Kinnell’s famous poem “The Bear,” whose speaker hunts a bear and, upon killing it, cuts it open and climbs inside its body, in essence becoming the bear. These two poems — “The Porcupine” and “The Bear” — are the final poems in Body Rags; they are responsible for a good deal of the book’s popularity and, I think, its power.
Thinking about human beings as animals is, of course, a way of thinking about human mortality; and Kinnell is, among other things, one of the great modern poets on the subject of death. In the early poems he seems inclined to accept death, at times even to praise it, agreeing with Rilke that it is precisely our knowledge of our own limited existence that makes the full beauty of that existence apparent. “It is through something radiant in our lives that we have been able to dream of paradise, that we have been able to invent the realm of eternity,” he wrote in a 1971 essay, “The Poetics of the Physical World”:
But there is another kind of glory in our lives which derives precisely from our inability to enter that paradise or to experience eternity. That we last only for a time, that everyone and everything around us lasts only for a time, that we know this, radiates a thrilling, tragic light on all our loves, all our relationships, even on those moments when the world, through its poetry, becomes almost capable of spurning time and death.
From such a standpoint, learning to relinquish one’s existential grip on the world is both a spiritual necessity and an admirable act:
and dying into the old sway bed,
a layer of crushed feathers all that there is
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you,
In some poems the terror of death is acknowledged but assuaged to a degree by a vision of the human body as something permeable and always in flux, something that is always exchanging the very matter it is composed of with other human bodies, other beings, and with the universe at large. Late poems like “The Quick and the Dead” invoke the biological cycle of decay and regeneration to remind and reassure us that in nature there is no death, only a perpetual process of dying that is, from some other perspective, a way of being reborn.
Such a vision will comfort some readers while disturbing others, and Kinnell himself seems to be of multiple minds about it. At times he is willing to admit to a powerful desire to continue forever in his current human form. “I, who so often used to wish to float free / of earth, now with all my being want to stay, / to climb with you on other evenings to this stone,” he writes in the late poem, “The Stone Table.” And in a poem titled “The Massage” he asks, comically yet poignantly, “How could anyone / willingly leave a world where they touch you / all over your body?” But even when Kinnell admits a desire to live forever, he is clear that what he wants is not the passage of an immaterial soul into an abstract and eternal realm, but simply the continuance of everyday existence; that is, something physical, ordinary, and earthly. (Kinnell would likely have agreed with Woody Allen’s quip: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”)
This is to say that although Kinnell never shies away from the brute material facts of our lives — even when he is in the midst of longing for eternal life — he is not one of those writers who fixate on the physical as a means of avoiding or abjuring the spiritual. For Kinnell, the way to the spiritual is through the physical: as the Christian mystics insisted, what is divine must be made flesh in order to enter our lives. The impulse to exalt a purified, disembodied notion of mind or spirit at the expense of the physical realities of human existence is, for Kinnell, a symptom of the West’s tendency to think about civilization in precisely the wrong way, as if it were something to be held separate from our animal nature rather than a structured space in which that nature can be fruitfully explored and expressed, a space that needs to acknowledge and indeed embrace what is animalistic about us — what is mortal, material, and corruptible — in order to function at all. When asked how he felt about the poetry of T. S. Eliot, he told an interviewer,
I have always felt that there was something withheld in his voice compared with Whitman, for example . . . the poems [of Four Quartets] are very dry and abstract. The physical world doesn’t enter them. The abstract ideology is a retreat which may be what saved Eliot, but it offered little to me. In some way the Quartets are more personal than Eliot’s other poems, he’s saying what he himself deeply believes as faithfully as he can say it; yet the poetry keep ascending to the airiness of a sermon.
There is no abstract sermonizing in Kinnell, and very little dry airiness. Rather than retreating from the physical he repeatedly throws himself into it, even when it is frightening, even when it hurts.
Kinnell’s two children figure prominently in The Book of Nightmares, and in many of the books that followed. In later decades, as he settled into family life, his work grew more domestic and in certain aspects more approachable; more and more, readers would find this time-obsessed poet looking backward rather than within, drawing on memory rather than the speculations of imagination. If his work never again quite achieved the sustained intensity of the books of the late ’60s and early ’70, one finds it hard to complain; the amiable poems of his later career, after all, tended to compensate with generous portions of compassion, wit, charm, and grace, and they never lost the capacity to move or at times to astonish. The later poems, moreover, display an admirable and touching humility. No longer the oracular visionary of “The Bear” and The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell is in his final works more inclined to ask questions than to deliver pronouncements. The last poem in the last book he published during his life — it seems, somehow, a fitting conclusion — is titled, “Why Regret?” and is composed almost entirely of questions. He wanted to leave his readers free, one feels, to fill in the blanks themselves, to find their own answers in whatever way they could.
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