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Summary Article: Kinnell, Galway from Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

In eight volumes of poetry since 1960, in a novel entitled Black Light (1966), in various interviews, collected in Walking Down the Stair (1978), in his translations of François Villon and others, and in his essays, especially “Poetry, Personality, and Death,” the essential artistic concern of K. has been to explore the meaning of death in our time.

Reared in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, K. was educated at Princeton. In 1955-57, on a Fulbright Fellowship in France, K. was influenced by existentialism, and perhaps that body of thought helped him clarify his position that “the subject of the poem is the thing that dies.” His first book, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), seems predicated on this idea. Its most affecting poems are explicit elegies, and an elegiac tone predominates throughout. This poetry also possesses a vivid, shimmering imagery, beautiful precisely because it is informed with a sense of mortal transience. In “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” the culminating poem of What a Kingdom It Was, one sees butterfish in a street-market stall. They are spread out before the speaker, their “mouths still open, still trying to eat.” Or, in “Spindrift,” from K.'s second book, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), one sees the speaker lift a shell up out of the surf, and then in the next stanza recall how he had “Sat by a dying woman / Her shell of a hand, / Wet and cold in both of mine.”

“The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” marked a formal breakthrough for K. His earliest poems had been relatively strict in their meter, rhyme, and stanzaic arrangements. With “Avenue,” K. took Walt WHITMAN as his model and Manhattan as his topic, experimenting with a long, free-verse line that would allow him to accommodate the impulse to catalogue the images of the city. K. also experimented with the structure of the poem. Like “Song of Myself,” there is in “Avenue” an open-ended sequence of numbered sections. Each section culminates in an epiphany about the failure of community in the modern era, the Holocaust being only the most horrifying example. Pared down and focused in stanzas with shorter lines and longer sentence structures, the meditational, open-ended sequence would become K.'s preferred form in many subsequent poems.

He would, for instance, come to use it to explore his deeply ambivalent feelings about his own mortality. He has said that death has two aspects for him, “the extinction which we fear, and the flowing away into the universe, which we desire.” This is the inner tension that motivates some of K.'s most important poems, including “The Porcupine” and “The Bear,” in Body Rags (1968). In both of these poems, we see dramatized a speaker's gradual identification with a grotesquely dying animal. As such, each of these poems reads like a parable of coming to terms with one's own mortality, and the process described is both a frightening and liberating death of self.

K.'s next volume, The Book of Nightmares (1971), explores a different sort of pain and fear: the possibility that existence itself is nothing but a meaningless and desolate bad dream. Each of the ten meditations that compose this book brings the reader to an image of death without meaning, and, as in a fugue, the images of such deaths echo one another from poem to poem, making for a cumulative horror. But, at the same time, the horror is balanced by a speaker struggling in each poem to affirm that love and human connectedness can provide some shred of significance, however ephemeral. Dedicated to his two children, framed by descriptions of their births, the poem as a whole is, as K. himself has said, deeply affirmative.

To some, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) and The Past (1985) represent a falling off from the intensity of vision preceding them. On the other hand, K. seems to have opened new emotional territory in these volumes. Less bardic and apocalyptic, these poems are as vividly imagined as any of K.'s earlier work. Mostly tender reminiscences and brief elegies, the most moving of those is on the death of K.'s mother. The poem ends with lines that seem to distill the wisdom of his entire opus: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.”


Bibliography Guimond, J., Seeing and Healing (1984) Mills, R., Cry of the Human (1975) Molesworth, C., The Fierce Embrace (1979) Nelson, C., Our Last First Poets (1981) Nelson, H., On the Poetry of G. K. (1987) Zimmerman, L., Intricate and Simple Things (1987)

Fred Marchant

© 2005 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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