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Selected Poems          

By Galway Kinnell 

Original and Current Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Katie Peterson writes: 

Galway Kinnell’s poems keep telling us to get as close as possible to experience. Kinnell wants us to “press our frontal bones to the madrone,” he makes us watch him stick his nose into bear excrement, to “know / the chilly, enduring odor of bear.” He’s a nature poet, but he gravitates towards human experiences with nature rather than pure descriptions of animals and landscapes. He’s a spiritual poet, but he’s earthy rather than lofty. In a later poem he writes, “The human brain may be the brightest place on earth,” (“Sheffield Ghazal 5: Passing the Cemetery”). So it seems in the Selected Poems, in which the speaker’s experiences transform him, but do so on earth, in the flesh, and in time. It all feels, quite frankly, terribly out of fashion: these poems are about refusing to pick up the phone and being willing to spend hours in nature without talking to anyone and believing sex (actual sex, you know, with two bodies, not the kind on music videos) is actually the most significant spiritual experience a person can have in this life. Since one hundred percent of people die, the point becomes to live as intensely as possible. Before there was reality television, there was reality.

But reading these poems I feel the same sense of desperation I feel watching reality television: the desire to be proximate. And proximate Kinnell gets. One of the most widely anthologized poems in the Selected Poems is “The Bear.” In it, the speaker undergoes an act of identification with a dying animal so intense as to leave him utterly changed: 

On the seventh day,
living now by bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
steamy hulk,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.

I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching

perhaps the first taint of me as he

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.

Whether or not the ravine was actually hacked in the bear’s leg is clearly not the point. The point is that Kinnell has answered some insistent human challenge not by inventing a cultural structure to contain it (like war or racism) but by submitting to an imaginative experience in the nature that opens up curiosity and the senses. The result is, the poet hopes, a more profoundly ignorant form of self-reflection: “what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that / poetry, by which I lived?” (“The Bear”)

Kinnell is a great student of those two love starved sweethearts of American poetry, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who both also spent a lot of time alone thinking about not being alone. Like Dickinson and Whitman, he loves vows. He’s intoxicated by the idea of being faithful to something—anything—real. Though vows seem like they’re about making a commitment to a lifetime, they’re really, usually, about the intensity of the moment. In the intense, lived moment, Kinnell finds what seems to him the only beautiful struggle against death. To see that struggle as a vow, made and necessarily broken, sacramentalizes it. My favorite poems in the 1983 Selected are from The Book of Nightmares, a book-length sequence addressed to his daughter Maud. The actual fire Kinnell lights in the first poem takes on great symbolic weight when the elements threaten it:

The black
wood reddens, the deathwatches inside
begin running out of time, I can see
the dead, crossed limbs
longing again for the universe, I can hear
in the wet wood the snap
and re-snap of the same embrace being torn.

The raindrops trying
to put the fire out
fall into it and are
changed: the oath broken,
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken
to be sworn again,
over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,
over and over, on earth.

(“Under the Maud Moon”)

As the poems continue, there is a wonderful description of Maud’s emergence from her mother’s body and the cutting of the umbilical cord; there is a moving address to an older Maud in the distant year of 2009. Kinnell’s love for, and interest in, his child’s somatic existence and unruly autonomy are daring and fearless and puriently curious in all the best ways. But most moving are Kinnell’s desperate but forceful vows to Maud, doomed to undergo the same trials as her father and the rest of us:

And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tongue,

may there come back to you
a voice,
spectral, calling you
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.

Kinnell has other oaths for himself, and for us, and they are equally intent on turning us back towards the actual world as a balm for metaphysical quandary. A New Selected Poems, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in 2000, includes two ghazals, a Middle Eastern poetic form where the poet addresses himself in the last line. In one of these poems, Kinnell imagines a young couple driving across the country:

A girl puts her head on a boy’s shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway—sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth, and climb over.

(“Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving West”)

I also admire this poem (a self-address that is also a vow) from the book Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, both for its good advice and for its plain statement:


Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

The tone here, and the word play, echo Kinnell’s amazing translations of the 15th century French poet Francois Villon, published in 1983 and available from University Press of New England.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree(New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Jack Gilbert for Monolithos
  • Linda Pastan for PM/AM
  • Mona Van Duyn for Letters from a Father and Other Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Not Available

The Year in Literature: Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Galway Kinnell (1927- ) was born in Providence, RI.
  • Kinnell went to college at Princeton University where he was classmates with fellow National Book Award Winner W.S. Merwin.

John Ashbery, Richard Howard, and Galway Kinnell at the 1983 National Book Awards.

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