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Galway Kinnell is an award-winning poet whose work seeks to establish the significance of life through daily human experience. In 1983 Kinnell received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1982).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Show of Academic Promise
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927, Galway Kinnell was the youngest of four children. He attended public schools but showed such academic promise that during his senior year of high school he won a scholarship to a prestigious private school. He subsequently attended Princeton University, where he became acquainted with poet W. S. Merwin. After receiving his BA degree from Princeton in 1948, he attended the University of Rochester, where in 1949 he received his MA. Through the 1950s, he supervised the downtown campus of the University of Chicago, and then lived in France under a Fulbright scholarship, teaching at the University of Grenoble and translating. In the late 1950s, he lived on and off in the Lower East Side of New York City, alternately serving as visiting writer at several colleges, including Juniata College, Colorado State University, Reed College, University of California, Irvine, and the University of Iowa. Subsequently, he received another Fulbright, this time to Iran. His only novel, Black Light (1966), was based on his experience there.
Dickey and Bogan Praise First Poetry Collection
Kinnell’s first published volume of poems, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), received favorable notice from both James Dickey and Louise Bogan. Not until the publication of First Poems, 1946-1954 (1970) was his earlier poetry collected. These poems are found in the more widely available volume The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 (1974).
Relating Christianity and Nature
Compared to his early work, the poems in What a Kingdom It Was address the problem of the relationship between Christianity and nature much more directly. Overall, the book never loses sight of the relationship between poetry and nature. In ”First Song” the poet describes how a boy learns ”fine music by listening to frogs and to a violin made of cornstalks. In the end the boy s song describes a happiness that emerges from the simultaneous presence of both sadness and joy. At the level of pure sound, poetry is part of nature itself. In ”The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” Kinnell presents the details of an urban landscape so that they are as transcendentally resonant as in the best of his poetry set entirely in nature.
Family Life and Activism in the 1960s
In 1961 Kinnell bought an old farm in rural Vermont and in 1965 he married Inez Delgado del Torres. The marriage lasted for twenty years. In 1966 a daughter, Maud Natasha, was born, and in 1968 a son, Finn Fergus, followed. Both children figure prominently in Kinnell s later poetry. Through the 1960s, Kinnell walked the path of the social activist, beginning with a 1963 trip to Louisiana to work with the Congress for Racial Equality. In the late 1960s, he was a prominent activist protesting against the Vietnam War.
In Body Rags (1968) Kinnell develops an extended metaphor that he had touched on in earlier work—the figure of life in relation to fire. This idea is developed in detail by Richard Howard in his essay on Kinnell in Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in America since 1950 (1969). Kinnell’s poem ”The Last River” is widely acknowledged as a preeminent example of the poetry of social protest. In the context ofthe Vietnam War, in which firebombing by American airplanes was common, the trope is appropriate, especially in ”Vapor Trail Reflected in Frog Pond, which resounds as preeminent among that category ofantiwar nature poetry also written in the same period by Robert Bly. For Kinnell, as well as for Bly, the war in its essence was a war against Earth itself.
In The Book of Nightmares (1971) Kinnell reacts against the urban-technological domain by asserting that a ”cruel but pure” poetic process serves in some sense to cleanse and perhaps to lead to a tentative kind of redemption. The speaker of the poem suffers the torture of simultaneously living in a nightmare and in day-to-day experience.
The Importance of Human Affection
In 1975 the National Institute of Arts and Letters recognized Kinnell by awarding him its Medal of Merit. In 1978 he returned to France as a Fulbright scholar. He taught for part of the year in Australia at Macquarie University and part at the University of Hawaii, where he remained until 1982. In Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), one finds on the surface what seems to be a shift away from the carefully structured and unified volume found in The Book of Nightmares. However, as John Unterecker has pointed out, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is best read as having a musical structure with symmetries and repetitions that reinforce an overarching theme celebrating the importance of human affection. Such affections are always rooted in nature, in a geographical place wherein affections take on one or another kind of dimension.
Renewed Activism for the Antinuclear Movement
In 1983 Kinnell received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1982), and in 1984 he received the prestigious MacArthur grant. This period was marked by his renewed activism, this time focused on the antinuclear movement. In The Past (1985), Kinnell reconciles with a deepening elegiac sense, as in ”The Fundamental Project of Technology,” in which he calls Time by both its names—past and future—simultaneously. While looking at uniformed children in Nagasaki, Kinnell takes from the past the awful event of the dropping of the atomic bomb and projects it into the future as silence. In the same year that The Past was published, Kinnell became the Samuel F. B. Morse Professor of Fine Arts at New York University. In 1987 he paid tribute to one of his most important influences, Walter Whitman, by publishing The Essential Whitman.
In When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990), two erotically charged poems—”The Perch” and ”Last Gods”—support Kinnell’s concern with rooting human affection in geographical place. In 1990 Kinnell again paid tribute to a major literary influence by bringing out, in collaboration with Hannah Liebmann, a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
Moral Questions Bound by Human Will
In Imperfect Thirst (1994) Kinnell’s poetic journey takes him deeper into the realm of domesticity. One of the most significant poems of nature in this volume is ”Flies,” more than one hundred and fifty lines long. In it Kinnell quotes fly-related poetic lore from Walt Whitman, Karl Shapiro, Miroslav Holub, Emily Dickinson, Christopher Smart, Antonio Machado, John Clare, James K. Baxter, William Blake, Martin Luther, Edward Taylor, and Federico Garcia Lorca. This range of attitudes toward flies is bounded by human will, related to the essentially moral question of whether or not to kill flies. Within the boundaries of the poem, one can find, for example, Clare describing houseflies as members of the family, Blake pondering the oneness of man and fly, or Luther declaring war against flies. Kinnell refers to Clare as helping prepare the way for Charles Darwin. In this poem Kinnell’s speaker internalizes the fly as keeping him awake at night, associating it with guilt or regret.
From 2001 until 2007, Kinnell served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. During that time he published a new collection of poems, Strong Is Your Hold (2006). Now retired, Kinnell lives in Vermont.
Works in Literary Context
Throughout his career, Galway Kinnell has written poetry that investigates the complex and conflicted relationship between humanity and nature, spirituality, and issues of social justice. His work is influenced by the education he received while at Princeton, his travels abroad, the climate of the Vietnam War era, and authors including Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson.
Humanity’s Relationship with Nature
In more than fifty years of active writing and publishing, Kinnell has consistently explored a range of alternative perspectives toward the natural world, including the shamanistic one he is particularly well known for portraying in ”The Bear.” Kinnell’s writing, as Richard J. Calhoun has described it, is postmodern and neoromantic, and, as Lee Zimmerman has explained in considerable detail, Kinnell’s poetry manages to hold in conflict the polarities of humans’ relationship to nature. Many poems empathetically participate in nature, and in this regard they sometimes arrive at terror. Alternatively, sometimes the poems portray nurturing, a sense of otherness, approaching the natural world as new and renewing.
As Robert Bly has suggested, Galway Kinnell’s ability to recognize the eternal in nature at the same time that he represents essentially the “fallen” state of nature allows his poems to assert a transformative power. However, this way is never the easy path to grace. Kinnell’s poems portray the inevitable struggle to live life fully; yet, they consistently show how poetry, in its drive to connect with readers, can bring meaning to the struggle.
Works in Critical Context
Kinnell’s earliest poetry from the 1940s and 1950s went largely unnoticed until it was collected and republished in the 1970s. However, his first volume of poems, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), drew positive attention from reviewers including James Dickey and Louise Bogan. The antiwar poetry Kinnell produced during the 1970s resonated with readers and the antiwar sentiments of the decade. When Kinnell won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems, his earlier work gained a larger audience and became subject to more critical attention.
Selected Poems, for which Kinnell won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was co-winner of the American Book Award, is, to quote Morris Dickstein, ”more than a good introduction to Galway Kinnell’s work. It is a full scale dossier.” The collection, published in 1982, contains works from every period in the poet’s career. In his review of the book, Robert Hass concludes:
Kinnell is widely read by the young who read poetry. If this were a different culture, he would simply be widely read…. The common reader—the one who reads at night or on the beach for pleasure and instruction and diversion—who wants to sample the poetry being written in [his] part of the 20th century could do very well beginning with Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems.
Kinnell is highly regarded by contemporary critics. For example, New York Times Book Review essayist Morris Dickstein calls Kinnell ”one of the true master poets of his generation and a writer whose career exemplifies some of what is best in contemporary poetry.” Similarly, Robert Langbaum observes in the American Poetry Review that Kinnell, ”at a time when so many poets are content to be skillful and trivial, speaks with a big voice about the whole of life.”
- Bly, Robert. ”Galway Kinnell and the Old Farmer.” In On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of the Dying. Edited by Howard Nelson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 178-184.
- Bogan, Louise. ”From ‘Verse.”’ In On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages ofDying. Edited by Howard Nelson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, p. 67.
- Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.
- Dickey, James. ”From ‘Five First Books.”’ In On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying. Edited by Howard Nelson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 65-66.
- Howard, Richard. ”Galway Kinnell.” In Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in America since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1969, pp. 304-319.
- Logan, John. ”The Bear in the Poet in the Bear.” In On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying. Edited by Howard Nelson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 76-81.
- Tuten, Nancy Lewis. Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
- Unterecker, John. ”Of Father, Of Son: On ‘Fergus Falling,’ ‘After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,’ and ‘Angling, a Day.”’ In On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying. Edited by Howard Nelson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 227-241.
- Zimmerman, Lee. Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
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