Galway Kinnell’s muscular free verse became an important model for poets in the 1960s, when his first three books appeared. While his friend Denise Levertov offered delicately constructed poems derived from William Carlos Williams’s terse rhythms, Kinnell reached back to Whitman’s poetics to embrace the irregular sequence of poems like “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” The most memorable poems of Kinnell’s first decades were sequences like “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” “The Last River,” “The Bear,” “Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock,” and The Book of Nightmares. These poems consist of series of distinct perceptions, each in a numbered section complete in itself but linked to those preceding or following.
The common subjects of these poems are the texture of the environment and the ways in which we weave ourselves into it: the rural landscape, in poems like “Freedom, New Hampshire,” or the urban scene, in the monumental “Avenue … ”. Kinnell’s primary concern is how we engage with these worlds and come to understand them. But in poems of totemic ritual and magic like “The Bear,” a mythic and instinctual grasp of nature and the cosmos comes into play, most fully realized in Kinnell’s 1971 volume The Book of Nightmares. In “Under the Maud Moon,” the speaker intuits an animal presence both inside and outside himself. He reflects upon the birth of his daughter Maud as concurrent with the forces of nature:
It is all over,
little one, the flipping
and overleaping, the watery
somersaulting alone in the oneness
under the hill, under
the old, lonely bellybutton,
pushing forth again
the drifting there furled in the dark …
Under the moon, he baptizes himself in the night and the dark river to ensure that his voice will survive him through this sequence to inform his daughter in the future.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Kinnell became a popular reader at anti-war events. “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond” contrasts the primal lives of frogs with the casual violence of deputies shooting dogs and napalm dropped by American warplanes. The poem reminds us that we are creatures of blood and flesh, and that the “drifting sun gives us our lives,” that we are continuous with the universe, with frogs and dogs and other humans, rather than creatures apart. Kinnell’s dramatic readings of this and other poems from Body Rags enthralled his audience, and made him one of our most visible poets.
While Kinnell remained a popular and effective oral performer, his work shifted after The Book of Nightmares. Becoming more intimate and personal, more focused on family, his poems also became more diffuse, losing some of the intensity of the earlier work. By slipping into domestic sentimentality, some poems in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), nine years after Nightmares, are a little embarrassing, as in “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”:
In the half-darkness we look at each other
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
Some of the other poems in this collection try to re-engage the ritual magic of nature, but only a couple of them succeed, including “Daybreak,” an entrancing and compact poem about starfish, and “The Gray Heron,” with its closure linking nature to human self-awareness:
It stopped and tilted its head,
which was much like
a fieldstone with an eye
in it, which was watching me
to see if I would go
or change into something else.
The Past (1985) temporarily abandons the sequence in favor of solid blocks of short poetry about Vermont rural life, some of which, in their simplicity, could have been written by Walter Hard. The few poems that court the natural sublime seem forced, but many of the simple narratives, like “Break of Day,” are effective in their atmospheric realism. A few poems attempt a long Whitmanesque line, like “On the Oregon Coast,” but these tend toward wordiness and slack language.
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990) returns to sequences, to good effect. The title poem, which occupies the entire fourth section of the book, is one of Kinnell’s masterpieces. It is a fine evocation of the act of turning inward, focusing on the way the self changes and is changed by the creation surrounding it. Instead of looking outward to the magic of the natural sublime, this poem looks deeply into the complexities of the human animal alone with itself:
When one has lived a long time alone,
and the hermit thrush calls and there is an answer,
and the bullfrog head half out of water utters
the cantillations he sang in his first spring,
and the snake lowers himself over the threshold
and creeps away among the stones, one sees
they all live to mate with their kind, and one knows,
after a long time of solitude, after the many steps taken
away from one’s kind, toward these other kingdoms,
the hard prayer inside one’s own singing
is to come back, if one can, to one’s own,
a world almost lost, in the exile that deepens,
when one has lived a long time alone.
His last two volumes, Imperfect Thirst (1994) and Strong is Your Hold (2006) mix sequence and narrative with varying degrees of success. Although he sometimes slips into garrulousness and cliché, Kinnell never entirely loses his way. Readers in the future will value him mostly for his masterful poems of the 1960s, but Kinnell’s lifelong love of the world and its creatures, his faith in natural process, and his attempts to reconcile nature and culture will continue to appeal to those who care about and want to understand our place on this planet.