By Daniela Gioseffi

Galway Kinnell's New Collected Poems


Mortal, Masculine and Worldly
A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell
© 2000
Houghton Mifflin: NY 173pp. Hardcover. $25.

Galway Kinnell is a poet of earthy music who boosts the spirit and palliates the soul. There is no solipsistic experiment in language here, but an original voice giving detail to reality, the natural world, sexual union, earthly and manly concern. Selected here is an overview of a lifetime's output of poetry from one of America's most masculine and exuberant poets, one of fresh language and novel conviction who writes about real life and its earthy adventures. Often, Kinnell finds transcendence through immersion in the wonders of a sought-out wilderness.

I love the earth, and always,
in its darkness, I am a stranger. [Middle of the Way" p.39]

The rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that
poetry, by which
I lived. ["The Bear" p. 65]

Since his first collection,What a Kingdom It Was, 1960, Galway Kinnell's voice has, over time, settled into a calmer, self-assured tone. "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World," was a long rhapsodic poem in fourteen sections which strove for epic proportion. In his first full-length collection published in 1960 and republished in a 1974 collection of that title -- it was full of variant voice, and differing poetic techniques. It embodied an exhilarating observation of the life around him on the lower East Side of The City. It was passionate and often sardonic in tone -- aware of the absurdities of urban civilization. That tone can still be found between more measured passages of his later transcendent poems.

And yet I can rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
into life.
And enter ourselves
like the tadpole, its time come, tumbling toward the slime.

The current collection: A New Selected Poems , 2000, follows by eight years, Selected Poems, 1982 -- which won The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- and comes after the publication of four ensuing collections: The Past, 1985, When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone, 1990, Three Books, 1993; and Imperfect Things, 1994. The new book allows us to graze through the mutations in Kinnell's poetic articulation. Though distinctive in voice, there are several poems with a Whitmanesque cadence -- such as "The Road Between Here and There," from The Past, published in 1985, close to the period when Kinnell was editing The Essential Whitman, published in 1987. For the most part Kinnell's lyrics are composed of long, single stanzas. Whatever form Kinnell adopts, he does it justice and makes it his own -- always grappling with earthy and full-bodied themes. Kinnell has been accused of harboring "bathos and heavy-handed lust" in some of his poems, but no doubt by lesser men who can't understand a passionate desire for women and who have not participated so fully in nature's awful beauty. There is none of the, stylish -- in some quarters -- solipsistic world of effete and decadent experiment operating in Kinnell's writing. He has real things to say about an actual world of flesh and bone and excrement, full of nature's glories and horrors, always viewed from within the reality of our gutsy, animal being, our need to survive from the land and its vulnerable animal life, a world poignant with transient beauty and helpless mortality.

And, Kinnell's fatherly poems about his children are some of the most satisfying on that theme in our American canon. One might say that he is one of the truly masculine men writing poetry of note in America today -- of which let's hope there are many more less known to us who spare him their jealousy. Kinnell's poetry is one in which events occur, women and men make love, people and animals are born, live and die, the earth blossoms and freezes, burns and churns, and the "mortal acts" of living take place. It is not made of mere cerebral machinations or inward glances, but of acute observation -- though often there is an inwardness of thought accompanying the events and there is enough intellect to satisfy the mind living fully within it's body.

In contrast to Kinnell's exuberance, there is often a sorrowful tone, especially evident, perhaps, in the poems from Flower Herding on Mount Manadnock. The sorrow is of how beauty is transient as life ends often at the moment of its greatest flowering. It's a sadness born of the awesome moment as it passes into oblivion -- as we all do and must. Kinnell's is a universal sorrow that gives joy all it's contrast.

Sometimes Kinnell seems to be working from form in order to inspire himself to write, as in the sequence selected here from When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone -- yet the form works for him and he uses it to his advantage to create fresh and nuanced response to experience. There is interesting psychological subject matter in some of Kinnell's poems, especially in the section from Imperfect Thirst, that other poets haven't dared to tackle with such candid diction. The poem titled: "My Mother's R & R " is one such wherein two small boys, one speaker of the poem, and the other, his brother, boldly crawl into bed with their languishing mother to suckle each at one of her breasts only to be pushed away. It depicts an unresponsive mother -- sleeping late while her boys go hungry.
....two small
hungry boys, enflamed and driven off
by the she-wolf. But we had got our nip,
and in the empire we would found,
we would taste all the women and expel
each as she came to resemble her.

The power to give or withhold sustenance -- a mother's domain -- is expressed in the term "She wolf" as the poet goes on to explore how anger over the mother's power can cause men, as they grow into manhood, to seek sexual and emotional power over women. This is a theme that feminists might explore more fully in their attempts to understand the battle of the sexes -- one told from a man's point of view in candid and masculine timbre -- an implication worth noting, achieved without preaching, with subtle effect.

Recently, the critic, Marjorie Perloff -- in a symposium held at Cooper Union by the Poetry Society of America on "Poetry Criticism: "What is it for?" -- made a blatant pronouncement saying how tired she is of poetry that isn't experimental or different.As we all know she is a champion of Charles Bernstein's "Language School," now swiftly becoming passe-- as most of the poetry it produced had nothing to grip the soul and spirit for long. That short-lived school, claiming to explore new territory, was merely an imitation of the same experiments that more venerable poets like Jackson McClough or Armand Schwerner, as well as John Ashbery, had already explored, soon followed by Richard Kostelanetz and many others. Kostelanetz magazine, Assembling, published through the seventies had enlisted every sort of language experiment in its democratic style. Anyone was allowed to reproduce an experimental work and send it to Kostelanetz for inclusion. He would assemble and distribute the pages, and thus Assembling was open to every sort of experiment with language early on. Wright, Bly and Kinnell were then busy exploring Lorca, and Latin American writing, and involved in the "Deep Image" school. Bly's magazine titled The Sixties and then, The Seventies explored the idea of incorporating deep symbolic imagery that could speak volumes in one line. This idea of poetic creativity is still alive, well and kicking across the board of poetic endeavor, even as the "Language School" along with Bernstein's convoluted conceptualism is boring many. Yet, Marjorie Perloff claims that no one knows who James Wright is anymore and no one reads the old boys, Kinnell, Bly these days.

Judging from my recent sojourn at The Peoples' Poetry Gathering in New York in March 2001, she couldn't be more wrong. The Great Hall was packed with Kinnell and Bly admires and fans lined up to buy their books. These men still draw enthusiastic audiences who cheer and applaud, laugh and cry with them.

I couldn't believe that Perloff's sweeping statements were correct, so, I went to to check sales figures on Charles Bernstein or Jorie Graham in relation to Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly and James Wright. Indeed, Graham's last book Swarm, was thoroughly panned by the critics who in effect said, "The emperor has NO new clothes!" I found that, quite clearly, Kinnell is still outselling poets like Berstein or Graham, and is actually more widely read than Ashbery, too. I suspect that Bly and Wright might also be more read than Bernstein or Graham, as well. Margorie Perloff may be living in a rarified world in which many lovers and readers of poetry don't abide. Sorry, Marjorie,it's your idea of "new" which has quickly become "old"--mainly because it had nothing to offer the faltering spirit in this decadent world of nonsensical art and commercial din. We need more meaning, not less, more humane depth, not word play and abstracted theory!

Kinnell's work speaks to the human experience here on this visceral earth and seems as fresh as the day he wrote it. It's as relevant to today's reader as ever, but it may be true that a city dweller or suburbanite who has never lived in a forest among birds, bears and deer might not appreciate some of his references and intimate knowledge of the ways of the natural world.Yet, he has plenty of urban poetry to offer, and a wry sense of humor, too.There are many of us who have and do live in rural settings to whom Kinnell's intimacy with nature speaks very profoundly and more importantly than ever. There is nothing rarified about the natural world which sustains our very lives, our ability to feel, see, breathe and write as well as read. Perloff should attempt to live in it more fully, and learn its ways apart from all bookishness--then she might not decry what she calls "nature poetry" so easily. She too, might gain an appreciation for that which sustains life on the planet and stop appreciating all that fiddling that is going on while Rome burns. Yet, an affinity with nature is not necessary to an appreciation of Kinnell's poetry, though it might most certainly deepen it.

The poems in the new collection are gleaned from nine books written between 1960 and 1994, including The Book of Nightmares, Body Rags, and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words -- and those already mentioned above. Occasional revisions are noted by Kinnell in a prefatory note. The life of this fine American poet is glanced in a journey through the collections from childhood through the early death of his brother and the later one of his sister, through an exhilarating youth in New York City, through marriage, children, divorce, solitude and a rebirth through new love, with final contemplations of the sureness and mystery of death. As in these lines near the end of the collection, from "Sheffield Ghazal 5: Passing the Cemetery," Imperfect Thirst.

The human brain may be the brightest place on earth.
At death the body becomes foreign substance; a person who loved you
may wash and dress this one you believed for so long was you,
Galway, a few embrace the memory in it, but somewhere else will
know it and welcome it.

If one hasn't had the opportunity to read or own Kinnell's individual collections through the years, here's a chance to own a hearty sampling of the pivitol output, through a lifetime, of one of our truest and finest American poets.

Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning poet who has published ten books of poetry and prose. Her latest books of poetry are Eggs in the Lake (Boa Editions, Ltd.) ; Word Wounds and Water Flowers and Going On Poems 2000 (Via Folios @ Purdue University.) She has won two New York State Council for the Arts grant awards in poetry and published numerous poems in anthologies and literary magazines such as The Paris Review, The Nation, Chelsea, Choice, Ms. Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and Antaeus. She edits Wise Women's Web, now, a magazine of literature and commentary, nominated for Best of the Web, 1998. Daniela is a freelance reviewer for several journals, on and off line, among them The Cortland Review, The American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, The Small Press Review, Poet Lore, and Independent Publishing. She has been a member of The National Book Critics Circle since 1979 and gives talks and readings around the country at many campuses, libraries and book fairs. She read for NPR and the BBC and published two award winning multicultural compendiums: WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age (Touchstone: NY) soon to be reissued anew by The Feminist Press, and ON PREJUDICE: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE (Anchor/Doubleday, 1993.) She began her career as a novelist with The Great American Belly from Doubleday/Dell, 1979, and published a 1997 collection of short stories: In Bed with the Exotic Enemy, Avisson Press; NC.


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