Galway Kinnell was an award-winning poet best known for poetry that connects the experiences of daily life to much larger poetic, spiritual, and cultural forces. Often focusing on the claims of nature and society on the individual, Kinnell’s poems explore psychological states in precise and sonorous free verse. Critic Morris Dickstein called Kinnell “one of the true master poets of his generation.” Dickstein added, “there are few others writing today in whose work we feel so strongly the full human presence.” Robert Langbaum observed in the American Poetry Review that “at a time when so many poets are content to be skillful and trivial, [Kinnell] speaks with a big voice about the whole of life.” Marked by his early experiences as a Civil Rights and anti-war activist, Kinnell’s socially-engaged verse broadened in his later years to seek the essential in human nature, often by engaging the natural and animal worlds. With a remarkable career spanning many decades, Kinnell’s Selected Poems (1980) won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Kinnell was born in 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island and grew up in Pawtucket. A self-described introvert as a child, he grew up reading reclusive American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. After two years of service in the U.S. Navy, he earned a BA with highest honors from Princeton University—where he was classmates with poet W.S. Merwin—in 1948. He earned an MA from the University of Rochester a year later. Kinnell then spent many years abroad, including a Fulbright Fellowship in Paris and extended stays in Europe and the Middle East. Returning to the United States in the 1960s, Kinnell joined the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), registering African American voters in the South. Many of his experiences—world travel, city life, harassment as a member of CORE and an anti-Vietnam war demonstrator—eventually found expression in his poetry. One of the first voices to mark the change in American poetry from the cerebral wit of the 1950s to the more liberated, political work of the ‘60s, Kinnell “is a poet of the landscape, a poet of soliloquy, a poet of the city’s underside and a poet who speaks for thieves, pushcart vendors and lumberjacks with an unforced simulation of the vernacular,” noted the Hudson Review contributor Vernon Young.
Of his first books, What a Kingdom it Was (1960), Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964) and Body Rags (1968), Body Rags contains the bulk of Kinnell’s most praised and anthologized poems. Using animal experiences to explore human consciousness, Kinnell poems such as “The Bear” feature frank and often unlovely images. Kinnell’s embrace of the ugly is well-considered, though. As the author told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve tried to carry my poetry as far as I could, to dwell on the ugly as fully, as far, and as long, as I could stomach it. Probably more than most poets I have included in my work the unpleasant because I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.” Though his poetry is rife with earthy images like animals, fire, blood, stars and insects, Kinnell does not consider himself to be a “nature poet.” In an interview with Daniela Gioseffi for Hayden’s Ferry Review, Kinnell noted, “I don’t recognize the distinction between nature poetry and, what would be the other thing? Human civilization poetry? We are creatures of the earth who build our elaborate cities and beavers are creatures of the earth who build their elaborate lodges and canal operations and dams, just as we do … Poems about other creatures may have political and social implications for us.”
Though obsessed with a personal set of concerns and mythologies, Kinnell does draw on the tradition of both his contemporaries and predecessors. Studying the work of Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell, Kinnell’s innovations have “avoided studied ambiguity, and he has risked directness of address, precision of imagery, and experiments with surrealistic situations and images” according to a contributor for Contemporary Poetry. Critics most often compare Kinnell’s work to that of Walt Whitman, however, because of its transcendental philosophy and personal intensity; Kinnell himself edited The Essential Whitman (1987). As Robert Langbaum observed in American Poetry Review, “like the romantic poets to whose tradition he belongs, Kinnell tries to pull an immortality out of our mortality.”
Other well-known Kinnell works include The Book of Nightmares (1971) and The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964 (1974). The latter’s eponymous poem explores life on Avenue C in New York City’s Lower East Side, drawing inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” A book-length poem that draws heavily on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the ten parts of The Book of Nightmares revolve around two autobiographical moments—the births of Kinnell’s daughter and son—while examining the relationship between society and community through a symbolic system that draws on cosmic metaphors. The book is one of Kinnell’s most highly praised. Rilke was a particularly important poet for Kinnell and among his many acts as a translator, he would later co-translate The Essential Rilke (1999), with Hannah Liebmann.
Selected Poems (1982), for which Kinnell won the Pulitzer Prize and was co-winner of the National Book Award in 1983, contains works from every period in the poet’s career and was released just shortly before he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant. Almost twenty years after his Selected Poems, Kinnell released the retrospective collection, A New Selected Poems (2001), focusing on Kinnell’s poetry of the 1960s and 1970s. His poetry from this period features a fierce surrealism that also grapples with large questions of the human, the social and the natural. In the Boston Review, Richard Tillinghast commented that Kinnell’s work “is proof that poems can still be written, and written movingly and convincingly, on those subjects that in any age fascinate, quicken, disturb, confound, and sadden the hearts of men and women: eros, the family, mortality, the life of the spirit, war, the life of nations … [Kinnell] always meets existence head-on, without evasion or wishful thinking. When Kinnell is at the top of his form, there is no better poet writing in America.”
Kinnell’s last book, Strong is Your Hold (2006) was released the year before his 80th birthday. The book, which continues the more genial, meditative stance Kinnell has developed over the years, also includes the long poem “When the Towers Fell,” written about September 11, 2001. In an interview with Elizabeth Lund for the Christian Science Monitor Online, Kinnell declared, “It’s the poet’s job to figure out what’s happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a certain shape, that have a chance of lasting.” Lund noted that “Kinnell never seems to lose his center, or his compassion. He can make almost any situation, any loss, resonate. Indeed, much of his work leaves the reader with a delicious ache, a sense of wanting to look once more at whatever scene is passing.”
Kinnell lived in Vermont for many years, and he died in 2014 at the age of 87.
Poet and translator, 1949—. Alfred University, Alfred, NY, instructor in English, 1949-51; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, supervisor of liberal arts program at downtown campus, 1951-55; University of Grenoble, Grenoble, France, American lecturer, 1956-57; University of Nice, Nice, France, lecturer in summer session, 1957; University of Iran, Teheran, Iran, Fulbright lecturer, 1959-60; Columbia University, New York, NY, adjunct associate professor, 1972, adjunct professor, 1974, 1976; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Citizens’ Professor, 1979-81; New York University, New York, NY, director of writing program, 1981-84, State University of New York-Binghamton, NY, director of writing program, 1983-84, Samuel F. B. Morse Professor of Arts and Sciences, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing. Poet-in-residence, Juniata College, 1964; Reed College, 1966-67; Colorado State University, 1968; University of Washington, 1968; University of California—Irvine, 1968-69; University of Iowa, 1970; and Holy Cross College, 1977. Resident writer, Deya Institute (Mallorca, Spain), 1969-70. Visiting professor, Queens College of the City University of New York, 1971; Pittsburgh Poetry Forum, 1971; Brandeis University, 1974; Skidmore College, 1975; and University of Delaware, 1978. Visiting poet, Sarah Lawrence College, 1972-78; Princeton University, 1976; and University of Hawaii. Visiting writer, Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), 1979. Director, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, 1979—. Field worker for Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), 1963. Recorded poetry to sound and video cassette, including Galway Kinnell Reading His Poems with Comment in New York City (audio cassette), 1959; Poetry Breaks I, Galway Kinnell (video cassette), 1988; and Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds Reading Their Poems in the Montpelier Room (audio cassette), 1996. Chancellor, Academy of American Poets, 2001—. Advisory Board Member, Red Hen Press (Granada Hills, CA).
- What a Kingdom It Was, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1960, revised, 2002.
- Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1964, revised, 2002.
- Body Rags (also see below), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1968.
- Poems of Night, Rapp & Carroll (London, England), 1968.
- The Hen Flower, Scepter Press (Frensham, England), 1969.
- First Poems: 1946-1954, Perishable Press (Mt. Horeb, WI), 1970.
- The Shoes of Wandering, Perishable Press (Mt. Horeb, WI), 1971.
- The Book of Nightmares, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1971.
- The Avenue bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1974, revised, 2002.
- St. Francis and the Sow, Ravine Press (Chicago, IL), 1976.
- Three Poems, Phoenix Book Shop (New York, NY), 1976.
- Fergus Falling, Janus Press (Newark, VT), 1979.
- There Are Things I Tell to No One (single poem), Nadja (New York, NY), 1979.
- Two Poems, Janus Press (Newark, VT), 1979.
- Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (also see below), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1980.
- The Last Hiding Place of Snow, Red Ozier (New York, NY), 1980.
- Selected Poems, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.
- The Fundamental Project of Technology (single poem; also see below), Ewert (Concord, NH), 1983.
- The Geese, Janus Press (Newark, VT), 1985.
- The Seekonk Woods, with photographs by Lotte Jacobi, Janus Press (Newark, VT), 1985.
- The Past (includes The Fundamental Project of Technology; also see below), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1985.
- When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
- Three Books (includes Body Rags, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, and The Past,Houghton (Boston, MA), 1993.
- Imperfect Thirst, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
- A New Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
- Strong is Your Hold, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
- Rene Hardy, Bitter Victory, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1956.
- Henri Lehmann, Pre-Columbian Ceramics, Viking (New York, NY), 1962.
- The Poems of François Villon, New American Library (New York, NY), 1965, new edition, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1982.
- Yves Bonnefoy, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1968, reprinted, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1992.
- Yvan Goll, Lackawanna Elegy, Sumac Press, 1970.
- (With Richard Revear) Yves Bonnefoy, Early Poems, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1991.
- (With Hannah Liebmann) Rainer Maria Rilke, The Essential Rilke, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1999.
- Thoughts Occasioned by the Most Insignificant of All Human Events (essay; first published in Pleasures of Learning, 1958), Ewert (Concord, NH), 1982.
- Black Light (novel), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1966, revised edition, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1980.
- The Poetics of the Physical World (lecture), Colorado State University, 1969.
- Walking down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1978.
- How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (juvenile), illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.
- Remarks on Accepting the American Book Award, Ewert (Concord, NH), 1984.
- (Author of postscript) Paul Zweig, Eternity's Woods, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1985.
- (Editor and author of introduction) Walt Whitman, The Essential Whitman, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1987.
- Poetry Breaks I, Galway Kinnell, (video reading), Leita Hagemann and WGBH Educational Foundation (Boston, MA), 1988.
- Calhoun, Richard James, Galway Kinnell, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
- Cambon, Glauco, Recent American Poetry, University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, MN), 1962.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 29, 1984.
- Contemporary Poets, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
- Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1956, new edition, 1968.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1987, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
- Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
- Galway Kinnell: A Bibliography and Index of His Published Works and Criticism of Them, Frederick W. Crumb Memorial Library, State University College (Potsdam, NY), 1968.
- Guimond, James, Seeing and Healing: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell, Associated Faculty Press (Gaithersburg, MD), 1988.
- Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1965, new edition, 1969.
- Kinnell, Galway, Walking down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1978.
- Mills, Ralph, Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1975.
- Modern American Literature, fifth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
- Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
- Nelson, Howard, editor, On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1987.
- Poulin, A., Jr., editor, Contemporary American Poetry, Houghton (New York, NY), 1985.
- Reference Guide to American Literature, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
- Shaw, Robert B., editor, American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Dufour (Chester Springs, PA), 1974.
- Thurley, Geoffrey, The American Moment: American Poetry in Mid-Century, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1977.
- Tuten, Nancy L., editor, Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell, G. K. Hall (New York, NY), 1996.
- Zimmerman, Lee, Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1987.
- American Book Review, March, 1987.
- American Poetry Review, March-April, 1979.
- Antioch Review, winter, 2001, Ned Balbo, review of A New Selected Poems, p. 121.
- Atlantic, February, 1972.
- Beloit Poetry Journal, spring, 1968; fall-winter, 1971-72.
- Boston Review, February, 1983.
- Carleton Miscellany, spring-summer, 1972.
- Chicago Review, Volume 25, number 1, 1973; Volume 27, number 1, 1975.
- Chicago Tribune Book World, June 8, 1980; February 2, 1986.
- Commonweal, November 4, 1960; December 24, 1971; August 15, 1986.
- Contemporary Literature, winter, 1973, Marjorie Perloff, review of The Book of Nightmares; autumn, 1979.
- Explicator, April, 1975.
- Hayden's Ferry Review, fall-winter, 2002-03, Daniela Gioseffi, interview with Kinnell.
- Hudson Review, summer, 1968; autumn, 1971; winter, 1974-75; spring, 1986; summer, 1995.
- Iowa Review, winter, 1979.
- Kenyon Review, summer, 1986.
- Literary Review, spring, 1981.
- Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1983.
- Massachusetts Review, summer, 1984.
- Modern Poetry Studies, winter, 1974; number 11, 1982.
- Nation, September 16, 1968, John Logan, review of Body Rags, p. 244.
- New Republic, July 27, 1974; August 3, 1974.
- New Statesman, September 12, 1969, Alan Brownjohn, review of Body Rags, p. 347.
- New York Times, September 1, 1971; November 2, 1985; August 21, 1989.
- New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1964; February 18, 1968; November 21, 1971; January 12, 1975; June 22, 1980; September 19, 1982; March 2, 1986.
- Parnassus, fall-winter, 1974; annual, 1980.
- Partisan Review, winter, 1967; Volume XLIV, number 2, 1977.
- Perspective, spring, 1968.
- Poetry, February, 1961; February, 1967; November, 1972; February, 1975; July, 1991, p. 217; April, 1996, p. 33.
- Princeton University Library Chronicle, autumn, 1963.
- Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1994, p. 57; December 5, 1994, p. 56; March 6, 2000, review of A New Selected Poems, p. 106.
- Shenandoah, fall, 1973.
- Times Literary Supplement, September 21, 1969; March 1, 1985; November 6, 1987; November 12, 1987.
- Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 3, 1991.
- Village Voice, April 1, 1986.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1995, p. 656.
- Washington Post Book World, September 5, 1982; January 5, 1986; December 30, 1990.
- Western Humanities Review, spring, 1972; summer, 1973.
- World Literature Today, autumn, 2000, Bernard Dick, review of A New Selected Poems, p. 819.
- Yale Review, autumn, 1968; October, 1980.
- Abilene Christian University Web site, http://www.acu.edu/events/news/ (January 23, 2003),"Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet to Read in Major Literary Event."
- Christian Science Monitor Online, http://www.csmonitor.com/ (October 25, 2001), Elizabeth Lund "Galway Kinnell Searches for the Real Beauty."
- Cortland Review Online, http://www.cortlandreview.com/ (June 13, 2002), Daniela Gioseffi, interview with Kinnell.
- New Yorker Online, http://www.newyorker.com/ (August 3, 2004), Alice Quinn, "Writing for the Dead, an Interview with Galway Kinnell."
- Rambles.net, http://www.rambles.net/ (June 13, 2002), Daina Savage, review of Imperfect Thirst.
- Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (August 5, 2002).
- University of Illinois Department of English Web site, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/ (August 3, 2004) "Modern American Poetry, Galway Kinnell."
Poems By GALWAY KINNELL
- Across the Brown River
- After Making Love We Hear Footsteps
- Ah Moon
- Alewives Pool
- Another Night in the Ruins
More poems by Galway Kinnell (43 poems)
- Canada Warbler
- December 26
- Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock
- For Ruth
- How Many Nights
- In the Anse Galet Valley
- In the Farmhouse
- Memories of My Father
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peer Gynt
- Ruins Under the Stars
- Saint Francis and the Sow
- Seven Streams of Nevis
- The Bear
- The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students
- The Descent
- The Feast
- The Homecoming of Emma Lazarus
- The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak
- The Mystic River
- The Poem
- The Poetry Shelf
- The Scattering of Evan Jones's Ashes
- The Seekonk Woods
- The Shoes
- The Stone Table
- The Supper After the Last
- The Wolves
- Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond
- Where the Track Vanishes
- Yesterday from My Fever
Articles About GALWAY KINNELL
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Essential American Poets
Galway Kinnell: Essential American Poets
Recordings of poet Galway Kinnell, with an introduction to his life and work. Recorded September 19, 2007, New York, NY.
Three Ways of Looking at a Rose
H.D., Jean Valentine, and Galway Kinnell on the queen of all poetic clichés.