Trying to Become Winged
Collected Poems, by Galway Kinnell, ed. by Barbara K. Bristol and Jennifer Keller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Galway Kinnell won just about everything in his lifetime: the Pulitzer, a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship. Active in the civil rights movement, a volunteer worker for the Congress of Racial Equality — sentenced to a week in jail — he read against the war in Vietnam, and (in the eighties) nuclear weapons. Rilkean, Whitmanian, neo-Romantic, he cared about nature and was a great poet of family love, though with resolutely unselfish genes (he wasn’t one for Edmund Burke’s “little platoon”). Here he is, in “The Olive Wood Fire,” rocking his son Fergus to sleep. Vietnam’s on the box:
One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,I thought I heard a scream— a flier crying out in horroras he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,or else a child set thus aflame —and sat up alert. The olive wood firehad burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.
The second and fifth lines are iambic, the diction intimate yet scrupulous. “This vision of a childlike deity who sleeps through human horrors,” writes Phoebe Pettingell, “manages to combine Christian iconography with twentieth-century agnosticism.” Well, yes — but it’s also touching, like W.H. Auden’s lullabies, and a poem one wants to share with others. Partly because it may be new to them. For who (despite all the above) reads Galway Kinnell now? And if not, why not?
For one thing, time hasn’t been kind to his political and spiritual earnestness: the world-transforming ideas of the sixties have turned commercial (the ending of Mad Men!), or naffly new age, in self-help books with rainbows on the cover, and generalizations, by the bucketload, about Eastern mysticism. Kinnell’s stint as a lecturer and journalist in the Shah’s Iran (he arrived six years after the CIA’s coup in 1953) produced a short novel, Black Light, whose clenched protagonist, Jamshid, is ardent for heavenly purity. The narrative touches, a shade pruriently, on Islamic gender politics, discusses feelingly the plight of sex workers suffering under long-standing taboos, as well as culture-corrosive Westernization. Its spiritual-physical concerns make for marvelous descriptions, as, here, of a sky-buried camel:
He paused a moment. He looked up into the sky. Nothing was visible in the glittering air. He knew that in that blueness lived the changed flesh and blood of Hassan. Those strange, bobbing, rubbery motions of the camel had been, all the time, a way of trying to become winged.
Yet Jamshid’s fixations, however placed, are also Kinnell’s. He writes in “The Poetics of the Physical World”:
It is through something radiant in our lives that we have been able to dream of paradise, that we have been able to invent the realm of eternity. But there is another kind of glory in our lives which derives precisely from our inability to enter that paradise or to experience eternity.
“Death is the mother of beauty,” wrote Wallace Stevens, succinctly: Kinnell goes on wrestling with the problem, and the tussle can seem rote and self-congratulatory. Donald Davie makes the case against him, and, by extension, a whole strand of mystically libidinal, willfully and passionately gaseous, post-hippie US and British verse (Robert Bly, James Wright, Ted Hughes, Don Paterson) — a case which remains, perhaps, to be answered:
Galway Kinnell is a man who hungers for the spiritual ... who has been culturally conditioned moreover to resist the very disciplines that might have opened him up to the spiritual apprehensions he hungers for. By writing poems which thrash in and out of the impasse thus created, Kinnell has made a great reputation — which suggests that there are many readers who are walled up in the same bind, and ask nothing better than to churn and agonize within it.
We might carp at Davie’s prissiness, but it’s remarkable how well his argument holds up, as he takes the poet to task for overusing the word “mystical,” and for annexing without self-awareness the spiritual dramas of other cultures:
He proceeds to declare himself unable to sympathize with the treatment of death by Tennyson ... or Milton ... at the same time as he can enter fervently into treatments of the same theme by a Bathurst islander, an Australian aborigine, and a Tamil from two thousand years ago.
Asking “what has become of us that we can kill on a vast scale and not even be able to say why,” Kinnell would like to recover a primordial wholeness. He blames a spirit of dehumanizing, abstracted, objective-seeming, rational (that is, self-interested, nature-dominating, career-furthering) scrutiny, describing as “fatal” the mind’s “knack of detaching itself from what it studied, even when what it studied was itself.” Davie, on the other hand, identifies such primitivism, and its prioritizing of emotional response, rather than careful thought, as identical with tyranny. It’s Kirk versus Spock — the dissociation of sensibility all over again. Kinnell wishes to escape the unalive processes of cerebration, into what are for him moments of auroral aseity. Gradually (see the juvenilia) he learned a tonic roughness was called for — a bitty music, with space for the discrepant.
Kinnell is one of those poets whose style, though it alters from book to book, maintains a satisfyingly consistent tonal core. I’ve mentioned the early, unformed, work, but when his first collection, What a Kingdom It Was, appeared in 1960, he’d already developed that verbal confidence (how to present large-hearted feelings, and ethereal experiences, in gripping, dreamy phrases) which never deserted him. “First Song” begins “Then it was dusk in Illinois,” and carries the sound of that place name toward a “small boy,” who, carting dung, pauses to rest on a fence, listening to the frogs.
Soon their sound was pleasant for a boyListening in the smoky dusk and the nightfallOf Illinois, and from the fields two smallBoys came bearing cornstalk violinsAnd they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resinsAnd the three sat there scraping of their joy.It was now fine music the frogs and the boysDid in the towering Illinois twilight makeAnd into dark in spite of a shoulder’s acheA boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalkThe first song of his happiness, and the song wokeHis heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.
Kinnell grew up in Rhode Island during the Depression — his father was a carpenter — and while he described this poem as a “pure invention,” it does provide a micro-portrait, however romanticized, and geographically shifted, of the artist as a young man. The twilight is “towering,” the dusk is “smoky”; these adjectives are unexpected. They make you think. As do the jangling rhymes, suggestive of the cornstalk violins. Kinnell’s risky lyricism, bordering on vacuity — “loved out of a stalk,” and the closing line — walks that boundary with the impudence of a child who, spotting a wall, simply has to balance along the top. Forgetting, slowly, about his parent’s hand, he learns to go it alone. “Religious awe,” writes William James, “is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations.” Though Kinnell, like James, is no straightforward theist, he too would bridge the natural and supernatural: he seeks a language, littered with crises, to evince invisible powers. But he makes more of that “organic thrill,” abandoning James’s separation between merely “animal happiness” and something more hyperborean.
Introducing this volume, Edward Hirsch lingers on “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World.” Set in New York, it depicts the life of immigrants — urban decay, and splendor in decay — resembling T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound in its high-low registers, and its spalled form:
It is night, and raining. You look downToward Houston in the rain, the living streets,Where instants of transcendenceDrift in oceans of loathing and fear, like lanternfishes,Or phosphorous flashings in the sea, or the feverish lightSkin is said to give off when the swimmer drowns at night.From the blind gut Pitt to the East River of FishesThe Avenue cobbles a swath through the discolored air,A roadway of refuse from the teeming shores and ghettosAnd the Caribbean Paradise, into the new ghetto and new paradise,This God-forsaken Avenue bearing the initial of ChristThrough the haste and carelessness of the ages,The sea standing in heaps, which keeps on collapsing,Where the drowned suffer a C-change,And remain the common poor.
The first sentence — clear as in a novel — plants us firmly in Kinnell territory. He loves to evoke the atmosphere of an extreme moment, and combines detail with generalization — embracing a certain “haste,” if not “carelessness,” himself. “Don’t use such an expression,” warned Pound, “as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete.” Kinnell ignores him: this poem reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” in how it fastens to abstractions things to hold onto, solidly peculiar: “cobbles a swath”; “the sea standing in heaps, which keeps on collapsing.” Kinnell ends with a joke. “Sea change” is from Shakespeare, and The Tempest, where Ariel sings, of Alonso, who appears to have drowned: “Full fathom five thy father lies /... / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” Eliot references this in The Waste Land. But though Kinnell risks a superior vantage — looking down, quite literally, on the “living streets” in which the poor drift in “oceans of loathing and fear” — he won’t, like Eliot, deploy the classics to damn the present.
Perhaps only an adherent of what James calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness” would name his next book Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964). The title poem would square Kinnell’s celebratory temperament with the evils of the age, but you sense the happy ending coming:
There is something joyous in the elegiesOf birds. They seemCaught up in a formal delight,Though the mourning dove whistles of despair.But at last in the thousand elegiesThe dead rise in our hearts,On the brink of our happiness we stopLike someone on a drunk starting to weep.
What this does catch, cannily, is the sentimentality the spiritual poet has always to ward off. (Happiness isn’t the same thing as sentimentality, but when the poet’s recoveries become too reliable, too unfailingly eloquent, such is the danger: Charles Molesworth describes Kinnell’s verse as going “beyond descriptive prettiness only by hinting at emotions that would probably be mawkish if further explored,” and Robert Peters claims failures of “tact — that poetic sense allowing the poet to know when he has violated formal demands ... by pushing emotion too far.”) Here, at least, the final line queries what comes before, though Kinnell is needily fulsome:
I knowThe birds fly offBut the hug of the earth wrapsWith moss their graves and the giant boulders.
Is this moment of feel-good optimism excessive, or earned, given the sequence’s mood shifts? Mother Earth arrives to “hug” us better, to “wrap” us round. But “I know” is surely (as when the phrase appears in Wright, for instance) a tad plaintive.
Body Rags, arriving after a four-year gap — like most of Kinnell’s books — saw a formal breakthrough. By now, he was writing out-and-out free verse with erratic-seeming line divisions — the capitals disappear from the left margin, and the right zigzags like a lightning bolt. “The Bear” is in seven parts. Each gives us a section of the hunter’s quest for the animal, and you’d think it must correspond to the seven days of creation, except there’s a leap into the future, and the trek gets weirder and weirder —
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I wouldat a turd sopped in blood,and hesitate, and pick it up,and thrust it in my mouth.
Kinnell mentions of his public readings: “When the poem was new, I’d often observe that at the place where the hunter eats the turd, people would look at each other apparently with disgust.” The bear is discovered already dead:
I come up to himand stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,the dismayedface laid back on the shoulder, the nostrilsflared, catchingperhaps the first taint of me as hedied.I hacka ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,and tear him down his whole lengthand open him and climb inand close him up after me, against the wind,and sleep.
Typing this out, I skipped line breaks — “he / died” — they’re counterintuitive, and may feel haphazard, or overly-controlling, like Gerard Manley Hopkins turning a sonnet into the equivalent of a musical score, with instructions as to where to place the stresses. But their jolts are more often to the good — intently defamiliarizing, like the adjectives (those “petty” eyes!). Stippled with intervals, persevering, doggedly emphatic — you’re either with the poet, or infuriated by him, and his superintendence.
When you get to writing this way, you lose track of what works, and what doesn’t. Maybe you write too many poems, or spoil some — for lack of a critic outside oneself, who would cry halt. Davie connects Kinnell’s American sublime with militarism:
Does ... the blood-boltered primitivism of “The Bear,” show poetry resisting the brutalizing of war, or surrendering to it?
... In [Charles] Bell’s note on Kinnell in Contemporary Poets of the English Language, we learn that already when Kinnell was putting together What a Kingdom It Was, “ ... his matter was the reaffirmation of the Promethean and pioneer daring of America, to which I also, after the neo-Augustinian resignations of the war, was committed.” This is enough to make one weep. Did it not occur to Bell, nor to Kinnell even as he composed his brave and effective poems protesting the war, that it was precisely “the Promethean and pioneer daring of America” that was drowning Vietnamese hamlets in a sea of fire?
Fire is indeed an obsessive, unstable trope in Kinnell; reading this Collected straight through, from the mawkish juvenilia —
The glade catches fire ............................................. Spirit of the wood, dreamOf all who have ever answered in the glade at dusk —And grass, grass, blossom through my feet in flames.
to the war verse —
Lieutenant!This corpse will not stop burning!
I did wonder if a writer enraptured by (in Richard Calhoun’s words) “the flames of a burning world, a destructiveness with which the poet himself has to identify,” could write cogently of events to be seen in geopolitical and not flaccidly cosmic terms.
Kinnell’s argument is that by delving deep enough inside ourselves, we somehow become kin to everyone: “The Bear” is said to concern (in his interview with Gregory Fitz Gerald) the poet’s “sympathetic feelings, our capacity to know the life of another creature by imagining it.” He goes further: the poem that is “really a poem ... goes deeper than personality. It takes on that strange voice, intensely personal yet common to everyone, in which all rituals are spoken.” But what does this mean for the actual composition of a poem? “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond” contains “an attempt to imagine how it might be for a Vietnamese person to be walking along a road in his own country, just before the American bombers appeared in the sky”:
And by paddies in Asiaboneswearing a few shadowswalk down a dirt road, smashedbloodsuckers on their heel, knowingflesh thrown down in the sunshinedogs shall eatand flesh flung into the airshall be seized by birds.
I asked why few read Kinnell now, and we see here how he sidesteps problems of authority and appropriation which, for better or worse, presently engross verse culture. Believing in a universal soul which, deeper than personality, unites the most disparate people, he participates in a US tradition, coming out of Emerson, who writes in his essay on “The Poet” of “a great public power, on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors ... then ... his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible.” But Emerson’s confidence-boosting was of its time — just as the country was “beginning to assert itself to the senses and to the imagination of her children” — and Davie’s point holds, about a national arrogance which, in the twentieth century, Kinnell isn’t always alert to. Even those who would support his claims on behalf of the imagination may find these lines a bit thin, oblique (defensively so?), hard to understand without his gloss on them.
The Book of Nightmares came next, in 1971, and succeeded by using personal experience as a bridge to large topics. “Under the Maud Moon” and “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” look forward to “The Olive Wood Fire” (Kinnell contemplates his sleeping daughter); in “The Hen Flower,” the poet addresses himself — “Listen, Kinnell, / dumped alive / and dying into the old sway bed” — in a, I think, reclaiming of Whitman’s big, nation- encompassing ego, excusable in its self-love (because it’s striated with uncertainty, and undisgusted by others). Then Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980) has Kinnell return to a cleaner line, which can look complacent, even neophobic. His voice is centered, personal, and no longer disdains, or seeks to cunningly explode, his gift of the gab — that deep, informal, spellbinding persuasiveness which made events of his readings. He wrote of Whitman:
When we come to the lines “I was the man, I suffered, I was there,” we already understand what it is to disappear into someone else. The final action of the poem, where Whitman dissolves into the air and into the ground, is for me one of the great moments of self-transcendence in poetry.
Yet — putting aside this debatable analysis of Whitman — Kinnell’s best poems are great with self, not piously emptied of it: alluringly proficient, capacious, seductive, roving; willing to make large claims, and risk the equation of a sounding phrase with an immortal sweetness.
James distinguishes (sometimes, inconsistently) mysticism from mundanely “animal” experiences, but Kinnell doesn’t, and this makes him one of the twentieth century’s finest poets of (heterosexual, male-focalized) eros. “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” is, again, about Fergus:
Let there be that heavy breathingor a stifled come-cry anywhere in the houseand he will wrench himself awakeand make for it on the run — as now, we lie together,after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,familiar touch of the long-married,and he appears — in his baseball pajamas, it happens,the neck opening so small he has to screw them on —and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
Like Whitman, Kinnell believes touch to be a deep, discussable experience. He broods on its vibrations. “Make” repeats, unpunctiliously; “it happens” has, just about, two meanings; the assonances of “stifled,” “cry,” and “lie” carry forward the passionate wordless utterance which isn’t replaced by, but crystallized within, the succeeding “quiet,” and indeed (if you think about it) the life of “this very child”; “screw” appears innocently (not in the context we might expect). Kinnell’s verse palpitates with on-the-spot clarifications, tiny explosions of gossip. I even like that Biblical “let there be” and suspect the equally famous, and much-anthologized, “Saint Francis and the Sow” to also be about making love, though perhaps it’s best not to take this comparison too far, given it’s about a man and a pig.
Kinnell went on experimenting with — alongside the trademark sequences — ghazals, and poems with long, whole-sentence lines. “The Olive Wood Fire” appears in The Past (1985), along with the anti-nuclear war poem, “The Fundamental Project of Technology” (arising from his visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the heartbreaking list of exhibits in a museum); also “On the Oregon Coast,” an eco-lyric and echo-lyric (Arnold, again) which moves from description of the sea seamlessly and essayistically into conversation concerning whether “post-Darwinian” poets should stop anthropomorphizing nature: “We didn’t know if pre-Darwinian language would let us.” The title sequence of When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990) is ten sections, all bookended by the phrase, and written as single, contorted sentences. Life sentences. The speaker (Kinnell himself? The reader?)
Abandons hopeof the sweetness of friendship or love,before long can barely remember what they are,and covets the stillness of inorganic matter,in a self-dissolution one may not know how to halt,when one has lived a long time alone.
Vishnu spare us from journalists forcing topicality on abstruser matters — but one could leap into politics, and that weaponizable male angst which issues in spree shootings and acts of terror. Adrienne Rich diagnosed in Kinnell the “problem of the masculine writer,” struggling not only with his stance toward women, but also the loudness of his own voice: if he never quite solved this problem, he did turn it into one of his subjects, deconstructing the male ego he no longer aspired to purify in fire. In “Flying Home,” he writes of “the airport men’s room, seeing”
the middleaged men my age,as they washed their hands after touchingtheir penises — when it might have been more in accordwith the lost order to wash first, then touch —peer into the mirrorand then stand back, as if asking, who is this?
How warmly, unviciously alive this is. Following another frank-seeming repetition — “the middleaged men my age” — the line-end on “touching” suggests, briefly, provokingly, contact between the men, while assonance organizes “more,” “accord,” and “lost order” into a sacred formality.
This is reminiscent of a passage from Black Light in which Jamshid washes his face, and feels briefly as if he might disintegrate:
At the pool Jamshid washed his right hand, his left hand, his right foot, his left foot, his face and his teeth. He passed a dripping hand through his hair, from the brow to the back of the neck. As he stood up, he saw in the ripples an image of himself, and even though he shut his eyes he could not keep from seeing himself torn to pieces.
Kinnell acknowledges the contemporary stance toward damage and healing. He can, that is, be psychoanalytic, as in “My Mother’s R & R,” which returns us (like “The Bear,” “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” and “Saint Francis and the Sow”) to a scene of primal nurturing. Surreally, these boys are only pretending to be babies:
Abruptly she took back her breastsand sent us from the bed, two smallhungry boys enflamed and driven offby the she-wolf. But we had got our nip,and in the empire we would found,we would taste all the women and expel themone after another as they came to resemble her.
The origin story of supervillains: Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf. The apologies of men, in verse, for the violence, or grumpiness, central to their heterosexuality (compared here to the founding of Rome!) can seem vain — in both senses — but what can I say, I like the poem: its clear shape, its terminus different to the “glorious, humane, fine-sounding conclusions” (Hank Lazer) we’re used to from Kinnell. It reminds me of Wallace Stevens (“Timeless mother, / How is it that your aspic nipples / For once vent honey?”), A.K. Ramanujan (“Mothers smear bitter neem / paste on their nipples / to wean greedy babies // and give them an inexplicable / taste for bitter gourd / late in life”) — and seems to me about as durable, as universal, as unequivocally and unironically wholehearted as any twentieth or twenty-first century poet could hope to be.
Vidyan Ravinthiran is the author of Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell University Press, 2015) and Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). He teaches at the University of Birmingham and is an editor at Prac Crit.