Poetry Review — The Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell

The Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell by Galway Kinnell is a collection of sixty-five years of writing. Kinnell, a Navy veteran, experienced Europe and the Middle East while serving. He was also involved in the civil rights movement. Kinnell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Selected Poems and he studied at Princeton and earned his Master’s degree from the University of Rochester.

The tome of the work is presented in several sections reflecting publications and time. His earlier work takes the form of more traditional poetry with sights and feelings of his ports of call in the navy, particularly France and India.

What storms have blown me, and from where,
What dreams have drowned, or half dead, here

Each year I lived I watched the fissure
Between what was and what I wished for
Widen, until there was nothing left
But the gulf of emptiness.

The traditional form is partly owed to his admiration of Walt Whitman. He then moves to more of a “Beat” type of poetry. His work seems influenced by the movement even though he was not an active participant. His work in the late 1960s and 1970s moves much more into nature poems:

On the tidal mud just before sunset, 
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven

In the 1980s through the 2000s Kinnell finds himself writing as an experienced sage.  He relies on his personal experience and knowledge to create his mature works.  Here, the poems reflect on aging and the death of those who were close and the lives of his children. Kinnell also speaks frequently of religion, but not in the most positive sense. His short poem “Prayer”:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

He had a strong dislike for Christianity.  Some of that can be seen in the long poem, written in the early 1960s, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World”:

A roadway of refuse from the teeming shores and ghettos
And the Caribbean Paradise, into the new ghetto and new paradise,
This God-forsaken Avenue bearing the initial of Christ.

Before reading this collected works, I had not read any Kinnell poetry.  Although I was impressed with several poems his two most anthologized poems slipped by me– “St. Francis and the Sow” and “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”.  His poems from the from the 1970s and later poems appealed the most to me.  The widespread of his poetry and the evolving topics will sure to find favor with other readers with different tastes than my own.  As a collected work, Kinnell’s poems, show his growth and refinement as a poet.  The introduction by Edward Hirsch will give the reader ample information and background on the poet and his poems.  A well-done collection that will allow the reader to pick and choose his or her favorite topics or simply give the reader something to pick up and randomly read.


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