I’ve read and reread Galway Kinnell’s poetry over the years, and although I bring no scholar’s claim to his work, I can attest to the power of his words. Kinnell’s words show an honest, earthy, man who is open to the world around him.
I’ve often used the word “earthy” to describe Kinnell’s work, but I’ve also seen “earthly” applied. Looking for the difference, I settled on this distinction from grammarist.com. “Earthly
were originally synonyms, but the adjectives
have undergone differentiation over time. Today, earthly
means of, relating to, or characteristic of the earth
(often as opposed to heavenly
means (1) plain
, (2) natural
, or (3) indecent or coarse
The reason I include this is that Kinnell’s poetry fits both of these definitions. He certainly writes of the earthly, but he can do so in an earthy way. It is hard to walk away from Kinnell’s poetry without the need to wash up, not from disgust, but from the dirt and grime he immerses you in. But it is the dirt and grime of a hard day working on a project — it is a good feeling. Kinnell seems as if he can walk into the earth, and he does something much like this in one of his masterpieces, “The Bear.” He is grounded in this world (earthly), and takes the world for what it is (earthy).
This collection, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Poems 1953-1964, is described as follows: “This newly assembled volume draws from two books that were originally published in Galway Kinnell’s first two decades of writing, WHAT A KINGDOM IT WAS (1960), which included the poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” and FLOWER HERDING ON MOUNT MONADNOCK (1964). Kinnell has revised some of the work in this new edition, and comments on his working method in a prefatory note.”
In this short, prefatory note, Kinnell explains he took out some “unsalvageable” poems, and then revised others. For him, writing is a process, so returning to these poems in 2002 (when this volume was published), he lets the process continue. There is no weeping and moaning over what was or should have been — he makes changes he wants, and moves on. In a way, this reflects his poetry. It is unique mix of the objective and emotional. He can be moved by something in nature, describe it in an objective way, and then move forward from the experience, as opposed to pining to relieve it once again. He does not forget it, indeed he may be defined by it, but he does not get lost in it.
What this collection shows is Kinnell bouncing between his New York and Vermont homes, which he did for many years. The title poem, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World,” is a 14-part poem which recreates the sights and sounds from the outset.
“pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek
They cry. The motherbirds thieve the air
To appease them. A tug on the East River
Blasts the bass-note of its passage, lifted
From the infra-bass of the sea. A broom
Swishes over the sidewalk like feet through leaves.
Valerio’s pushcart Ice Coal Kerosene
On a broken wheelrim.”
So many visual and auditory signals in that opening verse immediately put you in the context. But the words are simple, the images clear and not overwrought. They are earthy and earthly.
Throughout his work, Kinnell allows what he sees to speak for himself. He is a poet who gets out of the way of his poetry. Like the simple prose of Marilynne Robinson, Kinnell knows a simple phrase can carry a great deal of meaning. What he does in the city, works well in the country as well.
Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder’s ache
A boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.
Not only does Kinnell capture a simple scene, he allows the weight of it to show — this is not a Norman Rockwell painting, but Kinnell is also not so cynical that he cannot find joy. What this poem also shows is Kinnell’s respect for children and their experiences, which does not show up as much in this volume as some of his other work. This poem also shows that Kinnell does not simply present a laundry list of ideas for the reader to interpret. He is willing to interpret and offer his view.
In the second half of this volume, which is “Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock,” there is a poem entitled “Spindrift,” which ends with the verse:
Nobody likes to die
But an old man
Toward time that kills him,
Everything he loved was made of it
It is a strong statement for a then young poet, but one that holds true, although I would argue the man does not need to be old. Gratefulness is not necessarily a time-bound attitude, although it is difficult for some to attain.
In the end, Kinnell creates that “earthy” and “earthly” poetry, which shows a world we can recognize. But through his poetry, we see more in it then we realize. It is not a forced deepening of everything we see; it is an openness to what the world has to say.
Note: For those not familiar with Kinnell, here is a short excerpt from his bio:Galway Kinnell is the author of ten books of poetry, including The Book of Nightmares, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, Imperfect Thirst, and most recently A New Selected Poems and Strong is Your Hold. He also published a novel, Black Light; a selection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs; and a book for children, as well as translations of works by Yves Bonnefoy, Yvan Goll, Francois Villon and Rainer Maria Rilke.A former MacArthur Fellow and State Poet of Vermont, he has been a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. In 1982, his Selected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in 2002, he was awarded the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America.