JANUARY 28, 2015
THE FIRST BOOK I encountered by Galway Kinnell, who passed away this past October at the age of 87, was not his inaugural collection (What a Kingdom It Was, 1960), but rather his fourth, The Book of Nightmares, which appeared in 1971. Then a high school sophomore in Piscataway, New Jersey, I had the good fortune to have undergraduate friends across the Raritan at Rutgers and Douglass Colleges, and it was one of those apprenticing student poets who pressed The Book of Nightmares into my hands on a spring afternoon outside New Brunswick’s single health food store.
I took the volume back to my parents’ house and sat cross-legged on top of the backyard picnic table, intending to read a few pages before turning to some other diversions. Instead, I read the book straight through without stopping. When I emerged at last from its wondrous, wild depths, the sun had almost completely set behind our subdivision.
I recently taught The Book of Nightmares in a graduate seminar on six iconic American poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Plath, Crane, and Stein) and their poetic heirs. I was surprised that not a single student in the class had heard of Galway Kinnell when I introduced Nightmares as a descendant of Whitman’s Song of Myself (through Williams’s Patterson, Crane’s White Buildings, Lowell’s Life Studies, and Roethke’s North American Sequence). Kinnell had, after all, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for poetry, and taught for many years in the creative writing program at New York University. He was the author of well over 10 collections of poems and translations. Although my students were abuzz about Dean Young, Ben Lerner, and Dorothea Laskey, they went blank at some other names I tossed out: Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Weldon Kees. It makes sense, of course, that readers are enchanted with the writers of the hour, and it’s also true that most undergraduate students of contemporary poetry encounter it piecemeal in anthologies that often winnow out, over time, even poets who enjoyed great, much deserved popularity. (One student in the course, after doing some research, said she remembered reading Kinnell’s “The Bear” in an undergraduate literature course; she also dubbed the handsome Kinnell “the Liam Neeson of American Poetry.”) Still, I was curious about the reasons Kinnell seemed to fly below the radar for some young poets, especially because when I speak with poets of my generation, almost all of them can remember where they were when they first encountered Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, and what they dropped doing in order to read through its pages.
Born in 1926, Kinnell was part of an astonishing generation of poets that included Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, A. R. Ammons, Robert Bly, and James Merrill (all also born in 1926), as well as Jack Spicer, Donald Justice, and Carolyn Kizer (born in 1925), John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin (with whom Kinnell was a student at Princeton), and James Wright (all born in 1927), as well as Adrienne Rich (1929). If the wave of poets that preceded this remarkable cohort (among them Niedecker, Penn Warren, Auden, Lowell, Roethke, Hayden, Bishop) were working in some ways to define themselves in the wake of the great Modernist experiments, poets of Kinnell’s decade were resisting and extending the shadow of that shadow. It was a time of great experimentation, excitement, and anxiety in American poetry, involving, in the same moment, the Beats and the New York School, as well as poets making forays into Surrealism and the deep image, with some late-generation glimmers of lingering Agrarian New Criticism and a groundswell resurgence of formalism, as well. Gender, politics, protest, post-confession, formal adherencies, and free verse experimentation suffused and crisscrossed the various strains. It occurs to me, then, that one reason Kinnell might not be as well known to younger poets as say, Ashbery, O’Hara, or Ginsberg is that he didn’t adhere to or ally himself with any one of these schools or movements as he developed. Another reason may be that his most often anthologized work does not come from the groundbreaking, daring, disturbing Book of Nightmares (it is hard to excerpt book-length poems, and the book — ambitious, manifold — really does work best as a whole), but rather from his more accessible and plainspoken pieces.
I will admit that after reading The Book of Nightmares as a young poet myself back in the mid-1970s, I made it my business to seek out Kinnell’s previous three books, and found them less exciting than I’d hoped they would be. Perhaps because I found Nightmares so provocative — in its ambitious, dazzlingly worked-out sequential organization, its mix of the personal and the political, its Medieval visual grammar, its treatment of the most horrific subjects (particularly of the Vietnam war), its awarenesses of the ecosystem, of the animal in the human, and in its unflinching sojourning in the mysteries of birth and death—I realize now that it would actually be a long time before any other book of contemporary poetry affected me that forcefully.
All of this made me eager to revisit Kinnell’s early work, and to write a bit about his second collection, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, for this column pairing a second book of poetry written 20 or more years ago with a second book published within the past year. In rereading Kinnell’s second book over 40 years after I first discovered it, would I find in it inklings, lost on me at the time, of the poet whose gifts would so ferociously captivate and inspire me in Nightmares?
If I had been better read when I first delved into Kinnell’s early books, I would have seen how directly he was talking back to his poetic ancestors. In the first collection, in a poem called “For William Carlos Williams,” Kinnell writes:
When you came and you talked and you read with your
Private zest from the varicose marble
Of the podium, the lovers of literature
Paid you the tribute of their almost total
Inattention, although someone when you spoke of a pig
Did squirm, and it is only fair to report another gig-
gled. But you didn’t even care. You seemed
Above remarking we were not your friends. […]
Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock offers push-backs and tributes to a host of predecessors, fiction writers as well as poets, among them Robert Frost (“Why do you talk so much / Robert Frost? One day / I drove up to Ripton to ask, // I stayed the whole day / And never got the chance / To put the question”), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville (his “anguish to know and suffer”), Mark Twain, Emma Lazarus, Charles Dickens, Denise Levertov (“the hapless / Witness crying again in your breast”), Walt Whitman (“the mystical all-lovingness”), and Emily Dickinson. Hart Crane is also a clear influence on the book’s subject matter (the city, the sea) and evident in its rich, lyric density of diction and music.
Yet there is ample evidence in Kinnell’s second book of an incipience and honing of the gifts, obsessions, and linguistic play that would enable him to make a book as ambitious, fearless, and original as The Book of Nightmares nearly a decade later. In it, he moves more and more, for instance, into poems comprised of short, numbered, lyric sections, a formal choice that allowed for Kinnell’s peripatetic, tangential meanderings and juxtapositions of the high and low, the terrible and the redemptive. A trove of personally charged symbols begins to appear and recur — the thread of the path/Way/journey, the “skinny” waterfall that stitches heaven and earth, the gnawed heart, the small fires, the dark with its nightmares, the interconnectedness of all living things (“How many plants are really very quiet animals? / How many inert molecules are ready to break into life?” he writes in “Cells Breathe in the Emptiness”), the bear as alter ego, the use of arcane words and phrases (“gleety leashes” and “bleeding scarps”), the awareness of the simultaneous interdependence of beauty and ugliness (“a rat, spittle, butts, and peels” in “The River That is East”) and of life and death (“the hard grin of the bones” beneath a lover’s face in “Poems of Night,” for instance). We find here, too, a direct, often ironic awareness of his own insignificance, especially in poems, in which “everything real [turns] into words” (“I could make out a beggar,” he writes in “Doppelgänger,” “Down the long street he was calling Galway! / I started towards him and began calling Galway!”).
These second-book developments and deepenings (in subject matter and form) would serve Kinnell well when a convergence of forces — the births of his children, the intensification of the Vietnam War, the increasingly apparent ironies of American “imperialism” in relation to the environment, including the earth, indigenous peoples, and endangered animals — would produce, seven years later, the masterpiece that is The Book of Nightmares. In the books that follow Nightmares, Kinnell continued to explore, with characteristic frank forthrightness, his passions — family, Eros, the animal kingdom, the imperiled earth, poets, and poetry itself — in poems that tended to be stichic, longer, narrative. All the more reason, then, to visit with renewed attention the green fuse that ignited and drove Kinnell’s lifetime of work. In Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, we are privileged to see, admire, and remember gratefully a poet, as Kinnell wrote of Frost,
[…] whose calling
Was to set up in the wilderness of his country,
At whatever cost, a man, who would be his own man,
We think of you.
David Roderick’s first book, Blue Colonial, winner of the 2006 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, captivated with its irresistible palimpsest of personal northeastern suburban ecstasy, Dickinsonian “New Englandly” plundering of American origins, history, and culture, and restless searching for a “new language [needed] to weigh each item: / a pintle and fork, the lock of a snap-hance gun. / The harder something was, the better chance / we had of finding it, yet the dirt saved a glass pane // and hoard of light, a written history of clouds,” as Roderick writes in “Excavation of the John Alden House.” Thus the marvelous title, “Blue Colonial,” speaks not only to the ubiquitous faux colonial architecture of the cul-de-sacs but also to the particular mix of Puritanical severity and heretic melancholy of the nation’s first European colonies. Its Saints and Strangers. To his subjects, Roderick brings an appreciation for “the blemishes in other beings” matched with “such compassion that your throat tingled.” Like Kinnell, Roderick thinks of the poem as a pilgrim journey (archaeological as well as topographical) rather than as sermon, answer, or gospel. “And you still had no clue where you were headed,” he writes in “The Point,” “You still don’t, even while you walk under the trees, // but that’s all right because the point is surprise, / the point is to roam out to the periphery / and return with something new to share: / some piece of history, a memory that squirms // from its gown and flexes its wings on your shoulder.”
Roderick’s second collection, The Americans, appeared from the University of Pittsburgh Press this past fall. In many ways the book continues the roaming begun in Blue Colonial into the liminal places where 21st-century tragedy (“First the towers / fell, then the Dow,” he writes in “Build Your Dream Home Here”), velocity, anomie, and amnesia meet the past’s primal, vestigial acoustics. The Americans is an ambivalent paean to the American suburbs of his childhood (“O satellite town, your bright possibility / born again in drywall / and the diary with the trick lock”), but Roderick casts his discerning eye on a global America as well, considering how Americans are perceived in other parts of the world (“Mostly I got / what I wanted, forgot what I was,” writes a speaker traveling in Italy, “until a driver in dark shades turned to me // and said, ‘Your people, whoever they are, / aren’t ready for a woman president, // let alone a black’”). As the speaker sojourns into places like Japan, Italy, Morocco, and Ireland, he sees with greater clarity not only his own personal past (woven throughout the book is an epistolary series of “Dear Suburb” pieces and a sequence of poems with specific street addresses that concern the speaker’s relationship with his mother), but also the accountability and culpability of America’s legacy as well, both at home (two poems treat the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, respectively) and abroad. Here is “On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima”:
A hundred-fifty through the paddied fields.
It’s not the speed that unnerves me,
it’s this feeling I get when I look through
tempered glass. Fishermen hunched on buckets.
Forests of trees with their skins peeled back.
It’s hard to believe we’ve tweaked the physics,
pared friction from sleek machines —
like this porpoise-nosed engine hushing the rush.
Even my seat on the aisle seems pleased
with its shape. It’s my privilege, I guess,
to relax, if I can shake the calm memorial:
children in the galleries, on the walls
pictures framing the smoke and wrack.
Chains of paper swans. Melted cameras.
A kimono’s pattern burned into a woman’s back.
Roderick doesn’t shy away from debunking America’s myth of itself (“Why do we love the apocryphal — / a cherry tree falling — but forget the Choctaw / sending money to feed the starving Irish / just sixteen years after the Trail of Tears?” from “After de Tocqueville”) or the stories of his own personal colonial and New England heroes. In “Thoreau’s Beans,” the speaker notes that in his struggle to make his bean crop thrive, the author of Walden feeds them cow chips:
[…] which he must
have felt for in the dark
but never wrote about stealing
from his neighbors’ fields,
and now he sees himself,
without the pond’s reflection,
for what he is, a failed guide,
since what’s fleeting can’t be
guarded: colors of badgers,
the sober points of wrens
so few words, outlined,
whipped from their oily wings.
As Roderick says in “In My Name,” “we’re part human, / part story.” For him, language — poetry — is inextricable from our humanity, our history. At the end of a series of poems clearly informed by his own family’s Irish immigrant ocean crossing into America, Roderick writes:
Home was beyond the valleys of sea,
a drink for the picker, a drink for the drum.
Home was a prospect, those last few waves
toward the shuttles of Lowell’s looms.
The looms he refers to are weaving machines adapted from British models by Brahmin Boston businessman Francis Cabot Lowell for use in the textile mills of Boston and the rest of America — mills where many Irish and other immigrants found work in the 19th century. But clearly Roderick means for us to think of a descendant of the Lowell family, the poet Robert Lowell, who made looms of the warp and weft of language and experience, opening the way for an American poetry steeped as powerfully in personal as well as historical context.
Reading Kinnell and Roderick in tandem this way — both of European descent, both concerned with private and American mythologies, with family and history, both in possession of an original and vital language jones — renews my sometimes flagging faith in the ability of poetry to be both political and personal, culturally attuned and aesthetically moving, private and social. Heeding, over the decades, Emerson’s call for an American poet, these poets remind us that keeping pace with who we are requires the kind of listening and “distance” from any notion of a self that we risk losing in our fleet, self-obsessed, Fear Of Missing Out blur. What Roderick says in the last lines of “After de Tocqueville” (the photographer Robert Frank, alluded to in these lines, has a sequence of pictures also called “The Americans”), might be said both of Galway Kinnell in his moment and David Roderick in his — moments which, of course, are also ours:
Newer, faster. Behind our heat is a fever.
Even in religious fervor, said our prince
Walt Whitman, there’s a touch of animal heat.
Maybe only a truly great stranger can see it.
Said Kerouac to Robert Frank, You got eyes.