Another Night in the Ruins

views updated

Another Night in the Ruins




"Another Night in the Ruins," by Galway Kinnell, is a poem about spirituality and creativity told in seven sections. It was first published in the Paris Review in the spring of 1966. Kinnell later included it in his poetry collection, Body Rags (1968), which was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. The publication of this volume marked a high point in Kinnell's career as a poet; after this point Kinnell began to garner significant honors.

As a child, Kinnell loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, but as a mature poet, he considered himself a follower of Walt Whitman. Scholars of American literature assert that modern American poetry stems either from the tradition of Walt Whitman or from Emily Dickinson. Whitman is clearly evoked in Kinnell's passionate, sonorous style, and like Whitman's work, Kinnell's poems are concerned with spirituality, man's relationship with the natural world, and social issues.

"Another Night in the Ruins" draws heavily from the natural and spiritual world as the narrator examines his own process of creativity. The ruins referred to in the title are the metaphysical ruins of former works residing within the narrator of the poem. The narrator is seeking a way toward growth or rebirth as a writer. By the end of the poem, he comprehends that the fire of creativity is not a tool to be controlled, and he

knows instead his real work lies in trusting himself entirely to his creative passion.


Galway Kinnell was born February 1, 1927, in Providence, Rhode Island, to James Kinnell and Elizabeth Mills. He grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and as a child, loved the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Kinnell was particularly drawn to the musicality and the loneliness that marked their works. In 1945, at age eighteen, Kinnell enlisted in the U.S. Navy. World War II ended that same year, and Kinnell returned home in 1946 to pursue studies at Princeton University. He graduated summa cum laude in 1948, alongside another future poet of fame, W. S. Merwin. Kinnell earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Rochester in 1949.

Kinnell began his teaching career at the University of Chicago. After earning a Fulbright Fellowship, he lived and taught abroad, visiting universities in a variety of nations, including Iran, Australia, and France. Upon returning to the United States in the early 1960s, Kinnell became involved in the civil rights movement. He joined the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) in 1962. Kinnell's work with C.O.R.E. included assisting in voter registration and workplace integration in Louisiana, which led to his being arrested.

Kinnell was a poet-in-resident at various North American institutions, and he began winning awards soon after the publication of his first book, What a Kingdom It Was (1960). He won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962. Kinnell's second book of poetry, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), continued to be one of his most popular, even after nearly five decades of his publishing poetry. Body Rags, the collection which includes "Another Night in the Ruins," was published in 1968. Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock and Body Rags were both finalists for the National Book Award. Kinnell received a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1968 and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969. Another popular book by Kinnell is The Book of Nightmares (1971), which consists of a sequence of ten interrelated poems drawing on the poet's experiences as a civil rights activist and Vietnam War protester. Kinnell won another Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. His collection, Selected Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award in 1983. Kinnell served as the state poet of Vermont from 1989 through 1993. In 2002, he was honored by the Poetry Society of America with the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Kinnell married Ines Delgado de Torres in 1965, and they had two children together, who are sometimes featured in their father's poems. Kinnell and de Torres divorced twenty years later. He founded New York University's esteemed creative writing program and taught there until his retirement. He held the Erich Maria Remarque chair in creative writing and was also chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. After retirement, Kinnell left New York City to live full-time in Vermont.


  • An audio recording of "Another Night in the Ruins" is available at from the online magazine Salon. The reading, which lasts nearly eight minutes, was recorded in April 2001 as part of Salon's celebration of National Poetry Month and also includes the poems "The Milk Bottle" and "The Frog Pond."
  • Galway Kinnell is a compact disc that captures Kinnell's 1980 reading from his collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. The CD is 58 minutes long and includes an introduction by Allen Planz. It can be ordered at from the Academy of American Poets store.
  • An audio recording of Kinnell's famous poem "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" is available at which is the website of the Academy of American Poets. The recording was made on March 18, 1980, at the Guggenheim Museum.
  • Video of Kinnell reading "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps," is available at Bill Moyer's Fooling with Words series website, which is a multi-poet project produced on PBS. This video was recorded at the 1998 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and aired on PBS on September 26, 1999. A videocassette of the series is available at
  • Galway Kinnell is a compact disc produced by the Poetry Archive. It is 54 minutes long and includes nineteen tracks of Kinnell reading his poetry. This recording, available for purchase from was made on July 11, 2005, at the Audio Workshop in London, produced by Richard Carrington. The Poetry Archive made four of the poem tracks available for preview: "Blackberry Eating," "Oatmeal," "First Song," and "Lastness (section 2)."
  • The hardcover edition of Kinnell's 2006 volume of poetry, Strong Is Your Hold, includes a compact disc audio recording of Kinnell reading all the poems published in this book, as well as related anecdotes. This collection and its accompanying CD, published by Houghton Mifflin, are available from book retailers.


This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


Section 1: Lines 1-7

"Another Night in the Ruins" begins with a description of setting in the first two lines. It is nighttime and the narrator is outside, or looking outside, at a hilly landscape. Lines 3 and 4, "purple / of the eternal" is a light reference both to aristocracy and spirituality. Purple is a color traditionally reserved for royalty. In this phrase. Kinnell is evoking awe, which is then stirred by a casual bird that flies by in lines 4 and 5. The bird is of the mortal, secular realm, emphasized by the silly "‘flop-flop’" of its passing. The bird "crosses over" the hills in line 5, a turn of phrase that is also used colloquially to describe people who have died. This allusion to death is underlined by the frequent use of birds in death symbolism. Birds have been described as harbingers of death or as those who carry away the souls of the dead. In the last two lines of this section, the narrator says he is "adoring / only the instant," a multilayered phrase referring both to the narrator's admiration of the bird, of the nighttime hills, and of the amorphous presence of a higher being.

Section 2: Lines 8-16

The second section recalls an experience from nine years earlier. Nine is a number of significance and power in Western folklore because it is comprised of three threes (three also being an important number). Here the narrator remembers a trans-Atlantic flight. The airplane passes through a storm and the poet sees, as described in lines 13 and 14, a thunderhead in the shape of his brother's face. The face is looking "nostalgically down" on the ocean as if it were a god looking down in its creation. This oblique spiritual reference reinforces those put forth in the first section. The layers of meaning here suggest the narrator's close (even familial) relationship to his own deity; the love and sorrow inherent in nostalgia; the storm as reference to the biblical story of Noah wherein the Earth was flooded for forty days and forty nights.

Section 3: Lines 17-23

Having remembered his brother, the narrator dwells on him further in the third section of the poem. The narrator remembers, in line 18, his brother scoffing, "What good is the day?" Lines 19 through 21 describe a bonfire that lights the nighttime sky. This image is reminiscent of the lightning over the Atlantic Ocean in the second section. The fire imagery of the second and third sections in connection with the narrator's brother invites an interpretation of the brother as a kind of fire god (for example, Zeus). The bonfire the brother speaks of is lit on "some hill of despair" although what causes the despair is not identified. Lines 22 and 23 introduce fear and excitement when the narrator's brother explains that one must jump into the fire to keep it burning. Literally this implies suicide by self-immolation. (Self-immolation is an extreme form of protest in which a person commits suicide in a public place by setting himself on fire and thus bringing attention to some injustice.) Figuratively, throwing oneself into the fire can be understood as giving into passion or even seeking release from despair through rash action.


  • Creativity is a central focus for Kinnell in "Another Night in the Ruins." Write a poem in at least three sections that explores your ideas about creativity. As a class, have a poetry slam during which class members read their poems aloud.
  • Kinnell is a renowned New England poet. In small groups, select poems by other New England poets and stage a dramatic presentation of these poems complete with costumes, props, and interpretive acting. Write a couple of paragraphs explaining why you selected these pieces and submit these to your teacher.
  • What images stand out in your mind when you read "Another Night in the Ruins"? Write a short story or play whose action is based on what you see happening in Kinnell's poem.
  • Two of the major subjects in Kinnell's poem are spirituality and creativity. Write an essay that examines the link between spirituality and creativity. Trade essays with another student. Do you agree or disagree with what your classmate wrote? Discuss your opinions and reasons in small groups.
  • Select another poem by Galway Kinnell and read it. Create a visual interpretation of that poem using whatever medium you prefer: paint, collage, drawing, sculpture, or other media. Write a short paragraph explaining your piece and put your work on display along with the paragraph you wrote and a copy of the poem you are interpreting. How is this poem different from and how is it the same as "Another Night in the Ruins"?
  • Choose one of the spiritual references in Kinnell's poem to research, making sure to select from a religious tradition other than one with which you are already familiar. Write a research paper explaining this reference in full, including its origin and contemporary application. Examples from his poem include: flood stories; wicker man; holy bovine; drawing down the moon; fire in the head; and the phoenix.
  • What environment speaks to you like the night-dark hills speak to Kinnell in this poem? It could be a place near where you live or someplace you've visited. It could be on a large scale or very specific and minute. It could be peaceful or it could be stimulating. Write a personal essay describing this place in detail and why it is important to you.
  • Birds play an important part in the imagery of Kinnell's poem. Alone or in small groups, take a walk in the woods or a nearby park and count the number of birds you see as well as the different varieties of birds. Observe their behavior, coloring, and calls (binoculars help). Compare your observations to a field guide when you return from your walk. How many different birds could you identify? Write a brief essay describing what you saw.
  • Choose six or more of your favorite poems and make digital audio recordings of them on the computer. If possible, enhance the tracks with some music or sound effects (but do not forget that the poems are the central focus). Make a CD compilation of your poems and trade them with your classmates or even share them with the whole school.
  • In this poem, Kinnell uses a rooster to describe the moment of inspiration. If you were Kinnell, which kind of bird would you have chosen? Why? Is it local or exotic? Write a short essay describing this bird and why you like it better than Kinnell's rooster, paying special attention to your bird's place in other literary works.

Section 4: Lines 24-30

Line 24, the beginning of section 4, personifies the wind in the act of tearing "itself hollow." Carrying on into line 25, the narrator places this harsh wind in the abstract location of "my ruins." Ruined structures may be created by neglect over time and exposure to the natural elements, of which one is the wind. In this instance, the narrator refers to his own internal ruins, ravaged by a vicious wind. He then brings sound into this illustration with the words "ghost-flute," which evokes the eerie whistle of a hard-blowing wind, particularly when it catches on an edge or whips through a hollow structure. The narrator is building, line by line, a cold, wintry, wind-swept scene that is old, aged. Lines 28 and 29 describe the "upside-down ravines" of snowdrifts which capture this howling wind and amplify it. These hollowed-out drifts also capture the narrator's night-swept "ink-spattered feathers," drawing forth layered imagery of quills and of an old bird that is black or has black markings. Ink is a reference to writing and to the color black.

Section 5: Lines 31-35

In this short section, the narrator stops to listen—to the wind, for an answer, for a message? "I hear nothing," he reports in line 32. "Only / the cow … / of nothingness" has multi-layered meaning, referring simultaneously to the holiness of the cow (as exemplified in Hindi religion) and to its comical, mundane nature, a characterization more prevalent in the narrator's own Western culture. The silliness of the cow "mooing / down the bones" in the middle of this solemn, reflective poem, is emphasized in the last two lines. The narrator is outside, pondering seriously and listening closely to the natural world, only to be struck by the humor of the lowing of a mere cow. Perhaps here the natural world is telling the narrator, whether he hears it or not, that life cannot be taken so seriously all the time.

Section 6: Lines 36-44

The narrator next sees a rooster but carries this imagery of another bird back to the serious and spiritual. He sees the rooster search for grain in the snow—what must seem an impossible quest to those who are not birds. The rooster finds his grain in lines 39 and 40 and "rips / it into / flames," which returns the reader to the fire imagery of earlier. The last two lines describe fire coming from the rooster's head. This strange image is another spiritual reference masked by the mundane. The mundane is the red fleshy cockscomb on a rooster's head, which could figuratively be described as flames. Spiritually these lines are a reference to the fire in the head, a shamanistic description of one's experience with the divine.

Section 7: Lines 45-53

The last section is the culmination of the previous six, drawing them together into a greater meaning than each had individually. In line 45, the narrator wonders "how many nights must it take'—not days, months, or years. This poem takes place at night and never departs from that setting. In like 46, the narrator uses the phrase "one such as me," meaning a writer, as suggested earlier by the "ink-spattered feathers." Line 48 describes the phoenix, a mythical bird that is reborn following its own fiery death. The narrator is coming to terms with the fact that humankind—such as writers—are not like the phoenix because humans are not magically reborn in the fire that consumes them. This leaves unanswered the question then of what humans are. The narrator now understands that immersion in the fire—which is the fire of creation—is a different type of transmutation than the phoenix undergoes. Instead of rebirth, a person becomes the flames, that is, the creator. Just as the Bible describes God's creation of humankind as in His own image, so does Kinnell draw a similar circle in "Another Night in the Ruins": the poet, the fire, and the poet's works. His writing remakes him all the time, a never-ending cycle of change and expression.


Birds and Transcendence

Transcendence, a state beyond material constraints, is a term often used to describe the spiritual. In Kinnell's poem, landscapes of nighttime hillsides, ruined buildings, snowdrifts, and bonfires are populated by a bird flying by, a man, a cow, and a rooster. The narrator's outward observations turn inward to the ruined eaves of his inner self, where a different storm rages, a relentless wintry death. The narrator draws the strength to reconnect himself to creativity from the words of his brother and the example of the rooster. In an interview for Contemporary Literature with Thomas Gardner, Kinnell describes his fascination with bird imagery as the inevitable tension of the bird's liminal state: "like everyone, I experience the contest between wanting to transcend and wanting to belong."

The scene is set in the first section when the narrator observes a lone, last bird "crosses over," wording which is suggestive of the threshold between the living and dead. The airplane of the second section is a man-made bird and, again, the narrator experiences a moment of wonder, faced with a thunderhead that bears a resemblance to his brother, looking down on the lightning-illuminated ocean. The third section goes right to the heart of the narrator's impending transformation. Here, his brother tells him of a bonfire that "can light the great sky" with the condition that the bonfire's fuel is man himself. Section 4 draws a parallel between the bird images and the narrator. This section is set in the narrator's internal landscape, which he describes as in ruins. In line 30, the narrator writes, "our torn wings, our ink-spattered feathers," an illusion to quills, to writing, as well as age and the avian. The fifth section lacks bird references, but this section is intended as a pause, a breath, in the cadence of the poem. The last two lines, "mooing / down the bones," suggest pagan transcendence, when a pagan high priestess draws down the moon, or goddess, into her own body for a short time. The rooster of section 6—that finds a grain in the snow and eats it up, symbolic of inspiration—marks the turning point of the poem, when the narrator finally understands what his brother told to him nine years before. "Flames / bursting out of his brow" is both a description of the rooster and also a description of a transcendent state of inspiration and creativity. The narrator communicates his understanding to the reader in section 7. He alludes to the phoenix, the mythical bird that ages, dies, burns, and is reborn from its own ashes. Now that he understands his own road to transcendence, he no longer unrealistically expects to burn and be reborn like a phoenix. His transcendent burning is not a tool for achieving creativity but rather the creative act itself.

Fire and Creativity

"Another Night in the Ruins" is rich in imagery drawn from the natural world, a common element in Kinnell's poetry. The four elements of

earth, air, water, and fire are invoked in this poem, another nod toward pagan spirituality, which reveres the natural world. Earth is the "hill of despair" and the metaphysical ruins. Air is represented by the birds in the poem, the plane over the Atlantic, and the wind that "tears itself hollow / in the eaves of my ruins." Water is present in the Atlantic Ocean and the snowdrifts. Fire is present in the bonfires and suggested in the ashes of the phoenix, the flames of creativity so central to Kinnell's thesis. In the revelation of the final stanza, the narrator understands that he is not in control of what he creates but must instead submit to the chaos of conception: "to open himself, to be / the flames." The rooster ripping apart the grain it has found illustrates inspiration striking all of a sudden, both majestic and frightening. The narrator is haunted by his own, internal ruins of "torn wings," darkness, "snowdrifts," "ghost-flute," and wind. These ruins drive the narrator toward introspection and change. The narrator exists in darkness, the darkness of ruin and age. In seeking rebirth—creativity—the narrator is drawn toward fire and light. "On some hill of despair / the bonfire / you kindle can light the great sky." Even the lightning of the second section is a kind of fire although the narrator cannot be a part of it and looks on from afar, as a man to his god. Ultimately, the flames of creativity in Kinnell's poem are not flames of a passionate activity but rather the energy of being: "his one work / is / to open himself, to be / the flames."



Imagery is a literary device that uses information drawn from the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing) to create a picture in order to convey meaning. Kinnell anchors this poem with images. Rather than leave the night to a mere absence of light, he colors it and gives it life: "haze darkening on the hills," "lit up / by lightning bolts."

Flight is another reoccurring image. In the first section the narrator describes a bird flying at dusk, and then in the second section, he is in an airplane over the ocean. Wings and feathers are mentioned at the end of the fourth section and a rooster is the central image of the sixth section (although roosters are not necessarily known for flight). Flight and birds come together in the seventh, section where the narrator describes a bird flying out of its own ashes and then realizes that for man to go "up in flames," he must become one with the fire.

Kinnell uses some images in a more abstract way. "Purple / of the eternal" seems to refer to the dusky color of the sky at the beginning of night, when the last rays of the sun are dying on the horizon, leaving behind dark, richly colored hues. Similarly, "Adoring / only the instant" may describe the focus of the bird flying past, which appreciates the beauty of the brief moment of dusk before night arrives. This phrase may also refer to the narrator's own feelings as he looks out on this scene, caught up in the fleeting beauty. Another abstract image in Kinnell's poem is "ghost-flute / of snowdrifts." This image draws on the senses of hearing, touch, and sight. The "ghost-flute" is the eerie sound made by the fierce wind. "Snowdrifts" refers to a winter of the spirit when things are at rest or have aged past a time of usefulness, of reproductive ability. "Mooing / down the bones" is a comical reference to the pagan ritual of drawing down the moon, wherein the high priestess enters a trance and is temporarily inhabited by the goddess. Kinnell is also referring to the musical instrument known as bones, usually made from a pair of cow or bull ribs. Imagery is extremely important in poetry, which may rely less on the narrative line and more on the feelings evoked by the author's choice of words to convey certain sensory impressions.

Meaning of Title

The title of this poem, "Another Night in the Ruins," is important to consider because it adds a whole other level of meaning. In using the word "another," Kinnell is drawing attention to the fact that the narrator's struggles are ongoing. The narrator has been here before and was likely unsuccessful in previous attempts to understand how to rise up out of his own ruins. The word "night" again emphasizes the time in which the poem is set. It is the light of understanding, of inspiration, of renewed vigor for creative work that shines through this nighttime meditation. These figurative forms of illumination are represented by the lightning and the bonfire, which are set against a backdrop of darkness. The "ruins" of the title anticipates the ruins mentioned in the fourth section. These are the narrator's psychological or emotional ruins, probably connected to creative writing as suggested in the "ink-spattered feathers" mentioned at the end of the same section. The hope suggested in this title, which seems full of despair, is that this time something will be different and the narrator will not go through this again. He sees this hope fulfilled in the last section when he finally understands the process by which his creative transmutation can be achieved with success.


Civil Rights Movement

Kinnell was involved with the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, when "Another Night in the Ruins" was first written and published. The civil rights movement lasted


  • 1960s: The U.S. military is involved in the Second Indochina War, known to Americans as the Vietnam War. Many Americans protest U.S. military involvement in the conflict and oppose mandatory military service (known as conscription or the draft). Young men are drafted right out of high school; some go to great lengths to avoid being sent to Vietnam, including fleeing to Canada, enrolling in college, or claiming conscientious objector status.

    Today: The U.S. military has been all-volunteer since 1973, although there is an attempt in 2003 to pass legislation reinstating the draft. The United States is involved in a long, drawn-out war in Iraq, which starts as a mission to recover weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein but dissolves into a debilitating civil war. No weapons of mass destruction are found, but Hussein is executed in 2006. As in the Vietnam War, the conflict has no easy solution that is acceptable to the United States, but many Americans are clamoring for U.S. troops to withdraw and return home.

  • 1960s: The civil rights movement in the United States is at its peak and centered on equalizing the rights of people regardless of race. On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 protestors gather in Washington, D.C., to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

    Today: Popular perception is that the civil rights movement was successful, but many non-whites, religious minorities, and other marginalized citizens would argue that the struggle for equal rights in the United States is far from over. According to statistics available from the U.S. census, poverty rates in 2004 are 9 percent for whites, 10 percent for Asians, 22 percent for Hispanics, and 25 percent for African Americans. The fact is segregation continues despite laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, sex, or handicap.

  • 1960s: Popular poets include Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), Denise Levertov (Here and Now), Frank O'Hara (Lunch Poems), LeRoi Jones (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note; he later changed his name to Amiri Baraka), W. S. Merwin (The Drunk in the Furnace), Adrienne Rich ("Rape"), Robert Lowell (For the Union Dead), and Robert Creeley (For Love).

    Today: Popular poets living today include some of the same as those who were popular in the 1960s. Others are Maya Angelou (Still I Rise), Billy Collins (The Trouble with Poetry), Gwendolyn Brooks (Blacks), Rita Dove (Mother Love), Marilyn Hacker (Desesperanto), Jim Harrison (Saving Daylight), Mary Oliver (Thirst), and Saul Williams ("Not in My Name").

  • 1960s: Popular opinion holds that religion is in decline in the United States although statistics do not support this contention. Social and cultural issues such as civil rights, women's liberation, increased drug use, and the conflict in Vietnam cause Americans to ask the question, "Is God Dead?"—the title of a Time magazine article published in 1966.

    Today: According to a 2002 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the developed world with 59 percent of Americans reporting that religion is very important in their lives.

from approximately the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s and was characterized by protest, civil disobedience, litigation, and other forms of social unrest that pushed for people to have equal standing under the law regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. At this time, throughout the United States, blacks and whites were segregated in many schools, jobs, and businesses. Although black people were emancipated from slavery following the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, many were so impoverished and still ill-regarded by white people that they were systematically treated as second-class citizens. In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This crucial decision had a huge impact because many school districts across the country were not integrated. When Little Rock, Arkansas was pressed to integrate in 1957, the governor, Orval Faubus, called in the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering a white school that they had sued for the right to attend. President Eisenhower intervened by dismissing the National Guard and bringing in U.S. Army soldiers to escort these nine black students to and from school and between classes.

Events escalated quickly after this Supreme Court ruling as high emotions erupted into action and reaction. A young black teenager, Emmett Till, was beaten and shot to death in Mississippi in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger in December 1955, leading to a two-week bus boycott and the U.S. Supreme Court decision that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Following the successful Montgomery bus boycott, many civil rights protestors adhered to the strategy of non-violent protest. Sit-ins were frequent in the 1960s. Black people sat at lunch counters, in museums, in libraries, and other segregated public places, and when they were forcibly removed and arrested, they brought public attention to their cause. Many sit-in protestors asked judges for jail and no bail so as to put the financial burden of their arrest on the government by taking up jail space. Non-violent protestors also went on freedom rides across the southern states to take a stand for desegregation of bus terminals but were met with more dangerous reactions as the buses were sometimes attacked by people who believed in segregation.

In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress, which President Johnson saw passed in 1964. In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to eliminate poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods of discrimination at the polls. One effect of these changes was that, in twenty years, the United States went from having barely one hundred elected black officials to over seven thousand. While the civil rights movement was caused positive change, few minorities living in the United States in the early 2000s would claim that the struggle for equal rights was over.

Vietnam War

Vietnamese nationalists (the Viet Minh) struggled for freedom from their imperialist occupier, France, in the First Indochina War (1946-1954). The Viet Minh were successful in their campaign against France, but their country quickly fractured into a northern communist state and southern anti-communist state once the French left. These two factions fought for control over all of Vietnam, leading directly from the First Indochina War into the Second Indochina War (1954-1979), known in the United States as the Vietnam War. What started out as a brutal civil war developed into an international outlet for cold war battles between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also known as a proxy war. U.S. troops were present in Vietnam as early as 1950, but it was not until 1965 that large numbers of soldiers were deployed to aid the Viet Cong army of South Vietnam.

The warfare in Vietnam was unlike anything the U.S. military had previously encountered. Instead of clashes between large numbers of troops with an obvious winner and loser, the Viet Minh employed guerilla tactics. They attacked in small, mobile units, relying on surprise, knowledge of the landscape, and disguise. The U.S. military adapted, making wide use of chemical defoliants in an effort to expose the North Vietnamese forces, a choice that rendered much of the country's land dangerously toxic and infertile for years to come. The Vietnam War polarized Americans back in the United States. A significant number of people protested U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, which eventually led to Congress cutting off aid to the South Vietnamese in December 1974. American troops were brought home, leaving South Vietnam vulnerable to the well-organized North Vietnamese army. The war ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon, the southern capital, was taken by the Viet Minh.

The legacy of the Vietnam War is painful, in part because of the high numbers of casualties. The war was not restricted to Vietnamese territory and ranged far into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. Numbers of dead and wounded are still debated but can be estimated at 300,000 dead among the South Vietnamese and its allies out of a combined force of 1.2 million soldiers; and 600,000 dead among the North Vietnamese and its allies out of a combined force of 520,000. The harshest statistic is the one million civilians of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia who died. Then, too, the chemical defoliants, particularly the dioxin-containing Agent Orange, are alone responsible for the poisoning four million people, half a million birth defects, and significantly increased risk for various cancers. Veterans of the Vietnam War often also suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress syndrome.


Kinnell has had an illustrious career as a poet from the very start, quickly coming to the attention of critics, such as Selden Rodman, as "the future of American poetry" with greats such as Robert Frost and E. E. Cummings aging. Kinnell's first volume, What a Kingdom It Was, was published in 1960. Rodman, reviewing for the New York Times was laudatory in describing Kinnell's epic "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World": "I do not hesitate to call this the freshest, most exciting, and by far most readable poem of a bleak decade." Four years later, when Kinnell's second book of poetry, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, appeared, critical reception was still enthusiastic. In a review for the New York Times, De Witt Bell discusses how this new work displays "a new subtlety, depth and simplicity" and summarizes his review by describing this book as "memorable." Kinnell's style is often traced back to Walt Whitman, especially for its quality of inner reflection. Michael Goldman, writing for the New York Times, reviews Kinnell's third collection, Body Rags, alongside a volume by the esteemed Robert Bly. Goldman gives a positive review, remarking on Kinnell's "growing reputation as a superior lyric poet."

Thomas Lask describes The Book of Nightmares as Kinnell's "most integrated book, a work of one mood." Lask's review describes an ever-maturing poetic voice, unafraid "to look at the underside of society." In another review of the same book, M. L. Rosenthal is cautiously positive, finding fault in a heaviness of the book that "needs stripping down." In conclusion, Rosenthal nonetheless enjoyed The Book of Nightmares: "the real power of his book comes from its pressure of feeling, its remarkable empathy and keenness of observation, and its qualities of phrasing—far more than from its structural thoroughness or philosophical implications."

Kinnell's retrospective, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-64, was published in 1975 and reviewed by Christopher Ricks for the New York Times. Ricks writes: "The best of Kinnell, which is very good, comes when he resists the expected humorlessness of rural-piety poetry," a summary of the poet's early career. Kinnell's award-winning Selected Poems was published seven years later. Morris Dickstein, in his review, gives a glowing description of Kinnell's growth as a poet, concluding that Kinnell "has not been seduced by modernist obfuscation, technical cleverness or earnest, thin-lipped confessional self-display."

New York Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, writes eloquently of Kinnell's mid-1980s volume, The Past, noting that it is a further development and refinement of Kinnell's previous works: "An awareness of the evanescence of things suffuses the poems in this volume." Harold Beaver also gives The Past a good review and is clearly unsurprised at the poet's continued success: "Always there is this landscape with figures. Always the landscape embodies emotion without a hint of pastoral extravagance or natural fallacy." An anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly gave an inviting review of Kinnell's collection of poetry, Imperfect Thirst. The reviewer comments that some of the poet's "remarks to himself are needlessly self-referential" but that "his voice is unsurpassable" and covers a broad territory of expression and subject matter.

Ned Balbo, writing for Antioch Review, celebrates the breadth of Kinnell's poetry in his review of A New Selected Poems: "Kinnell continues to write superbly of heartbreak and affirmation, his vision clear and language supple." In 2006, Kinnell published his twelfth collection, Strong Is Your Hold, which includes a poem about the events of September 11, 2001, titled "When the Towers Fell." An anonymous review for Publishers Weekly writes, "Occasionally the poet veers too far toward silly, snapshot moments, but for the most part Kinnell injects the mundane … with meaning and passion." In all, critics generally praise Kinnell's work as it evolved through many books of poetry.


  • Leaves of Grass (1855) is Walt Whitman's major work. Whitman continuously revised and republished this book until his death in 1895. Whitman, along with Emily Dickinson, is considered by scholars to be one of the parent-figures of the American poetic traditions. Kinnell regarded Whitman as one of his major influences.
  • Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares (1971) is a sequence of ten related poems, which Kinnell was inspired to write after his experiences in support of the civil rights movement (including being arrested) and protesting the Vietnam War.
  • Judevine (1991), by David Budbill, is a collection of poetry centered on the characters that inhabit the fictional rural town of Judevine, Vermont. Budbill is renowned for capturing local dialect, expressions, and personalities. Judevine was made into a play and an opera.
  • After Frost: An Anthology of Poetry from New England (1996), edited by Henry Lyman, is a collection of poems from thirty New England poets, including Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, Donald Hall, and Louise Glück.
  • The Poems of Francois Villon (1977) is translated by Kinnell from the original French. Villon is a fifteenth-century poet and thief, who composed his verse in prison and chose to write about the underworld he lived in rather than the more acceptable courtly ideals.
  • Robert Frost's New England (2000), by Betsy and Tom Melvin, is a photographic guide to Frost's poetry. The book presents photographs chosen to convey some scenes Frost describes in his poems. Poems and photographs are presented side by side.


Carol Ullmann

Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the relationship between creativity and spirituality in Kinnell's poem "Another Night in the Ruins."

"Another Night in the Ruins," by Galway Kinnell, examines a writer's struggle with creativity, and the perils and assurances inherent in the creative process. The narrator of the poem is a writer who, like Kinnell, draws inspiration from the natural world and seems driven to distraction by his own naturalist spirituality. In section 6, he watches a rooster find a grain—the inspired thought—and "rips / it into / flames. Flaps. Crows. / Flames / bursting out of his brow." Even before this direct illustration of inspiration is presented, the narrator is concerned with the nighttime hilly landscape and birds, both real and figurative. One bird he watches flying through the twilight. Another is part of himself, a tattered bird with "ink-spattered feathers." The final bird of the poem is the phoenix, mentioned indirectly in the last section. A phoenix is a mythical bird that dies a fiery death and then rises, reborn, from its own ashes.

Fire imagery is an important component of Kinnell's poem. This fire is not a fire of permanent destruction but one of creation and change. What the narrator struggles to understand over the course of the poem is that, like the real thing, his symbolic fire, and its resulting creations, are not controllable by man although fire is a tool of creation. In classical mythology, fire was a divine gift that man was given. The narrator comes to realize that he must give himself up wholly to the flames of his creativity for it to be fully unleashed and thrive. Through this magnificent process, he is lifted from depression and the ruins of old projects and previous failed attempts fall aside. Thus he can be born anew to new ventures, new productivity.

Kinnell also alludes to spiritual and religious symbolism throughout "Another Night in the Ruins." Flames bursting from the brow of the rooster is not only indicative of the catalytic moment of inspiration but also of the spiritual phenomenon known as fire in the head. Fire in the head refers to being touched by a divine spirit. It is not strictly possession because the deity does not take over. The person is instead sharing his mortal body, an experience that could be both intoxicating and terrifying. The central conflict of this poem is in the narrator as he comes to grips with what he must do to grow as a creative individual. Early in the poem, in section 3, as well as at the end, in section 7, the narrator is concerned with the idea that he has to give himself up to the flames. The flames he is talking about are those of his own passion and creativity. He is unsure about throwing himself in, as his brother told him to do. But then he reflects upon the wintry ruins of his former work and the mundane nothingness looming before him. The rooster arrives and shows him that fire is, indeed, the way. In giving himself to the fire of creativity, the narrator recognizes that "his one work / is / to open himself." Fire is transformative: That which it burns can never be restored. This irreversibility need not be looked upon as destructive, which is the narrator's fear. Fire is not a tool for him to master but a conduit through which he must move to become both tool and master.

Creativity begins with inspiration, a word whose roots are traced to breath. One of the definitions for inspiration has religious connotations of divine truths revealed to prophets. The etymology of the word, inspiration, is traced back to Hellenic times when the oracles of the gods—for example, Apollo's oracle at Delphi—would receive divine messages from vapors that mysteriously rose from the earth. Inspiration, in the more secular sense, occurs as a result of friction between ideas. This friction will eventually result in a spark (the inspired thought), which evolves into a new idea. Inspiration, for many creative people, is the easy part. Often they have more ideas than they have time to realize those ideas in an art form. Following inspiration, the work at shaping one's new idea begins, and this is when creativity comes into play. Metaphorically speaking, structures are built—buildings that will eventually wear, ruin, and tumble down, as seen in the narrator's internal ruins described in section 4.

Religion is a system of belief centered on the existence of a deity or of the human soul. Spirituality is a broader term, encompassing all that is intangible in human existence but requiring no specific belief system. Kinnell frequently expresses a spiritual inquisitiveness and sensitivity in his poetry, and "Another Night in the Ruins" is no exception. Here, the narrator's faith in his spirituality provides the means by which the narrator can map a way through his fear and become aligned with his creativity once more. After all, creativity is a part of spirituality. Origin stories are often a major aspect of religious belief. In these stories, the creation of the entire world and all of its creatures is explained, often in terms of divine expression. Set apart from animals, people are said to share in this mysterious power to create.

According to anthropological research, record of artistic expression first appears during the Upper Paleolithic period, approximately 40,000 years ago and when it does appear, it occurs in many places. As of the early 2000s, anthropologists continued to ponder why Upper Pleistocene hunters and gatherers created beautiful objects and images (for example, cave paintings, ivory carvings, and shaped stone beads). These things did not help them procure food as better tool technology would. One theory holds that prehistoric men and women may have developed spiritual beliefs at this time. They thus perhaps believed that these art works were spiritual aids for food procurement and for their protection.

Thus, creativity and spirituality are linked and together may have across the centuries been understood as capable of improving the human condition. For the narrator of this poem, creativity is a matter of concern to him as a writer; spirituality concerns him as a human. Throughout the poem, the narrator is probing his spiritual side for answers to his fears and uncertainties about the creative process. In sections 1 and 2, the narrator observes the natural world with awe. He watches a lone bird fly at dusk, "adoring / only the instant." The thunderhead in section 2 is a further sign of the narrator's spiritual link with the natural world. It is not until section 3, however, that the link between the narrator's creativity and his spirituality is revealed. Here the narrator remembers his brother's advice about coping with depression. His brother tells him that the inspiration, "the bonfire / you kindle," is the easy part: "To make it burn," when creativity comes into play, is the difficult part because "you have to throw yourself in." This surrender is an act of faith in one's ability to be creative.

The narrator's brother's advice was given nine years ago and, from the use of the word "another" in the title and from the ruins of section 4, it is clear the narrator either did not understand his brother or has failed to have faith in his own creativity. In section 5, the narrator continues to watch and listen to the night-darkened world, seeking inspiration. But he confesses, "I hear nothing." Coming upon a rooster in section 6, though, the narrator observes it picking through the snow for a grain. The snow is symbolic of death or sleep while the seed represents new life. Here the narrator finally understands inspiration as the rooster "finds / it. Rips / it into / flames." The fire the narrator has avoided all this time thus returns, and now, in section 7, he understands the role fire plays and his job in the creative process. He realizes he is not like the phoenix, born again from his own ashes after throwing himself into the bonfire of his inspired ideas, but rather, "his one work / is / to open himself, to be / the flames." To "open himself" means that he relinquishes control of his creativity to the idea itself; however, "to be the flames" also implies that in becoming one with the fire, the narrator will direct the transformation of his idea. It is a paradox worthy of classical literature: in order to control his creativity, he must give himself up to it completely.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on "Another Night in the Ruins," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Lee Zimmerman

In the following essay excerpt, Zimmerman explores the themes of isolation, struggle and unanswered questions—"revealing our inability to know truth but also our capacity to embody it"—in Kinnell's Body Rags. Zimmerman also considers Kinnell's new approach to writing which he does not arrive at by "cultivating new concerns" but by transfiguring the old.

Consider, for example, the opening poem of Body Rags, "Another Night in the Ruins." Its seven fragments suggest the extreme isolation in which the poem was actually begun; Kinnell had "bought an old ruined house in Vermont": "One night I stayed up all night mainly because I was too cold to sleep, and wrote a number of disconnected fragments, some descriptive of the place, some imagined, some memories" (WDS 34-35). These so-called "disconnected fragments," however, won't stay apart. Mind being shapely, they begin to arrange themselves around the images of birds, of "the instant," and especially of fire—images that combine in those "lightning-flashed moments of the Atlantic" glimpsed from a plane. From his lonely outpost, the poet, like the fragments, begins to make provisional connections. He hears "nothing," but this nothing is a presence that unites the internal world of "bones" with the external one of "the cow": "I listen. / I hear nothing. Only / the cow, the cow / of nothingness, mooing / down the bones." The poet's brother's absence (he's dead) might ultimately outweigh his presence (in memory), but by recalling and, in the conclusion, personally asserting Derry's teaching, Kinnell achieves a kind of empathy with him. The teaching itself expresses the self's communication with the world—"the bonfire / you kindle can light the great sky"—but also the price: "though it's true, of course, to make it burn / you have to throw yourself in …"

By withholding his own endorsement of this maxim until the end, Kinnell maintains tension between the obvious isolation in the poem and whatever empathy is finally established (in much the same way that the title holds together death ["Ruins"] and continuation ["Another Night"]). Despite its apparent fragmentation, the poem thus retains a sense of development; the double-edged empathy appears earned because it is clearly struggled for. Indeed, although the rhetorical elevation of the long last sentence and its repeated (and elaborated) formulation of the poem's "theme" convey a strong sense of resolution, the struggle is not yet over. As Yeats so often does, Kinnell hedges his strong rhetorical closure by ending with a question: "How many nights must it take / one such as me to learn …?" Even as he affirms the truth of his brother's lesson, he demonstrates the difficulty of learning it. The poem thus remains "alive," straining forward, intimating fulfillment but remaining unfulfilled:

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren't, after all, made
from that bird which flies out of its ashes,
that for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
to open himself, to be
the flames?

There is an undertone of frustration and complaint in these lines, as if they read, "How many more nights must it take?" The apparent difficulty in taking Derry's words to heart illustrates how much further Body Rags goes beyond Kinnell's previous work in putting the self in question. Throwing yourself on the bonfire—being the flames—surpasses just standing on the pulse and loving the burning earth ("Alewives Pool," WKW) or merely spying on a forest flower whose "invisible life … / Goes up in flames that are invisible" ("Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock," FH). If you stand on the burning earth, you must personally catch fire. In his efforts to do without the "scaffolding or occasion" to which the earlier poems still partly clung, to structure his verse wholly on the meanderings of his awareness, Kinnell here evidences his growing capacity to commit himself more directly, to "dig" deeper—to "be / the flames."

Still, as I have suggested, a great reluctance always accompanies these efforts. And the prosody mirrors this ambivalence. Examining an earlier version of the lines quoted above (one that, except for the lowercase line openings, looks more like a passage from Flower Herding than Body Rags)—

that for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
is to open himself, to be the flames?

—Howard remarks: "It is interesting to see that in his final version of these lines, Kinnell literally opens himself, breaking apart the language until it illustrates the aperient nature of all such poetry" (316). But even as the lines open out, their extreme irregularity—the syntax-splitting line breaks, the unpredictable mix of long and short lines—creates a tension indicative of the concomitant difficulty. To open, for Kinnell, is indeed to break apart. Thus, where Whitman easily plunges right into the world, Kinnell approaches it more gingerly, with more fits and starts, like the rooster in section 6, searching for food:

Is that a
rooster? He
thrashes in the snow
for a grain. Finds
it. Rips
it into
flames. Flaps. Crows.
bursting out of his brow.

If "the lines are the river bed," they don't often allow smooth flowing. Rather, strewn with hidden obstructions, they reroute, temporarily dam, and only finally permit climactic release, the kind of outrush that we see in the famous last line of "The Bear."

The final image of "Another Night in the Ruins" is of jumping into flames. But, as in Crow, life goes on. Even though "we aren't, after all, made / from that bird which flies out of its ashes," in the beginning of the volume's very next poem, "Lost Loves," the poet has survived a conflagration: "On ashes of old volcanoes / I lie dreaming." The volcano's death, and the prospect of his own, provokes nostalgic dreams of other "deaths"—his lost loves. But soon, as Andrew Taylor suggests, "the poem changes from nostalgia to an affirmation of the vitality of change." A tadpole "dies" as a tadpole, but—retaining its identity—is born anew as a frog:

And yet I can rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
into life,
and enter ourselves
like the tadpole, his time come, tumbling
    toward the slime.

"Quaking" intimates the potential violence of such self-transfiguration (perhaps the old volcano is only dormant) and recalls Yeats's sexual "shudder" that accompanies bloody historical succession. But at the same time the juxtaposition of that one-word line with the long concluding one accomplishes a release of tension that reinforces the rejoicing. The concluding line also testifies that, tumble and thrash about as it will, Body Rags at its best retains the craftsmanship (if not the manners) that Davie so admired in the very early work. Assonance is carefully controlled ("come, tumbling") and shades into internal rhyme (like/time/slime), while the alliterated, hard-edged t's (tadpole/time/tumbling toward) finally relax into the amorphous, sensual mix of sibilance and liquidity ("slime"), like the tadpole wriggling free of its old form.

"‘Lost Loves’ is structured on, and expresses, a transformational process," Taylor proposes, "which is basic to almost all the best of Kinnell's poetry. … First, through suffering of some kind the poet undergoes a death of the self, of a conscious self. He goes ‘from life.’ However, this does not involve death as we usually think of it. Rather, it is a withdrawal to a pre-human or pre-conscious state, an ‘animal’ state, consistently represented by animal imagery, in this case, the tadpole. This animal image is the second component. The third is a rebirth, a moving back ‘into life,’ and is accompanied by a variety of emotions, the most characteristic being rejoicing, wonder, or awe" (229). Although few poems employ this pattern as straightforwardly as "Lost Loves" or "The Bear," many make a more oblique use of it. In "How Many Nights," for example, the paradigm is slightly submerged. The emphasis falls on the third stage, the "moving back ‘into life,’" as the poet, after many nights, emerges into morning; he hears the breath of sleeping animals

and above me
a wild crow crying ‘yaw yaw yaw
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my

Kinnell reports that some of his friends were unsure "whether I'd thought of the crow as benign or as an unwelcome presence" (WDS 4). But if the crow is not exactly "benign," the out-rushing last line (itself venturing forward, enacting the speaker's release) unambiguously evinces the thrill of discovery itself—little matter of what. Kinnell advises that "we take seriously Thoreau's dictum, ‘Be it life or death, we crave only reality’" (PPD 67). One good dictum deserves another: the crow makes it new for the poet. But, for Kinnell a discovery of the world is a discovery of the self; the poem's initial setting, "the frozen world," is finally renamed: "my life." Thus, he explicates the end of "How Many Nights" by writing a "bit of verse" called "The Mind":

Suppose it's true
that from the beginning, a bird has been
in the silence of each branch.
It is this to have lived—
that when night comes, every one of them
will have sung, or be singing.
(WDS 4)

An explication of the explication: "I was thinking of those diagrams … that show the brain in the shape of the tree. At moments of full consciousness all the birds would be singing. Whether or not the crow's cry is beautiful mattered less to me than that this hitherto mute region comes into consciousness" (WDS 4).

Taylor's paradigm also structures "Night in the Forest," one of the "moment" poems in Body Rags that extends from those in Flower Herding. The opening—"A woman / sleeps next to me on the earth"—presents a version of the first stage ("the death of a self, of a conscious self"), while the "cocoon sleeping bag" in which the woman sleeps is a vestige of the second stage ("a withdrawal to a pre-human or pre-conscious state, an ‘animal’ state"). "A strand / of hair flows" from her bag, "touching / the ground hesitantly, as if thinking / to take root": a withdrawal involves the danger of not returning, of merging into the earth, rather than remaining conscious but isolated. Kinnell, however, isn't bound by these two choices. In the third stage, the "moving back ‘into life,’" the focus shifts to the poet himself, who now bears within himself an echo of the world: "I can hear / a mountain brook / and somewhere blood winding / down its ancient labyrinths. …"

The poem concludes:

a few feet away
charred stick-ends surround
a bit of ashes, where burnt-out, vanished
waver, absently leap.

Drawing on the poetics of "The Poem," these lines themselves waver like flames, rise and fall capriciously, leap high and suddenly flicker out, and in this they illustrate one way that Kinnell breaks open his poetry in Body Rags. We have seen the effect already at the end of "Another Night in the Ruins," where in this sense the work of the verse itself also is to "be / the flames" The whole of "In the Anse Galet Valley" forms another striking example. "Clouds / rise … and sink," "A straw torch / flickers," and "fer-de-lances / writhe," but these fluctuations describe the movement of the verse as well as the events of the poem. It ends:

The fer-de-lances
writhe in black winding-skins,
the grail-bearers go down, dissolving.
What question could I have asked, the wafer-moon
gnawed already at its death-edge?

"What question could I have asked?": doubt squared. Certainty twice removed, a question about a question, an interrogative cast in a conditional—trafficking in liminality, how little one knows! Going "from life / into life"—surviving—so much is jettisoned. Yeats wrote about modern poets, "we sing amid our uncertainty": we may embody truth but we cannot know it, and where truth cannot be known questions and uncertainties will proliferate. And proliferate they do, from the first pages of Body Rags to the last—especially at the conclusion of poems, where doubts traditionally are resolved, not left hanging.

The opening and closing poems, ending with questions, frame the volume in mystery. First: "How many nights must it take …?" Finally: "what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?" In between, "What question could I have asked …?" and "How many nights / have I lain in terror …?" (this single-sentence poem doesn't end with a question mark but the subject-verb inversion nevertheless indicates an interrogative). Sometimes a question occurs near a poem's end, but the remaining lines don't answer it directly, relating instead a sensory experience, shifting away from "knowledge" and toward "embodiment," away from what we cannot know and toward what we can. In "Getting the Mail," for example, a question arises:

And touching
the name stretched over the letter
like a blindfold, I wonder,
what did getting warm used to mean? …

Kinnell does open the letter, but the promise of a verbal answer goes unfulfilled. Instead a different sort of fulfillment follows—aural, not rational; we are thus, typically, both answered and not answered, given satisfaction and left unsatisfied:

And tear
open the words,
to the far-off, serene
groans of a cow
a farmer is milking in the August dusk
and the Kyrie of a chainsaw drifting down
    off Wheelock

At the end of "Night in the Forest" the flames are simultaneously present and absent, a paradox that crystallizes in the odd coupling of the final two words—"absently leap." And in asking an unanswered question, "Last Songs" seeks a poetics—couched in a conditional—based on a mysterious "it" that can be gestured toward but not precisely defined:

Silence. Ashes
in the grate. Whatever it is
that keeps us from heaven,
sloth, wrath, greed, fear, could we only
reinvent it on earth
as song.

This kind of double ending—withholding but asserting, revealing our inability to know truth but also our capacity to embody it—provides many of Kinnell's poems in Body Rags with what Barbara Herrnstein Smith has termed "anti-closure": their conclusions avoid "the expressive qualities of strong closure"—obviously anathema to a singer amid uncertainty—"while securing, in various ways, the reader's sense of a poem's integrity." The withholding precludes strong closure, while the assertion secures the sense of an ending; even as a question conveys ignorance, it can also express discovery—discovery of what precisely to ask. The end of "Another Night in the Ruins," for example, discloses even as it inquires: the lesson is defined and affirmed, even if it remains unlearned. In "The Bear" the poet is left "wondering," but at the same time we feel something climactic has been revealed (the concluding question is thus sometimes quoted out of context—as an epigraph to a student literary magazine or a newspaper interview—as if it conveyed some great Truth about Poetry). One reason is that this conclusion sifts through the hallucinatory confusions of the poem to arrive at the center of things: "What was that thing? What was this all about anyway? What am I about?" Moreover, that central thing is named, even as it is wondered about: it is a "sticky infusion," a "rank flavor of blood" and finally (out with it now) "poetry" itself. The poem's true subject, hidden throughout, making its claims only implicitly, is finally, dramatically unveiled. Voilà!

Source: Lee Zimmerman, "Romanticism in the Rag-and-Bone Shop: Body Rags," in Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 95-103.

Charles Frazier

In the following essay, Frazier gives a critical analysis of Kinnell's work.

Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He received an A.B. from Princeton University in 1948 and an M.A. from the University of Rochester in 1949. Kinnell served in the U.S. Navy in 1945-1946. He married Ines Delgado de Torres and has two children, Maud Natasha and Fergus. He was supervisor of the liberal arts program at the University of Chicago's downtown campus from 1951 through 1954, after which he taught at the University of Grenoble and later at the University of Iran as a Fulbright Professor. He has been poet-in-residence at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Colorado State University; Reed College in Portland, Oregon; the University of California at Irvine; and the University of Iowa. Kinnell also served as a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, among them a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1962), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1962, 1974), a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1968), a Longview Foundation Award (1962), a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1969-1970), and Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin and Eunice Tietjens Memorial prizes (1965, 1966), and a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for Selected Poems.

Kinnell's poetry has been devoted to a remarkably consistent, though by no means limited, range of concerns. The subjects and themes to which he has returned again and again are the relation of the self to violence, transience, and death; the power of wilderness and wildness; and the primitive underpinnings of existence that are disguised by the superstructure of civilization. Kinnell's approach to these topics is by way of an intense concentration on physical objects, on the constant impingement of the other-than-human on our lives. As he indicates in one of his many interviews, for him the nonhuman is a realm charged with meanings we hardly understand:

If the things and creatures that live on earth don't possess mystery, then there isn't any. To touch this mystery requires, I think, love of the things and creatures that surround us: the capacity to go out to them so that they enter us, so that they are transformed within us, and so that our own inner life finds expression through them.

The roots of this feeling lie in primitive rituals of propitiation through which man identifies himself with the physical world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects to beg a kind of forgiveness for some transgression, usually the taking of an animal's life in hunting. It is a ritual filled with the dual awareness of the regrettability and the necessity of death. Most of Kinnell's best poetry is in this propitiatory mode, evoking natural objects, creatures, and landscapes to come to terms with and attempt to transcend temporality. The transcendence that results is, however, not always comforting; indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at Kinnell most frequently is that his poetry is bleak and harsh, death-obsessed, devoid of affirmation. Yet this harshness is not just fashionable cynicism, for as Joseph Langbaum says, "Kinnell, at a time when so many poets are content to be skillful and trivial, speaks with a big voice about the whole of life."

In terms of form, Kinnell has moved, like many poets of his generation, from traditional rhyme and meter in his earliest work to free verse. Seeing rhyme as a limitation on the possible directions a poem may take and the possible meanings it may develop, Kinnell has reacted against Robert Frost's often quoted statement that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net: "It is an apt analogy, except that the poem is less like a game than like a journey, where there are so many real obstacles in the nature of the case that it would be a kind of evasion to invent additional, arbitrary, verbal ones." In developing his sense of the potentiality of free verse to correspond not to some external pattern but to what he calls "the rhythm of what's being said," Kinnell points most often to Walt Whitman, rather than to Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, as the single greatest formal influence on his poetry. Whitmanesque roughness and colloquiality make themselves felt not only in the longer, looser poems like "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" and "The Last River," but also in the shorter, more personal lyrics.

Kinnell first began seriously writing poetry during his undergraduate years at Princeton, where he and W.S. Merwin were friends. Selected poems from this early period were published under the title First Poems 1946-1954 in a limited edition in 1970, and poems from this period are included in the 1974 collection The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946-1964. Although Donald Davie expresses admiration for a few of these poems, especially "The Feast," which he calls "exquisitely civilized and mannerly," many readers would agree, at least in part, with J.F. Cotter's opinion that "Kinnell has done himself a disservice in digging up his juvenilia." Certainly these poems display a derivativeness and an absence of distinctive voice that is perhaps understandable in very early work, but they also hint at the direction Kinnell's later poetry takes. Many of the poems have for their subjects the outdoors, and they frequently take place at night, a combination that appears over and over in Kinnell's poetry. But the poems are marred by a strained delicacy only partially attributable to the formal artificiality and self-consciousness. They seem pale in comparison with the later, more vigorous and harsher work.

What a Kingdom It Was (1960) was Kinnell's first published book of poems, and Ralph Mills has written that it "can be viewed in retrospect now as one of those volumes signaling decisive changes in the mood and character of American poetry as it departed from the witty, pseudo-mythic verse, apparently written to critical prescription, of the 1950's to arrive at the more authentic, liberated work of the 1960's." In this volume Kinnell begins developing his own material and angle of vision. Many of these poems deal with a sense of transgression or loss, which leads to a need for propitiation or reconciliation. In "First Song" three boys transform cornstalks into violins and awaken in themselves a sense of aesthetic awareness coupled with a loss of innocence: "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." The transcendence accomplished through the intercession of crude physical objects is typical of Kinnell's work as a whole, just as is the double awareness in the final line of the darkness and sadness that lie at the core of life. Another poem of childhood, "To Christ Our Lord," examines a boy's feelings toward killing a bird for Christmas dinner. His guilt becomes transformed by the ritual nature of both the dinner and the act of killing:

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its
The bird on the plate
Stared at his stricken appetite.
There had been nothing to do but surrender,
To kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed,
   with wonder.

Here the boy's sense of wonder at the processes of life and death, his new awareness of the mystery at the basis of existence, is the necessary propitiatory gesture.

Similarly, "The Descent," "Freedom, New Hampshire," and "Seven Streams of Nevis" concern death and an adult's sense of loss and guilt requiring some recompensatory action. In these poems the darkness of Kinnell's attitude toward life, for which he has been criticized, becomes obvious, for memory and wonder provide the only recompense for loss, and as the conclusion of "Freedom, New Hampshire" indicates, these are distinctly inadequate:

But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but
   one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until
   they die.

The final poem of the volume, the long, Whitmanesque "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," continues the theme of loss, carrying it out of the personal and into the communal. The poem's unusual title refers to Avenue C in New York City, and the poem takes as its subject the ethnic, primarily Jewish, inhabitants of the street. Through the progression and compilation of naturalistic detail, it soon becomes apparent that behind the images of waste and loss, the garbage, junk, and dead fish, lies the ultimate loss of the holocaust. The physical and human landscape of waste that is Avenue C provides an objective counterpart to the earlier, more personal expressions of loss, and it leads to a recognition of the universality of suffering: "everything / That may abide the fire was made to go through the fire."

Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), Kinnell's second book of poetry, breaks little new ground beyond What a Kingdom It Was, although it extends his use of rough, conversational free verse and establishes more firmly the natural, physical world as his primary setting. In poems like "Tillamook Journal (2nd version)," "On Hardscrabble Mountain," and "Middle of the Way," he devotes even more attention than before to precise evocation of the things of the physical world. In these poems the speaker is alone, traveling through the wilderness, and very much aware of his separation from the natural world and of the dangerous emptiness that surrounds him. To combat this separation and emptiness, he continually calls the names of the things around him in order to place himself into a relationship with them and thus to establish a context. The result is a poetry of nouns to fill the void. The physical world and the emptiness behind it are in constant tension, as in "On Frozen Fields" when, after a noun-filled description of a walk at night, Kinnell gives this propitiatory prayer in reminder of the emptiness:

You in whose ultimate madness we live,
You flinging yourself out into the emptiness,
You—like us—great an instant,
O only universe we know, forgive us.

Such dual awareness is also evident in "Middle of the Way" when the speaker says, "I love the earth, and always / In its darkness I am a stranger," but its fullest expression is in "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock." In this segmental poem, a favorite structure for Kinnell, the self is a much more apparent and undeniable presence in contrast with the physical world. In the climb up the mountain the speaker's body provides nouns for the poem just as do the animals, plants, and other objects he encounters. But the forces of emptiness and death enter when he sees a flower and realizes that physical objects are no stay against transience:

The invisible life of the thing
Goes up in flames that are invisible
Like cellophane burning in the sunlight.
It burns up. Its drift is to be nothing.

In Body Rags (1968), a book selected for special mention by the poetry judges for the National Book Awards, Kinnell's work becomes more consistently forceful, and the dominant imagery of fire and darkness becomes more apparent. The first poem, "Another Night in the Ruins," establishes the central concerns of the volume. Kinnell thinks of the death of his brother and the nothingness that death represents, and he once more attempts to find consolation for loss and suffering. What he arrives at is close, although clearer in attitude, to the ending of "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock." He opposes the darkness with fire:

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren't, after all, made
from that bird which flies out of its ashes,
that for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
to open himself, to be
the flames?

Since consumption in the flames is unavoidable, the only recourse is intensity, and throughout Body Rags Kinnell uses the imagery of darkness and fire to push his poetry toward such heightened experience.

Sometimes the drive for intensity seems strained, as in "The Last River," but more often it succeeds, as in "The Burn," "Last Songs," and "Night in the Forest." But certainly the two best and most intense poems in Body Rags are "The Porcupine" and the often anthologized "The Bear." In these poems Kinnell seeks entrance into a primitive state of identification with the nonhuman. In "The Porcupine" the speaker identifies with the porcupine's suffering and emptiness. The poem describes in ghastly detail how a porcupine is shot from a tree, hooks itself on a branch, lands on the ground, and runs until it falls dead, its entrails played out behind it; and near the poem's conclusion the speaker, calling himself the "Saint / Sebastian of the / sacred heart," makes the association with the creature complete by saying:

I have fled, have
over fields of goldenrod,
terrified, seeking home,
and among flowers
I have come to myself empty, the rope
strung out behind me
in the fall sun
suddenly glorified with all my blood.

In "The Bear," an even more violent poem, the identification with the nonhuman and with suffering and horrible death leads to visionary experience and to the essence of poetry itself. The poem concerns an Eskimo who wounds a bear internally with a coiled, sharpened wolf rib and then follows its bloody spoor across the tundra for days until the bear dies. The hunter then opens the bear, climbs inside, and in a dream becomes the wounded bear. When he awakes, the experience of identification through suffering and death is total and transforming, for, as the hunter says:

the rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of
    blood, that
poetry, by which I lived?

In the harsh world of these poems, violence, death, and nothingness become the essence of life and of art, and the only reconciliation is intensity of experience.

Kinnell's most recent poetry, the long poem The Book of Nightmares (1971), was received with considerable praise, and, although the central concern is still with emptiness and the imagery of darkness and fire still dominates, the poem modifies the bleak vision of Body Rags. Joseph Langbaum calls this long poem, made up of ten related segments beginning with the birth of Kinnell's daughter and ending with the birth of his son, "an unforeseeable leap forward for Kinnell." Langbaum goes on to identify the subject of the poem as "the attempt of the lonely soul, existing in a world where community has broken down, to reforge connections." It is significant in Kinnell's development as a poet that the connections he seeks to establish in The Book of Nightmares are much more with the cycles of human existence.

In the second section of the poem, "The Hen Flower," Kinnell stresses man's inability to open himself to death, to "throw ourselves / on the mercy of the darkness," as does the hen. In the other segments, he goes on, largely through the births of his children and through identifying himself with a dying derelict, to seek consolation for death in the human world. This search is not completely successful, for the awareness of mortality and the threat of nothingness is only heightened by the fragility and helplessness of the young children, as in these lines addressed to his daughter, Maud, in "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight":

And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
this the nightmare you wake screaming from:
being forever
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.

The recognition at the end of the poem that "Living brings you to death, there is no other road" is, however intensely felt, nothing new for Kinnell, but the advice he gives his son embodies a double-edged, lighthearted fatality that is not present in the earlier work:

Sancho Fergus! Don't cry!
Or else, cry.
On the body,
on the blued flesh, when it is
laid out, see if you can find
the one flea which is laughing.

The affirmative tone of this conclusion is certainly relative, but the shift in attitude is significant. Consolation for suffering and death is no longer flame, as in "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock" and "Another Night in the Ruins"; it is now laughter.

Kinnell has said that in the future "Whatever I do will be different from The Book of Nightmares,", and that "It would be foolish to go on in the same way." Kinnell's future poetry should prove interesting, but it would be unreasonable to expect major departures or the opening of drastically new ground in the poetry following The Book of Nightmares. His poetry has not, over the years, developed through distinct major phases, nor has it undergone radical changes. It has instead grown and evolved slowly and continuously, approaching again and again a handful of fertile major themes in a distinct and personal voice.

Source: Charles Frazier, "Galway Kinnell," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, American Poets Since World War II, First Series, edited by Donald J. Greiner, Gale Research, 1980, pp. 397-402.


Balbo, Ned, Review of A New Selected Poems, in Antioch Review, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter 2001, p. 121.

Beaver, Harold, "Refuge in the Library, on the Farm and in Memories," in New York Times, March 2, 1986, p. BR14.

Bell, De Witt, "Wonders of the Inner Eye," in New York Times, July 5, 1964, p. BR4.

Dickstein, Morris, "Intact and Triumphant," in New York Times, September 19, 1982, p. 33.

Goldman, Michael, "Joyful in the Dark," in New York Times, February 18, 1968, p. 12.

Kakutani, Michiko, "Mortality and Love," in New York Times, November 2, 1985, p. 15.

Kinnell, Galway, "Another Night in the Ruins," in Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1982, pp. 67-68.

Kinnell, Galway, and Thomas Gardner, "An Interview with Galway Kinnell," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 20, No. 4, Autumn 1979, p. 427.

Lask, Thomas, "The Makers and Their Works," in New York Times, September 1, 1971, p. 35.

Pew Global Attitudes Project, Among Wealthy Nations …: U. S. Stands Alone in Its Embrace of Religion, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, December 19, 2002.

Review of Imperfect Thirst, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 39, September 26, 1994, p. 57.

Review of Strong Is Your Hold, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 253, No. 41, October 16, 2006, p. 34.

Ricks, Christopher, "In the Direct Line of Whitman, The Indirect Line of Eliot," in New York Times, January 12, 1975, p. 241.

Rodman, Selden, "A Quartet of Young Singers," in New York Times, September 18, 1960, p. BR50.

Rosenthal, M. L., "Under the Freeway, In the Hotel of Lost Light," in New York Times, November 21, 1971, p. BR77.


Kinnell, Galway, Body Rags, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

In his third collection, Kinnell is concerned with mortality and the material world. This volume collects some of his most frequently anthologized poems, including "Another Night in the Ruins," "The Bear," and "The Porcupine."

———, Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews, University of Michigan Press, 1978.

Through selections from his own interviews, Kinnell shares his thoughts on his work and poetry in general.

Nelson, Howard, ed., On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of the Dying, University of Michigan Press, 1988.

In this volume, Nelson has collected reviews and articles—both flattering and scathing—about Kinnell, his books, and his individual poems. Critics include Joseph Bruchac, Tess Gallagher, Donald Hall, and Harold Bloom.

Zimmerman, Lee, Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell, University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Zimmerman examines six volumes of Kinnell's work, observing a paradox of conflicted desires which informs Kinnell's verse. Zimmerman's dynamic writing makes this critical study a comfortable book to read.