Authors: Galway Kinnell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


What a Kingdom It Was, 1960

Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, 1964

Body Rags, 1968

Poems of Night, 1968

First Poems, 1946-1954, 1970

The Book of Nightmares, 1971

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems, 1946-1964, 1974

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, 1980

Selected Poems, 1982

The Fundamental Project of Technology, 1983

The Past, 1985

When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, 1990

Three Books, 1993

Imperfect Thirst, 1994

A New Selected Poems, 2000

Long Fiction:

Black Light, 1966, revised 1980

Short Fiction:

“The Permanence of Love,” 1968


The Poetics of the Physical World, 1969

Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews, 1978

Thoughts Occasioned by the Most Insignificant of Human Events, 1982

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

How the Alligator Missed Breakfast, 1982


Bitter Victory, 1956 (of René Hardy)

The Poems of François Villon, 1965, revised 1977

On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, 1968 (of Yves Bonnefoy)

Lackawanna Elegy, 1970 (of Yvan Goll)

The Essential Rilke, 1999

Edited Text:

The Essential Whitman, 1987


In 1983 Galway Kinnell won both the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and the American Book Award for his Selected Poems. This volume of poems, which represents Kinnell’s work from 1946 to 1980, may be characterized best as an exploration of what is primitive, wild, and transient in human experience. Since his first volume appeared in 1960, Kinnell has attempted to assert the beauty in the act of living and the appropriateness in the act of dying.{$I[AN]9810001862}{$I[A]Kinnell, Galway}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kinnell, Galway}{$I[tim]1927;Kinnell, Galway}

Galway Kinnell

Kinnell attended public schools in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, until his senior year in high school, when he received a scholarship to Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts. The following year, 1944, he enrolled at Princeton, from which he would receive a B.A. before earning his M.A. from the University of Rochester. At Princeton he met W. S. Merwin, a fellow student and aspiring poet. Their meeting was fortuitous, as was Kinnell’s contact with Charles G. Bell, a professor at Princeton who introduced Kinnell to the “open form” theories of Charles Olson at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Although Kinnell made use of traditional rhyme and meter in his earlier work, such formal considerations have never been the focus of his vision. Even in “The Feast,” one of his first published pieces (collected in First Poems: 1946-1954), Kinnell’s use of form seems at best perfunctory, while his attempts to understand how, having feasted on love, we must forever be “dying in each other’s arms” are all-consuming.

In his consistent endeavors to find some transcendence in death, at times Kinnell has used traditional religious imagery. In his use of such imagery, however, there remains an attachment to the mystery of the physical world. For example, “To Christ Our Lord,” published in 1960, demonstrates Kinnell’s ardent desire to reattach the physical world to the spiritual world. Driven by a distinct narrative, as are many of Kinnell’s poems, “To Christ Our Lord” depicts a young boy’s struggle to fathom how his act of killing a bird for Christmas dinner might be reconciled with the beauty of the wild creature’s life. As is often the case in Kinnell’s poetry, no clear answer comes to the youth; rather, in a moment of mysterious grace, a swan rises up in the night to spread her wings like a cross, offering a “pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.”

Such devotion to the physical world is exhibited in Kinnell’s life by his continued efforts to reform and transform the human condition. From 1951 to 1955, Kinnell worked in the University of Chicago’s downtown educational program, and in 1963 he was a volunteer for voter registration in Louisiana and played an active role in the Civil Rights movement. Since then he has organized and participated in readings in protest of the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. Kinnell is also a fine teacher. He has been a Fulbright Professor in Iran and France, and he has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.

During his career Kinnell has established a well-deserved reputation as a reader of his poems. As a teacher, he hopes to connect his words to the animal world in order that his audience might glimpse the mysteries of life. As he states in one of his many interviews, “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.” In “The Bear,” perhaps Kinnell’s most celebrated poem, the speaker becomes one with the bear he has killed by cutting open the carcass and crawling in to sleep. When he awakens, he is unsure of what is real and what is dream and attempts to come to some understanding of what his life has been: “what, anyway,/ was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that/ poetry, by which I lived?” For Kinnell, the transcendence he hopes for must be rooted firmly in the soil of this world and in the very poetry by which he lives.

For his impressive body of work, Kinnell has received many grants and awards, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1962, two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1962 and 1974, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for 1969-1970, the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America in 1974, the Medal of Merit from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975, and the Harold L. Landon Translation Prize in 1979. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, the same year in which Selected Poems won the National Book Award for Poetry, and in 1986 he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Past. In 1980 Kinnell was elected a member of the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and from 1989 to 1993 he served as the Vermont State Poet.

BibliographyBly, Robert. “Galway Kinnell: The Hero and The Old Farmer.” In American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. This is a revised version of the essay that originally appeared in Howard Nelson’s On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying (1987). The changes from its earlier form clarify meaning, and Bly’s introductory chapters in the book set the stage for his thoughtful analysis of Kinnell’s poetic voice.Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne, 1992. Like other volumes in this series, a sturdy, safe introduction presenting biographical information and covering the major stages and works in Kinnell’s career. Places him in the tradition of Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. Primary and secondary bibliographies.Goldensohn, Lorrie. “Approaching Home Ground: Galway Kinnell’s Mortal Acts, Mortal Words.” The Massachusetts Review 25 (Summer, 1984): 303-321. After unraveling several of Kinnell’s captured moments, Goldensohn lays them beside his professed philosophy and finds serious conflicts. Especially problematical, she points out, are the deficiencies in Kinnell’s treatment of women. Goldensohn’s feminist perspective provokes new questions and provides new insights.Kleinbard, David. “Galway Kinnell’s Poetry of Transformation.” The Centennial Review 30 (Winter, 1986): 41-56. While Kleinbard focuses exclusively on Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, exploring its relationship with Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1930), his explication of language and image provides a paradigm to follow in reaching under Kinnell’s surface rhythms for the unifying context of meaning.Maceira, Karen. “Galway Kinnell: A Voice to Lead Us.” Hollins Critic 32, no. 4 (October, 1995): 1-15. Maceira takes the occasion of Imperfect Thirst to present a shrewd and sympathetic assessment of Kinnell’s growth as an artist.Nelson, Howard, ed. On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987. This indispensable book is a collection of excerpts from previously published book reviews and articles together with essays–overviews, appraisals, analyses of specific poems, and a particularly insightful reminiscence–written specifically for the project. Writers include Charles Molesworth, Louise Bogan, Harold Bloom, Donald Davie, Joseph Bruchac, and Tess Gallagher. A chronology and an extensive bibliography provide interesting and useful information.Taylor, Granville. “From Irony to Lyricism: Galway Kinnell’s True Voice.” Christianity and Literature 37 (Summer, 1988): 45-54. Taylor explores Kinnell’s emphasis on immanence over transcendence and the evolution of his form of grace. For readers interested in reconciling Kinnell’s rejection of traditional Christian myths with orthodoxy, Taylor offers a solution.Tuten, Nancy Lewis, ed. Critical Essays on Galway Kinnell. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. Morris Dickstein, Mary Kinzie, Jay Parini, and Richard Tillinghast are some of the powerhouse commentators whose responses to Kinnell’s work are gathered here. A judicious, balanced selection.Zimmerman, Lee. Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Zimmerman’s study is divided into five chapters and an epilogue, each of which focuses on one of Kinnell’s collections, ending with The Past. Especially helpful are the author’s discussions of the oppositions that form the heart of Kinnell’s work, the literary context in which the work has evolved, and the effect on his message of the gradually increasing distance of the poet from his subject. An index facilitates use of this book for researching specific topics.
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