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About Galway Kinnell

Richard Gray

Kinnell, Galway (1927- ), was born in Providence, Rhode island, and studied at Princeton and the University of Rochester. He served in the United States Navy and then visited Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship. Returning to the United States, he worked for the Congress on Racial Equality and then travelled widely in the Middle East and Europe. He has taught at several colleges and universities, including California, Pittsburgh, and New York. The poems of his first volume, What a Kingdom It Was (1960), were informed by a traditional Christian sensibility. However, while retaining a sacramental dimension, his later work burrows fiercely into the self away from traditional sources of religious authority or even conventional notions of personality. 'If you could keep going deeper and deeper', he has said, 'you'd finally not be a person ... you'd be a blade of grass or ultimately perhaps a stone. And if a stone could read poetry would speak for it.'

The poems issuing from this conviction may be found in such collections as Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964), Body Rags (1968), The Book of Nightmares (1971), and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980). Short, chanting lines, a simple, declarative syntax, emphatic rhythms, bleak imagery, and insistent repetition: all are used here to generate the sense of the poet as shaman who throws off the 'sticky infusions' of speech and becomes one with the natural world, sharing in the primal experiences of birth and death. Walking Down the Stairs (1978) is a useful selection of interviews with Kinnell; he has also published a number of translations.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Oxford University Press.

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