Review: “Strong is Your Hold,” by Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell

By Robert Israel

Galway Kinnell, like Mary Oliver, is a poet for whom poetic roots are important. Like Oliver, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. While Mary Oliver’s work reminds readers of the poems of Emerson and Dickinson, Galway Kinnell’s reminds us of Walt Whitman. Indeed, the title of his book, Strong is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, Boston), is taken from a Whitman poem: “Strong is your hold O mortal flesh/Strong is your hold O love.” Whitman showed Kinnell and other American poets the way forward: bold language, the open road ever beckoning, nature in all its resplendent loveliness.

Whitman often celebrated his rowdy prowess, and in Kinnell’s book there is a lot of testosterone. He is, after all, the poet who once wrote about hunting and then stalking a bear whose tracks of blood led him through the north woods, a poem that was collected in a book called Body Rags.

In his new collection, the strength of his voice comes through just as powerfully, particularly in pieces that recall his roots growing up in Rhode Island (a state where I, too, was raised). He once told an interviewer that this chapter of life included “a particularly lonely childhood, not in the sense of not having people around, but failing to make real connections and being shy to the point of mutinous.” He did not learn the rhythms of poetry as a youngster in Rhode Island, he said once, because the “accent of my hometown [Providence] is rather unpoetical. It’s a very charming and loveable accent, but not very musical.” Instead, Kinnell discovered music and rhythm in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman; from them, he said, he learned about “language that could sing.”

He has made steady progress in his literary evolution ever since. In this collection, he celebrates all that is divine in nature, like marveling at the sight of a bear just glimpsed in the copse of trees beyond his stone bench at his farm in Sheffield, Vermont, not far from the Quebec border. But there are also poems that describe Kinnell’s keen awareness of the perils of civilization and all its entrapments. In his long poem included in this collection, written after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 (it was first published in The New Yorker), he takes us into the inferno with eloquence and horror.

Kinnell has written in the past about human conflicts, wars, turmoil and chaos. In his Book of Nightmares, he devoted an entire section of that long poem describing, in graphic detail, the horror of war and the stench of a burning corpse. Yet in this collection, which also includes a marvelous CD of the poet reading all of the poems, he emerges as having come through a lot of these wars and turmoil, and emerging, as Whitman urged, with a “strong hold” on life. By so doing, he expresses an optimism that we, as humans toiling between the garden and the inferno, will reap the gifts that come to us from devotion, and, if we are fortunate, to discover, in others, a loving return of our affections.

These rewards are found in several poems that describe his relationships with this children and his wife. A particularly endearing and humorous one is titled Everyone Was in Love. The poem describes a playful scene at his Vermont farmhouse when his children, very young and very naked, draped snakes over their bodies like wild creatures just escaped from a painting by Bosch. The perils of life may be all around these cherubic naked children, but they are also endowed with an innocence that brightens Kinnell’s world.

Kinnell has made his solitary journey through life and has come through with a warm, mature, never complacent voice, full of respect for his poetic teachers and grateful to have acquired love that so often eludes us.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine, Boston.


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