Selected Criticism

Kinnell, Galway (1927–2014)
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Galway Kinnell is a poet whose work has been significantly influenced by Whitman. His major books, Body Rags (1968), The Book of Nightmares (1971), The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946–64 (1974), Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980), The Past (1985), and Imperfect Thirst (1994) often invoke, echo, and debate Whitman. In addition, Kinnell has written penetrating essays about Whitman and has edited a collection of Whitman's poetry (The Essential Walt Whitman [1987]).

Kinnell's response to Whitman is complex and multifaceted. He talks back to Whitman in illuminating ways, arguing with him even as he affirms key aspects of his poetics and central ideas. Kinnell has often expressed his admiration for what he calls the "mystic music" of Whitman's voice ("Indicative Words" 216), and he claims to have modeled his own free verse on Whitman's practice of writing "in what could only be called the rhythm of what's being said" (Walking 47). He admires Whitman's "mystically physical" nature (Walking 21) and credits him as the inspiration for his own melding of the intensely physical and the hard-won spiritual in The Book of Nightmares. He admires and follows Whitman's descendent (instead of transcendent) gaze, "a motion from the conventionally highest downward toward union with the most ordinary and the least, the conventionally lowest, the common things of the world" ("Indicative Words" 224).

What Kinnell finds most problematic about Whitman is his refusal to reveal "his troubled side" ("Indicative Words" 220), his tendency to absorb but not to struggle with death and evil. When Kinnell directly evokes Whitman in his poetry, then, the occasion often turns parodic (as in his echoing of "I Hear America Singing" in "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond") or sarcastic (as in "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," when a character, about to die, comes across a Whitman passage about death and mutters "Oi! / What shit!" [Avenue 114]).

Kinnell's admiration for and understanding of Whitman are immense, however, and he is one of the few major contemporary American poets who has worked to develop Whitman's poetics and adapt them to a dramatically changed American culture.


Kinnell, Galway. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World: Poems 1946–64. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

———. Walking Down the Stairs: Selections from Interviews. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1978.

———. "Whitman's Indicative Words." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 215–227.

Tuten, Nancy Lewis. "The Language of Sexuality: Walt Whitman and Galway Kinnell." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1992): 134–141.

Zimmerman, Lee. Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.


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