Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Galway Kinnell's Great Poem |
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Galway Kinnell's Great Poem

The best Hitchcock film was directed by someone else. Charade would not be as good as it is if Hitchcock had not developed the genre it epitomizes, but Hitchcock could never have created a film so meticulous, plausible, sensitive, light-footed and funny. It took Stanley Donen to do that: temporarily Hitchcock’s student, he emerged as his master. Similarly Galway Kinnell’s great poem The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is the long Ezra Pound poem that Pound himself could never have written. It could not have been written without Pound’s Cantos as a point of departure, but it is so much more human, humane and sheerly poetic that you realize why Pound’s emphasis on technique and language, fruitful to others, was barren for himself. A poetic gift will include those things—or anyway the capacity for them—but finally there is an element of personality which brings them to their full potential, and only as a means to an end. With more on his mind than Pound and fewer bees in his bonnet, Kinnell could actually do what Pound spent too much of his time teaching. Pound went on and on about making you see, but the cold truth is that in the Cantos there are not many moments that light up. Kinnell’s poem has got them like stars in heaven. It is almost unfair.

Banking the same corner
A pigeon coasts 5th Street in shadows,
Looks for altitude, surmounts the rims of buildings,
And turns white.

Pound wanted to sound like that, but found it hard. He made it hard for himself. He was always looking for his vision of history in the way he said things. Kinnell, for the stretch of his own much shorter very long poem, has a vision of history that comes from history. The Cantos, the twentieth-century version of Casaubon’s “Key to All the Mythologies” from Middlemarch, ranges through all time and all space looking for a pattern, tracing specious lines of connection in which Pound progressively entangles himself, until finally he hangs mummified with only his mouth moving, unable to explain even his own era, a nut for politics whose political role was to be the kind of Fascist that real Fascists found naive. Kinnell’s poem, moving only in the region of New York’s Avenue C at the end of World War II, is sustained throughout by historical resonance—the very quality which Pound, yearning to achieve it, always dissipated in advance with his demented certainties.

Along and around Avenue C, in the Lower East Side, flows the whole rich experience of immigrant America and its relationship to the terrible fate of modern Europe. Blacks and Puerto Ricans and Jews and Ukrainians toil in uneasy proximity but at least they are alive and there is a law. Only the animals and the fish are massacred. An official, empty letter of condolence from a concentration camp front office to a victim’s family is quoted while a Jewish fishmonger guts the catch. It is the sort of effect which Pound, exalting it with the name of juxtaposition, practised like a bad journalist. In Kinnell’s poem it attains true complexity, principally because he has the negative capability—the sanity—to let his audience do the interpreting, from their common knowledge.

Pound had a theory about the Jews. Kinnell knew what theories like that led to and presumed that his readers knew too. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World was one of the first, and remains one of the few, adequate works of art devoted to the Holocaust. The Hassidim walk Avenue C bent over with the weight of their orthodoxy, unassimilable as spacemen. Faced with their intransigence, Kinnell has no easy democratic message. He has the difficult one—the message that America, or at any rate the tip of Manhattan, has something to offer more interesting, and perhaps less threatening, than the prospect of homogeneity. An anti-Waste Land that sees the potential creativity in apparent chaos, his poem celebrates diversity, out of which unpredictability comes, a cultural complexity which the artist can only describe.

Helping him to describe it is a gift for evocation which makes it advisable to leave Ezra Pound out of account altogether, since he spent, presumably from preference, little time saying that one thing was like another. The apparition of these faces in the crowd/leaves on a wet, black bough. Pound manufactured a few examples like that and then talked about them. Kinnell’s less effortful knack for the arc-light metaphor should serve to remind us that the Martian movement must have been landing its flying saucers long before they were first detected.

We found a cowskull once; we thought it was
From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun
Shone into the holes through which it had seen
Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel...

All the more striking for steering clear of extravagance, that particular coup is from a poem called “Freedom, New Hampshire.” Nowadays Les Murray studs his poems about country Australia with similar effects, but gets them closer together. Kinnell, in his shorter poems, spaced them out. There was too much else going on. He overstrained his verbs like Lowell, substituted the next-less-intelligible noun throughout the stanza like Wallace Stevens, piled on the archaic diction in a belated tribute to John Crowe Ransom, and above all indulged in rhapsodic apostrophes to the City which recalled Hart Crane the way that Crane had once recalled Walt Whitman.

And thou, River of Tomorrow, flowing ...

Like so many poets, especially American poets, who consciously attempt to forge an idiom, Kinnell synthesized the idioms of other poets, many of whom had themselves been up to the same doomed trick. Forging an idiom is forgery, even when dressed up as subservience. Almost everything Kinnell wrote was in agitated, self-conscious homage to someone—William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost loomed like faces on Mount Rushmore—and too often the homage was technical. But Kinnell’s proper rhythm and true clarity were there waiting to be brought out at the moment when a strong enough subject turned him away from ambition and towards achievement. The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is one coup after another, a succession of illuminations like his stunning image of the Avenue’s traffic lights going green into the far dusk. Here are the vegetable stalls:

In the pushcart market on Sunday,
A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.
Icicle-shaped carrots that through black soil
Wove away like flames in the sun.
Onions with their shirts ripped seek sunlight
On green skins. The sun beats
On beets dirty as boulders in cowfields,
On turnips pinched and gibbous
From budging rocks, on embery sweets,
Peanut-shaped Idahos, shore-pebble Long Islands and Maines,
On horseradishes still growing weeds on the flat ends,
Cabbages lying around like sea-green brains
The skulls have been shucked from ...

The fish market goes on for several stanzas, at the thematic centre of the poem because the deaths of millions of humans are being called up by the deaths of millions of creatures similarly dumped from one element into another. Admirers of Elizabeth Bishop’s precisely observed poems about fish might find it daunting to note how Kinnell sees just as much detail before soaring up and out into extra relevance like Marianne Moore taking off on a broom.

           ... two-tone flounders
After the long contortion of pushing both eyes
To the brown side that they might look up,
Lying brown side down, like a mass laying-on of hands,
Or the oath-taking of an army.

This is magic poetry in the sense that you can’t tell how he does it and can be dissuaded from the idea that he might be a sorcerer only by the consideration that other people are billed as magicians too. What finally establishes Kinnell’s magnum opus as a successful poem, however, is its ordinary poetry—ordinary in the sense that it does not astonish, but does persuade, and even, in the bitter end, console.

Fishes do not die exactly, it is more
That they go out of themselves, the visible part
Remains the same, there is little pallor,
Only the cataracted eyes which have not shut ever
Must look through the mist which crazed Homer.

Compare this with Hart Crane’s famous, wilfully beautiful line about the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards Paradise and you can see what Kinnell had that Crane hadn’t. With no ordinary language interesting enough to fall back on, Crane was trying to sound as if he had a lot to say. Kinnell had a lot to say. All he needed was a theme to contain it. But for an intelligence whose attention is everywhere, sharp in all directions, a still point of focus is not easily found. On Avenue C he found it.

Galway Kinnell wrote his one great tragic, celebratory poem and never anything quite like it again, possibly because it is as long as a modern epic can well be even though everything that matters is included. I think that an event drove him to begin it, and a particular historic conjunction allowed him to complete it. In Europe humanity had been brought to the point where it might have lost faith in its own right to exist; and then America had saved the world. Later on things were less simple. It was the right moment; Kinnell was the right man; and a poem was written which was wonderful against all the odds—even those formidable odds posed by the very business of being a poet at all, in an age when art has become so self-aware that innocence can be found only at the end of a long search.

(The Dreaming Swimmer, 1992)


If you read Ezra Pound early on—and when I was coming of age in Australia in the late 1950s we all did—you can spend a lifetime wondering how he ever got under your skin. He was still alive when my bunch were getting started, and one of us, Richard Appleton, the black-clad glamour boy of Sydney’s Downtown Push, was in regular correspondence with him. (Though the Downtown Push was more concerned with gambling than with the arts, the occasioned poet was allowed in as long as he showed clear signs of dissipation.) A correspondence with Pound was not difficult to initiate—an indication of abject worship usually worked the trick—but it was difficult to break off, because Pound had a warehouse full of Social Credit pamphlets that he was keen to send out to the qualified reader, definable as anybody who would not throw them on the fire. Along with the pamphlets, alas, came material even more corrosive: advice on poetic technique. Appleton, who was born with a formal sense that made his meticulous carpentry poetic in itself, was among the most gifted young Australian poets of his time. But his obsession with Pound was as fatal to his mind as his impression that Benzedrine was a form of food was fatal to his body. Appleton suppressed the natural coherence of his gift in order to sound like the Cantos, an aim in which he succeeded all too well. By the time of his premature death, his poems were not only in fragments, he was calling them fragments—always a bad sign. His self-induced disintegration as an artist was a memento mori that I never forgot, and ever since, although I have never written an article devoted solely to Pound, I have made a habit of referring to him in articles written about other poets, with the hope that the references will make some other young potential epigone think twice about worshipping at the old lunatic’s altar. As time goes by, the chances diminish that anyone will think of doing so even once, which I suppose is another kind of loss. Simplified by the pitiless machinery of success, the shape of the past changes, and the disturbing aberrations pass out of history, having failed to do their work. Pound’s version of the Fascist era never arrived, and indeed it was never there, even under Fascism, although Pound managed to convince himself that Mussolini had actually read his presentation volume of the Cantos. (Admittedly, Mussolini told him so, but Mussolini also told the Italian people that they were going to win the war.) In the long run, a poet like Galway Kinnell could do what Pound vaunted himself as doing but never could: make poetry from history. Pound staked everything on that, and was bound to fail; not because he couldn’t write poetry, but because he was debarred by nature from understanding history; he thought his gift for the dogmatic epigram was a guarantee of universal scope. Having failed, he faded; gradually but beyond recovery. Even in the academy, where developmental theories of poetry are automatically favoured, his early reputation as an innovator has been swallowed up by his later reputation as a snake-oil salesman, a process aided by the sad fact that it was his second phase that he himself valued the more highly. By now the victory for forgetfulness is almost complete, and the well-funded tumulus of Poundian scholarship is eroding in the wind. But it is hard, though necessary, not to be sad, if only for all that wasted excitement, not all of which was his. Some of it was ours. There was a time when I would spread open a slim volume of the Cantos on a table of the Women’s Union cafeteria at Sydney University and sit there reading as excited as I could be. But I was excited by a possibility. Read many years later, Kinnell’s poem was the actuality, and poetry, despite appearances, is all actuality: it can depart from the real, but only in order to intensify it.