Posts Tagged ‘american long poems’

Supplementary Reading Report on “The Book of Nightmares” by Galway Kinnell

Monday, March 18th, 2013

         The Book of Nightmares is a long poem that is filled with images as chilling as its title implies. Through a dichotomy of a few joyous events against abundant descriptions of the terrors of death and the risks involved with love, Kinnell presents a warning against violence in an already fragile state of being. Although this long poem is presented in ten separate sections of seven smaller poems each, all of them are woven together with repeated images and themes to create a coherent projection of the realities present within Kinnell’s dream world of nightmares.

Kinnell dedicated The Book of Nightmares to his children and makes reference to them throughout the work. Maud, his daughter, is present in the title of the first section of the poem, “Under the Maud Moon.” In this section, songs and singing are a common and repeating occurrence. Although Kinnell associates singing as a method of comforting a child who has awoken from a nightmare, he also pairs songs with language such as “she sucks air, screams her first song” (6), and “one of the songs I used to croak” (4). This is the first example of the constant dichotomy present throughout The Book of Nightmares. While Kinnell recognizes the beauty and joy of life, and wants his children to as well, he also makes sure not to romanticize the reality of inevitable death. This is why he places negative and positive language next to each other so frequently. This is demonstrated again in the final stanza of the poem when Kinnell addresses his son saying,


“Sancho Fergus! Don’t cry!


Or else, cry.


On the body,

on the blued flesh, when it is

laid out, see if you can find

the one flea which is laughing” (75).


Even though Kinnell mentions the “blued flesh” and the desire to cry over the loss of a loved one, he hopes that his son can find laughter and joy in what is left behind in life.

Overall, I believe that being able to find joy in the face of imminent loss and death is the overarching theme of the poem. Kinnell shows how difficult this can be through all the images of the nightmare world he has created, acknowledging that while there are terrors involved with life it is worth it to try and get past them. In order to achieve this, Kinnell has put repeating nightmares throughout his work, but he has placed them alongside some repeated images of joy and hope. For example, some of the most common symbols that are constantly appearing are those of blood, fire, birth and wings- a dichotomy of destruction and hope.

The raging fires and blood seem to represent the violence that is constant in the world, which is why I believe Kinnell uses the images so repeatedly. Kinnell urges readers to see how destructive fire and violence is but he also recognizes that conflicts such as war are inevitable in the world we live in. Considering that The Book of Nightmares was published in 1971, it is inevitable that the Vietnam War must have influenced Kinnell’s writing. This idea of consistency is presented eloquently when Kinnell writes, “the chameleon longing to be changed would remain the color of blood,” (13) in one of many references to blood. One reference to fire comes directly from a battlefield when a soldier cries out, “This corpse will not stop burning” (41). This is found in the sixth section of the poem, and also references the bloodthirsty nature of the Christian man that has been present throughout history (42-44). These images of war and death are combated with talk of wings and birth. As I mentioned before, Kinnell makes sure to include the joy his children bring him in the poem. He also includes images such as “the dead wings creaked open as she soared” (14). This image is particularly hopeful because it suggests that even after death there is beauty to be found and that death should not be feared.

I noticed the idea of palimpsest present once again within this long poem. The first reference I found was in in the “Maud Moon” section when Kinnell writes,


“The raindrops trying

to put the fire out

fall into it and are

changed: the oath broken,

the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken,

to be sworn again,

over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,

over and over, on earth” (4).


I noticed it again in the third section of the poem, “The Shoes of Wandering,” in which Kinnell describes the sensation of buying a pair of used shoes at a thrift store and walking “on the steppingstones of someone else’s wandering” (19).

The theme continues in images of hens that are also found throughout the work. The first reference to a hen comes in the second section of the poem when Kinnell writes, “ready or not the next egg, bobbling its globe of golden earth, skids forth, ridding her even of the life to come” (12). They basically represent the idea that even though the hens will die, they leave behind eggs that will hatch into hens that will later leave more eggs. It is very much the idea of the circle of life, and that although there is death, there is also life. The section that this excerpt is found in is titled “The Hen Flower,” and is also the start of many references to blooming and flowers. The seeds that flowers leave behind, even after their death, once again evoke the cyclical nature of life.

In terms of the long poems we have been studying this semester, I found the most similarities between The Book of Nightmares and Elliot’s The Waste Land. Both men present a harsh world, covered in ash, and presented through smaller sections that weave together in one large, haunting picture. Both of the author’s had seen the effects of war and death on individuals and the crises death can create within people. As Kinnell puts it, “Living brings you to death, there is no other road” (73). In The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell gives readers the challenge to approach death as joyously as possible, since it is the only possible destination in the end anyways.


Thursday, January 31st, 2013

I know we were assigned to read the introduction starting on page 17 but I also read the very beginning of the introduction. On page 6 it refers to him enrolling as a graduate student in philosophy (interesting) at Harvard. Then a line or two down it says that he took courses which led him to create some of the images in the Wasteland. I know the poem contains several images like water and death but how do the courses relate? I could understand some type of religion class perhaps or maybe one or two philosophy classes but I am just curious what he is describing here. If anyone knows? 🙂 thank you!

p.s. If this is confusing I can try and re-word it!

ALSO, I wish we could just like things like fb haha