Thrills and Chills and Home Movies

Poets Galway Kinnell and David Wojahn create American myths as often as they debunk them.

by Peter Campion
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Strong Is Your Hold, by Galway Kinnell. Houghton Mifflin. $23.00.

I once heard a famous British poet pronounce that most American poets merely make home movies. You get what he meant: the shrinking of ambition, the jittery technique, the staged sentimentality, the private moments that should have remained private. But is there anything necessarily wrong with domestic poems? Reading Galway Kinnell’s new book, I’m grateful for the homemade quality. Kinnell might just be our great poet of family life, and even more so, of that rarest thing in our poetry: happy family life.

Certainly when he goes for grand cinema, he fails. His poem here about September 11, “When the Towers Fell,” remains a huge mistake. Puffed up with tags from Crane and Whitman, and from Paul Celan and Alexander Wat (untranslated), the poem reads in places like an inflated parody of Modernist collage. Kinnell is simply out of his element here: the interrogating intellect has never been his thing. In fact, the bardic afflatus which ruins “When the Towers Fell,” and which laces much of the earlier work with cant, becomes a virtue in the domestic poems. You feel that Kinnell hasn’t so much abandoned his brute force as kept it in check. The bull walks through the china shop and does just fine, thank you. Take the opening of “Everyone Was in Love”:

One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake tails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts. With heads raised and swaying,
alert as cobras, the snakes writhed their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, moist human skin.

If this were a home movie, it would certainly be the weirdest, most thrilling one I’ve ever seen. The bucolic merriment shows its tense, creepy-crawly edge, and yet remains good fun.

This scene could stand as an emblem for all of Kinnell’s best poems. Here at the threshold to the house (think of the “hold” of Kinnell’s title) appear the ultimate figures of eros and thanatos, intertwined. Yet they’re also just what they are: harmless garden critters. The poem, like the home, gains strength and vitality by allowing this creaturely life. Other equally successful poems include “Burning the Brush Pile” and “The Stone Table.” All of these poems are made from the tension between the modest resolve of the householder and sheer animal energy. Those two forces fuse to give this collection its strength.

Interrogation Palace, by David Wojahn. University of Pittsburgh Press. $14.00.

Reading David Wojahn’s superb selected poems, one has two seemingly contrary feelings. First comes the sheer pleasure of surveying Wojahn’s range. Here’s a poet who can write as convincingly of a backstage interview with Bob Marley as he can of Aeneas’s reunion with Anchises in Hades. Wojahn is one of the few American poets since Lowell who has believably joined private and public life: individual suffering appears in the poems within the context of history. At times this perspective seems to enrich individual experience by giving it greater dimension; elsewhere it appears to trap the individual within a nightmare. In “Interrogation Palace” Wojahn picked the perfect title: these are poems of both largesse and terror.

Wojahn has developed from book to book, and found formal strategies to give his obsessions and ambitions their full presence. But Wojahn comes into his own with his third book, Mystery Train (1990). The title poem is a sonnet series about the history of rock and roll, as it parallels and contrasts the larger history of the time. One suspects that it’s Wojahn’s excitement about that subject itself which gives his voice a new immediacy and bite. The full intelligence of the poet–allusive, dense, playful, often darkly deadpan–galvanizes these lines. From The Falling Hour (1997) through to the new poems in this selection, he writes with as much formal and emotional strength as any poet alive. Consider, for example, the opening of his sonnet, “Fort Snelling National Cemetery, St. Paul, MN”:

Thirty thousand dead, the markers all identical,
and with a map I find his stone,
find my own name chiseled

here between the monoliths of airport runway lights
and “the world’s largest shopping mall,” its parking lot

nudging the cemetery fence. The spirit in its tunnel
does not soar, the spirit raised by wolves.

It’s humbling to see what Wojahn can do in seven lines. Look at the cunning slant rhymes, the small modulations in tone (for instance from “monolith” to “shopping mall”), the balance between the images of personal loss and the insinuations about national decay. All these lead to the big curve in the structure, from the literal scene to the territory of fable and myth.

As in these lines, so in the larger work: Wojahn’s formal skills give the movement between the everyday and the mythic its believability. Such range and scope lend distinction to this entire collection. I wish the anthologists and the prize committees would start paying attention. But in the meantime, who cares? We have this powerful, panoramic book.

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on April 15, 2008.

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