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‘First Song’ by Galway Kinnel: An Embodied Melancholy

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    ‘First Song’ by Galway Kinnel: An Embodied Melancholy

    Once Galway Kinnel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, said that it is the poet’s job “to figure out what’s happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a certain shape, that have a chance of lasting. […] There is some sadness in all poetry; sadness may be the prevailing note” (Lund, n. p.). His poem ‘First Song’ penetrated with light melancholy brings into full correlation with these words. To create such mood, in his hybrid narrative/lyric poem Kinnel uses a variety of aural techniques: simplicity of syntax, intonational techniques, together with verbal stylistic variations and original rhyming.

    Author departed from the traditional form of poetry “in favor of the more rhythmic varieties of poetic language” (Wolf 284), but his work shows no signs of cacophony or lack of tunefulness.

    The poem is organized in three stanzas, each of six lines. It is necessary to note that each stanza is constructed in its own manner: the first use the scheme 11-10-8-10-10-10 syllables, the second – 10-11-10-8-10-10, and the third – 11-11-11-10-12-14. Although using open form of verse ‘First Song’ demonstrates some patterns of regularity. We see in the first stanza three last lines of 10 syllables and in the second stanza two last lines of 10 syllables as well as in the third stanza three first lines of 11 syllables. But either of these regular patterns of meter does not form a couplet as they have differing rhythms.

    The author is sufficiently consistent in the course of narration. The division into stanzas seems very logic. It serves as the boundary between the parts of narration: the first stanza gives the image of boy’s loneliness, the second pictures his meeting with another two boys, and, finally, the last one demonstrates the change of boy’s mood. To emphasize boy’s aspiration for at least slight merriment in his hard life and to attract reader’s attention Kinnel use such “inescapable element of poetry” (Hibbard, Holman & Thrall 410) as repetition of the word ‘boy’ in the end of initial line of each stanza as well as that of the word ‘joy’ in the last lines of all stanzas.

    The narration flows very smoothly owing to slow speed through the poem. It is attained by simple, not tortuous, syntax. The sentences are not broken by the end of the line; they fluently go to the next line. Moreover, the second and the third stanzas are constituted from the single sentence each. This contributes to unhurried course of narration and falling intonation up to the end of a stanza. Lyric impression and melancholic mood of the poem are emphasized also by the repetition of the words meaning ‘darkness’ in its varieties: dusk, dark, nightfall, twilight. Original anaphora made by using conjunction ‘and’ at the beginning of the several lines can be considered as contributor to prolonged intonation of the poem.

    The poem is not only smoothly constructed; it also demonstrates a great talent of the author to choose the most expressive sonic instruments to create a certain image. We see patterns of alliteration in the first line of the second stanza – consonant ‘s’ is repeating followed by the reiteration of similarly sounding ‘z’, in the second line of the last stanza  –the repetition of ‘t’, and in fifth line of the second stanza – reiteration of hard ‘r’. One more instance of alliteration is in the fourth line of the last stanza, this time that of consonant ‘b’. Assonance is presented in consequent three words ‘pond frogs all’ in the fifth line of the first stanza and in the words ‘heart’ and ‘darkness’ in the ending line of the poem.

    Shipley says: “In the beginning was the word. Often to the poet it seems beginning, middle, and end” (267). But for Kinnel it seems to make no problem to choose the precise wording for his thoughts. For the sake of rhymes which are scarce in English Kinnel use unexpected word combinations. He rhymes ‘dung’ with ‘thing’ (slant rhyme), ‘violins’ to ‘resins’ (exact rhyme), ‘stalk’ to ‘woke’ (slant rhyme). Besides the external rhymes the poem contains internal echoes as ‘hung–dung’ (exact rhyme), ‘frogs–boys’ (slant rhyme). Further, for the sake of rhythm the author uses variable feet – rhythmic units of varying length that are all spoken in approximately the same amount of time. Saying the poem aloud we hear sometimes speech-like, sliding, syncopated rhythm. But in general ‘First Song’ seems euphonic verse. It is for the most part predetermined by the lyric character of it. Author speaks in a deep tone and this demand some kind of melodiousness which excludes any cacophony.

    As it was mentioned above ‘First Song’ does not belong to the traditional form of poetry that gives the author certain freedom in using a rhythmic pattern. Five stresses per line throughout the poem present here pentameter. It takes the shape of sufficiently long lines contributing to the smoothness of narration and expressing melancholic mood of the hero. In general, rhythm is “as the growing vine upon the trellis-work of meter. […] Rooted in the poet’s words, which give it being and course, it is the diction’s easily perceptible yet elusive product. The march of the syllables, however, is ordered upon the length of the phrase, itself dependent – as is even the tone of voice – upon the movement of the thought and mood” (Shipley 262). Virtuously using it the author achieves paradoxical outcome. Although the poem’s lines are of differing length, and the rhythm often clashes here, the natural stress upon certain syllables in the words brings into harmonious composition which testifies to Kinnel’s greatness. He manipulates this formal element in poetry to the effect to add particular expressiveness to narration.

    In his ‘First Song’ Galway Kinnel uses “the corporeality of words” (Novottny 4) to embody his vision of life. Of the various figures at the service of the poet he ably employs almost all possible ones even in a very short poem. A work of great talent in poetry splits up the “whole prosaic picture of experience to introduce into it a rhythm more congenial and intelligible to the mind” (Santayana 292). This is completely true for Kinnel’s poetic diction which is rich and colorful. It is well-sounding because of the harmony between word and meaning, because of the music in the companionship of the line. It is concise because of the many associations each word leaves as a glowing trail upon the mind, and because it is figurative, building its meaning through images. There is no doubt Kinnel is one of the greatest contemporary American poets who maintains his own freshness in original phrasing while at the same time avoiding inflation, who virtuously operates aural and visual techniques wafting his deep inner world to the reader.

    Works Cited

    Hibbard, Addison, and Holman, C. Hugh, and Thrall, William Flint. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey Press. 1960.

    Lund, Elizabeth. “The Loveliness of Pigs: Galway Kinnell Searches for the Real Beauty”. The Christian Science Monitor Online (25 Oct. 2001). 7 Nov. 2004 <>

    Nowottny, Winifred. The Language Poets Use. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

    Santayana, George. Essays in Literary Criticism. Ed. Irving Singer. New York: Scribner, 1956.

    Shipley, Joseph T. The Quest for Literature: A Survey of Literary Criticism and the Theories of the Literary Forms. New York: R.R. Smith Inc., 1931.

    Wolf, Martin L. Dictionary of the Arts. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951.

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