Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares

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“I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.”
 — Hamlet, I.V

Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares — in the tradition of Howl or The Wasteland — does not so much strike a nerve in the culture (as Eliot and Ginsberg did) as much as it plumbs deep into timeless archetypal motifs of death, madness and the occult. Like Glück’s The Wild Iris, or B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe, Kinnell’s cogent ten-part epic poem serves as an example of a book that holds together as a cohesive and unified work of art. Like Fairchild, Kinnell focuses on a single theme — here, the nightmare realm — and like Glück, he gives this book its staying power by holding to a clear and compelling voice — here, the voice of madness.

By assuming the voice of madness, Kinnell takes us into familiar territory in a strange way. He constantly upsets our sense of balance through moment after moment of poetic strangeness, which compels and propels us forward, a bit like a staggering drunk, into a disturbed and sideways view of the world. Whereas Hoagland believes, “there is truth-telling, and more, in meanness” there is a much older guise through which the truth can evade a reader’s normal defenses: madness. The voice of madness can say what the voice of reason cannot. After all, the speaker is “just crazy” or, as in the case of Shakespeare’s plays, “just the fool.”

Yet it is precisely because this speaker is excused from social constraints that he can deliver a passage as compelling as this one:

(Warning: the passage quoted hereafter contains explicit language.)
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The Perils of Snark

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Meanness in art is cheap and easy. In fact, all forms of meanness, sarcasm and derision, which I call “snark,” attract negative attention just like any other form of sensationalism does. Even more important, there is also a significant danger in snark. It is the danger that comes with equating one’s life and art in a romantic way. Snarky people make snarky art. The problem arises when the art begins to justify the lifestyle.

Galway Kinnell, in his most recent book of poems, gave a brilliant excoriation of what Shelley deemed “radiant desire,” in pursuit of which Shelley left a wake of human wreckage which Kinnell details, lamenting its similarity to his own dabbling in debauchery, in the poem simply titled “Shelley.” Bottom line: the art does not justify the man.

I am not necessarily advocating responsibility in art. I am advocating responsibility in life. Making art is only a subset of human experience; any idealistic notion otherwise is simply narcissistic. Most of the arguments for why being screwed up and snarky does not necessarily make you a better artist run along parallel lines to the argumentation for why using drugs does not necessarily make you a better artist.
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