Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares

“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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