Three Lines from "Dear Stranger Extant in Memory by the Blue Juniata" by Galway Kinnell

I've dogeared one page in my copy of Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares just so I can find my way back to these three lines I treasure:

Can it ever be true—
all bodies, one body, one light
made of everyone's darkness together?

How does a poet make a phrase interesting? This is entirely a question of the poet's craft, the things a writer says yes or no to to create a quality product.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with technicalities.

The lines expand gracefully in length: six syllables in the first, eight in the second, ten in the last. It's visually elegant. Letters and punctuation accumulate gradually to give a feeling of order and conclusiveness despite the ending question mark.

Over only sixteen words Kinnell paints with a wide range of vowel sounds: Can, all / dark- / bodies / body, made, ever / every-, be, it, light, one / of / -one's, to- / true. Feel those sounds resonate in your mouth and in your throat. It's refreshing.

Likewise there's a great variety of consonants, from the initial velar plosive "Can" to the labial-dental rhythm of "bodies"/"body" to the endlessly repeatable "darkness together". "Darkness together": feel the sound move from the front of your mouth to the back, popping on the "d" and the "g". Feel your tongue slide pull back in your mouth when you say "-ther".

(If you're not familiar with phonological terms there's a very handy chart in the Wikipedia article for English phonology.)


Most of a poem's attractiveness, for me, comes down to how it feels in my mouth. But what about the philosophical or spiritual content? Technical proficiency is what it takes to get my attention: now I need the poet to use that privileged position for some good end.

And really, I'm less sure about the spiritual value of these lines than I am of their technical quality. I like their irrationality:

...one light / made of everyone's darkness together?

Rationally speaking, light cannot be made of darkness. A thing cannot be composed of its opposite. Nor can all bodies be one body. So I guess the answer to the poetic speaker's question is a solid No.

So what's the use of asking in the first place? If the question contains its own answer — goes out of its way to provide evidence against itself — what's the use of writing it down? Is it just nonsense?

Well, yes, of course its nonsense. But then nonsense is a powerful and important thing. Poetry can explore the crucial ground between the writable and the readable. A poet can write for the imagination what cannot be read by reason. In encountering the impossible we see the real boundaries of possibility. By making us feel unfamiliar in language we see more clearly that illusive boundary where our fabricated reality ends and existence begins.


Then again maybe it can be true, from a certain point of view. When are all bodies one body? When is light actually a form of darkness?

In dreams, of course.

In dreams all bodies are the body of the dreamer. In dreams light isn't even light but an illusion made from the darkness of sleep. The dream the self made visible, darkness made visible.

Is Kinnell alluding to Paradise Lost here, to the famous scene in which Satan surveys hell for the first time?

At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd.

Perhaps in the nightmare of total-self that is dreaming Kinnell's vision is possible. Can it ever be true? Yes, it can.


If I were really interested in getting down to the bottom of what these three lines mean then the obvious thing to do would be to read them in the context of the full poem.

But I don't like the rest of the poem.

Nothing against Galway Kinnell. His poetry just doesn't do much for me. For me, probably for the rest of my life, these lines of Kinnell's will just remain a bit of gorgeous nonsense that I return to every few years. I'll think about them for a little while and then put them back on the shelf. They're a playroom for my imagination. That's all.

And that's OK. Not all poems need to be all things to all people. As readers and as writers it's important to remember that we can love things in part, that we can take joy and strength and wisdom from the little bit of good in something we find otherwise unremarkable.

The world is big and life is short: love creatively.