This poem was published, along with several other well-loved animal poems, in Body Rags in 1968. This was also the collection that brought Kinnell’s verse into the public spotlight. ‘The Bear’ is the last poem in the collection. Throughout, the poet uses Eskimo hunting practices as the model his speaker follows.
When speaking about ‘The Bear,’ and specifically the last line of the poem, the poet noted that:
It occurred to me that that is the ‘poetry’ in our lives; whatever allows us to flourish, that is the poetry.
Interestingly, one of the most common interpretations of this piece is as an allegory for the creative process. This was something that Kinnell never intended. He spoke about this fact using the following lines:
The idea that that poem was about the creative process never occurred to me until later, when I heard some people say that it might be. […] the hunter was the mental person and the bear was the body and the unconscious, that when they came together then the poem was possible. He made it very persuasive to me, so that I see that it’s one thing the poem must mean. But when I wrote “that poetry, by which I lived,” I didn’t have in mind at all the poetry which is written down on pages. I was thinking rather of poetry in another sense.
It is poetry as an experience in the real world and the feeling or sense of spiritual nourishment that the poem initially meant in the author’s mind. But, it will be up to readers to come to their own conclusions in regard to what the bear, the hunt, and the hunter’s transformation represent.
Explore The Bear
‘The Bear’ by Galway Kinnell is an incredibly powerful poem that depicts a hunter’s spiritual transformation.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker describes setting a creative and deadly trap for a bear. He’s a solitary hunter who freezes a sharpened wolf bone in a piece of blubber. After the bear eats it, he follows the creature across the frozen planes of his landscape, suffering as his prey does. The hunter begins to starve and turns to a terrible and unusual source of food in order to survive.
Finally, the bear dies, and he’s able to eat from its corpse. He climbs inside to take shelter from the wind. The hunter dreams of living life as the bear did and experiencing his own death. The poem concludes with a hunter waking up and feeling unsure whether or not he is still dreaming. He maintains some of the attributes of a bear and some of a man, meditating on the nature of life.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘The Bear,’ the poet engages with several themes. These include spiritual transformation and nature. The poet ensures that the spiritual transformation that the hunter undergoes becomes the most important part of this poem. The final sections are focused on the hunter’s dream after killing the bear and how he experiences the world once he wakes up. Attributes that one would typically assign to the bear he had been hunting are now those that he finds himself exhibiting. He wanders the world, wondering about his life and its defining force.
The poet spends the vast majority of the poem emphasizing the brutality and beauty of the natural world. Although the hunter and the bear suffer a great deal throughout the seven sections of this piece, their struggle speaks to life and death in a powerful way. The hunter respects the bear enough to follow him across vast landscapes for seven days, sleeping where he sleeps and walking as he walks. The two are engaged in an intense struggle, one that reaches a spiritual level after the bear dies and the hunter begins to take on his attributes.
Structure and Form
‘The Bear’ by Galway Kinnell is a ninety-four-line poem divided into seven sections of different lengths. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a set rhyme scheme or conform to a metrical pattern. They range in length from two words up to ten. The poem is divided into seven parts, some of which are only one stanza long; others are two, three, or more. The final stanza is also the seventh part of the poem. It is the longest single stanza of the text, reaching seventeen lines.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “and” starts two lines in the first stanza of Part II and lines within the other stanzas of the same section. The first stanza of the poem also uses “and” at the beginning of three lines in a row. Additionally, at the end of the poem, the poet uses “the next” three times.
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet places two contrasting or different ideas or images next to one another. For example, the image of death next to the image of pansies outside the window.
- Allegory: is a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme. The speaker’s pursuit of the bear and his struggle in the snow, then the later nourishment gained from the bear’s corpse, is an allegory for creating poetry.
- Zoomorphism: occurs at the end of the poem when the speaker sees himself as the bear he’s been hunting.
In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker, an Eskimo hunter, describes traveling through the winter landscape and finding evidence of a bear. The hunter operates smoothly and effectively in this environment. He knows exactly what to look for, and when he finds it, he does not hesitate to take action.
The smell of the bear is both “chilly” and “enduring” it is something he’s very familiar with and that he knows should make him feel some concern. He has to be careful with the actions he takes.
I take a wolf’s rib and whittle
on the fairway of the bears.
In the second part of the poem, the poet describes his speaker finding a wolf’s rib, whittling it to a sharp point, and freezing it in fat. He places it out in the open, where he knows bears travel. It’s his intention that the bear will eat the frozen fat and, as it melts, be pierced by the frozen wolf bone inside.
This incredibly clever yet primitive hunting practice allows the hunter to remain on the same level playing field as the bear. To use a weapon outside the bear’s natural domain would be to violate the world they share.
The phrase “fairway of the bears” is a beautiful one. It is also a great example of personification, suggesting that there are certain places in the woods or in the snowy plains where bears travel, as if on roads. This allows readers to imagine how this series of events could play out repeatedly.
And when it has vanished
splash on the earth.
The hunter keeps tabs on his frozen weapon, and when he notices that it’s vanished, he moves out onto the fairway of the bears and follows the tracks. First, they roam in circles, and finally, he finds the first spot of blood or “dark / splash” on the earth. The hunter is not desperate in his movements nor does he belittle his prey. The hunt is not over, and he knows it. There is still a long way to go and a great deal to learn.
And I set out
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.
In the third stanza of the poem’s second part, the hunter describes following the splashes “wandering over the world.” This is a wonderful example of hyperbole. Meaning, it is an intentional exaggeration meant to emphasize the speaker’s point. By using this phrase, the hunter alludes to the long chase he endured. He followed the bear wherever it went, walking long distances that felt as though he was traversing the entire planet.
The hunter also notes how he remained intimately connected to the bear. He walked as the bear did, slept, ate, and struggled as his dying prey did. The best example is described in detail. He depicts himself crawling on the ice, as the bear did, and dragging himself forward with “bear-knives in my fists.” This is a brutal image and just one of several that conveys the effort the hunter puts into finding his prey and hunting it in a method he feels is respectful.
On the third day I begin to starve,
and go on running.
The third part of the poem is only one stanza long. Here, the hunter notes that in his long pursuit of the bear, he began to starve. He traveled as the bear traveled, and if the bear ate and there was food available, he ate. Eventually, he got desperate. So much so that he bent down, picked up a quote turd soft and blood” from the bear, and thrust it into his mouth.
The stanza contains wonderful examples of imagery. The poet uses words like “hesitate,” “thrust,” “gnash” and “rise” to describe the hunter’s initial unwillingness to turn to the bear’s droppings as a source of food and then his desperate consumption of this demeaning meal. He continues after the bear, rising from his meal and running. Here, the use of alliteration ensures that readers recognize the amount of effort the hunter put forth to finally catch his prey.
Stanzas One and Two
On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
perhaps the first taint of me as he
At the beginning of the fourth part of the poem, the hunter announces that he has been following the bear for seven days. On the seventh day, living only on the drops of blood the bear sheds as it walks, the hunter is in a desperate state. He’s nourished only by that which his prey leaves behind, and he follows it consistently. Soon, seemingly near death, he notes the bear’s “upturned carcass” out ahead. The bear, also starved, is only a “scraggled” hulk of what it used to be.
The hunter walks to the bear and spends the next few lines describing its “petty eyes,” “dismayed / face” and flared nostrils. It has suffered as he has, and, he thinks, the bear may have smelled the hunter and noted his presence as it died. The two were connected in these last moments (something that is extended exponentially in the next lines).
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
Using an example of anaphora, the poet describes the hunter in clear language, cutting open the bear’s body, eating, drinking, and climbing inside the carcass. He utilizes the bear’s body to escape the terrible, cold wind he’s been suffering from for the last seven days. The bear provides him, at that moment, with everything he needs to survive. His entire world centers around this one creature.
For what feels like the first time in the last week, the hunter is able to sleep full, warm, and feeling as though he’s safe. After the long focus on the hunter’s suffering, his escape from his pain is a welcome relief to the reader as well. The final line of this stanza is two words long: “and sleep.” It emphasizes how exhausted the hunter was and how much he needed a reprieve from his long hunt. The transition into the fifth part of the poem is direct. It begins with another two-word line.
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.
Now, as the hunter sleeps, he also dreams. He imagines himself as the bear, lumbering over the tundra suffering from stab wounds inside his body. He splatters blood behind him no matter which way he goes and is constantly seeking out solitude. But, he continues to suffer. Gravity pulls him to the ground, and no matter where he goes, he can’t get away from the pain inside his body. It is all-consuming (as is the hunter’s connection with the bear).
These lines emphasize the mystery that’s at the heart of this poem. The hunter’s dream transformation into a bear (and his later adoption of bear characteristics in his real life) evokes the beauty of engaging with the natural world, even when that engagement is dark and life-threatening.
When Kinnell wrote this poem, he intended to depict the hunter as a man on a spiritual journey, one that ends with him feeling far more connected to his prey than he intended. He identifies with the animal beyond death and is invigorated by it (something that Kinnell relates to the poetry of life). But, as noted above, many readers have expanded on what Kinnell intended and found the story of the bear’s death and the hunter’s spiritual rebirth to be akin to the process of creating poetry.
Until one day I totter and fall—
fall on this
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,
The hunter describes dying in the body of the bear (as the bear of this specific poem did) in the sixth part of the poem. It is, again, entirely out of his control. His stomach tried hard to keep up, digest the blood and the bone, but now, the breeze blurs over his bear body, and he smells the “ill digested bear blood” and “rotted stomach.” These are the “ordinary, wretched odor of bear.” The use of the word ordinary in these lines is a striking use of juxtaposition.
There is, likely for most readers, nothing ordinary about the hunter’s experience with this bear and his dream experiences in the bear’s body. This juxtaposition suggests that incredible spiritual experiences like this one are intimately connected with the real-life, common mysteries of the natural world.
and dance. And I lie still.
The hunter, still within the bear’s body, describes how the wind moved across his tongue and inspired him, in connection with the rest of the natural world, to rise up and dance. But, his body would not allow it, and he lies still. Even in this much-diminished state, the bear feels the pull of the world’s forces. The interconnectivity between all elements on earth still rages through the wind in “a song / or screech” (another example of juxtaposition that alludes to the balance of beauty/terror in nature).
I awaken I think. Marshlights
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?
The poem’s final stanza is the longest single stanza of the piece. The hunter describes waking up from his dream or believing he’s woken up. When he does rise, he feels transformed. The world around him is again filled with life. He sees “under old snow the dam-bear” licking “lumps of smeared fur” and the geese moving up the flyway.
The hunter believes he’s awake. But, the following lines suggest that he has spiritually merged with the bear he killed in an unavoidable and eternal way. He charges forward as the injured bear walks into the next day and the next. He spends the rest of his days wandering, as the bear did, and wondering, as a man does, about the nature of his life.
The poem ends with a somewhat surprising turn as the hunter, part man and now part bear, expresses confusion and admiration for the “poetry, by which” he lived. He compares the “sticky infusion” and “rank flavor” of the blood he drank/ate (the source of nourishment he gained from the bear in his most desperate moments) to the poetry by which he lived.
Here, the poet is speaking about the elements of life that nourish one’s soul and provide spiritual comfort. They are the poetic elements of life.
The purpose is to explore humankind’s connection to the natural world, emphasize the beauty and power of nature, and convey an intense spiritual connection, seen through comparing the nourishing blood of the bear to the life poetry by which one lives.
‘The Bear’ is about a spiritual journey undertaken by a hunter who suffers while pursuing a bear. He suffers along with his prey and, in the end, takes on attributes of the bear’s life.
This poem was likely written sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was published in 1968 in one of Kinnell’s best-known collections of poems, Body Rags.
The speaker is a hunter, commonly considered to be Eskimo, who is pursuing a bear across “the world.” He suffers as the bear suffers and eventually takes on the bear’s attributes.
The ending is one of the more confusing parts of the ninety-four-line piece. The poet is alluding to the poetry of everyday life, that which brings one nourishment, as the bear’s blood and body nourished the hunter in his most desperate moments. The poet is alluding to the hunter’s contemplation of the nature of his life as a man and what he has learned by adopting bear-like qualities.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some other Galway Kinnell poems. For example:
- ‘Saint Francis and the Sow’ – explores the spiritual beauty inside each creature that is needed to be retaught and retouched for spiritual growth.
- ‘After Making Love We Hear Footsteps’ – is a beautiful poem about parenthood and love. This piece presents a familiar scene that often occurs in a married couple’s life.