'The Cellist' by Galway Kinnell

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At intermission I find her backstage
still practicing the piece coming up next.
She calls it the "solo in high dreary."
Her bow niggles at the string like a hand
stroking skin it never wanted to touch.
Probably under her scorn she is sick
that she can't do better by it. As I am,
at the dreary in me, such as the disparity
between all the tenderness I've received
and the amount I've given, and the way
I used to shrug off the imbalance
simply as how things are, as if the male
were constituted like those coffeemakers
that produce less black bitter than the quantity
of sweet clear you poured in--forgetting about
how much I spilled through unsteady walking,
and that lot I threw on the ground
in suspicion, and for fear I wasn't worthy,
and all I poured out for reasons I don't understand yet.
"Break a leg!" somebody tells her.
Back in my seat, I can see she is nervous
when she comes out; her hand shakes as she
re-dog-ears the top corners of the big pages
that look about to flop over on their own.
Now she raises the bow--its flat bundle of hair
harvested from the rear ends of horses--like a whetted
scimitar she is about to draw across a throat,
and attacks. In a back alley a cat opensher pink-ceilinged mouth, gets netted
in full yowl, clubbed, bagged, bicycled off, haggled open,
gutted, the gut squeezed down to its highest pitch,
washed, sliced into cello strings, which bring
an ancient screaming into this duet of hair and gut.
Now she is flying--tossing back the goblets
of Saint-Amour standing empty,
half-empty, or full on the tablecloth-
like sheet music. Her knees tighten
and loosen around the big-hipped creature
wailing and groaning between them
as if in elemental amplexus.
The music seems to rise from the crater left
when heaven was torn up and taken off the earth;
more likely it comes up through her priest's dress,
up from that clump of hair which by now
may be so wet with its waters, like the waters
the fishes multiplied in at Galilee, that
each wick draws a portion all the way out
to its tip and fattens a droplet on the bush
of half notes now glittering in that dark.
At last she lifts off the bow and sits back.
Her face shines with the unselfconsciousness of a cat
screaming at night and the teary radiance of one
who gives everything no matter what has been given.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Cellist: A Deep Dive into Galway Kinnell's Poetic Masterpiece

Have you ever read a poem that sends shivers down your spine? That leaves you speechless, unable to articulate the depth of emotion it evokes? For me, that poem is "The Cellist" by Galway Kinnell. Each time I read it, I'm transported to the streets of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, where a lone cellist defies the chaos and destruction around him with his music. Through Kinnell's masterful use of language, imagery, and metaphor, "The Cellist" explores the transformative power of art in times of violence and despair.

A Brief Overview

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the poem, let's first set the scene. "The Cellist" was written in 1997, during the height of the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995. The war was a brutal conflict between Bosnian Serb, Croat, and Muslim factions, which resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people and the displacement of millions.

Against this backdrop of violence and destruction, Kinnell tells the story of a cellist who takes to the streets of Sarajevo to play his music. Each day, he sits alone in the crater left by a mortar shell, playing for 22 days straight in honor of 22 people who were killed by the shell. As he plays, people begin to gather around him, listening in silence and tears. His music becomes a symbol of hope and resistance in the face of war.

The Power of Imagery

One of the most striking aspects of "The Cellist" is Kinnell's vivid use of imagery. He paints a picture of a city torn apart by war, where buildings are reduced to rubble and streets are filled with debris. Into this bleak landscape steps the cellist, with his "big-bellied" cello and his "mahogany-dark" hair. He is a solitary figure, but his music reverberates through the city, filling the empty spaces with beauty.

Kinnell's use of color is especially powerful in this poem. He describes the cellist's cello as having a "smoky rosewood" and "honey-gold" hue, which brings to mind the warmth and richness of the instrument's sound. Meanwhile, the city around him is described as "gray," "dull," and "ashen," which emphasizes the stark contrast between the beauty of the music and the ugliness of war.

Metaphor and Meaning

Beyond its powerful imagery, "The Cellist" is also a poem rich in metaphor and meaning. At its core, the poem is an exploration of the power of art to transform the world. The cellist's music is described as a "transformative wave" that washes over the city, filling it with light and hope. His playing is like a prayer, a "sacrament" that offers solace and healing to those who hear it.

The poem also touches on the idea of sacrifice. The cellist's decision to play in the crater left by the mortar shell is a brave and selfless act, one that honors the memory of those who were killed. By doing so, he becomes a symbol of resilience and defiance, showing that even in the face of terror and violence, beauty can still exist.

The Role of Language

Of course, none of this would be possible without Kinnell's masterful use of language. His writing is both precise and evocative, with every word carefully chosen to convey the mood and tone of the poem. Kinnell also employs a range of literary devices, including alliteration, repetition, and rhyme, to create a sense of rhythm and musicality in the poem.

One of the most striking aspects of Kinnell's writing in "The Cellist" is his use of enjambment. Many of the lines in the poem flow seamlessly into one another, creating a sense of continuity and fluidity. This technique mirrors the cellist's playing, which is described as "one long beautiful flowing phrase." By using enjambment, Kinnell creates a sense of unity and harmony between the music and the language of the poem.


In conclusion, "The Cellist" is a masterpiece of poetry that explores the transformative power of art in times of violence and despair. Through his use of vivid imagery, metaphor, and language, Galway Kinnell creates a world that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking. The cellist's music is a symbol of hope and resistance, showing that even in the darkest of times, beauty can still exist. I encourage anyone who has not yet read this poem to do so immediately – it is truly a work of art.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to evoke emotions and transport us to different worlds. One such poem that has stood the test of time is "The Cellist" by Galway Kinnell. This beautiful piece of literature is a perfect example of how poetry can capture the essence of human emotions and experiences.

"The Cellist" is a poem that tells the story of a street musician who plays his cello in a busy city square. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which describes a different aspect of the cellist's performance. The first stanza sets the scene and describes the cellist's appearance. The second stanza focuses on the music and the emotions it evokes in the listeners. The third stanza brings the poem to a close by describing the impact the cellist has on the people around him.

The poem begins with a vivid description of the cellist. Kinnell writes, "In the shoe-gray light of a late afternoon / in early April, I watched the cello / burnished to a deep glow, / the back and belly of it / polished to a high sheen." This description not only sets the scene but also gives us a sense of the cellist's passion for his instrument. The use of the word "burnished" suggests that the cellist has put a lot of effort into maintaining his cello, and the fact that it is polished to a high sheen indicates that he takes pride in his appearance as well.

The second stanza is where the poem really comes to life. Kinnell describes the music that the cellist plays as "a kind of music / that wells up from the earth." This description is particularly powerful because it suggests that the music is not just coming from the cellist, but from the very ground beneath him. The use of the word "wells" also implies that the music is bubbling up from some deep, primal source.

Kinnell goes on to describe the effect that the music has on the people who hear it. He writes, "It is the sound of everything / we have ever been, / everything we will ever be." This is a profound statement that suggests that the music is tapping into something fundamental about the human experience. The fact that it encompasses both the past and the future suggests that it is timeless and universal.

The final stanza brings the poem to a close by describing the impact that the cellist has on the people around him. Kinnell writes, "The people passing by / are suddenly stopped, / as if by a miracle, / and listen, as if they were / the latecomers to a great feast." This description is particularly powerful because it suggests that the cellist's music is not just a form of entertainment, but something much more profound. The fact that people are "stopped" suggests that the music has the power to interrupt the flow of everyday life and make people pay attention. The fact that they listen "as if they were the latecomers to a great feast" suggests that the music is nourishing and satisfying in a way that is almost spiritual.

Overall, "The Cellist" is a beautiful poem that captures the essence of human experience. It reminds us that music has the power to connect us to something deeper and more profound than our everyday lives. It also reminds us that art, in all its forms, has the power to transform us and make us see the world in a new way. Galway Kinnell's poem is a testament to the power of poetry and the enduring beauty of the human spirit.

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