Wedged between the two other giants of twentieth century Irish poetry, William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella has always assumed a kind of modest stance as an artist. He does not champion specifically Irish causes in the manner of Yeats, nor does he attempt to speak for the common laborers and tillers of the sod in the fashion of Seamus Heaney. Indeed, much of Kinsella’s career has a distinctly non-Irish profile—and even a nonliterary slant. Oddly enough, Kinsella devoted himself to the study of science when he began his university studies, and ultimately he graduated from Dublin College with a degree in public administration, becoming a member of the Irish Civil Service, employed first by the Land Commission and then by the Department of Finance.
Like T. S. Eliot, who worked in a London bank, and Wallace Stevens, who served as a vice president for an insurance company, Thomas Kinsella managed to write his poetry while fully employed in the workaday world. No stranger to the world of business and ordinary work, Kinsella chose to celebrate the professions of urban workers and to describe the streets, parks, and neighborhoods of his beloved Dublin. His sonorous lyrics somehow sprang from the hard cobblestones of this old Irish city.
When not employed by the Irish government, Kinsella also put a great deal of time into translating traditional Gaelic poems (even though his own work is never chauvinistic or mawkishly patriotic). Notable titles in this area include his translation of the bloody Irish epic The Tain (1969) and An Duanaire—An Irish Anthology: Poems of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900 (1980). As if bureaucratic work and translating were not sufficient distractions from his primary vocation of poetry, Kinsella also edited the work of other poets, such as Austin Clarke, whose Selected Poems (1980) is perhaps Kinsella’s most successful editorial enterprise.
So Kinsella’s own poetic output is quite extraordinary, given these severe demands on his time. Between 1956 and 1991, for example, he brought out more than twenty volumes of his own poetry. And, as if to underscore the central place of poetry in Kinsella’s life, many of those poems are concerned with the act of writing itself or with the transcendent quality of metaphors and other figurative language. This preoccupation with the artistic process is evident even in the opening poem of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, which bears the telling title of “Echoes”:
An echo deepens as the past recedes;
Words like swans are swallowed into the reeds
With lapping airs and graces.
Speechless white necks dip in the fugal pause
When streaming images transfigure the dove that was.
Many of these early poems employ a somewhat strange and contorted syntax, one more sign that the poet was experimenting with and testing the limits of language:
Turns again in my room,
The crippled leopard.
Yellow light of his eyes,
Pass, repass, repass.
Somewhat less obliquely—and with a wry sense of humor—Kinsella examines the writer-figure behind the writing process, especially the obligatory roles and poses that the writer must assume:
I wonder whether one expects
Flowing tie or expert sex
Or even absent-mindedness
Of poets any longer. Less
Candour than the average,
Less confidence, a ready rage
Alertness when it comes to beer,
An affectation that their ear,
For music is a little weak
These are the attributes we seek.
Later, in New Poems (1973), Kinsella offers a confessional report of his own writing process, and the reader beholds the poet/editor/translator trying to compose at his kitchen table. “Many a time,” he explains,
I have risen from my gnawed books
and prowled about, wrapped in a long grey robe,
and rubbed my forehead; reached for my instruments
my book propped before me, eaten forkfuls
of scrambled egg and buttered fresh bread
and taken hot tea until the sweat stood out
at the roots of my hair!
In a similar vein, Kinsella writes passionately and melodiously about the traditional theme of love, addressing many love poems to his wife, like the short but effective lyric entitled “Je t’adore”:
The other props are gone.
Sighing in one another’s
Iron arms, propped above...
(The entire section is 1934 words.)