Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Thomas Kinsella was born in Dublin on May 4, 1928. His family background is typical of the vast majority of native Dubliners—Catholic in religious affiliation, left-tending Nationalist in politics and lower-middle class in social standing, the kind of background detailed with such loving despair by one of Kinsella’s favorite authors, James Joyce, in the stories of Dubliners (1914). Kinsella’s father worked at the Guinness brewery and was active in labor union matters.
Educated at local day schools, Kinsella received a scholarship to attend University College, Dublin, to read for a science degree. Before graduation, however, he left to become a member of the Irish civil service, in which he had a successful career as a bureaucrat, rising to the rank of assistant principal officer in the Department of Finance.
Kinsella left the civil service in 1965 to become artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University. In 1970, he was appointed to a professorship of English at Temple University, a position he retained until 1990. In the end, he taught for one semester a year at Temple, spending the rest of the year in Dublin running the Peppercanister Press.
Founded in 1972, Peppercanister is the poet’s private press. It was established, in the poet’s own words, “with the purpose of issuing occasional special items.” As well as being a notable addition to the illustrious private and small tradition of Irish publishing, Peppercanister has allowed Kinsella to produce long poems on single themes and to carry out fascinating exercises in the area of the poetic sequence. It has also allowed him to use it as a work in progress and to avoid using literary magazines to bring out new poems. He also has used it for critical and cultural statements in prose.
In 1976, Kinsella founded Temple University’s School of Irish Tradition in Dublin, enabling him to continue dividing his time between the United States and Ireland. Since his retirement from teaching in 1990, he has continued his direction of Peppercanister Press, as well as the Dolmen and Cuala Presses, both in Dublin. He established a pattern of living part of the year in County Wicklow and the rest in Philadelphia.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The generous international critical response that contemporary Irish poetry has received tends to overlook the poetry of Thomas Kinsella. Yet his body of work has provided a prosodic and cultural yardstick against which the poetry of his Irish contemporaries may be measured. He is a native Dubliner, and his devotion to Dublin’s cityscape and to the people of its core has a central significance in his poetry, charting a heartfelt terrain marked by the depredations of time and the callousness of power but also graced by fidelity and persistence.
Kinsella’s attachment to Dublin, which has performed the important cultural duty of keeping the city on the country’s poetic map, functions both as homage and critique. The homage has its source in the city life of his childhood—his father, memorably commemorated in the long poem “The Messenger,” worked at the Guinness brewery. Kinsella attended University College, Dublin, and subsequently had a successful career in the Irish civil service. His critique of contemporary Dublin—“Nightwalker” is a particularly powerful instance—derives in part from his civil service years.
In 1958, Kinsella married Eleanor Walsh, with whom he would have three children. In 1965, he left the civil service and accepted a teaching position at the University of Southern Illinois. A consolidation of the reputation established by his early work quickly ensued with such collections as Wormwood and Nightwalker, and Other Poems. These books throw into starker relief the agonistic Kinsella inscribed in the personae of the early poems. These personae represent at once the most challenging and the most familiar aspects of Kinsella’s poetry. They articulate a fretful, restless, rootless state of mind, replete with existential anguish and deprived of a culture or value system that might alleviate it—as, for example, in “Baggot Street Deserta” and “A Country Walk.”
Kinsella left Southern Illinois in 1970 to take up a...
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