From the outset of his career, Thomas Kinsella has shown an unremitting preoccupation with large themes. Love, death, time, and various ancillary imponderables are persistently at the forefront of Kinsella’s poetic activity. Such concerns beset all poets, no doubt, as well as all thinking beings. More often than not, Kinsella grapples with these overwhelming subjects without the alleviating disguise of metaphor, and he confronts them without the consolations of philosophy. Their reality consists of the profundity of the poet’s human—and hence, frequently baffled and outraged—experience of them.
Even in Kinsella’s early love lyrics, it is impossible for the poet merely to celebrate the emotion. He cannot view his subject without being aware of its problematical character—its temporariness and changeability. Thus, to identify Kinsella’s themes, while initially informative, may ultimately be misleading. It seems more illuminating to consider his preoccupations, which a reader may label time or death, as zones of the poet’s psychic experience, and to recognize that a Kinsella poem is, typically, an anatomy of psychic experience, a rhetorical reexperiencing, rather than a particularly conclusive recounting. Such a view would seem to be borne out by the forms that his poems typically assume. Their fractured look and inconsistent verse patterns (unavoidably but not imitatively reproducing the prosody of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) suggest an idea still developing. As Kinsella writes in “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench”: “No, it has no practical application./ I am simply trying to understand something/ —states of peace nursed out of wreckage./ The peace of fullness, not emptiness.”
An immediate implication of this approach to poetry is that it owes little or nothing to the poet’s Irish heritage. His concerns are common to all humanity, and while the conspicuous modernism of his technique has, in point of historical fact, some Irish avatars (the unjustly neglected Denis Devlin comes to mind), these are of less significance for a sense of Kinsella’s achievement and development than the manner in which he has availed himself of the whole canon of Anglo-American poetry. In fact, an interesting case could be made for Kinsella’s poetry being an adventitious, promiscuous coalescence of the preoccupations of poets since the dawn of Romanticism. Such a case might well produce the judgment that one of the bases for Kinsella’s general importance to the history of poetry in the postwar period is that his verse is a sustained attempt to inaugurate a post-Romantic poetic that would neither merely debunk its predecessor’s fatal charms (as perhaps Eliot desired to do) nor provide them with a new repertoire of gestures and disguises (which seems to have been Pound’s project). The effect of this judgment would be to place Kinsella in the company of another great Irish anti-Romantic of twentieth century literature, Samuel Beckett.
A more far-reaching implication of Kinsella’s technique is that it provides direct access to the metaphysical core of those preoccupations. Often the access is brutally direct. Throughout, Kinsella repeats the refrain articulated in the opening section of “Nightwalker” (from Nightwalker, and Other Poems): “I only know things seem and are not good.” This line strikes a number of characteristic Kinsella notes. Its unrelieved, declarative immediacy is a feature that becomes increasingly pronounced as his verse matures. There is a sense of the unfitness of things, of evil, of times being out of joint. The speaker is strikingly committed to his subjective view. The line contains a representative Kinsella ambiguity, depending on whether the reader pauses heavily after “seem.” Is “are not good” entailed by, or opposed to, “seem”? Readers familiar with Kinsella will hear the line announce a telltale air of threat and of brooding introspection. There is also, perhaps, a faint suggestion of meditative quest in “Nightwalker,” which occurs in other important Kinsella poems from the 1960’s (such as “Baggot Street Deserta” from Another September, and “A Country Walk” and “Downstream” from Downstream). Such an undertaking, however, is hardly conceived in hope and does not seem to be a quest for which the persona freely and gladly volunteers. Rather, it seems a condition into which he has been haplessly born.
It is not difficult to understand Kinsella’s confession that his vision of human existence is that of “an ordeal.” In fact, given the prevalence in his verse of ignorance, darkness, death, and the unnervingly unpredictable tidal movements of the unconscious—all frequently presented by means of apocalyptic imagery—there is a strong indication that the poet is doing little more than indulging his idea of “ordeal,” despite the prosodic virtuosity and furious verbal tension that make the indulgence seem an authentic act of soul baring. Such an evaluation, however, would be incomplete. Also evident is the poet’s desire to believe in what he has called “the eliciting of order from experience.” Kinsella’s verse is a continuing experiment in the viability of the desire to retain such a belief and a commitment to negotiate the leap of artistic faith that alone is capable of overcoming the abyss of unjustifiable unknowing that is the mortal lot. The possibility of achieving that act of composed and graceful suspension is what keeps Kinsella’s poetry alive and within the realm of the human enterprise.
Although Kinsella’s oeuvre exemplifies, to a dauntingly impressive degree, persistence and commitment in the face of the virtually unspeakable abyss, it has gone through a number of adjustments and modifications. Taken as a whole, therefore, Kinsella’s output may be considered an enlarged version of some of its most outstanding moments, a sophisticated system of themes and variations. In the words of the preface to Wormwood, “It is certain that maturity and peace are to be sought through ordeal after ordeal, and it seems that the search continues until we fail.”
One of the most important adjustments to have occurred in the development of Kinsella’s poetic career is his emergence from largely private, personal experience, primarily of love. His early poems, particularly those collected in Another September and Downstream, seem too often to conceive of experience as the struggle of the will against the force of immutable abstractions. While these poems respect the necessarily tense and tentative character of experience, they seem also to regard mere experience as a pretext for thought. These poems share with Kinsella’s later work the desire to achieve distinctiveness through allegories of possibility. However, their generally tight, conventional forms have the effect of limiting their range of possibilities. In addition, the typical persona of these poems seems himself an abstraction, a man with only a nominal context and without a culture.
By Downstream, such isolation was being questioned. The concluding line of this collection’s title poem—“Searching the darkness for a landing place”—may be taken (although somewhat glibly) as a statement emblematic of much of Kinsella’s early work. However, the collection also contains poems that, while painfully acknowledging the darkness, consider it as an archaeological redoubt. One of the effects of this adjustment is that the poet’s personal past begins to offer redemptive possibilities. In addition, and with more obvious if not necessarily more far-reaching effects, a generalized past, in the form of Irish history, becomes an area of exploration. It is not the case that Kinsella never examined the past prior to Downstream (“King John’s Castle” in Another September is proof to the contrary). Now, however, to the powerful sense of the past’s otherness that “King John’s Castle” conveys is added a sense of personal identification.
The poem in Downstream that demonstrates this development in Kinsella’s range is “A Country Walk.” Here, the persona, typically tense and restless, finds himself alone, explicitly undomesticated, with nothing between him and the legacy of the past discernible in the landscape through which he walks. The poem does not merely testify to the influential gap between present and past (a crucial preoccupation in all modern Irish writing) but also enters into the past with a brisk openness and nonjudgmental tolerance. “A Country Walk” reads like a journey of discovery, all the more so since what is discovered is not subjected to facile glorification. The fact that the past is so securely embedded in the landscape of the poem suggests that history is in the nature of things and that there is as much point in attempting to deny its enduring presence as there is in trying to divert the river which is, throughout the course of the poem, never out of the poet’s sight. The poem ends, appropriately, on a note of continuity: “The inert stirred. Heart and tongue were loosed:/ ’The waters hurtle through the flooded night. . . .’”
If anything, the present is circumvented in “A Country Walk.” To ensure that the reader is aware of this, Kinsella daringly uses echoes of William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to show how antiheroic is contemporary Ireland and to emphasize that the country is still, to paraphrase a line from Yeats’s “September 1913,” fumbling in the greasy till. This moment in “A Country Walk” prefaces the understandable admission “I turned away.” The interlude, however, draws attention to a noteworthy feature of Kinsella’s verse: its satire. From the outset, Kinsella’s work was capable of excoriation. The addition of local, often contemporary, Irish subject matter has created the opportunity for some scalding satirical excursions.
Nightwalker, and Other Poems
Perhaps the most notorious of these sallies is to be found in the long title poem of Nightwalker, and Other Poems, a poem that, in many ways, is an illuminating counterpart to “A Country Walk.” Here, the setting is urban, contemporary Dublin, and the speaker, lacking the briskness of his opposite number in “A Country Walk,” refers to himself as “a vagabond/ Tethered.” The demoralizing spectacle of modern life is the poem’s subject. Nothing is spared. In particular, Kinsella’s years in the civil service are the basis for a damning portrait of national ideals stultified and betrayed. This portrait goes so far as to include figures from Irish public and political life who, although distorted by the poet’s satirical fury, remain eminently recognizable and still occupy the highest positions in the...
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