Kinsella, Thomas (Vol. 135)
Thomas Kinsella 1928-
Irish poet, translator, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Kinsella's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 19.
Initially recognized by critics for his technical virtuosity—and later for his challenging forays into personal consciousness and Irish identity—Kinsella is one of the most respected Irish poets of his generation. Kinsella established a unique position among young poets who, during the period following World War II, contributed toward bringing new life to the static world of Irish poetry at the time. Since the beginning of his career, Kinsella's poetry has been distinguished both by its technical strength and by subject matter. Although his technique has altered considerably over the years, moving from a preference for carefully ordered structures to a rejection of traditional forms, Kinsella's themes have remained constant: love, death, and the creative act. While other poets have been concerned with similar topics, critics argue that Kinsella's poems stand apart through the originality of their perspective; his work reveals a poet intent on depicting a world in which love, death, and art face eventual loss and destruction.
Kinsella was born in Dublin on May 4, 1928. His father, a brewery worker, was a socialist and member of the Labour party and the Left Book Club. Kinsella attended University College, Dublin, through a series of grants and scholarships. At first he studied physics and chemistry, later turning to a degree in public administration. Kinsella joined the Irish civil service in 1946. Following his time at the university, Kinsella formed relationships with Eleanor Walsh, whom he married in 1955, and with Sean Oriada, who became Ireland's leading musician and exerted a great influence on Kinsella's developing intellectual life. In 1952, after having written poetry for some years, Kinsella met Liam Miller, founder of the Dolmen Press. Over the next few years, Miller published several poems by Kinsella and the poet began working as a director of the press, which published Kinsella's first major collection, Another September in 1958. This volume and Moralities (1960), a sequence of short lyrics, garnered attention in the United States. Atheneum published Kinsella's Poems and Translations (1961) as part of a series of writings by younger British and Irish poets. While continuing to work for Ireland's finance department, Kinsella wrote enough verse to form another collection, Downstream (1962). A year after Downstream's publication, Kinsella was able to take an entire year's absence from his position as assistant principal officer to concentrate on poetry. In 1965 Kinsella accepted an invitation to serve as poet in residence at Southern Illinois University. By then considered Ireland's leading young poet, he became a professor of English at Southern Illinois. Kinsella later published Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968) and The Táin (1970), his translation of an Old Irish saga. In 1971 he accepted a position as professor of English at Temple University, where he taught for almost twenty years. Kinsella established the Peppercanister Press out of his Dublin home in 1972. The main purpose of the press was to publish limited printings of his works in progress. Butcher's Dozen (1972) was the press' first production; the following year it released Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973). 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 then, Kinsella has released several other books, including Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978 (1979), The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), Personal Places (1990), and Poems from Centre City (1990).
Kinsella's interest in the themes of love, death, and art are made specific in his poetry by his attention to describing people, places, and objects. His first major collection, Another September, is varied in its range—not uncommon for a first collection. The book includes love poems, meditative works on various individuals, and considerations on life and death. Among the better-known works in the volume is “Baggot Street Deserta,” which, set in nocturnal Dublin (one of Kinsella's favorite backdrops) and concerned with the loss inherent in life, declares that one must “endure and let the present punish.” Kinsella's preoccupation with isolation and loss frequently results in efforts to establish order. The poet approaches order, particularly in his earlier writings, through both subject matter and poetic structure. In Another September, the quest for order against a background of loss is explored in the potential of love as well as in that of traditional institutions. However, Kinsella's strongest manner of seeking order involves poetic technique, whereby order is created through traditional structure. Downstream contains five poems previously published in Moralities. These short lyrics, dealing with love, death, faith, and song, are surrounded by poems that deal with phenomena and the choices made by different characters. “Old Harry,” the title of which perhaps refers to the devil, examines the morality of Harry Truman's decision to unleash atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book's title poem, among the earliest of Kinsella's so-called “journey poems,” further develops his interest in order, particularly the potential order found in nature. Involving violence and loss, “Downstream” tells of a seeker's quest to find “ancient Durrow,” a center of learning and devotion; the downstream direction of the journey indicates the certainty of death. The first group of poems in Nightwalker and Other Poems present a more concrete descriptive approach. Including “Office for the Dead” and “Museum,” these poems reflect the poet's continuing preoccupation with the certainty of loss. Nightwalker and Other Poems also contains two long meditative poems: the title poem and “Phoenix Park.” Resembling “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” by T. S. Eliot, “Nightwalker” employs a poet-wanderer who, with his mind under the influence of the moon, considers the modern profanation of art and religion as well as the dismal state of contemporary Irish politics. Named after Dublin's largest park, “Phoenix Park” involves a couple who, about to leave the city, pass various places that have held meaning for them, in the process creating a force to overcome loss. Two other works from the early 1970s confront loss in even more concrete terms: Butcher's Dozen is a response to the killings of thirteen Irish civil-rights marchers by British paratroopers in 1972, and A Selected Life (1972) considers the death of Kinsella's close friend, the Irish musician Sean Oriada. Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems explores the female principle as a creative component of the poet and also reflects Kinsella's interest in psychoanalyst C. G. Jung's ideas on destruction and creation. Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978, contains several poems concerned with the poet's relationship to Ireland. Included in the collection is One (1974), in which Kinsella uses the Jungian concept of a common memory to explore his Irish legacy. Personal Places and Poems from Centre City reveal Kinsella's views on the importance of personal experience and consider his life in Dublin.
Critics have interpreted Kinsella's poetry as seeking to confront a reality of isolation and loss, particularly in the context of Irish cultural history and the postwar Irish poet's struggle to forge a unique artistic identity in the long shadow of Irish luminaries W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Kinsella's interest in the literary history of Ireland, particularly the Gaelic verse which he translated in The Táin and An Duanaire (1981), has also earned him respect as a proponent for the recovery of a distinctly Irish—as opposed to Anglo-Irish—culture. As many commentators note, Kinsella's perpetually evolving poetry—marked by frequent revisions and divergent stylistic approaches—is best understood as a continuous lifework, often compared to Ezra Pound's Cantos. While his early volumes won acclaim for their well-crafted elegance, his later volumes are noted for their increasing complexity and interior explorations of the psyche. Downstream was noted for its development of new structural techniques to confront its concerns. Greeted enthusiastically by most reviewers, Nightwalker and Other Poems demonstrates important developments in Kinsella's approach to poetic structure, including a virtually complete abandonment of rhyme. In Notes from the Land of the Dead, the poet seemed to have broken away from his earlier, structurally ordered poems. In this volume, Kinsella traded syntax and complete phrases for fragments, a technique suited to the imagery of dreams and to poems displaying increased ambiguity of meaning. While some critics had earlier faulted Kinsella's technique, critical consternation concerning his style became even more apparent with Notes from the Land of the Dead. With this book, some reviewers were dismayed by the level of difficulty and obscurity of the writing. Such complaining, however, tended to be the minority opinion regarding Kinsella's poetry; the complexity of his verse is viewed as highly suited to the sophistication of his themes and imagery.
The Starlit Eye (poetry) 1952
Three Legendary Sonnets (poetry) 1952
Per Imaginem (poetry) 1953
The Breastplate of Saint Patrick [translator; republished as Faeth Fiadha: The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,1957] (poetry) 1954
Longes mac n'Usnig, Being The Exile and Death of the Sons of Usnech [translator] (poetry) 1954
Thirty Three Triads, Translated from the XII Century Irish [translator] (poetry) 1955
Death of a Queen (poetry) 1956
Poems (poetry) 1956
Another September (poetry) 1958
Moralities (poetry) 1960
Poems and Translations (poetry) 1961
Downstream (poetry) 1962
Wormwood (poetry) 1966
Nightwalker (poetry) 1967
Nightwalker and Other Poems (poetry) 1968
Poems [with Douglas Livingstone and Anne Sexton] (poetry) 1968
Tear (poetry) 1969
The Táin [translator] (poetry) 1970
Finistere (poetry) 1971
Butcher's Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery (poetry) 1972
Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (poetry) 1973
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SOURCE: “Thomas Kinsella,” in The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets, edited by Peter Orr, Barnes and Noble, 1966, pp. 105-9.
[In the following interview, originally conducted 24 September 1962, Kinsella discusses his beginnings as a poet, his thematic concerns and literary influences, and the process of artistic creation.]
[Orr]: Mr. Kinsella, can you recall whatstarted you writing poetry? Was there any one thing?
[Kinsella]: No thing: one slight feeling of curiosity to see whether the thing could actually be done. The system of education under which I laboured for most of my adolescence never suggested to me that the writing of poetry was a human activity. Poetry was a literary product. We didn’t understand that human beings in the ordinary course of their lives produced this. It existed in textbooks and it was there to be explored. It struck me as being an interesting experiment to see if I, personally, could produce anything which could pass for a poem. I tried a sonnet and I succeeded in making one with strict rhymes and iambic pentameter lines and so on. It was quite some time after that before the possibility of continuing to write verse entered my mind. I think it was meeting the particular woman whom I eventually married that got me seriously writing love poetry, which was the first poetry I now regard as valid.
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SOURCE: “Thomas Kinsella: An Anecdote and Some Reflections,” in The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, edited by Ronald Schleifer, Pilgrim Books, 1979, pp. 179-87.
[In the following essay, Kenner discusses the problem of assessing Kinsella's self-styled verse in light of Yeats's daunting influence and the self-consciousness of modern Irish poets.]
To have been born in 1928, the year Yeats published The Tower, would seem a destiny heavy enough for any Irish poet. Thomas Kinsella passed his young manhood moreover in what he has called “those flat years in Ireland at the beginning of the 1950’s, depressed so thoroughly that one scarcely noticed it.” Still, he managed to start publishing poems as early as 1952, and by 1978 had accumulated a respectable two-volume oeuvre (Poems 1956–1973, and Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978) for Wake Forest to publish in the U.S. At Wake Forest they thought an Introduction appropriate. Would I write it?
Not being familiar with Kinsella’s work, I replied that I would have to see what I was introducing; I would give it a try and see if I felt positive. The books were sent. Letters and phone calls ensued, and a visit from a Wake Forest academic, who divulged that Kinsella himself was nervous about what he feared might be an adverse “review.” I adduced the difference between a review and an...
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SOURCE: “Breaking The Shell of Solitude: Some Poems of Thomas Kinsella,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 80-92.
[In the following essay, Broder examines the transition in Kinsella's poetry away from preoccupations with intellectual knowledge and rational order in favor of new explorations of emotional knowledge, introspection, and open-ended complexity.]
Not long ago Thomas Kinsella, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall. There the analogy ends, however; for Kinsella’s fall, described in Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973),1 does not leave him irretrievably shattered. Though he says, in the book’s first poem, “in my shell of solitude … I fell foul at the last / and broke in a distress of gilt and silver,” the poem concludes with a symbol that resembles, not a shattered egg, but one almost entirely whole. This is a challenging image; and a look at some earlier works will help to show how he arrives at it.
Kinsella’s Notes and two newer books, One (1974) and A Technical Supplement (1976), exhibit what seems almost an explosive new vigor in dealing with his themes. Without loss of control, the poems in these books are less aloof, though Kinsella has been, at times, so objective as almost to repel. He is more involved, willing to take greater risks and to push harder for self-knowledge. Tension is...
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SOURCE: “A Response to Hugh Kenner: Kinsella's Magnanimity and Mean Reading,” in Genre: A Quarterly Devoted to Generic Criticism, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 531-7.
[In the following essay, Johnston defends the depth and dynamics of Kinsella's verse—and Kinsella's place in modern Irish poetry—in response to an unflattering critique of Kinsella's work by critic Hugh Kenner.]
If you consult Hugh Kenner’s stillborn preface to Thomas Kinsella’s Poems 1956–1973 in the winter issue, 12 (1979) of Genre, The Genres of the Irish Literary Revival, you will understand my paraphrase: “Some critics are blandly there, a pervasive tone. The more interesting ones discover focal moments when a quality isolates itself: as in the opening of The Pound Era.” This paraphrase would be as unfair to Mr. Kenner as the original was to Kinsella, not merely because the yawn is infectious but because both statements ignore the subjects’ intentions. Mr. Kenner is so myopically attentive to focal moments, as if noticing only hearths in Whitehall Palace, that he disregards the structure that gives meaning to Kinsella’s images and effects. At the same time, in awaiting visual images, he is inattentive to non-visual effects within the dark diastole of Kinsella’s poetry. Finally, because Mr. Kenner brings too little wattage to the “current Irish literary situation” that he intends to...
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SOURCE: “‘Bright Quincunx Newly Risen’: Thomas Kinsella's Inward ‘I’,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1980, p. 106-25.
[In the following essay, McGuinness discusses the intersection of physical, psychological, and symbolic landscapes in Kinsella's poetry, particularly as they reveal multiple levels of consciousness and the poet's journey toward the inner self.]
The cover design for Thomas Kinsella’s recently published volume One and Other Poems (1979) features a character which can be read either as a large Roman numeral one, or as the personal pronoun “I.” Both meanings relate to the search for self, which has been the poet’s major theme for a quarter of a century. A radically alienated poet for much of his career, Kinsella has in his latest poems proposed memory, dream, and imagination as doors out of the dark.1 Kinsella’s search for self, a quest mapped by landscape imagery, has brought him from the traditional prosody and social landscape of his early poems to the fractured forms and bizarre landscapes of the unconscious in later poems.2 Yet self has never been completely lost, even though at times in Notes From the Land of the Dead (1972) it has been reduced to “a single drop.” The recently published poems indicate a movement out of the land of the dead. A new kind of self emerges, one which had been partly formed in the...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems, 1956-1973 and Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978, in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981, pp. 131-7.
[In the following positive review of Poems, 1956-1973 and Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978, Broder provides an overview of Kinsella's artistic development and recurring thematic concerns.]
Readers unfamiliar with or with only slight acquaintance with Thomas Kinsella’s poetry have with these two volumes from Wake Forest an opportunity to see a fine representative selection of the poet’s work. While Poems 1956–1973 represents a rigorous culling of the earliest volumes, almost all of the poetry Kinsella has published in the last dozen or so years is included. Wormwood is all here (in its heavily revised form): only two poems are omitted from Nightwalker and Other Poems: and New Poems 1973 is complete.
Readers familiar with American editions of Kinsella’s work will be particularly grateful for the second of these volumes, Peppercanister Poems, which includes all eight of the books published by Kinsella’s own Peppercanister Press in Dublin. With the exception of “Butcher’s Dozen” and “A Selected Life,” which were published in the 1973 Knopf volume Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (almost identical to Dolmen’s New Poems 1973), none of the...
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SOURCE: “Loves Architecture: The Poetic Irony of Thomas Kinsella,” in Boundary 2, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 123-35.
[In the following essay, O'Hara discusses the debate between Kinsella and critic Harold Bloom over the significance of literary influence in modern poetry. Opposing Bloom's negative view, O'Hara cites Kinsella's appropriation of and ironic response to his literary forbears as an enriching quality of his verse.]
The Phoenix builds the Phoenix’ nest. Love’s architecture is his own.
—epigraph to “Phoenix Park.”
Thomas Kinsella is the leading Irish poet of his generation. He is also a more substantial figure than any of the many verse-technicians now writing in English and being celebrated by famous reviewers in cover blurbs. Strangely enough, however, his poetry has not generally received the kind of sophisticated critical attention it deserves. Only M. L. Rosenthal has treated his work with consistent justice. This may be because Kinsella is not a typical academic poet (something Rosenthal, among others perhaps, apparently can appreciate).
Kinsella, born in Dublin in 1928, spent twenty years in the Irish Ministry of Finance before resigning his position in 1965 to come to America as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University. Currently, he is a Professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia and...
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SOURCE: “Stretching a Thread,” in Parnassus, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 187-98.
[In the following review, Engle offers an extended analysis of Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978. Though arguing that Kinsella's verse is at times overly personal and occasionally falls flat, Engle concludes that such “generous blunders … shouldn't obscure the fact that Kinsella is a serious poet of invention and honesty.”]
Who touches this book [Peppercanister Poems, 1972–1978] touches a man. Reading these poems, I kept doubling back to Whitman’s romantic brag, even though Thomas Kinsella is as far from romantic as they come. We don’t just overhear Kinsella; we watch him ritualize a process of radical understanding and remaking. I can think of no other poet today—ecstatic primitivists like Galway Kinnell included—who has so seriously and consciously taken the myth of the self as his domain. But Kinsella rules it at some artistic peril. One problem among several here is that he writes long sequences that build on his earlier poems much as a person builds on a remembered past. Unless you have followed Kinsella closely, on your first glance at this new book you may feel like you arrived late at the wrong party: they seem to know each other and you don’t get the jokes. Don’t despair. Though it takes some getting used to, Kinsella’s eccentric world is expansive enough to welcome...
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SOURCE: “Thomas Kinsella: ‘Nursed Out of Wreckage,’” in Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 135-45.
[In the following essay, Deane discusses Kinsella's place in postwar Irish poetry, elements of structure and fragmentation in his verse, and his preoccupation with the violent imagery of biological, historical, and creative processes.]
Once the major excitements of the Revival were over, there was inevitably a sense of disappointment and disillusion. The deaths of Yeats and Joyce, the emergence of two insular and petit-bourgeois states, one Catholic and the other Protestant in its ethos, the return of economic hardship and mass emigration, all contributed to that sullenness and disaffection so characteristic of the literature of the thirties and forties. The note of a deeper alienation was struck in the fiction of Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Francis Stuart and, less consistently, in the poetry of Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh. The sense of being what John Montague was later to call ‘at the periphery of event’ was heightened by the policy of neutrality during the Second World War, and this seemed to exacerbate the fear of provincialism and isolation which continued to haunt Irish writers for the next half-century. It is ironical that some of the most enduring work of this period had its occasion in the experience of the Second...
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SOURCE: “Hard Men, Soft Men,” in New Statesman, January 16, 1987, p. 30.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas faults Kinsella for overly rhetorical language and a lack of distinctness in Poems, 1956–1973.]
The Ulster poet W. R. Rodgers claimed to speak for ‘an abrupt people / Who like the consonants in speech / And think the soft ones cissy’. Thomas Kinsella, who is from the South, is certainly no cissy, but for much of the earlier part of his career [as in Poems, 1956-1973] he seems to have fought shy of spikiness, whether of utterance or of thought.
It would be all too easy to characterise the poetry of this period as soft and this is at least partly because he favours a kind of lush rhetoric whose characteristic movement is slow, at best with a certain grave music, at worst spongy, inert. ‘Flowers whose names I do not know / Make happy signals to us. O / Did ever bees / Stumble on such ‘a quiet before!’ Perhaps not, but ‘Midsummer’, from which these lines come, is limply dependent on Auden’s ‘A Summer Night’, as are other of Kinsella’s early poems. What they lack is habit of thought: the result is a poetry which coos to itself, its lyricism unguardedly self-content.
One way of pinpointing this would be to note the number of occasions that the word ‘sweet’ makes its appearance. Another would be to say that in even so ambitious a...
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SOURCE: “The Luck of the Irish,” in The New York Review of Books, February 26, 1987, pp. 25-6.
[In the following excerpt, Donoghue expresses dissatisfaction with Kinsella's translations of medieval Irish verse and choice of representative selections in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.]
I should explain how Ireland came to have its poetry in four languages, Irish, English, Latin, and Norman French.
The earliest Irish poem that can be dated is “Amra Choluim Chille,” an elegy on the death of St. Colum cille in 597; it is attributed to Dallán Forgaill. Much of early Irish poetry has been lost, but poems survive from every century since the sixth. Some of these were written in Latin by Irish monks from the seventh to the ninth century. There are also secular poems in Irish, love lyrics, and nature poems much instructed by Latin and Christian poetic forms.
In May 1169 Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke—nicknamed Strongbow—planned the Norman invasion of Ireland. He arrived in August 1170, and King Henry II followed in October 1172. Within a hundred years of the invasion, the Norman barons had taken possession of most of the east and south of Ireland. The invaders included Normans, Englishmen, Welshmen, and Flemings. Norman French and English established themselves as rival languages to the native Irish. A poem in Norman French has survived which celebrates the...
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SOURCE: “Selective Laurels,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCV, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 505-10.
[In the following excerpt, Howard praises Kinsella's work as editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.]
To the etymologist an anthology is a gathering of flowers, but to poets, critics, and other interested parties it is almost always a political statement. It swears allegiances and announces disavowals. It redresses grievances—and often creates new ones. If the poems happen to be Irish, the statement will be uncommonly charged, for Irish poetry is today a welter of conflicting allegiances and loyalties, conventions and traditions. Beneath the obvious topographical, political, and religious divisions—North and South, British and Gaelic, rural and urban, Protestant and Catholic—lies a more profound rift between two languages and their attendant traditions. On the one side there is the Anglo-Irish tradition, whose language is Hiberno-English and whose bloodline runs from Swift, Goldsmith, and Sheridan to Mangan, Ferguson, Davis, and Yeats. On the other there is the native tradition, whose language is Irish-Gaelic and whose treasures include early monastic poems, charms, prayers, courtly verse, Buile Suibhne, “The Hag of Beare,” and four centuries of bardic poetry. Any new poem by Seamus Heaney or Thomas Kinsella will steer an uneasy course between those rivaling traditions. And any new...
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SOURCE: A review of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, in Review of English Studies, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 152, November, 1987, pp. 592-93.
[In the following review, Pyle offers a tempered assessment of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, citing shortcomings in Kinsella's omission of women poets and several twentieth-century figures.]
Just under thirty years ago The Oxford Book of Irish Verse first appeared, edited by Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson, an anthology that claimed it was ‘going back to the earliest times’ (otherwise the seventeenth century) and ‘finishing the day before yesterday’. The last poet to be represented in that collection was Thomas Kinsella. Thomas Kinsella, himself, is editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse: but his view of ‘Irish verse’ is quite different from that of the former editors. For Kinsella, who, interestingly, omits Donagh MacDonagh from his selection along with many other expected names, Irish verse includes poetry in the Irish language as well as in English. He presents not only a gripping anthology of personally chosen poems, which bears reading straight through, but he endeavours through his selection to offer a picture of the development of formal verse in Ireland from early Christian times—and supposedly before—up to the present day. He demonstrates, in a volume not much larger than the original one, how, as...
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SOURCE: “The Song of Thomas Kinsella,” in New Criterion, Vol. 8, No. 7, March, 1990, pp. 41-7.
[In the following essay, Skloot discusses the transition in Kinsella's approach to poetry—from one of elegance and order to one of denseness and atonality—as represented in Blood and Family. According to Skloot, Kinsella's later verse, though no less impressive, sacrifices feeling for ambitious intellectual demands.]
Nothing intervened between the song and its expression. The singer managed many difficult things, but the result was to focus attention on the song, not on the performance or on the quality of the voice.
—Thomas Kinsella, on hearing the old-style Irish singer Jerry Flaherty in 1959
The first day I met Thomas Kinsella, in the fall of 1969, he was questioning what a poem was. The focus was D. H. Lawrence’s “Autumn at Taos” and I remember a tremendous sense of confusion about the situation.
On the one hand, here was the forty-one-year-old Irish poet I’d come from New York to southern Illinois to study with. In his dressy clothes and trimmed beard, he was as neat and formal as I imagined him to be from his poems. He marched in on time and announced I’m Kinsella, with the accent on Kin. I was glad he looked like a sonnet, though...
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SOURCE: “‘Searching the Darkness for a Landing Place’: The Achievement of Thomas Kinsella,” in Literary Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 337-44.
[In the following essay, Drexel examines Kinsella's artistic development and thematic preoccupations with death, fragmentation, and the creative process. Drexel concludes, “Despite its quirks and idiosyncrasies, its flaws and excesses, his poetry is informed by a fierce intelligence. Kinsella is one of our few authentic explorers of the heart of human darkness.”]
Few who follow Irish poetry with any attention would question that Thomas Kinsella is a major figure, if not a major force, on the poetic and imaginative landscape of our time. He is widely admired for the persistence and persistent individuality of his vision. At the same time, however, most readers would admit that his work yields less in the way of sheer pleasure than does that of most of his important compatriots. Although he can produce haunting effects, by and large he refuses to cultivate the genial bonhomie of Seamus Heaney, the formal grace of Mahon, Murphy, and Longley, or the provocative playfulness of McGuckian and Muldoon. In short, he is the sort of writer who is generally more valued for the meaning of his work than for the work itself. What, then, are the qualities of his work that claim our attention? The publication of Blood and Family, his first full-length...
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SOURCE: “Energy in Purging,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1994, p. 28.
[In the following review, Matthews offers a positive assessment of Poems from Centre City.]
In their tone and address, the poems in From Centre City mark both a furtherance of, and a departure from, the themes magisterially explored in Thomas Kinsella’s earlier work. The ghostly presences which have shadowed his nightmare limbo worlds from Downstream (1962) onwards, and which mediated the immediate political anger and hurt in his “lesson” for the Widgery Tribunal on the Bloody Sunday massacre, Butcher’s Dozen (1972), establish in this latest collection a pervading note of personal loss, of reminiscence, and more pointedly of departure.
That note of hurt is often sounded again here, as Kinsella sets down the reasons for his recent move from Dublin, the city of his childhood and of most of his working life. He has often been seen as the main explorer in Ireland of an international modernist inheritance which includes both Pound and Auden; a memory of the latter forms one of several striking and troubled poems on influence and the poet’s craft here, as it describes a visitation by Auden’s “corpsegaze”, “rapt”, “radiant with vision and opinion”, yet “flawed with the final furrows”, with a “scarred regard” which “taints” Kinsella as he sits down to his...
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella,” in America, March 18, 1995, pp. 30-5.
[In the following review, Skloot discusses Kinsella's literary career and artistic development in the context of Poems from Centre City.]
‘There are established personal places / that receive our lives’ heat / and adapt in their mass, like stone,” Irishman Thomas Kinsella says in one of the new poems in his 1994 collection entitled From Centre City. This is true about actual places he focuses on, such places as “The Stable,” “The Back Lane,” “Departure Platforms,” meeting rooms, literary pubs or the childhood home. It is also true about places within the self where the poet habitually retreats, as well as the “Peppercanister” (St. Stephen’s Church) and the ongoing poetic venture with which he has long been occupied—the growing mass of interconnected work he has built with each new publication.
In “At the Head Table,” when the speaker calls his work of creating beakers and cups “a system of living images / making increased response / to each increased demand / in the eye of the beholder,” he might well be describing Kinsella’s own work. Ever adapting, it has nevertheless accrued a solidity, like stone or ceramic ware, and the environment in which this has been allowed to happen is one that the poet rigidly controls.
A science scholarship student...
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SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Whole Matter: The Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella, Syracuse University Press, 1995, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Jackson situates Kinsella's creative development in the historical context of Irish cultural identity and literary tradition.]
If a career like Ezra Pound’s or, say, Hart Crane’s is still exemplary at this late date, the typical early difficulty for anyone setting up as poet in the United States would seem to be the need to reinvent the wheel. In the absence of any strong tradition of poetry, of anything like a national sense of what poetry should or might be like, and of any strong national respect for either the art or its practitioners, the neophyte American poet typically has had to define the art anew—even to invent himself or herself as an artist. In more convention-bound cultures like England or Ireland, with more uniform national education, the corresponding hindrance is apt to be a prevailing sentiment that the wheel and the art had been quite well taken care of some time ago, thank you, long before you put yourself forward.1 The culture into which Thomas Kinsella gradually inserted himself as a new poet in the 1950s was a far more literary one than what an American poet would encounter.2 But the danger in a country that focuses a national education policy and the concomitant educational practices on a too...
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SOURCE: “The Hidden Ireland,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 26, 1996, p. 26.
[In the following review, Craig discusses Kinsella's assessment of Irish literary tradition—in particular, its unities and divisions—as presented in The Dual Tradition.]
“The Irish tradition is a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction”, Thomas Kinsella wrote in his introduction to the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986); and The Dual Tradition takes up the theme. The point, indeed, is not new, and Kinsella himself has held fast to it for some time. Literature in Ireland is not divided but dual, and to consider either of its parts in isolation from the other is to diminish both. What the book presents is not so much an argument as a standpoint, a proposition that we’re asked to bear in mind throughout, and what it adds up to is a succinct history of poetry in Ireland, in Irish and English—a brisk run through the centuries.
In the history of the Irish language, the crucial event is the Battle of Kinsale of 1601, whose outcome ensured that English, not Irish, would establish itself as the vernacular language of the country. From this point on—though the process was protracted and tortuous—one language was fading from general use, while the other forged ahead. “The Irish languages disappeared”, Kinsella says, “with the dispossessed, into the...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 967.
[In the following review of The Dual Tradition, Pratt finds shortcomings in Kinsella's narrow categorization of Irish writers, notably James Joyce and W. B. Yeats.]
“I am of Ireland, / And the Holy Land of Ireland, / And time runs on, cried she. / ‘Come out of charity, / Come dance with me in Ireland.’” Thus Yeats made great poetry out of an early Irish poem, better poetry than anything else Thomas Kinsella cites in his long essay [The Dual Tradition] on the Irish poetic tradition, though he translates extensively from early Irish poetry in his effort to argue that Ireland has a “dual tradition” of two languages. The case is not proved, for Yeats’s singular genius gave Ireland a poetic tradition second to none in the world. Kinsella admits that “Yeats is a great artist,” but he still insists that Yeats was Anglo-Irish, not truly Irish, and so only half of the “dual tradition,” which to Kinsella must include all that is written in Irish and all that he and other poets have translated from it. It would take an entire book to do Yeats justice, but all Kinsella can spare him is part of a chapter.
The rest of the chapter is given to Joyce, to whom, strangely enough, he is kinder. Why? Well, Joyce, as...
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SOURCE: A review of The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, in Ploughshares, Vol. 22, No. 2-3, Fall, 1996, pp. 243-45.
[In the following review, Rosenthal offers a favorable assessment of The Dual Tradition.]
Irish poetry has had a long, trauma-beset journey. In his book The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, Thomas Kinsella leads us through its successive periods of “most radical adjustment and change.” He plunges into the matter more intimately than anyone since Yeats, and in far more precise detail than Yeats ever did. But he wears his sophistication lightly. His style is direct and vivid, with pointedly apt quotations.
Kinsella’s own poetic career—his subtle yet piercing original verse, together with his translations from the Irish in An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600–1900, in his anthology The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and most notably in his version of the Cuchulain saga Táin Bó Cuailnge—prepared him ideally for the task his new book shoulders.
His essential theme is hinted in his early poem “Nightwalker”: “A dying language echoes / Across a century’s silence. / It is time, / Lost soul, I turned for home.” It is spelled out explicitly in his introduction to the Oxford anthology, which stresses the central force, in Irish speech and poetry,...
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SOURCE: “The Phases of Kinsella's Poetic Career: Aims and Continuities,” in Thomas Kinsella, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 11-26.
[In the following essay, Badin provides an overview of the major themes, recurring motifs, and structural elements of Kinsella's poetry as they evolved throughout his career.]
Three major phases can be distinguished in Kinsella’s career. His early phase, represented by various collections of poems (Poems, Another September, Wormwood, Downstream, Nightwalker and Other Poems), ended in 1968. It is a phase of apprenticeship in which Kinsella explores many genres and modes, often with great virtuosity. Although there are striking differences between the first two volumes and the next three, his respect for traditional forms (ranging from complex stanzaic and rhyming patterns to a loose blank verse) and for traditional subjects (love, self-reflexivity, subjective meditations on the passing of time, mutability and mortality) give the five volumes a sense of unity. The publication of a selection of Kinsella’s poems in 1973 (Selected Poems 1956–1968), indicates that the poet himself considered the cosmopolitan, well-polished, and rather traditional production of these years a self-contained phase, now concluded. Successive selections made at later dates by Kinsella contained fewer and fewer of the early...
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SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in Reading the Ground: The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella, Catholic University of America Press, 1996, pp. 246-59.
[In the following essay, John discusses the maturation and defining features of Kinsella's later poetry in relation to Irish literary tradition and the influence of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Aogn Ó Rathaille.]
With work so dynamically “in progress,” it is inevitable that the latest complete volume, From Centre City (1994), collecting the previous five Peppercanister sequences—One Fond Embrace (1988), Personal Places and Poems from Centre City (both 1990), Madonna and Open Court (both 1991)—should reveal Kinsella setting forth on further journeys, with new departures leading to new beginnings. He has returned to Ireland, for example, to full-time writing, living first in Dublin and next Co. Wicklow. As the poet himself has noted. “The business has begun again.”1 Indeed, the “business” will go on, by definition, without end: the quest for understanding in a world of process and perpetual dialectical tension can never be final nor can the possession of understanding be absolute. The “data” accumulate and never remain static, and thus structures require constant refining and rearranging. Likewise, Kinsella’s protagonist persistently investigates his self, his family and ancestral ghosts, and both...
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SOURCE: “On the Via Negativa,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 11, 1997, p. 22.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, Sirr summarizes the central themes and artistic concerns of Kinsella's poetry.]
Thomas Kinsella is an anomalous figure in Irish poetry: a looming, magisterial presence less often celebrated than awkwardly registered, made remote both by his rigorous husbandry of his via negativa and by the relative accessibility and popularity of the poets who came after him. The subdued interiority of his poems is out of step with a poetic culture which tends to prize, and to expect, the kind of surface clarity, primary sociability and intimacy of address Kinsella hasn’t been much interested in for most of his career. He began as a scrupulously controlled formalist, marshalling argument and rhythm with impressive skill and delicacy in poems like “Another September”, “A Lady of Quality”, “Cover Her Face” or “Mirror in February”, but from Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968) onward, his working aesthetic has been grounded in the process and the difficulty of utterance, in precisely the avoidance of the unifying and authoritative single voice for which the early work was admired. He has reached us since then as a sequence of voices, all subdued, all self-questioning, speaking painfully out of “failure and increase, / the stagger and...
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SOURCE: A review of The Pen Shop, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 147-8.
[In the following review, Pratt offers an unfavorable assessment of The Pen Shop.]
Thomas Kinsella is one of the most gifted living poets, as earlier volumes have testified, one of them a translation from the Irish of The Táin or Cattle-Raid of Cooley that has already become a standard reference for early Irish literature and Celtic mythology. But the thin volume of poems titled The Pen Shop hardly does him justice, since its cover photograph of the mythical hero Cuchulain, taken from a bronze statue that stands today in the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin, where the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 battled bravely and lost to the British, has little to do with the sequence of short poems inside, though Kinsella gives a verbal description of the Cuchulain statue in his first poem: “Around the bronze hero / sagging half covered off his upright, / looking down over one shoulder at his feet. / The harpy perched on his neck.”
It is there that Kinsella’s pamphlet—not really a book—starts, and it goes on to detail the poet’s leisurely stroll through Dublin, pausing to describe such familiar places as the O’Connell Bridge over the River Liffey, Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street, the College Green outside Trinity...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
SOURCE: “The Collected Poems of Thomas Kinsella,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CVI, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 343-58.
[In the following positive review of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, Skloot provides an overview of Kinsella's literary career and artistic development.]
Over the last fifteen years, an impressive array of older Irish poets has published their collected poems. Some, including John Montague and Richard Murphy, have substantial international reputations. Others such as Brian Coffey, Padraic Fallon, James Liddy, and, posthumously, Denis Devlin, John Hewitt, Thomas MacGreevy, and W. R. Rodgers, are known or regarded less highly. During the same period, dozens of mature Irish poets—Eavan Boland, John F. Deane, Seamus Deane, Paul Durcan, Peter Fallon, Padraic Fiacc, Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Tom Paulin among them—issued their selected poems. Conspicuous by his absence from this surge of retrospection had been Thomas Kinsella, perhaps the most distinguished of them all.
Now sixty-nine, and with the longest productive career of any living poet in his country, Kinsella was the first of the post-Yeats generations to achieve international recognition. He has been labeled “the most accomplished, fluent, and ambitious Irish poet” of his generation by Montague; “the poet who affirms an Irish...
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SOURCE: A review of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer, 1998, p. 622.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, Quinlan comments on Kinsella's literary career and ambiguous critical status.]
In the early 1960s, Thomas Kinsella reigned as Ireland’s foremost poet. His work was sophisticated, its settings frequently urban, local but with a cosmopolitan flavor, and seemed reflective of an Ireland moving into a new and more prosperous era (a move that was partly due to innovative policies in the Department of Finance, the branch of the Irish government in which Kinsella was at the time employed at a senior level), exercised about the past without being driven by its questionable pieties. Much of the poetry appealed to the sensibilities of the isolated individual, as in “Mirror in February” from his 1962 collection, Downstream:
Below my window the awakening trees, Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced Suffering their brute necessities, And how should flesh not quail that span for span Is mutilated more? In slow distaste I fold my towel with what grace I can, Not young, and not renewable, but man.
Looking back, it is rather a surprise that the appeal of this kind of writing should have been replaced shortly afterward by Seamus Heaney’s preoccupations with digging in bogs and the...
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SOURCE: “The Radiance of Change: The Collected Poems of Thomas Kinsella,” in Shenandoah, Vol. 48, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 116-25.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, 1956-1994, Skloot discusses the recurring themes, artistic concerns, stylistic innovations, and cumulative motifs found in Kinsella's poetry over a period of forty years.]
In the 1950’s, when the generation of American poets that included John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and James Wright was coming of age, poets of the previous generation were writing some of their finest work. John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke were thriving; Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were still alive. A similar generational ladder existed for Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Peter Porter and Charles Tomlinson in England, where Basil Bunting, Robert Graves, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender loomed. Above these all, switching countries, were T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.
At the same time, something very different was happening in Ireland. There simply was no older generation of poets at work; no models, no antagonists, not even a viable structure for publication and discussion of new work. As the generation including Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Richard Murphy reached their mid-twenties, Irish poetry was...
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SOURCE: “Kinsella's ‘Butcher's Dozen,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 57, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 173-7.
[In the following essay, Newman analyses the use of phantoms in “Butcher's Dozen” to express Kinsella's outrage over the Bloody Sunday massacre and the unjust Widgery report.]
Thomas Kinsella wrote “Butcher’s Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery” within a week of the report made by Britain’s Lord Chief Justice Widgery of his investigation into the deaths of thirteen civilians at the hands of the British army on 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. The poem was reissued in April 1992 to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Widgery’s report.
In the poem, phantoms represent the dead civilians and address a variety of national and cultural issues. The first phantom paraphrases the second line of the English nursery rhyme “Tom, Tom The Farmer’s Son” to establish a bitterly ironic tone. Savagely punned—“A pig came up, and away he ran” (Kinsella, line 20)—the pig of the children’s verse becomes the acronym by which the armored personnel carriers of the type deployed against the protestors are known. Also it is a “hooligan” (19) who runs away. A familiar word, to be sure, but in that it derives etymologically from the Irish family name Houlihan, it reflects the way that a long established anti-Irish bias on the part of...
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Badin, Donatella Abbate. Thomas Kinsella. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 226 p.
A book-length study of Kinsella's literary career and poetry.
Gaffney, Elizabeth. Review of Poems from Centre City, by Thomas Kinsella. New York Times Book Review (31 December 1995): 11.
A review of Poems from Centre City.
Haffenden, John. “Thomas Kinsella.” Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 100-13. London: Faber and Faber, 1981, 198 p.
Kinsella discusses his personal background, literary influences, artistic development, and the thematic and stylistic elements of his poetry.
Harmon, Maurice. “Ancient Lights in the Poetry of Austin Clarke and Thomas Kinsella.” Eire-Ireland XXIX, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 123-40.
Offers comparative analysis of the long poems of Austin Clarke and Kinsella, focusing on their Irish themes and examination of the individual's relationship to the past and present.
Jackson, Thomas H. The Whole Matter: The Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995, 165 p.
A book-length analysis of Kinsella's poetry and creative development.
John, Brian. “Imaginative Bedrock: Kinsella's One And...
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