Kinsella, Thomas (Vol. 19)
Kinsella, Thomas 1928–
Kinsella is an Irish poet who treats his major themes of love, death, and the artistic act with a discipline that reflects the order he seeks in life. His poetry has been influenced by the strife in Ireland, ancient folk ballads, and natural history. Kinsella now lives much of the time in the United States. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
The Times Literary Supplement
Thomas Kinsella has always been an eloquent poet, but one who seemed to find … that the "clenched emotions" fitted best into a tightly-controlled verse. In Nightwalker he has attempted something much looser and more discursive, a longish meditation taking its cues from whatever offers itself to view on the night walk of the title. At times the visual particularity and the quick cuts from scene to scene give it the effect of a scenario, and indeed one feels that some extraneous but necessary element is missing—whether of sight or sound. It reads very much like a transitional piece, and it will be interesting to see what Mr. Kinsella does next.
"Taking a Strong Line," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3423, October 5, 1967, p. 937.∗
(The entire section is 135 words.)
Thomas Kinsella [is] probably the most accomplished, fluent, and ambitious Irish poet of the younger generation. American readers have already been introduced to his work in "Poems and Translations" (… 1961) but it has achieved more humanity since. In the opening sequence [of "Nightwalker,"] for example, there are several remarkable poems, where the ordeal of physical suffering … is balanced against the meaning that can be drawn from it, in personal religious terms….
This new confessional mood in Kinsella's work was announced by a sequence about married love ["Wormwood"] first published separately a few years ago. I am much less happy with these [poems] because the extreme claim that the poet makes for his personal crisis ("a great star fell from heaven") often reduces his language to the clichés of hysteria, "peaks of stress," "hells of circumstance," etc. Even the central image in the title poem, "Wormwood," has that lack of focus which betrays literary rather than real observation; one rarely finds "a black tree" in the countryside, but in city parks, while "mossy floor, almost colourless … in depths of rain" is even less likely, as most colors are brightened by showers.
The number of revisions that Mr. Kinsella has made indicate that I am not alone in my uneasiness with the "Wormwood" sequence….
Without the self-confrontation of "Wormwood," [however,] Kinsella might not have achieved...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
People in Dublin have had something to talk about lately other than the North, the Common Market, or the deplorable state of the Irish theatre. A few weeks ago Thomas Kinsella, the country's finest contemporary poet, published a small pamphlet (8 pages, about 250 lines of verse) called "Butcher's Dozen" and subtitled "A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery." The cover of the pamphlet carries the outline of a black coffin with the figure 13 superimposed.
In pubs, at parties, wherever literary-minded folk are likely to gather, the talk is not about the contents of the pamphlet (the Derry tragedy of January 30 [, 1972, the "Bloody Sunday" when British soldiers in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry fired upon a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing 13)], but about its form and style. "In matters of grave importance," Oscar Wilde once remarked, "style, not sincerity, is the vital thing"—a sentiment which has always found wide and sincere acceptance among Wilde's countrymen….
In The Irish Times one commentator saw the poem as patterned on The Dunciad, an observation far wide of the mark, since nothing could be less like the elegant beroic couplets of Alexander Pope than these rattling octosyllabics in which a form of doggerel is made at times to parody itself. A much shrewder observation called attention to Mrs. Shelley's note to "The Mask of Anarchy" which affords a curious and close parallel: "When...
(The entire section is 641 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
The major part of Thomas Kinsella's New Poems 1973 is a collection … called Notes from the Land of the Dead, a corny confessionalist title for a puzzling work. Its theme is the spiritual journey from despair and desolation, "nightnothing", to a painful self-renewal, a progress that seems to be developed in both the overall sequence and individual pieces within it. One says "seems" because a great deal of this territory is very vague indeed. One of the troubles is that these are notes, not poems, as the rows of dots petering out lines, the asterisks between verse sections, and the blurb caveat that Mr Kinsella is "content to leave inessential connections unmade and miscellaneous doubts unresolved", suggest.
The other is that, as notes, they are not very informative; our man in the land of the dead has cabled back little hard news. This is not to deny that there is a variety of images of considerable pressure and delicacy deployed both in the "Notes" and in the brief section of "Other Poems", born of a resourceful metaphysical imagination. The objection is that in reaching beyond the world of tangible reality to reflect states of the acutest mental anguish, Mr Kinsella's images fail to construct a consistent and coherent para-reality that would give the book shape and point. Much the most successful pieces are those (such as the excellent "Tear" and "St. Pauls Rocks: 16 February 1832") rooted...
(The entire section is 263 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
Thomas Kinsella's Selected Poems appears simultaneously with his New Poems 1973; and although the earlier poems are on the whole less distraughtly introspective than the recent work, they display the same fine knack of delving deeply into self-communion while staying nervously responsive to an actual world. Dream and realism are cross-bred in strikingly effective combinations, not least in the excellent, ambitiously long "Phoenix Park", which roots personal relationship in a recognizable spot, tracing connecting threads between self and public history, but also exploiting that history to provide a space for complex private imaginings….
That ability to cope with elusively general feelings without losing intensity isn't so evident in some of the earlier poems. The danger there is that a way of seeing through the immediate to more "universal" issues becomes a way of talking round it, wrapping it with verbose abstractions…. There is also a difficulty with form: some of the earlier poems are too synthetically impersonal, too quick to leash back their richly metaphorical impulses within slightly cramping forms; but there is, on the other hand, a mastery of ballad and lyric which is disappointingly less evident in the new poems.
Most of Thomas Kinsella's new collection is taken up with his fragmented sequence Notes from the Land of the Dead …; and the way in which this poem stays tenaciously...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
[Thomas Kinsella is a] restless soul who can do many things well. In Nightwalker he appeared to have found his stride, the event which ought to mark a happy origin, but, unfortunately, in his new collection [Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems] Mr. Kinsella is trying hard to sound ordinary. He does this perhaps in deference to those contemporary canons of taste which favor vividness at any cost: but the cost is at least worth measuring. "Dither in and out of a mother liquid", "forkfuls/of scrambled egg", "cooped up/with the junk of centuries", "blanched: appalled", "sweat stood out/at the roots of my hair!" all get into the first page of his book. No doubt Mr. Kinsella wishes to chronicle the detritus of the everyday as it flows in upon him, but the poor result for his diction makes him a casualty of expressive form. The lengthy title poem reaches its height in passages of straight description. Where it means to be ambitious it is loud and flat: "We are each other's knowledge. It is peace that counts,/and knowledge brings peace, even thrust crackling/into the skull and bursting with tongues of fire."
Elsewhere it laments "sad dullness and tedious pain/and lives bitter with hard bondage". Leaving aside the blankness of meaning produced by all the nouns and modifiers too familiarly paired, is there not something ugly in a summing-up quite so peremptory? Mr. Kinsella, however, can rework the same passage, and...
(The entire section is 369 words.)
[In Ireland] most writers have become wearied by the attritional quality of their relationship to their society and its history. Given the example of W. B. Yeats, the political and economic depression, the society's fixed loyalties and fissile emotions, it was difficult for an Irish poet of the thirties and forties to see his function as anything less than redemptive. It was as though every poet was compelled by circumstances to see himself as a major poet if he was to become a poet at all. This stress on creativity had to be damaging. Much Irish poetry after Yeats would have been more memorable if it could have settled for being less ambitious. (pp. 199-200)
Thomas Kinsella inherited the disappointments of that era and subsumed them in his early work into a long contemplative exercise on the problem of evil. The climax to this phase of his work came with the publication in 1968 of Nightwalker and Other Poems. Since then, up to the publication of [Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems] and the more recent One …, the mood of Mr. Kinsella's poetry has sharpened into a surgical exploration by the imagination of the resources of the will—above all, of the basic will to go on, to survive, to remain aware. Mr. Kinsella has consistently grown away from his early highly-cadenced verse toward a poetry which is at times rhythmically cumbersome, lacking the finish and completeness which [Austin] Clarke, for...
(The entire section is 1148 words.)
M. L. Rosenthal
Ours is more than ever a poetry of the recapture of lost worlds—a nation's or a region's deep history, the buried memories of families, the primal impressions of early childhood. A poet like the Irishman Thomas Kinsella, who engages these worlds ably and bravely, can reach past surface charm and nostalgia to discovery. He is coping with the intractable….
Mr. Kinsella is a true elegist with a bitter, grieving, melodious tongue. Now that he has assembled his poetry in two volumes ["Poems 1956–1973" and "Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978"], Americans will have ready access for the first time to the whole range of his work since 1956 (including his superb translation of the Cuchulain saga, "The Tain"). It is a great deal to try to absorb at once. The rich elegiac strain and the painful note of reminiscence involve extremes of tonality: subtle wit, easy humor, flat candor, bursts of visionary transport, burning anger, speculative openness—all deployed in a mature exploratory poetry.
Mr. Kinsella's most powerful poems tend to open quietly, perhaps humorously, in the midst of reverie or of a familiar situation, and then to unfold through "natural" modulations. The very recent "His Father's Hands" … begins with a close-up of the poet and his father drinking and arguing, their gestures comically intimate….
A quick association recalls the childhood memory of the poet's grandfather, a cobbler,...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
A clear break in Kinsella's poetic development is embodied in two collections, Poems 1956–1973 and Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978….
The earlier poems were characterized by traditional, formal logic and structure, narrative drive, and rich description. Their language was packed and lush, rigidly controlled, and they dealt with "the swallowing and absorption of bitterness." The later poems, after 1972 but anticipated by some tendencies as far back as 1965 … are characterized by apparent formlessness, a charged, compressed, associative language—a language of trance or automatic writing—and a difficult density.
Poems 1956–1973 offers the poems that established Kinsella's reputation, the anthology pieces like "Mirror in February" or "Wormwood." It is the more accessible and polished work, traditional for its first two-thirds and [sure in its grasp]…. (p. 337)
Kinsella's Catholicism, his sense of Irish history and literature and his rigorous belief in the restorative power of love are important forces shaping the early poetry. So too are the lessons of his obvious masters, Auden and Eliot. But also important, and ultimately perhaps the strongest shaping force, was Kinsella's career in the Ministry of Finance. For nearly twenty years—day after day, all day—Kinsella worked with ever-increasing responsibility in the administration of his country's economy, seeing...
(The entire section is 1112 words.)
In the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella … the sense of life as deprivation and the oral rage and horror bring up the pathology of narcissism; but unlike [Ted] Hughes, who would be wholly immersed in the instinctive, bodily, and natural, Kinsella surfaces into the human, individual, and moral. Hughes in his poems is hardly even an Englishman, but Kinsella is as much a Dubliner as Yeats was. Despite his own bestial allegories of the harsh Super-ego (a dragon, for instance, hungering "in filth and fire" though laying an "egg-seed" of goodness, or decency), his sphere is the world of men, Irishmen like his father…. (p. 481)
His reality-smiting or-smelting turn for quaint sick fantasy—poetic expressionism—has become more pronounced [in Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978]. But at times he still revisits what he has known or writes of his present world with a stiff manly head-back regard …, and then he compels…. His sensibility is so grim that the real if rationed delights of his ear and sense of form seem a necessary mercy. It is a mercy, however, that at other times he is less inclined to bestow. But the subtle uncongenial art of [Peppercanister Poems] develops like a negative with repeated immersions, and Kinsella is still the Irish poet most worth following. (p. 482)
Calvin Bedient, "New Confessions," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by...
(The entire section is 236 words.)
For Poems 1956–1973 Kinsella selects items from his first six volumes and prints all of his New Poems (1973). The early pieces help prepare the reader for the seventeen poems, "Notes from the Land of the Dead," the central lyric works of his early career. These poems celebrate Dublin, Kinsella's home, and the pangs and anxieties attending his own development as man and writer. He is the cursed poet come back from the Irish night with a story. (p. 633)
[Kinsella] writes on the fine old subjects, and like a proper Irish poet, he has learned his trade. He writes of family, the appalling loneliness of moderns, the pain of death and separation. He calls birth "the count of zero." He is dazzled by and hopeful in modern isolation. (pp. 633-34)
Kinsella's poems are direct, immediate, colloquial as park-bench speech and, suddenly, moving. He is not quotable because Kinsella has to be understood by his whole poem. He describes, for example, a ritual sacrifice remembered (I would wager) from a travel book by Richard Halliburton in which a young woman's beating heart is cut out and offered as sacrifice to the sun. The tone suddenly shifts from the altar language to cocktail clichés; by the juxtaposition of the ancient world of grim sacrificial love and modern tenuous love, Kinsella infuses his climactic words, "My heart is in your hands," with a sudden, deepening light that the words themselves can hardly...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Richard Murphy—a disparate threesome—are generally considered to lead the pack of Irish poets who emerged during the 1950s…. The 1950s were a transitional period for both Irish society and Irish poetry…. Kinsella, though not so overtly concerned as his contemporaries with social phenomena, reacted the more intensely to the winds of change. In "A Country Walk" the poet encounters signs of the times, and re-writes "Easter 1916":
Around the corner, in an open square,
I came upon the sombre monuments
That bear their names: MacDonagh & McBride
Merchants; Connolly's Commercial Arms …
Revaluation commenced or devaluation mourned? At any rate, a disturbed sense of dead glories, and a present hollowness, as "The waters hurtle through the flooded night". Kinsella's oeuvre abounds in quest-poems, deriving their structure from walks or from journeys by river and sea, whose thrust is summed up in the last line of "Downstream": "Searching the darkness for a landing place"….
Kinsella's Romanticism overwhelmingly takes the traditional form of self-searching. (It is a deeper question whether the extreme isolation of his poetic persona owes more to culture than to idiosyncrasy.) Emotional and spiritual values are most successfully discovered in the early love...
(The entire section is 1045 words.)