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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

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...

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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 professorship of English at Temple University. Throughout his career, he had been intimately connected with Dolmen Press, a small Dublin publishing house that sought to maintain the Irish small-press tradition and that had been Kinsella’s publisher from the early 1950’s, when his first pamphlets of verse appeared. The cultural dimension of this involvement found further expression in the establishment of Kinsella’s own press, Peppercanister, in 1972. Beginning with Butcher’s Dozen in 1972, this press published most of Kinsella’s subsequent verse and has permitted him to publish long poems and extended poetic sequences in a booklet form that does not have to conform to the whims of the marketplace. Control and ownership of the means of his own poetic production is a resonant cultural achievement of which the poet is well aware, as his critical writings demonstrate.

Both Blood and Family and From Centre City, published by a commercial house, are essentially collections of the later Peppercanister poems. In keeping with the publishing commitment of Peppercanister, these later poems have a more public dimension while preserving and refining the existentialist energy and neomodernist prosody of his earlier work. Particularly expressive of the Kinsella aesthetic is the manner in which these poems explore the concept of sequence, in both its formal and temporal senses. Among the better-known of the Peppercanister poems are “Butcher’s Dozen,” dealing with the events and repercussions of Bloody Sunday, Derry, Northern Ireland, 1972; “The Good Fight,” commemorating the tenth anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy; and “The Messenger.” From an imaginative as well as a cultural perspective, Peppercanister is a unique accomplishment in contemporary Irish literature.

Kinsella’s cultural commitments may also be appreciated in the place occupied by the Irish language in his work. Many of his contemporaries have translated or otherwise availed themselves of the rich repository of Irish verse. In Kinsella’s case, however, the attempt to reconstitute a usable past in Irish poetry is a crucial expression of attempts to come to terms with the alienation, solitude, inarticulateness, and lack of cultural values that suffuse his poetry. This attempt is on one hand doomed to failure, since the Gaelic world that it addresses is irretrievably lost as a viable polity and as a living culture. On the other hand, to express the dimensions of the loss, and to give it imaginative and linguistic form in translation, is an act of impressive cultural piety, integrity, and conviction. This act of retrieval and homage attains optimum thematic range and expressive versatility in his translations for An Duanaire. Kinsella’s translation of the medieval epic Táin bó Cuailnge, one of the most important legendary cycles of Irish culture, is still the standard translation used in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world.

In all the major aspects of his career—his sense of Dublin, the spiritual openness of his existential soundings, the cherishing of verse as a material production in his publishing activity, and the cultural drama implicit in his translations from the Irish—Kinsella has traversed a singular and solitary path. As a result, he has seemed somewhat eccentric to developments in contemporary Irish poetry. It might also be argued that it is the distinctive trajectory of his career and commitments that makes his poetry a landmark in twentieth century Irish literature.

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