Thomas Kinsella

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Thomas Kinsella with Peter Orr (interview date 24 September 1962)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

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.

What other themes have attracted you later in your poetic life?

I think they can all be summed up in the ‘passing of time’ and its various effects; I think, in particular, death, the death of individual people. Some of the poems which I like most of mine are the cold-blooded lamentations for individuals whom I’ve known and liked and who have died. The ‘artistic act’ is another. My earliest poems were about the artistic act and I still do them, but they are becoming slightly more elaborate and in a peculiar way the idea of artistic creation and the idea of the passing of time are becoming fused together. I have not yet written a poem in which this process is embodied. I have a distinct feeling, for instance, that one of the main impulses to poetry or, for that matter, to any art, is an attempt more or less to stem the passing of time; it’s the process of arresting the erosion of feelings and relationships and objects which is being fought by the artist, not particularly because one relationship or one object has all his love at the moment, but simply that he is there to combat the erosion.

And have you written very much on larger themes, on themes which are supposed to appeal to what we now call ‘committed poets’?

Yes, I have detected recently a trace of moral feeling and judgement in what I am doing. Only quite recently the reaction was almost invariably cold-blooded, simply the blank stare, the noting down of the event and allowing the poem and the reader to take their own conclusions. But I have written one poem, ‘Old Harry’, in which I’ve allowed myself the luxury of a bitter and unforgiving judgement on a particular act. I must confess I enjoyed that immensely.

Yes, I’ve noticed in some of your poems that your own standpoint is, probably intentionally, ambiguous. You don’t come down on one side of the fence or the other. You are, as you say, the spectator with the blank stare. Do you feel that the poet should adopt a moral standpoint which is evident to his reader?

I don’t think it is necessary to him...

(This entire section contains 2029 words.)

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as a poet. As a human being I presume it is essential. I think the function of the poet has something to do (and I feel, for the time being it has) with this business of stemming the flow of time, of halting the instant, and that the quality of the instant itself, while being important and having something to do with the actual stature of the verse, doesn’t impose any actual, necessary, stateable conditions, it can be anything. I can imagine an imperfect sense of justice not flawing a poem. I feel, for instance, that the ‘artistic act’ is one almost of levitation above the event, even if the poet himself is involved. This is purely instinctive: I don’t think I could justify it. If the poet is involved in an event which he is called upon to judge, he must levitate above the circumstances and judge it as if he himself is simply a factor. I don’t think that he is necessarily called upon to judge it as an involved person.

This must be surely very difficult in the case of this poem you have written on the theme of the atomic bomb, which is something we are all involved in, and something it is very difficult to extricate oneself from.

It is. But my attempt at levitation there has been to make the subject of the poem not so much the dropping of the bomb, which as a human being I regard as a morally ignorant act: the subject of the poem is not this, but is simply the possibility of the monstrous choice in the human brain, something which must be accepted because we have continuing evidence of it and always have had. It is possible to levitate above this condition because we are all implicated in it. It is not divorced from the possibility of perfectly orthodox religious faith. The religion in which I was bred and educated, the religion of Catholicism, has a great deal in it: perhaps it is the origin of these feelings. I don’t feel this with any great immediacy, but I find in practice no actual clash between, say, the dogmatic and disciplinary requirements of Catholicism and this accepting and categorizing state of awareness of the poet.

I know we tend to stick labels on things and people all too easily these days, but do you think it is at all informative to a reader to speak about you, then, as an Irish Catholic poet?

Well, I think it is completely misleading because Irish Catholic poets do exist. They may write Catholic poetry and I don’t: they may write Irish poetry and I don’t think I do. I am Irish and I accept it; I am Catholic and I find no obstacle to poetry in that. My poetry is a completely separate activity. It is my own full personality judging and collecting my experiences and I find myself, for instance, consciously eschewing Catholic subjects or Irish subjects as being limited in themselves. I cannot think at the moment of anything except two very short poems in Moralities, one of the ‘Seventeenth Century Landscape near Ballyferriter’ and the other of ‘Sisters’, where the references are completely and exclusively Irish and where the actual facts behind the references would certainly be unknown to a non-Irish person.

I have noticed, coming new to your poems as I have, that they make a considerable impact on a first hearing, a first reading. They read well, and they sound well. Is this intentioned? Is this something you think of when you are writing them?

Yes, I am striving continually for greater clarity and directness and regular pace—fitting the pace to the poem and making it an immediately comprehensible whole as far as possible. But that absorbs about fifty per cent of my effort. The rest is absorbed in making my poems coherent. I try to make them defendable in depth. I think that is where the real value of them, if any, should lie.

What about literary influences on your writing? I notice, for example, in one of your poems you mention the drowning Ophelia, and there are occasional fairly obvious and simple literary references. Could you say who are the writers who have moved you most deeply as a poet and have influenced you?

Of poets, those I respect most are the formal constructors of poems. I certainly enjoy the other kind of poetry, the inspired utterance, and—I suppose my favourite poet is in fact Anon.—all songs of all time, and also Robert Burns. But the poems which I really admire most are of another kind. They are the conscious, constructed real fabrications of the human intellect and spirit like Dante and Keats, and the later Yeats.

What about contemporary poets? I suppose Mr. Eliot is an inescapable influence?

He has been an inescapable influence for some time. But I think finally I escaped quite easily, having watched what seems to me to be the slow and inevitable destruction of his own output by himself as he parodies it in his most recent verse plays. It has shown up all his weaknesses and removed thereby a great deal of his quality as an influence. I’m not saying, of course, that it has anything whatever to do with the great verse which he has written and which I still do enjoy: in particular the ‘Four Quartets’, which has, incidentally, that quality of magnificent intellectual form and of absolutely fresh diction, language created for the purpose.

Have you ever felt you wanted to write like this?

Never, except in my very, very adolescent stage. I feel it is something which is totally beyond me. I construct from facts and objects and individual experiences and I formulate generalizations very, very laboriously. But the ability to move in an atmosphere of generalizations I do not possess.

Is the writing of poetry hard for you? Does the composition of a long poem like ‘Downstream’ occupy a considerable number of years, perhaps?

Yes: The event in ‘Downstream’ took place (I think it was) in 1954. Almost immediately afterwards I realized there were a few seminal moments in the experience which could be worked into something. Over some years almost immediately after that I began to take a few notes, and other incidents occurred which have since been included and, indeed, excluded in their turn. But the process of writing commenced about four years ago and then dropped to make room for the writing of other work, or just for a rest, and then very intensely again, and it took at least six months to finish it.

And this, to a greater or lesser extent, is a fair description, is it, of how the poetic process works in your case?

In my case, certainly. Yes.

The writing of poetry, of course, is not your main occupation, is it?

No, it’s really rather an intense hobby. I’m a civil servant and was actually a civil servant before I wrote any poetry. I never found any clash between the two. In fact, I’ve found that my mental state when composing a particularly difficult minute is not unlike the process of writing a poem.

Have you ever felt drawn to any of the other arts? Did you, perhaps, think at any time of being a musician or a painter or a sculptor?

There was a time early on when I felt it would be nice to be all of these things, polycreator. But I certainly have written no music. I play a few tunes on the tin whistle and I am very fond of Irish traditional music. I do some sketching, but very, very rarely.

Do you find yourself much in the company of other poets and other writers? Are these your friends rather than civil servants?

Yes, they really are. There aren’t many of these in Ireland but I enjoy their company much more. More interesting!

At this stage of your poetic life (you’ve been writing poems for a number of years now) are you glad that it is something you started? Is it something that has brought you satisfaction? Is it something that you would rather have done in preference to anything else?

Yes, no question about it. I am quite happy to have written what I have written. I have enough projects ahead of me of a kind which I think will be satisfactory for quite a long time. I couldn’t ask for more.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1438

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2624

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 introduction. An Introduction I eventually agreed to contribute, and I wrote and sent off the following. (Bracketed numbers refer to pages in Kinsella’s Poems 1956–1973, Wake Forest University Press, 1979.)


Some poets are blandly there, a pervasive tone. The more interesting ones afford focal moments when a quality isolates itself: as at the opening of “Ritual of Departure”:

A man at the moment of departure, turning
To leave, treasures some stick of furniture
With slowly blazing eyes, or the very door
Broodingly with his hand as it falls shut.

(p. 115)

Not like that literary property alert eyes shining, these eyes blaze with nightmare specificity, “slowly,” like a real fire, and blaze moreover midway in a carefully turned and summarizing sentence whose particulars belong to the evidential world. And later in the same poem,

The ground opens. Pale wet potatoes
Break into light. The black soil falls from their flesh,
From hands that tear them up and spread them out
In fresh disorder, perishable roots to eat.

(p. 116)

“Their flesh,” and the black soil potatoes’ flesh shares with rending hands, make this an exhumation rather than a spading, for a cannibal rather than a vegetable meal. So when we come in due course to social and historical observation—

                     Faces sharpen and grow blank
With eyes for nothing.
                                         And their children’s children
Venturing to disperse, some came to Dublin
To vanish in the city lanes

(p. 116)

—there is something distinctly sinister about that vanishing.

Nightmare glowing, fading, glowing, amid the equable pace of metered discourse, that is the effect to which the reader of Kinsella must accustom himself. Ghosts throng in these poems, shapes half-seen, our personal past, Ireland’s past, less assignable portents. “Phoenix Park” narrates a vision seen in a wine-glass become “ordeal-cup”:

                                         Figure echoes
Figure faintly in the saturated depths:
Revealed by faint flashes of each other
They light the whole confines: a fitful garden …
A child plucks death and tastes it; a shade watches
Over him; the child fades and the shade, made flesh,
Stumbles on understanding, begins to fade,
Bequeathing a child in turn; woman shapes pass
Unseeing, full of knowledge, through each other. …

(p. 120)

A page or so later we’ve an ordinary wine-glass again, just drained. “We finish and rise to go” (p. 122).

One needs to read enough of these poems to see how normal is this irruption of unsettling vision into recognizable experience. In some of the early ones the recognizable experience is the experience of reading formal stanzas. In later ones it’s less literary, more tied to specificities of place and season, the rhetoric a carefully straightforward naming:

The Chapelizod Gate. Dense trees on our right,
Sycamores and chestnuts around the entrance
To St. Mary’s Hospital.

(p. 117)

Metrical and acoustic signs enjoin us to read slowly, giving weight to each word, aware of “dense” and “sycamores” and “entrance” as rich mouth-filling syllabifications. If we patter through such lists we shall be unduly disturbed when we encounter, as we shall, the unpredictably portentous. And if that happens it’s our own fault, since for Kinsella, as for us if we learn to share his sensibility, a small adjective like “dense” is already portentous. (Try it over in your mouth.) “He was densely distressed,” wrote Joseph Conrad once, achieving something rich and strange out of unawareness, possibly, that he was violating English idiom. Kinsella’s “dense trees” is English idiom, but—come to think of it—a strange idiom, strange as Joyce’s “rare white forms” “sustaining vain gestures in the air.” Grant Kinsella his decentered sense of the normal and those eerie portents of his are continuous with it, a little more intense but not radically other. His straight lines bend, his floors wobble. Dead Yeats, in his quatrains, is eaten by “the tireless shadow-eaters”:

They eat, but cannot eat.
Dog faces in his bowels,
Bitches at his face,
He grows whole and remote.

(p. 98)

(The poem is called “Death in Ilium: in Yeats’s Centenary Year.”) “Whole and remote”: that’s a triumphant state for the poet who aimed at “ghostly solitude.” It’s also a relief for any Irish poet of Kinsella’s generation, a generation for which Yeats can constitute a major problem. If one can’t ignore such a predecessor, neither does one want to be listed among his supernumeraries. By good luck, Yeats lent himself to the ministrations of the learned “shadow-eaters,” who in dismembering and reconstructing him according to his own instructions turn him into an instance of his own System, the wholeness systematic, the remoteness algebraic. For this we may thank his central limitation: he had no inner knowledge whatever of Catholic Ireland, and was forced to substitute for its traditions, its theology and its night-sweats the famous apparatus of spooks and gyres, to lend the visions some accreditation:

Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth. …

But a people who wake their dead and pray for them (see Kinsella’s “Office for the Dead,” p. 79) have no need of mediums.

Knowing these people, Kinsella has discovered the freedom to derive from Yeats without being derivative, and to invoke Joyce like a tutelary spirit:

Watcher in the tower, be with me now
At your parapet, above the glare of the lamps.
Turn your milky spectacles on the sea
Unblinking; cock your ear.

(p. 108)

“Watcher in the tower,” that might be Yeats at Thoor Ballylee, but in its context (“Nightwalker,” II) it’s Joyce at Sandycove. Under his and the poet’s gaze something rises from the dark sea:

 Two blazing eyes
Then a whole head. Shoulders of shadowy muscle
Lit from within by joints and bones of light.
Another head … animal, with nostrils straining
Open, red as embers: goggle eyes;
A spectral whinny! Forehoofs scrape at the night,
A rider grunts and urges.
 Father of Authors!
It is himself! In silk hat and jowls,
Accoutred in stern jodhpurs! The sonhusband
Coming in his power: mounting to glory
On his big white harse! …

(p. 108)

Swift is here, seen through the eyes of Yeats and Joyce, all three presences managed by Thomas Kinsella: the poetry of a haunted literature that has learned to rehearse and ironize the nightmare from which it cannot awake.


A check came from Wake Forest, then a silence of some weeks; then a frigid letter of rejection (“Profoundly regret that I cannot use … would neither encourage sales nor direct the reader to Kinsella’s very special powers … Your reserved tone and manifest lack of interest. …”)

And: “I had understood that your essay would explain reasons for re-issuing these poems and that it would recommend Kinsella’s work. Instead, it digresses from the important issues in his poetry, and in terms that range from tepid to cool.”

There was also some quibbling about whether the watcher isn’t Yeats after all.1


One normally buries such absurdities. I decided this time the story was worth telling because it illuminates so economically a normally unmentioned component of the current Irish literary situation: the nervousness, the silly paranoia, the fear of not being liked, the constant shuffling for position in an undefined game. All this is endemic among the bards, and infects their sponsors. Any two interested parties will be quick to agree that all the above is true of everybody else.

I once reviewed—very favorably—in the New York Times Book Review a work by a well-known living Irish poet and received a strange letter in which he was grateful for my not attacking him.

“They never speak well of one another,” said Dr. Johnson of Irish impartiality. Nor do they always know when they are well spoken of. “Great hatred, little room”: that is not a milieu in which to assemble a Movement. As one broods on such themes Yeats’s gratitude for Coole grows intelligible.

And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air. …

And he next spoke of “intellectual sweetness.” It is easy to condescend to the Revival now, but the more one examines it the more remarkable seems its unity of purpose, or appearance of unity.


And Kinsella: “Dr. Kinsella,” a friend insists: the poems of Dr. Kinsella. A proper treatment—not an Introduction meant to predispose readers—would note how the purified diction, the found voice, is accompanied by a withdrawal into intense, intensely private speech. “In the Ringwood,” an early poem, offers a reader gestures of hospitality—familiar Victorian diction, “red lips,” “the green hill side,” and a six-line stanza thrice rhymed. But these are conventions, a reader soon senses, not meant to be trusted; for though the year is 1958 the stanza and diction pertain to “The Blessed Damozel”:

As sharp a lance as the fatal heron
There on the sunken tree
Will strike in the stones of the river
Was the gaze she bent on me.
O her robe into her right hand
She gathered grievously.

(p. 23)

—a language impossible to believe in, which is just the point: not accommodation to a reader, not living ceremony, but a husk of ceremony, due to wither before our eyes. As it does:

Dread, a grey devourer,
Stalks in the shade of love.
The dark that dogs our feet
Eats what is sickened of.
The End that stalks Beginning
Hurries home its drove.

(p. 24)

So as early as that we have the Kinsella Effect: an irruption of darkness and of violent enigmatic language. As early as that, too, the reader is placed as in a Piranesi dungeon, where surfaces are illusory.

And in a late poem it is not even clear what is there to be mistaken for a surface. I quote “The Clearing” intact:

‘… there is so little I can do any more
but it is nearly done …’
It is night. A troubled figure
is moving about its business
muttering between the fire and the gloom.
Impenetrable growth surrounds him.
Owlful. Batful.
Great moths of prey.
‘… and still the brainworm will not sleep
squirming behind the eyes
staring out from its narrow box …’
He stops suddenly and straightens.
The eyes grow sharper
—and the teeth!
‘… and then the great ease
when something that was stalking us
is taken—the head cut off
held by the fur
the blood dropping hot
the eye-muscles star-bright to my jaws! …’

(p. 184)

Speech alternating with narration; but neither will serve as reliable ground from which to gauge the other. So vertigo afflicts the whole poem, and the reader goes into free fall along with everything else. Insofar as “The Clearing,” or almost any late Kinsella poem, treats a reader at all, it treats him as an element in the poem’s strategy: not someone addressed, but someone to be deceived, by various devices of rhetoric and typography, into expecting what will not be provided. For that is how it is in the world of these poems: nothing we might expect will be provided.

                               … The books agree,
one hopes for too much.
It is ridiculous.
We are elaborate beasts.
If we concur it is only
In our hunger—the soiled gullet …
and sleep’s airy nothing:
and the moist matter of lust
and the agonies of death. …

(p. 183)

Rejecting any more communality than that, rejecting everything save the license to tell private nightmares, these poems take the important risk of rejecting the grounds of poetry itself: poetry as it was defined for Ireland by Yeats (“Irish poets, learn your trade”). A “trade” is objective, that for which standards and criteria exist. Kinsella’s poetry is definable as that which he does. Therein lies both its interest and its risk. Therein too lies the seed of much anxiety among his well-wishers, for the question, how you judge his poetry, converts readily into the question, what do you think of Tom?

The necessity of disengaging from Yeats seems self-evident, and it is difficult to think of a living or recent Irish poet who didn’t, one way or another, accomplish that disengagement pretty completely. Not only was Yeats’s rhetoric bound up with a pose it would be disastrous to try to emulate, not only were his themes those of a long-dead Ascendancy (“Scorn the sort now growing up”—meaning the Catholic middle classes into which most Irish poets are born): not only that, but his criteria were those of English Romanticism and the English Renaissance, incompatible with the contemporary modes of Irish self-esteem. Robert Gregory was “Our Sidney and our perfect man.” Kinsella’s Gregory, Seán O Riada (1931–1971), protagonist of an ambitious elegy in The Peppercanister Poems, was not only “Ireland’s foremost composer and musician” but a virtuoso of Latin, Greek, French, philosophy, the connoisseurship of science fiction, a mime, a shrimp fisherman, a drinker. Yet no such emblem as “our Sidney” is available.

Pierrot limping forward in the sun
out of Merrion Square, long ago,
in black overcoat and beret,
pale as death from his soiled bed,
swallowed back: animus
brewed in clay, uttered
in brief meat and brains, flattened
back under our flowers.
Gold and still he lay,
on his secondlast bed. Dottore! A
withered smile,
the wry hands lifted. A little while
and you may not …

Pierrot, Shakespeare’s “second-best bed” and Joyce’s memorable play on that phrase, a scrap of Italian (the sick man playful), an allusion to John xiv.19: it is by such indirections that the modern poet supplies the lack of some single emblem backed by a whole literature and culture.

“A Selected Life” and “Vertical Man,” the pair of O Riada elegies, are accompanied by fifteen pages of prose which engagingly establish the dead man’s kind of presence. Here is one measure of what Kinsella’s intensely solipsistic verse cannot accomplish; when he would give us information, even the kind of iconic information around which a personal legend may gather, he knows he must do so in prose. What Yeats had made available was unusable; and what Yeats did not do for the speech of Republican Ireland still remains to be done.


  1. “Joyce’s Martello Tower,” we read on p. 107; the watcher has “milky spectacles,” and in lines not quoted above “Howth twinkles across the bay.” “Father of Authors! It is himself!,” “sonhusband,” and “big white harse” are based on details in Finnegans Wake (New York, 1939), pp. 214, 627, 10.

Principal Works

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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

A Selected Life (poetry) 1972

The Good Fight (poetry) 1973

New Poems, 1973 (poetry) 1973

Selected Poems, 1956-1968 (poetry) 1973

Vertical Man (poetry) 1973

One (poetry) 1974

A Technical Supplement (poetry) 1975

The Messenger (poetry) 1978

Song of the Night and Other Poems (poetry) 1978

Fifteen Dead (poetry) 1979

One and Other Poems (poetry) 1979

Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978 (poetry) 1979

Poems, 1956-1973 (poetry) 1979

Poems, 1956-1976 (poetry) 1980

Selected Poems of Austin Clarke [editor] (poetry) 1980

An Duanaire: 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed [translator, with Sean O Tuama] (poetry) 1981

Her Vertical Smile (poetry) 1985

Songs of the Psyche (poetry) 1985

The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse [editor and translator] (poetry) 1986

Out of Ireland (poetry) 1987

St. Catherine's Clock (poetry) 1987

One Fond Embrace (poetry) 1988

Blood and Family (poetry) 1989

Personal Places (poetry) 1990

Poems from Centre City (poetry) 1990

Madonna and Other Poems (poetry) 1991

Open Court (poetry) 1991

The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (essay) 1995

The Collected Poems, 1956-1994 (poetry) 1996

The Pen Shop (poetry) 1997

The Familiar (poetry) 1999

Godhead (poetry) 1999

Peggy F. Broder (essay date Spring 1979)

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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 increased; while Kinsella’s tone remains authoritative, he has allowed himself to leave certain questions unanswered, other thoughts half-finished, so that, finally, we feel that he has gained the confidence not to know everything. The poetry is more difficult than ever before—he used not to be elliptical and fragmentary—but it is also more interesting than ever before.

Kinsella is tenacious of theme in these books, still concerned to explore what it means to be a husband, a son, a poet—a human being; still wondering whether there can be a reconciliation between the demands of self and the requirements of love; still weighing the conflicting witness of what reason tells us and what feeling insists upon; still trying to make sense of the facts of evil, of death. Truth is still the goal, and truth-telling includes admitting that things have not changed a great deal since he confessed its difficulty in “Baggot Street Deserta,” where Art is

For the One, a private masterpiece
Of doctored recollections. Truth
Concedes, before the dew, its place
In the spray of dried forgettings Youth
Collected when they were a single
Furious undissected bloom.

(SP 26–27)

In Notes, Kinsella still gnaws at this question, epitomized in the punning title of “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench,” for the worker’s whole glittering construct may be nothing but a pack of lies: “It’s all done with mirrors.” On the other hand, “worker in mirror” refers to the man’s own reflection: the poet sees nothing but himself, so how can he hope to tell the whole truth?

What to call it …
                                         Bright Assembly?
Foundations for a Tower?
Open Trap? Circular-Tending
Self-Reflecting Abstraction. …


Given all this, one nevertheless does not give up; if the most one can do is putter aimlessly or even bungle, that is better than nothing. The search is elliptical, but persistent.

If not in the themes, wherein does the change in Kinsella’s poetry lie? Phrases of “Worker in Mirror” suggest the answer: “pursuit at its most delicate” and “bending attention on the remaining depths.” In his latest books Kinsella explores emotional deeps, with a freedom—almost a recklessness—that his earlier poems, with a few exceptions, have not exhibited. Thoroughly satisfactory from the standpoints of technical control, precision, and intellectual toughness and objectivity, his books have offered us the vision of a man of incisive intellect, painful honesty, and clear-eyed rationality. This is not to say that the poems lack emotion; rather, it is that all the emotion seems to have been processed by reason, accepted only after it was examined, understood, and controlled. Diction and rhythms are measured, gently contemplative, or reminiscent. From the beginning the poems show a shyness of emotion: “the heart’s calling is but to go stripped and diffident” (SP 14) or a belief that emotion is the woman’s business.

His business is the intellectual search for order, a strong component in Kinsella’s work. Indeed it is in any art; he admires, for example, “the mathematic / Passion of a cello suite” in “Baggot Street Deserta” (SP 26: my italics). The great questions demand answers; death cries out for an explanation. “The ticking stars keep order” in “An Ancient Ballet” (AS 20), but nothing can make their order human; “Baggot Street Deserta” shows a window open on “a crawling arch of stars,” and the poet laments the completeness of the privacy of the Real. Nonetheless, he continues to value and to search for order despite his recognition that the search is futile. “Nightwalker” is the first major poem that comes to grips with the implications of disorder: he is mindful

Of will that gropes for
Not unmindful of
           the madness without,
The madness within (the
           book of reason slammed
Open, slammed shut).

(SP 85)

An increased respect for the “book of madness” is the most striking thing about the new poems—taking madness to stand for any knowledge that defies the rules of logical modes of cognition—and this respect is first and conspicuously evident in the forms of the poems. Kinsella’s deeper probing into the creative sources has released a poetry with a greater visceral excitement than he has yet presented; the conventional shapes that had begun to relax in Nightwalker and Other Poems, particularly in the title poem itself, are now relinquished. In Notes,One, and A Technical Supplement we find not only free verse forms but also a willingness to let the disorder of the thought or feeling emerge in fragmentary syntax and broken rhythm.

Kinsella’s poems are often consciously sequential, affording an opportunity to isolate a small group in which to examine this process of change at work. The “Wormwood” series (Nw 21–30)2 is linked to “Phoenix Park” (SP 101–110) by the repetition not only of ideas but also of the words in which they are phrased. “Phoenix Park” is in its turn linked to “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again,” the first poem in Notes, by the fact that the last four lines of “Phoenix Park” are printed as the first four of “hesitate. …”3 “Wormwood” dissects with painful honesty the bitter difficulties of married love; “Phoenix Park,” long, contemplative, and sweeter in tone, reflects upon the rewards of continuing to struggle with those difficulties; “hesitate …” exhibits a new mode of seeing, one which the poet has credited his wife with teaching him in “Phoenix Park.” A suggestion of the difference can be seen in the cadence, syntax, and diction of lines from “Phoenix Park”:

Such fires as one I have seen gutter and fail
And, as it sank, reveal the fault in its heart
Opening on abstract darkness, where hunger
Came with gaping kiss over terrible wastes

(SP 109)

and from “hesitate …”:

                                                                      So sunless.
That sour coolness … So far from the world and earth …
No bliss, no pain; dullness after pain.
A cistern-hiss … A thick tunnel stench
Rose to meet me. Frightful. Dark nutrient waves
And I knew no more.

(Notes 4)

Images of circularity, return, and repetition pervade all these poems: the “Wormwood” series begins in nakedness and ends in nothingness; “Phoenix Park” is structured upon a journey that is circular both literally and figuratively, and “hesitate …” ends with the graphic symbol resembling an open egg. Taken as a sequence, however, the poems show a linear progression from the near-despairing tone of “Wormwood,” with its iteration of marital wounds and hurts repeated over and over, through the warm tribute of husband to wife in “Phoenix Park,” to the exalted conclusion of “hesitate. …”

Even the “Wormwood” series is, finally, affirmative, if only tentatively and grimly so: love is seen as the only means of achieving the coherence and order that man continually seeks. The ability to love must be gained by an act of will, a refusal in the face of repeated ordeals and defeats to surrender to hopelessness, incoherence, or disintegration. The Prologue to the group of poems insists on “a restored necessity to learn” as “the only individual joy”; and bitterness accepted and absorbed results in “resumed innocence,” the present ordeal transcended in order to go on with greater understanding toward the next. Victory lies in the transmutation of the bitterness to a broader vision: “a wider scope, a more penetrating harmony.” If, suffering these repeated bitter doses, we do not stubbornly insist in the face of experience on beginning again, we die; guilt and failure are death. Never quite despairingly, the “Wormwood” poems deal with the harsh struggle for transmutation and growth. If they are, finally, affirmative, their affirmation is limited, insisting upon the reality of the anguish of assimilating the bitter cup that comes “again,” “once more,” “each night,” “each dawn”; but they also insist upon the necessity of grasping whatever small triumph can be seized, as justification for an obstinate faith that the reward is worth the anguish.

The form of the series reinforces the Prologue’s insistence upon repetition. It is not quite circularity, for one ends not exactly where he began, but in a higher innocence. The first and last poems, “On a Gift in the Shape of a Heart,” and “Je t’adore,” surround the harsher central poems of strife,4 leaving the reader with a sense that love is, after all being affirmed, first and last. Here as in the earlier “Baggot Street Deserta” boredom is the enemy. The antithesis of energy and openness, it undoes the innocent vision that alone keeps man receptive and vulnerable. Experience repeated too many times dulls the senses and the heart; we fail to renew the confrontation, to resume innocence, and the spirit dies. Adult experience is contrasted with childish innocence, in regret that it cannot last; and adult sleep offers, too, only a fragile and temporary refuge from the guilt of consciousness.5 In spite of all this, the final brief poem, “Je t’adore,” concludes the series in wry affirmation:

The other props are gone.
Sighing in one another’s
Iron arms, propped above nothing,
We praise Love the limiter.

(Nw 30)

Auden has said that it is not possible to love and be free; here love limits, his arms are iron: still the lovers praise, not in spite of the fact that love limits, but because of it.

The long, reflective “Phoenix Park” more fully assimilates the experiences with which the “Wormwood” series deals in a confessional way, at least tentatively achieving the reconciliation sought there and affirming a faith that essential differences can make up a unity. The language of the third section of “Phoenix Park” makes clear the similarity of theme in it and “Wormwood,” whose Prologue states, “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,” and later, “Love also, it seems, will continue until we fail. …” In “Phoenix Park,”

Love, it is certain, continues till we fail,
Whenever (with your forgiveness) that may be
—At any time, now, totally, ordeal
Succeeding ordeal till we find some death,
Hoarding bitterness, or refusing the cup.

(SP 107)

The speaking voice of “Phoenix Park” is differently pitched, however. The speaker in “Wormwood” understands the need to accept the ordeal-cup at an intellectual level, but it remains a necessary evil. “Phoenix Park,” on the other hand, makes clear that there was something yet to learn: intellectual acceptance is not enough, and to the woman goes credit for teaching the speaker that acceptance can also be at a deeper, emotional level. Because things do not exist without their opposites, pain, hunger, and death can be welcomed as assurance of joy, fulfillment, and life. He has dreamed of a nearly mathematical order in life, like that of the stars; she teaches him to relinquish that dream in favor of an order that is paradoxically almost chaotic: alternation of birth and death, light and darkness, vision and blindness.

Earlier poems have shown Kinsella greatly concerned with shaping the disparate fragments of existence into order: “Phoenix Park” culminates in an achieved order. If it is not the one expected, it is one he can accept; and his acceptance depends on what his wife’s “bodily knowledge” has taught him. The struggle between the intellectual will and an intuitive understanding is one of the major conflicts to be resolved before maturity and peace—that is, the integration of opposing aspects of the self—can come. “Fair Ellinor” knows that life cannot achieve the stasis of art; what does not change is not life but death. Nonetheless, his created poem and their created love represent at least a momentary triumph over the chaos of change.

The poem is organized on two levels: the outer, shorter journey between Dublin and Lucan that prefigures a longer journey to come, and the inner exploration of the journey of self-development that is marriage and life. For sections of varying lengths are presented in tightly controlled stanzas, five lines of eleven syllables each. A frequent strategy of the Nightwalker collection is followed: each section opens with description of landscape or weather before moving to its contemplation of inner weather. The melancholy autumnal damp of the opening stanzas of these sections underlines the apprehension the couple feels at leaving Ireland. Yet this period of momentary stasis, when the old life has ended and the new not yet begun, offers a resting point from which to view love’s architecture. The larger structure of the poem is based on his answer to her question as to why he writes her no love songs any more. Reflecting on this, he realizes that all he can offer her is a “positive dream”—another way of expressing the necessity to resume innocence. The first section of the poem offers her the preparation for the dream; the second presents the dream itself; the third is a further tribute to “Fair Ellinor”; and the fourth, after a satirical description of contemporary Dublin, culminates in a vision of new life arising from abstract darkness.

The course of the literal journey out to Lucan is set out in some detail, but the difficult architecture of love is not so easily evoked. Each brief description of one of the stages of the outer journey is followed by a reverie or reminiscence of what the inner journey has been, a dream of achieving undying love, exploring the conflicts that must be overcome; we also see those aspects of the poet’s boyhood and youth that helped to prepare him for a more mature understanding. Acknowledging that it is chiefly through his wife that he has reached such understanding, the poem shows his mistaken hunger for mathematical precision—offering, perhaps, rules and laws that render things predictable—replaced by recognition of an order of an organic nature in which opposites coexist, contain each other: heat and cold, dryness and moisture, light and dark, mind and body, male and female, loving and hating, birth and death—images of all these saturate the poem. She knows, too, that only the willingness to give oneself in love makes sense of nonsense and offers an order to live by in the midst of disorder.

Underlying and pulling together these opposites is the hovering figure of the phoenix; setting the poem in Dublin’s Phoenix Park enables Kinsella to play with a constellation of images clustered around the legendary symbol for the reconciliation of male and female, death and rebirth. Reiterated imagery of fire and darkness may also originate in the phoenix legend. After the quotation from Crashaw which serves as epigraph: “The Phœnix builds the Phœnix’ nest, / Love’s architecture is his own,” the phoenix is not directly mentioned, but is evoked only through imagery. Out of the intricate architecture of interwoven metaphors of opposites grows a kind of enfolding phoenix’s nest of love. Like the Christ Child of Crashaw’s “In the Holy Nativity of our Lord God,” the man and woman make their own house of love.6

Another omnipresent image informs a large number of references to eating and drinking. As the phoenix is consumed by the flames before its resurrection, man is consumed by a feverish hunger for order that leads him to devour experience, to drink of the ordeal-cup, so that he may assimilate these foreign substances into himself, using them for spiritual growth. If all living things require nourishment, apparently Life itself requires the nourishment of the individual lives that go to make it up; man eats both literally and metaphorically in order to live and is in his generations consumed by Life—or Death; these opposites here coalesce. The eighth stanza of the first section expresses the boy’s or young man’s emerging awareness:

Later, in freezing darkness, I came alone
To the railings round the Pond; whispered Take
I am nothing. But the words hovered,
their sense
Revealing opposite within opposite.
Understanding moved, a silent bright discus.

(SP 102)

In the crystal that forms in the ordeal-cup of the poem, Kinsella has found a superb image to reinforce the phoenix as symbol for reconciliation of opposites. Crystal, a perfectly orderly, inorganic substance, can grow and changes like a living organism. Here it is an oxymoronic “living” crystal of tissue, and represents light opposed to darkness, life opposed to death, order opposed to chaos, the unseeing vision of knowledge opposed to intellection. The poem draws a strong contrast between the steadiness of the woman’s vision, “the unmoving / Stare of full desire,” which is “the vivifying eye,” and his “flickering-eyed / Stone self.” The image of the crystal, “filled with light,” is thus closely linked, like the phoenix, to the poem’s final vision: “A thought of fires in the hearts of darknesses, / A darkness at the heart of every fire, / Darkness, fire, darkness, threaded on each other” (SP 109).

The final section of the poem returns man and wife to Dublin and the park, full of memories of times when they found their enemies in their own bodies, a contrast made again between emotion and intellect in “white handkerchief [for tears], white page” and “a gift of tissue / Torn free from my life in an odour of books.” The vision of the pulsating alternation of fire and darkness, each necessary for the other’s being, is followed by another vision of a continual flux of death and birth: “Certain half-dissolved—half-formed—beings loomed close: / A Child with eaten features eating something— / Another, with unfinished features, in white—” (SP 109). The poem ends on a note at once fearful and confident:

A snake out of the void moves in my mouth, sucks
At triple darkness. A few ancient faces
Detach and begin to circle. Deeper still
Delicate distinct tissue begins to form,

and these final lines become either the epigraph for or the first lines of the untitled poem that introduces the section of Notes that is itself called “Notes from the Land of the Dead.” The first new line of the poem is “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again.”

The poem introduces themes and imagery significant throughout the “Notes from the Land of the Dead” section, whose subdivisions are titled “an egg of being,” “a single drop,” and “nightnothing.” Private reference and ellipses, unfinished sentences, missing transitions, repeated images whose meaning is not always clear make a difficult poetry. Kinsella himself has said that the main subject matter is the relationship between a young boy and an old woman, the boy’s grandmother, who takes on, as the poems succeed one another, a sinister aspect; Robert Graves would call her the goddess in her aspect as crone, woman as antagonist of man and jealous holder of the secret of life. “hesitate …” describes the poet’s search for that secret, his arming himself before he sets out with magic spells: early in the poem we see him preparing, wrapped in a long grey robe, rubbing his forehead, reaching for his “canister and kettle, the long-handled spoon, / metal vessels and delph” (Notes 3). Context transmutes the homely implements into those of the alchemist, whose search, Jung tells us, is ultimately the search for knowledge of the self; Kinsella’s next lines confirm this:

          Then, getting quietly ready
to go down quietly out of my mind,
I have lain down on the soiled divan
alert as though for a journey
and turned to things not right nor reasonable.
At such a time I wouldn’t thank
the Devil himself to knock at my door.

Parallels to the archetypal quest of the hero7 become evident as the poem continues. The speaker goes on a journey to unknown, perilous depths and wrests a prize from the “naked ancient women” guarding it. Woman here is crone and enemy, in contrast to the role of wife as woman-as-muse, benign and giving, in “Phoenix Park.” In that poem he learned to accept the validity of the kind of knowledge found in things neither right nor reasonable; through his love for “fair Ellinor” he learned to give up the “designing will” and yield a part of himself to the unreasoned.

“hesitate …” describes a journey down, ironically, out of his mind, deep into the unconscious. The acceptance found in “Phoenix Park” turns out to have been, after all, only another early stage, thin and intellectual; still “artless, loveless,” as “hesitate …” says. After the epigraph from “Phoenix Park” ends with “Deeper still, / delicate distinct tissue begins to form,” the new poem begins:

hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again,
dither in and out of a mother liquid
on the turn, welling up from God knows what hole.
Dear God, if I had known how far and deep,
how long and cruel, I think my being
would have blanched: appalled.
How artless, how loveless I was then!

(Notes 3)

Like “Phoenix Park,” this poem embodies a journey in search of love, truth, poetry. The circular and temporal journey of the earlier poem begins in the present, extends through memory, returns to the green world of the present, and then, in the final stanzas, reaches toward the future. The journey in “hesitate …,” imaged in terms of an egg dropped and broken, descends into the deeps of the self, “time, distance, / meaning nothing,” and the searcher’s quest leads him to an infernal region; drifting in and out of consciousness he is aware of “countless forms drifting as I did, / wavery albumen bodies / each burdened with an eye” (Notes 5). At the heart of the pit is the cauldron of life over whose lip “a vapour of forms / curdled, glittered and vanished.” The ancient women sit in a ring with mouths open ready to swallow up any one who dares approach their secret: “Nothingness silted under their thighs / and over their limp talons.”

The confrontation of nothingness at the center is not easy, but the reward of doing so must be great, for the poet has returned, carrying his prize, though “How it was done—that that pot should now / be boiling before you … I remember only snatches.” What the prize is we are not told: the secret of creativity, of love, of the source of life? No doubt all three and more, for the poem ends

Yet by the five wounds of Christ
I struggled toward, by the five digits
of this raised hand, by this key
they hold now, glowing, and reach out with
to touch … you shall have …
—what shall we not begin
           to have, on the
                     count of

[The poem ends with a graphic symbol resembling an open egg.]

This final symbol is richly ambiguous: all the symbols of “Notes from the Land of the Dead” in one: the egg of being, the single drop, nightnothingness. The egg: the origin, the self-sufficient, the self-nourishing. The drop: a tear, the fertilizing semen, the vivifying water; the drop into unconsciousness or death. Nightnothingness: zero, the womb, the cavern; again the unconscious or death. All these, as this and the other poems of this section make clear, can be embraced in this one sign; we can also read in the paradoxical knowledge that unless we contain everything, as “Phoenix Park” suggests, we are nothing. But, when we contain everything, we are also nothing, for the individual that is everything no longer contains any definition as an individual. The zero/egg is broken, perhaps in order that the complete solipsism of the self—what Kinsella calls here the “shell of solitude”—might be shattered, and so that it may be more open to other selves; and the self-egg is broken in the poem as he falls, in his dream-vision or sorcerer’s journey, through the iron grating to break “in a distress of gilt and silver, / scattered in a million droplets of / fright and loneliness …” (Notes 4).

The memory-source of this nightmare fall appears in the next poem, “Hen Woman,” first in the subsection of “Notes from the Land of the Dead” entitled “an egg of being.” The poem is a reminiscence of childhood, of an occasion on which the poet’s grandmother was unable to save an egg from dropping from the hen she held and smashing through a grating. And yet we do not know which—vision or event—came first, for the poem insists that “I had felt all this before …” and that time stood still. The emergence of the egg becomes the whole mystery of birth and death, in a rich complexity of imagery in some of its aspects reminiscent of “Phoenix Park” and yet new.

Kinsella’s habit of writing sequences of poems poses the commentator with the difficulty of knowing where to leave off; in a sense all the poems in “Notes from the Land of the Dead” follow “Phoenix Park” as it followed the “Wormwood” series. One follows the zero of “hesitate …,” and A Technical Supplement employs much of the imagery we have been investigating. But one must end, and the egg of being may serve as a stopping point.

What these poems offer, juxtaposed, is a view of the growth of understanding from the pinched shrillness of the husband-wife conflict of the “Wormwood” poems through the momentary resolution—the comma placed at the end of the poem in the latest edition is crucial—of “Phoenix Park” to the renewed conflict in “Notes.” Individual woman as antagonist becomes wife as muse, then archetypal woman as enemy who can yet be persuaded to yield her secret. The freer forms in Notes reflect the realization earned in “Phoenix Park” that emotional life does not submit to orderly categories. The departure in technique serves the old themes, deepening the poet’s—and our—understanding of them. He is still involved with the mysteries of life and death and still preoccupied with the search for self-knowledge and the desire to find an order into which man can place himself. While the modern crisis of identity has never been a conspicuous theme in Kinsella’s poetry, it underlies his search for order; in an orderly universe man would have a place, would know whether he is a mental and spiritual creature or simply an animal body; better, would know how to reconcile these two aspects of his being.

Until now, Kinsella’s hard thinking on these questions has resulted in fine poetry characterized on the whole by an intellectuality whose strengths are a tough-minded refusal to blink away the ugliest facts, a tight control of his craft, an ability to look clear-eyed at life’s and love’s bleakest landscapes. Its weaknesses were the obverse of these strengths: a sense of over control, near rigidity, a harshness of more than landscape. Notes wings free of these weaknesses, and seems to bring us the voice of the whole man.


  1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973 (hereafter cited as Notes). This volume is almost, but not quite, identical in content to the Dolmen Press’s New Poems 1973 (Dublin). Kinsella’s publishing history can hardly be described briefly. Thomas Dillon Redshaw gives a great deal of bibliographical material with his article, “The Wormwood Revisions” (ÉIRE-IRELAND VI, 2 [Summer, 1971], 111–156), and I shall simply list here the volumes I have cited in addition to Notes, with the abbreviations used in reference: Another September (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1962): AS; Nightwalker and Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968): Nw; Selected Poems 1956–1968 (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1973): SP; One (Dublin, Peppercanister, 1974); A Technical Supplement (Dublin: Peppercanister, 1976).

  2. Originally published by the Dolmen Press in 1966 as a separate volume. I have used the heavily revised Nightwalker version.

  3. In Nightwalker, in which “Phoenix Park” first appeared, the poem ends with a period. In Selected Poems it is moved to final position in the volume and “ends” with a coma; i.e., does not end.

  4. As they did not, in the original version, where “Wormwood” is the first poem of the series and “Je t’adore” does not appear at all.

  5. “Another September” also deals with this concept; the speaker watches his sleeping wife while “domestic Autumn … Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall / Sensing a fragrant child come back again / —Not this half-tolerated consciousness / Its own cold season never done, / But that unspeaking daughter, growing less / Familiar where we fell asleep as one” (SP 23). “Baggot Street Deserta” similarly sees the sleeper as in a temporary state of innocence: “Dreamers’ heads / Lie mesmerised in Dublin’s beds / Flashing with images, Adam’s morse” (SP 26). Consciousness, particularly that of the adult, intrudes into nature’s peace. In both “First Light” and “Another September” the garden—or Garden—offers its tenuous shelter only so long as it is dark.

  6. The conjunction of opposites is also reminiscent of the well known opening lines of Crashaw’s final chorus: “Welcome, all Wonders in one sight! / Eternity shut in a span. / Summer in Winter, Day in Night, / Heaven in earth, and God in Man.”

  7. Particularly as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

Dillon Johnston (essay date Winter 1980)

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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 illuminate, he misreads a poem and distorts issues.

In a 1979 issue of Eire-Ireland Daniel O’Hara has summarized concisely what other critics and readers of Kinsella have recognized: that from Nightwalker (1968) on this poet has developed

a complex lyric sequence that traces the history of a single consciousness as it moves back and forth between its present state of crisis and confusion and the past sources of its imaginative strengths. The ‘goal’ of the sequence is to increase understanding and acceptance of life by showing the necessary stages in the development of this consciousness.

We might add that “past sources” include myth and history. (The neuter references suggest that Mr. O’Hara sees no necessity to confuse the poetic persona with the poet.)

Just this suggestion that Kinsella’s poems have a larger architecture explains why a new arrangement of earlier poetry Poems, 1956–1973, might be issued as a necessary prologue to Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978.1 Reading the poems as a sequence and attending to recurrences, alternations, and cycles can only enhance our understanding of focal moments, such as that selected by Mr. Kenner from “Ritual of Departure.” As within the poem the recurrent light before closure and the post-Union setting reflect eviction in “the slowly blazing eyes,” so within the series, the poems “Phoenix Park,” “Endymion,” “Worker in Mirror,” and the invocation of Technical Supplement suggest that eyes blaze with a terminal or ultimate understanding, won at great cost.

Such attention to the sequence ought to clarify the most difficult poems, even the one selected by Mr. Kenner, who has a keen eye for the opaque, to represent Kinsella’s “intensely private speech.” Never mentioning “Notes from the Land of the Dead,” the group of poems Hibernia praised as the most significant volume from Ireland since The Tower, the critic has quoted entirely “The Clearing,” one of the “other poems” attached to that volume. To clarify this poem one might examine it within the small series of five poems that are based on five books, as Maurice Harmon and Carolyn Rosenberg have done.2 However, “Phoenix Park” and poems from “Notes …” might provide Mr. Kenner with that “reliable ground” he needs to judge “The Clearing.” In “Phoenix Park” we learn that love is predatory and requires an “answering hunger” (P, 119): “we eat pain in each other” (P, 122) and “giving without tearing is not possible” (P, 119). In “Endymion” Selene’s cycle of love wanes to the predatory “single drop” of Hecate’s owl (P, 154) (the phrase elsewhere signifies the humanizing tear and the Fall of man). The owl reappears “At the Crossroads” (P, 160), Hecate’s haunt, representing “all mouths everywhere so / in their need, turning on each furious / other.” “Sacrifice” reveals the residue of cannibalism in love’s clichés (P, 161). In “The Clearing” we find the hungering soul trapped in a skull, an idea basic to these five poems from “the books” as it is to beheading themes throughout ancient Irish literature. The “star-bright eyes,” “the fire and the gloom” begin love’s architecture: “A darkness at the heart of every fire, / Darkness, fire, darkness, threaded on each other—” (P, 125). The weary disclaimer that opens “The Clearing” echoes lines from another depressed poem, “Ely Place”: “a few / tentative tired endings over / and over …” (P, 167). “The Clearing” and the other intermittent austere poems in the series are beginnings as well, the necessary nights from which arises love, or the creations of mankind. Kinsella attempts to acknowledge our mortality and “to weave it into our lives” (P, 188) in order to create a Phoenix Nest, which becomes the compensating structure of his later volumes. Even in the bleakest poems, such as “Drowsing Over the Arabian Nights” (P, 183), the creative process allows us to endure our own share in Shahryar’s predatory love, as poem and title imply.

Rather than “an evidential world,” Kinsella’s imagery recreates an experienced world as perceived through shifting levels of consciousness: memory irrupts into reflection, phobia jostles daydream. In restricting clear visual images to moments ruled empirically, Kinsella observes a tradition defended by Wordsworth in the Prelude: “The bodily eye,” Wordsworth complained, is “in every stage of life the most despotic of our senses.” “To thwart this tyranny,” he continues, Nature “summons all the senses each to counteract the other” (XII, 130). Kinsella’s poems have a high incidence of tasting, touching, and hearing. Discoveries replace epiphanies, and discovering is more likely uncovering, too close at hand to be comfortable. When these moments recapture a child’s fears during the stage of self-differentiation, they may become forms of “the Uncanny.” Consider the opening of “38 Phoenix Street,” for example:

                    I was lifted up
past rotten bricks weeds
to look over the wall.
A mammy lifted up a baby on the other side.
Dusty smells. Cat. Flower bells
hanging down purple red.
                     The other. Looking.
My finger picked at a bit of dirt
on top of the wall and a quick
wiry redgolden thing
ran back down a little hold.

(Pp, 64)

The child confounds the other and himself, as the flower and salamander evoke some anatomical discovery, such as the child’s first tapping of blood. The image is visual and palpable, perhaps closer to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry’s definition of an organic image—“awareness of hearbeat, pulse, breathing, and digestion”—than to a merely tactile sensation. Frequently Kinsella fills larger spaces with these organic rhythms, as in “Minstrel”:

Outside, the heavens listened,
a starless diaphragm
stopped miles overhead
to hear the remotest whisper
of returning matter, missing
an enormous black beat.

(Pp, 66)

Often these images function as metaphors, providing rapid transport between modes of perceiving our private worlds—sexual, anatomical, psychological—and modes of perceiving or structuring shared experiences—history, myth, the commercial urban conventions. In “Nightwalker,” the speaker reminds us with phrases such as “musing thus” that these metaphorical hinges are merely opening different levels of his own thoughts: we track him easily as he observes televiewers, then imagines them to be first spirits in a Necropolis and then larvae in a waxen hive. In one passage (P, 105), the nightwalker, observing the Gemini, remembers the German twins who consulted him that morning about investing in Irish land. He recalls their faces, “livid with little splashes of blazing fat.” The next statement, “The oven door closes,” forms an inevitable but complex poem-in-itself which evokes fables about acquisition and burning such as the Nibelungenlied, Hansel & Gretel, and the rationalization of the Jewish holocaust. The transitions of “Nightwalker” are suppressed in the later poems where these various levels of response are presented dramatically, often in disjoined sections of the poem. The reader must move into the narrative center, draw relations, and allow himself to be reminded of significance as it has evolved elsewhere in the series.

The source of this multi-level imagery—historical, mythical, literary, psychological, personal—that emanates from one consciousness could be Pound, or Vico, who believed that “history was the actualization in time of possibilities that could be deduced by study of the individual mind; history moved in patterns discoverable in that mind,” in the words of Richard Ellmann.3 More likely, Kinsella’s mode is derived from Vico’s student Joyce, who dramatized this view of history as a projection of the anxieties and musings of Bloom and Stephen in “Circe” and of HCE in Finnegans Wake.

Mention of Joyce, “the tutelary spirit” of “Nightwalker” and perhaps the watcher over Kinsella’s entire series, brings us to another limitation of Mr. Kenner’s “preface,” one that spills into his “reflections.” Apparently knowing very little of Kinsella’s tradition, he misrepresents Yeats’s place in it. By the publication of “Nightwalker” in 1968 Yeats was no longer an active influence. After quoting from that poem—“The sonhusband / Coming in his power: mounting to glory / On his big white harse! …” (P, 108), Mr. Kenner explains, “Swift is here, seen through the eyes of Yeats and Joyce, all three presences managed by Thomas Kinsella.” The poem gives no evidence that Yeats is a watcher with Joyce and the nightwalker. Interpreting Swift as the object of their vision confuses the satirist with the pimp for Productive Investment mentioned on page 107, and therefore constitutes a pretty careless misreading.4

To draw Kinsella into a lengthy comparison with Yeats as Mr. Kenner does both in his “preface” and his “reflections” seems in 1980 parochial, and tedious to readers who have encountered a half-dozen more informed comparisons between Yeats and post-Yeatsian poets, including Kinsella’s own essays.5 Mr. Kenner would hold Kinsella to a standard of “poetry as it was defined for Ireland by Yeats,” require of Kinsella’s contemporary, post-holocaust poetry “some single emblem backed by a whole literature and culture,” and compare the two elegies—“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and “A Selected Life”—without reference to their incomparable intentions.

It seems impertinent for our critic to assess what Kinsella has done “for the speech of Republican Ireland,” first because Kinsella’s audience is not insular, and then because Kenner seems oblivious to what, from “a gapped, discontinuous, polyglot tradition,”6 Kinsella has created for himself and other readers and poets. Through his inspired translation of The Táin (Oxford, 1970), Kinsella has made Ireland’s primary heroic cycle as available to readers as The Song of Roland or Beowulf. Dolmen Press recently published An Duanaire, 100 poems in Irish from 1600–1900, arranged by Sean O Touma and translated by Kinsella, a labor of several years. Furthermore, as the editor of the new Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Kinsella will soon offer his own version of the Irish poetic tradition.

It may be clear where “the nervousness” and “silly paranoia,” by which Mr. Kenner accounts for the rejection of his preface, are actually manifested in this exchange. Kinsella was never nervous about the preface; he simply did not want one, foreseeing that half his life’s work might be preceded by uninspired prose. He consented to my suggestion that Mr. Kenner write the preface perhaps because they share an admiration for Pound’s poetry and because he admired that critic’s independence. (At that time neither of us had seen Mr. Kenner’s encomium on the cover of Basil Bunting’s 1978 collection.7) Kinsella neither had a part in sending back the preface, nor was he disappointed that a critic could not do for him what Kinsella himself had done in his preface and notes for Austin Clarke.8

Readers, and critics, might learn from the magnanimity reflected in Kinsella’s unselfish recovery of Irish literature and in his generosity toward other poets in his own poetry. Committed to excellence, he usually seeks his literary companions—Yeats, Pound, Goethe, O’Rahilly, Mann, Joyce—among those who live through their books. Although he admires Yeats, I doubt that he would pine for a movement, not even for the Movement Yeats fabled. For every Higgins or Gogarty a movement shelters, it expels a non-conformist such as Austin Clarke. Kinsella records Clarke’s visit to Coole Park and his forgiveness of Yeats’s inexplicable snubs: “So I forgot / His enmity.” Kinsella’s poem, entitled “Magnanimity,” goes on to offer a gentle answer to Clarke and, perhaps, to preface-writers, and to editors who seek prefaces:

Branches swayed and sank. You turned away and said
Coole might be built again as a place for poets.
Through the forbidden tree magnanimity passed.
I am sure that there are no places for poets,
Only changing habitations for verse to outlast.

(P, 95)


  1. These volumes, published by Wake Forest University Press (1979), will be cited by initials and page numbers within the text: Poems 1956–1973 as P; Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978 as Pp.

  2. Maurice Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1974); Carolyn Rosenberg, Let Our Gaze Blaze, unpublished dissertation at Kent State University, 1980. This latter work promises to be our most thorough study of Kinsella’s poetry.

  3. Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 141.

  4. In my letter to Mr. Kenner, which he has misrepresented in the footnote to his article, I point out “two misreadings”: “Yeats … hangs around to witness in the poem, as you read it. Swift’s presence in the poem seems even more improbable.”

  5. Thomas Kinsella, “The Divided Mind” in Irish Poets in English, ed. Lucy (Cork: Mercier, 1973), pp. 208–18; and Davis, Mangan, Ferguson? Tradition and the Irish Writer (Dublin: Dolmen, 1970). See also Samuel Hynes, “Yeats and the Poets of the Thirties,” in Modern Irish Literature, ed. Porter and Brophy (New York: Iona, 1972), pp. 1–22; Maurice Harmon, Irish Poetry After Yeats (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1979); John Montague, “Under Ben Bulben,” in Shenandoah, 16, iv (Summer, 1965), 21–24; Thomas Parkinson, “Yeats and Contemporary Poetry,” in W. B. Yeats, The Later Poetry (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1964), pp. 232–43.

  6. Kinsella, “The Divided Mind,” p. 217.

  7. “There is no better poet alive than Basil Bunting, no happier reader than one encountering ‘Villon’ or Briggflatts for the first time, no reader more fulfilled than one retracing their intricate masculine music after long acquaintance.” (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978).

  8. Austin Clarke, Selected Poems, ed. Thomas Kinsella (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest Univ. Press, 1976). For a second example of critical magnanimity, see Robin Skelton’s “Comment” in The Malahat Review, July, 1980.

Further Reading

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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 The Lebor Gabála Érenn.Eire-Ireland XX, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 109-32.

Discusses the significance of myth and archetype, especially those derived from ancient Celtic literature and Jungian psychology, in Kinsella's poetry. John contends that Kinsella's work as a translator reveals the poet “reaching down into the ‘imaginative bedrock’ of Irish myth and history.”

Kellogg, David. “Kinsella, Geography, History.” South Atlantic Quarterly 95, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 145-71.

Examines themes of cultural and geographic “decentering” in Kinsella's poetry, drawing attention to interrelated aspects of personal, social, and national history in Kinsella's work and his identity as an Irish poet. Kellogg describes Kinsella's poems as “grey, meticulous, and patiently documentary.”

Logan, William. Review of Blood and Family, by Thomas Kinsella. New York Times Book Review (28 May 1989): 24.

A review of Blood and Family.

O'Hara, Daniel. “An Interview with Thomas Kinsella.” Contemporary Poetry 4, No. 1 (1981): 1-18.

Kinsella discusses his identity as an “Irish” writer, the significance of literary influence, his creative process, and thematic preoccupations in his work.

Skloot, Floyd. “The Evolving Poetry of Thomas Kinsella.” New England Review 18, No. 4 (Fall 1997): 174-87.

An extended review of The Collected Poems, 1956-1994, in which Skloot provides an overview of Kinsella's literary career, artistic development, and the recurring preoccupations in his poetry.

Additional coverage of Kinsella's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 15; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Arthur E. McGuinness (essay date Winter 1980)

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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 concluding poems of Notes. This new self is shaped by primal female and male energies in a chthonic-solar union Kinsella calls “Quincunx,” a cosmic structure suggesting Yeats’s phases of the moon.3 Unlike Yeats’s system, however, Kinsella’s cosmology does not offer a way for man to escape his absurd destiny of suffering and death. The best one can hope for in this tragic world are spots of time, moments of transcendence provided by the consoling structures of memory, history, and myth, moments which can relieve the isolation and loneliness of modern man.

Obsessive and alienating self-consciousness, the curse of modern man, did not exist in the ancient Irish culture Kinsella knows so well as the distinguished translator of The Táin. Nor did it afflict other ancient cultures in Greece and Rome. Kinsella is aware of the “great rift”—a resonant landscape metaphor which separates ancient and modern man psychologically, and of the sense of “discontinuity and isolation” which accompanies such an awareness:

… for my own part I simply recognize that I stand on one side of a great rift, and can feel the discontinuity in myself. It is a matter of people and place as well as of writing—of coming, so to speak, from a broken and uprooted family, of being drawn to those who share my origins and finding that we cannot share our lives.4

The poet feels particularly the loss of the artist’s customary social role in such a culture, the loss of an integrated “poetic career.”5 Kinsella believes that only Yeats among modern poets has managed to construct a shared history and a fully articulated self. The others, including himself, experience only “a scattering of incoherent lives,” with no connections, no deep sharings. At their best, 20th-century poets can affirm only “the dignity of the isolated person.”6

Though he laments the disintegration of modern culture and yearns for the connections of the past, Kinsella does not romanticize these ancient cultures, as did Austin Clarke, F. R. Higgins, and Yeats himself. He does not suggest that man’s fate has changed over the centuries. For Kinsella there have never been any supernatural escape routes from the tough world of reality. Only consciousness has changed; obsessive introspection in search of self has alienated modern man. In earlier cultures there was no distinction of self from society.

Kinsella uses landscape imagery to sign these two types of consciousness, ancient and modern. In poems like “Death of a Queen” and “Ulysses,” one finds in both queen and hero an unself-conscious relation to the world. Landscape and identity merge. Poems about modern self-consciousness and alienation, by far the majority of Kinsella’s poems, can be divided into several groups by means of the relation of self to landscape. Landscape, therefore, charts stages in Kinsella’s quest for the deepest kind of self-awareness. Poems like “First Light,” “In the Ringwood,” and “Another September” treat the alienation of a hyperconscious self from a potentially life-affirming landscape. In these poems landscape functions as image. In other more recent poems the function of landscape changes from image to symbol, as Kinsella moves into the dark regions of the unconscious. In Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), Notes From the Land of the Dead (1972), and One and Other Poems (1979), landscape is no longer experienced as a life-affirming power denied to hyperconscious man, but rather as the symbol of that hyperconsciousness. And, as the quest for self moves into the darkest regions of the unconscious, the symbolic landscape becomes even more hostile and frightening because, like self, it is fractured into bizarre nightmare shapes. In Kinsella’s most recent poems, such as “Song of the Night,” one senses that the quest for self has moved into another stage, where self can once again be involved with society, but in a psychologically more mature manner. The lessons of Nightwalker are not soon forgotten. Landscape again provides an index to the movement of these recent poems; it assumes more normal, more objective forms.

Turning now to the first sort of identity-landscape poem, the sort with no problem of alienation, no “curse of consciousness,” one finds in “Death of a Queen” and “Ulysses” an emphasis on social identity rather than on personal identity. Landscape witnesses and confirms the mythic acts of queen and hero. Kinsella ascribes to the ritual behavior of the queen the birth of a social self—“Forming a body gradually out of the dead.” Ironically, as so often in Kinsella, images traditionally associated with renewal, with fertility, manifest only final dissolution. The poem chronicles a ritual of death, with the queen as ritual instrument. Landscape maps this ritual of social identity in the form of boulders, sea, shell, wild flowers, promontory, moon: … “she set the fragments under / And among and up to the boulders’ waists / and watched them fuse, / Forming a body gradually out of the dead.”7 The queen has no distinct personality, no individual consciousness. Her identity is part of a social and natural unity where peace and personality merge: “Every seventh wave / dismembered further the nerves / Of her face and hands”; “… the tide / Undermined her voice / Until its mass almost vanished”; “… across the promontory of her grief.” Kinsella is nostalgic for such an age of instinctive, unself-conscious behavior. Like the queen in “Death of a Queen,” Ulysses has no personal identity, but unself-consciously plays his part in an epic ritual that will ultimately bring him back to wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus. Such life-affirming closures are not possible for modern man. Kinsella’s poem considers Ulysses just before he leaves Calypso’s island. The tattered landscape—ransacked orchard, apples blown into the grass, smashed trellis—has a social function. It reminds the hero that he has not yet reached his Eden. In other poems to be discussed in the pages that follow, such a ragged landscape will symbolize psychic anxiety; here Ulysses has no personal consciousness, but only racial or cultural consciousness.

Kinsella’s exploration of self in the modern world goes through several stages, as noted above, and all of them are signed by landscape. In the first group of poems to be considered, self-consciousness is regarded as alienating man from a life-affirming or at least benign environment. The most radical alienation of self from environment occurs in “First Light,” a poem related to the heroic poems just discussed. “First Light” considers the radically different ways goddess and man experience nature. As in “Death of a Queen” and “Ulysses,” mythic and heroic beings have an intuitive connection with landscape. That connection is imagined in “First Light” as a speech-act, a creative power stimulated by environment.

Stars ticked uncontrollably down
The night-face, …
At the same hour two lips
Were seen to break the crests of speech in fair order.
Last night, it is said, at least one goddess came back …
Shining syllable like a footstep on surfaces.(8)

The speech of the goddess energizes the landscape even as the goddess has been energize d into speech by the landscape: “Whereupon all manner of birds / Exploded across the estuary.” Man, however, does not possess such creative speech and, though he too has experienced richly beautiful landscape, he can say nothing: “I find I am left / With an unanswerable dawn upon my hands.” There is an unbridgeable gap between subject and object, between the knower and the known. Kinsella here effectively presents the “inward I” in the setting of a sort of Cartesian epistemology that mitigates against connections.

Kinsella has published two poems called “First Light”: the one discussed above, published first in Another September (1958); and an entirely different poem published in Wormwood (1966), and then in a revised version in Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968).9 The change in landscape in the two poems signals an even more attenuated sense of self. The first poem’s exuberant, wild landscape is reduced in the second poem to a Nightwalker environment, a domestic “dark garden” with “grey dew.” The creative language of the goddess is nowhere apparent. Rather, one finds the tedious routine of a “blank … marriage” with a wailing child. No caring flows from this isolated nuclear family.

Two other poems, “Death and the Professor” and “Lead” bring one back to historical themes and imply the great psychological distance between ancient and modern times. And landscape maps the distance, the alienation of self from world. In both poems, once heroic environments—on the one hand Classical ruins, on the other the glen where a great forge once operated—now lack resonance for modern man. Insensitive to the landscape in which he digs, the archaeologist slits “the hill of myth” and “bleeds out truth”.10 He pokes “brave ramparts with a walking stick” and his students varnish skulls gathered for the museum cases. He has no feeling for the energies of this ancient place, no sense that the deepest truth cannot be learned by excavation. More conscious of mythic values than the archaeologist, the speaker in “Lead” can imagine the power of Vulcan’s forge, where he long ago fashioned “a bit to bridle chaos”: “I held a stallion’s eyes, a stuff / That glared so wild its elements went black.”11 But the present-day landscape, like that in “Death and the Professor,” no longer conjures up a Vulcan. Even the old human forge has ceased to function. All that remain in this once heroic place are “Two dull dice of lead.”

Many Kinsella poems contain self-images suggested by these “two dull dice of lead,” lusterless, isolated, heavy-hearted, luckless, barren.12 Such a negative consciousness typically ignores the positive qualities of place or sometimes blights the landscape with its despair. “In the Ringwood” and “Another September” contain this sort of alienation. The poet and his bride rove out to Ringwood—the very name suggests an ideal landscape—but their inner conflict sours the beautiful landscape. Memory and history combine to destroy the innocent charm of “rivered Ringwood,” which becomes “withered Ringwood” when memory of “ancient slaughter” is projected on it. Full of negative feelings—impatience, dismay, sorrow, anger, despair, dread—the poet sets an ironic distance between lovers and landscape: “I watched the river shining / Where the heron wiped his bill. / I took my love in my icy arms / In the Spring on Ringwood Hill.”13 With a sensuous landscape suggesting Keats’s “To Autumn”—apple trees, ripe pear trees, “windfall-sweetened soil,” “living starlight”—“Another September” entices one toward a positive, childlike response to nature, but reason resists such positive direction:

The black breathing that billows her sleep, her name,
Drugged under judgment, waned and—bearing daggers
And balances—down the lampless darkness they came,
Moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures.(14)

The dark abstractions of consciousness blot out images of sweetness and light, and condemn the self to isolation.

The curse of consciousness can be overcome, but rarely does this happen. The old atheist manages to do it. He blots out consciousness programmatically by suppressing thought and will: “I choose at random … knowing less and less.”15 He recovers an intimate relation to a landscape where “shores are eaten, rocks are split, / Shells ghosted.” But the old atheist proves the rare exception to the more familiar human experience of alienation among the abstractions of Justice and Truth. Kinsella has observed in “In the Ringwood” and “Another September” how such alienation can sour personal relations and blight landscape. In the larger social order, alienation can produce a willfulness which destroys the world in the name of righteousness.

“Old Harry” offers the best example of will-to-power and its monstrous impact on the environment. Calling up memories of Harry Truman, who unleashed the atomic bomb,16 the poem describes a man alienated from other human society and from nature, a man who is about to destroy them both. Harry’s glasses symbolize both alienation and will-to-power—“His glasses flashed suddenly, two sightless coins.”17 For Old Harry, dropping the bomb is an act of sexual domination—“He scratched / In vacant memory of mucous pleasure.” Harry appears to be the only human survivor of the holocaust; the others are fragments—“an eye socket with nerves and ducts smouldering, / A mouth with torn uvula and no tongue.” But nature survives. One is reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line “And for all this, nature is never spent.” The last section of the poem has the nicely ambiguous title “Vale,” the Latin verb combining with the English noun to suggest both landscape and moral imperative. The land renews itself without man and “sentinels of the wood” guard against any further human depredation. Nature cannot protect man from his will, and it may be vulnerable to that will, if not in this holocaust, then in the next.18

An even more desperate variety of self-consciousness can be seen in “Downstream,” which does not propose—unlike “In the Ringwood,” “Another September,” and “Old Harry”—an ironic distance between attenuated self and abundant place. Place itself has been transformed in “Downstream” from the lovely Ringwood into a hostile environment mirroring the pessimistic “inward I.” One senses a kind of introspective movement in these poems: landscape becomes less an image of objective reality and more a symbol of troubled consciousness. Kinsella is moving inward toward the darkness and fragmentation of the unconscious where landscape is purely symbolic.

“Downstream” chronicles man’s fate, a journey to final dissolution. The landscape along the stream mirrors this journey as the poet sees reflected signs of mortality projected from his own entropic psyche, hence the scattered ripples, the “half-undone” shadows of willows, the unwinding land, the shrinking channel, the sense of being caged in. Such awareness brings anxiety, but nature can minimize such feelings by suggesting an ultimate order in life: “The slow, downstreaming dead, it seemed, were blended / One with those silver hordes, and briefly shared / Their order, glittering.”19 Those with a sense of place, like the old atheist, may experience anxiety as the landscape of the stream changes from light to shadow, and so they begin “Searching the darkness for a landing place,” but for them there is final acceptance of being part of the nature of things. A different fate awaits Old-Harry-like monsters who have savaged their fellow men. They will have no rest, experience no acceptance. Kinsella imagines the internal torment of those responsible for the Nazi outrages. The nightmare suggests the vision of Hieronymous Bosch: “The haunt of swinish man … / where rodents ply, / Man-rumped, sow-headed, busy with whip and maul // Among nude herds of the damned.”20

Kinsella’s poems before Nightwalker (1967) consider the tragedy of man’s fate, but usually in the context of an ultimate cosmic order, as he puts it in the epigraph to “Downstream”: “Drifting to meet us on the darkening stage / A pattern shivered; / whorling in its place / Another held us in a living cage / Then broke to its reordered phase of grace.” Words like “whorling” and “phase” and even “darkening stage” suggest Yeats, who with his gyres, his dramatic characters, his phases of the moon, also had an obsession with order. An ultimate order means that the willful and self-righteous will fare worse than those who have accepted their fate and have trusted in nature. In the poems to be discussed now, that confidence in order has been shaken. These poems move into the unconscious, into uncharted regions of the self. Like the speaker in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Kinsella’s persona in these poems feels that he has lost his center and that “mere anarchy” has possessed him. Out of this turmoil, Kinsella attempts in Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972) to find a new order, to form a new self, by adopting ideas from Plato and Jung which are familiar to students of Yeats—ideas of eternal form, and of being as a tension of opposites. In his most recently published volumes, One and Other Poems (1979) and Fifteen Dead (1979), Kinsella seems to have worked his way through this psychic dilemma and to have arrived at a new sense of order, this time suggested by the rich symbolism of “Quincunx.”

Kinsella’s psychological crisis in “Nightwalker,” “Ritual of Departure,” and “Phoenix Park” has been observed by both Maurice Harmon and Peggy Broder, though neither explores the Platonic aspects I have mentioned, nor Kinsella’s signing of this crisis with landscape imagery. Harmon’s study of Kinsella provides a sensitive reading of the poems but, since the book surveys all of Kinsella’s work, poem by poem, Harmon has no opportunity to develop the larger patterns in Kinsella’s poetry. He correctly remarks of “Nightwalker” that “Its direction is inward, to the unknowable areas of the self,” and that in “Phoenix Park” Kinsella explores “the paradoxical principle of opposites being within opposites.” Harmon believes that “Phoenix Park” represents the search for and discovery of a new order based on love, a positive dream, and acceptance. At the end of the poem, as a result of this new perception of order, the poet “is on the verge of artistic utterance.”21 And, in her recent essay, Peggy Broder understands this new order in “Phoenix Park” as a tension of opposites, but she does not consider the philosophical sources of these ideas either in Yeats, Plato, or Jung.

Because things do not exist without their opposites, pain, hunger, and death can be welcomed as assurances of joy, fulfillment, and life. [Kinsella] has dreamed of a nearly mathematical order in life, like that of the stars; [the female] teaches him to relinquish that dream in favor of an order that is paradoxically almost chaotic: alternations of birth and death, light and darkness.22

Shortly following this passage, Broder comes a bit nearer the real structure of these opposites. The paradox is not in the fact that opposites alternate, but, as she later says, that “opposites coexist.”23

“Nightwalker,” “Ritual of Departure,” and “Phoenix Park” reveal Kinsella moving toward the unconscious, “a rich darkness / Alive with signals.”24 In the epigraph to “Nightwalker,” Kinsella mentions those who have not been impelled to journey into the darkness of self—“The greater part must be content to be / as though they had not been” (53). The objective world continues to exist, but the poet moves inward. Landscape signs both objective and subjective worlds. “Nightwalker” begins in a realistic landscape—“Fresh air for lungs … / The smell of gardens under suburban lamplight, / Clipped privet, …” (55). The character of the landscape imagery changes abruptly, however, as the poet projects upon it his psychic distress: “Monsters of ivy squat in lunar glare.” The moon seems a “fat skull” with a “remorseless cratered face” (55). At the end of the poem, the fractured landscape shows that there has been no healing thus far.

                                                            No wind stirs
On the dust floor. Far as the eye can see
Rock needles stand up from the plain; the horizon
A ring of sharp mountains like broken spikes.
                                        … A true desert, naked
To every peril.


“Ritual of Departure” likewise alerts the reader to a movement inward, away from the superficial manners of Anglo-Irish culture—“Dublin under the Georges …”—and the landscape charts the psychic journey: “The ground opens,” “the fields vanish,” “the roots tear softly” (69).

In Jungian terms, Kinsella achieves a deeper understanding of self through encountering male and especially female archetypes. Jung, of course, borrowing from Plato, stressed the importance of opposites in helping one to reach the deepest psychic awareness. As Jung puts it, in all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order, in all caprice a fixed law, for everything that works is grounded on its opposite.”25 In “Nightwalker” the poet encounters both male and female archetypes which suggest Jung’s figures of Father, Shadow, Anima, and Mother. The first encounter takes place at Sandycove at Joyce’s Martello Tower which overlooks both land and sea. Joyce seems actually to put in an appearance. The poet realizes that deeper awareness must come from the sea, from the female, rather than from the stars as he had heretofore believed. In the early poem “An Ancient Ballet,” the stars are all-powerful: “In the deep reaches of the night / The ticking stars keep order.”26 In “Nightwalker,” the stars are merely “A backdrop of constellations, crudely done / And mainly unfamiliar” (63). Joyce, whom the poet addresses in “Nightwalker” as “Father of Authors” as well as “Dark brother,” appears “able and willing for the foul ditch,” a relation to the world quite different from Kinsella’s reticence and fastidiousness (62). In “Phoenix Park” this archetypal male figure returns as the “old lewd nakedness” (79) that must be accepted along with its opposite, the “crystal world,” and it also appears as the shadow that “tries to speak” at the very end of the poem (84). In philosophical terms, Kinsella is asserting that both the Platonic spirit and the Aristotelian body must be accepted in order for self to have its fullest form. In “Nightwalker,” Joyce brings phallic energy into the poet’s world: “A dripping cylinder / Big as a ship’s funnel, pokes into sight, / Picked out by the moon” (62).

Female energy enters “Nightwalker” in the forms of the poet’s wife and a statue of the Blessed Virgin beneath which a “green snake wriggles.” Jung describes the Anima archetype as the “serpent in the paradise of the harmless man with good resolutions and still better intentions.”27 In “Phoenix Park,” the Anima appears as the mysterious woman encountered in the park: “I studied her and saw shame does not matter” (76). The poet begins to understand that deeper psychic experience can happen only by movement toward woman.

Her brightness, reflected on earth, in heaven
Consumes my sight. Gradually, as my brain
At a great distance swims in the steady light,
Scattered notes, scraps of newspaper, photographs,
Begin to flow unevenly toward the pool
And gather into a book before her stare …
                                                                                Our mother
Rules on high, queenlike, pale with control.
                                                            Hatcher of peoples!
Incline from your darkness into mine!
I stand at the ocean’s edge, my head fallen back
Heavy with your control,. …


The theme of “ordeal,” discussed earlier in “Old Harry,” returns in “Phoenix Park” as the poet gazes into the “ordeal-cup” (78), but the vision of an ultimate order in the world has faded. Now there is only “hunger … for order,” a desire to understand the paradox of life, what Kinsella calls both the crystal and the flaw in the crystal (79). There remains a wish that some Platonic structure could contain such contradictions, but the structure would be nebulous indeed:

And I taste a structure, ramshackle, ghostly,
Vanishing on my tongue, given and taken,
Distinct. A ghost of that ghost persists, structure
Without substance, all about us,. …


Or, again, “Fragility echoing fragilities. …” This wished-for Platonic structure is mirrored by the landscape of Phoenix Park, which takes on a ghostly quality: “… [A ghost] in the air, / Among the trees, before us at the crossroads, / On the stone bridge, insinuating itself / Into being” (81). Kinsella does not find the structure of ideal form an adequate explanation for his experience of a changing and fragmented world. In Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972, 1973) and in One and Other Poems (1974, 1979), Kinsella seeks other possible structures: in Notes, the fertility cycle, and in One, the “Quincunx”—a Yeats-like structure founded on the tension of opposites.

Notes From the Land of the Dead has obvious ties to landscape even in its title. The landscape imagery in “Phoenix Park” is chiefly objective, realistic, with the poet trying desperately to hold on to the “real” world, but in Notes, as he releases his hold and descends into the unconscious, the landscape reflects this radical shift and becomes subjective, fragmented, phantasmagoric. Maurice Harmon has noted that the “metaphor of descent, of falling, pervades the book” and involves a lapse from normal time and place. The ambiguous phrase “a single drop” occurs often in the book and connotes falling as much as sexuality. Much more than Kinsella’s other volumes, Notes needs to be read as a single, unified work.28 The Cuala Press edition (1972) gives one the best opportunity to do this, since it includes the important poem “Invocation,” which makes clear that sexuality is the book’s principal theme.29 A fuller understanding of human sexuality leads Kinsella to a deeper awareness of self; he sees possibility for a new self in the dissolution of the old self. Thus, in Notes, while the superficial world of society continues its inane blather, true “life” is experienced only at the level of egg and sperm—in the language of Notes, “the egg of being” and “a single drop.” Landscape imagery usually has a sexual meaning in these poems. The speaker finds himself in: the moist wood, the thick tunnel, the “dark nutrient waves,” the heart of the pit, the shell of solitude, the black hole, the cavern which is “our first home,” the bloody gates, the grey valley of the blood, the vaulted place, the distant door, the river channel, the sweet wet of the psyche, the soft roots, and in the brown Camac, one of Dublin’s underground rivers.30

Deeper psychic awareness, Kinsella suggests in Notes, requires surrender to opposites. Strongly drawn to opposing female energies, the male is at the same time terrified and unyielding. In “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again,” the untitled poem with which Notes begins—after repeating the final four lines of “Phoenix Park”—the speaker in a “shell of solitude” fears falling toward a “ring of mouths,” “wavy albumen bodies,” and the “naked ancient women” with their “limp talons.” At the end of this poem Kinsella includes a line drawing of an egg. The line is not complete, suggesting that the egg has been broken, or, in sexual terms, that the sperm has penetrated the egg and that these two “selves” have now joined to produce a new “self.” The first poem after the glyph of the broken egg in the Cuala Press edition of Notes, “Invocation” deals again with female luring male, but here one finds a good deal less resistance from the male persona. Indeed, Kinsella introduces a bawdiness in this poem worthy of Joyce. The speaker, a nearly impotent male, can barely produce “a single drop” despite female blandishments! The environment and tone suggest Bloom in Nighttown after he masturbates in his own “shell of solitude”—“What a wild state!”; “dragged rude upright / A man of my age!”; “I will come, I will come / By slow steps”; “Cumbrous fruits / peep out from behind enormous / leaves”; “There is something that is forever / taking a little of the spring / out of a person’s step”; “my hand upon it! / God, come!31 The erotic consummation appropriately takes place in a landscape of forest, river, and golden rain. Finding himself in a “moist / wood, a narrow place,” the persona willingly yields to the Proserpina-like voice that urges him to follow, to come. Puzzled by the mythic environment, he nevertheless senses the familiar as well, the completion of his being:

Strange, how familiar …
Penetrating so deep into
The old wood, I no longer
Can tell where I first entered.


When he reaches the “lost glade,” the old source in the shade,” he encounters the dancing nymph and is “rooted.” The union instantly affects the landscape: the river begins to flow, to create the cells of a new being.

Kinsella titles the three main sections of Notes as follows: “an egg of being,” “a single drop,” and “nightnothing.” The poems in each section suggest the sexual formation of a new “self.” All of the poems in “the egg of being” have to do with an encounter with female. Here, rather than being the “naked ancient women” of “hesitate” or the Proserpina-like nymph of “Invocation,” the female is the speaker’s grandmother. In several poems he recalls experiences with her, especially the experience of her death, which memories give the male persona a fuller awareness of woman. Landscapes in “the egg of being,” mostly objective, present the real world of family life, but some resonant symbolic images appear as well: “The cottage door opened, / A black hole” (“Hen Woman”); “I crept up / the last stretch to the big hole / full of fright” (“The High Road”); “Snuff and musk … / Carried me into a derelict place / smelling of ash: unseen walls and roofs / rustled like breathing” (“Tear”).32

Except for “Sacrifice,” the poems in “a single drop” are concerned with female power, aspects of the egg of being. Landscape establishes the tone of these poems, which ranges from distress to acceptance. Acceptance generates a flow of life, just as it did before in Kinsella’s early poem “An Old Atheist Pauses by the Sea.” In “Nuchal (fragment)” the snake-spirits and the woman combine to create the four rivers of Paradise. Goddess and demi-god encounter in “Endymion” to produce “a single drop.” “Survivors” and “At the Crossroads” express terror in the presence of primal mystery. The sexual landscape both terrifies and intrigues the speaker in “Survivor”: A mountain cavern is a “perfect shell of force” and “our first home,” but nevertheless has “bloody gates and alleys.” The “survivor” here is the single drop, the seed which will fertilize the egg. An Edenic landscape appears imagined in “Survivor”—“promontories beautiful beyond description”—but such a paradise suits only the gods (“Nuchal”), not mortal men. For man, such a place is “a land of the dead” where movement has stopped. “Sacrifice” considers quite a different aspect of female sexuality, namely, female surrender and the power of that surrender: “Never mind the hurt. I’ve never felt / so terribly alive, so ready, so gripped / by love.”33

Logically, egg and sperm should produce a new life, such as was beginning to form in “Invocation,” but Kinsella titles the last section of Notes “nightnothing,” a word which seems unrelated to new life. Broder in fact interprets the section as an extension of the “egg of being” and says it refers to “zero, the womb, the cavern, … the unconscious, or death.”34 Kinsella, however, understands nothing and nothingness as positive elements in “Phoenix Park”: “… to give totally, / Is to be born totally, a nothingness / Reaching out in a stasis, a pure nothingness,” and also later in Notes: “The Hag: squatting on the water, / her muzzle staring up at nothing” (“Survivor”); “There is nothing here for sustenance” (“Survivor”); “daylight that our nightnothing / feeds in and feeds” (“Good Night”). Night has a positive aspect both in “Good Night” and also in “All is Emptiness and I Must Spin,” where night has direct links with procreation: “It was not Death, but Night … / mountain coolness; a tiny / freshness of dew on the face /—tears of self forming.”35

Two kinds of landscape assist the formation of the new self, as they have in several other poems already considered. The landscape of the real world—in the case of “Good Night,” the house—soothes the conscious ego: “heat creeping through the house,” “the sounds of the house are all / flowing into one another.” The landscape of the unconscious, or, as Kinsella calls it in a wonderful phrase in “Good Night,” “the psyche in its sweet wet,”36 not only reflects a psychic state, but seems to have procreative power of its own. The landscape becomes the actual source of the new life, whose organs literally grow out of the landscape: “peering eye-apples”; “Out of the glassy rock, / like tentacles moving on each other / near their soft roots, human thighs / are growing”; “muscle actually forming / from the rock”; “little gnat-crescents of hair!” The emerging being, a “nightnothing,” wanders out of a cavern.

Kinsella’s most recently published collections, One and Other Poems (1979) and Fifteen Dead (1979), bring the psychic development traced thus far to still another form. Again, as with Notes, the two volumes must be read as single works, for the latter Kinsella devotes to political and social subjects: Bloody Sunday, Seán Ó Riada, John F. Kennedy; and the former to psychological, historical, and domestic subjects: “Finistère,” “His Father’s Hands,” “Anniversaries.” In a note to “Vertical Man” (1973), one of two poems in Fifteen Dead that pay homage to Irish musician Seán Ó Riada, Kinsella refers to “the ‘plot’ of the long sequence I had been working on,” a “plot” which he incorporates into “Vertical Man.”37 This “plot” needs to be quoted in full, since it represents a further stage of the psychic process that began with the “egg of being” and “a single drop.”

At the dark zenith a pulse beat,
a sperm of light separated wriggling
and snaked in a slow beam down
the curve of the sky through faint
structures and hierarchies
of elements and things and beasts. It fell,
a packed star, dividing
and redividing until it was
a multiple gold tear. It dropped
toward the horizon, entered
bright Quincunx newly risen,
beat with a blinding flame and dis-
appeared. I stared, duly blinded.
An image burned on the brain
—a woman-animal: scaled,
pierced in paws and heart,
ecstatically calm. It faded
to a far-off desolate call,
                                                            a child’s …


“Quincunx” is a structure shaped like a Greek “chi” (X) having five points, the fifth being the center. The structure can be observed on the cover of Fifteen Dead, where the Roman numerals for fifteen (XV) can also be read as quincunx and vertical man. A recent study of traditional symbols describes quincunx as “the Cosmic Center, the four cardinal points meeting at the fifth point, the Center; it is the meeting point of Heaven and Earth.”38 Kinsella probably got the idea of this shape and its relation to human order from Plato’s Timaeus, “where the demiurge joins the parts of the world-soul together by means of two sutures, which form a chi (X).”39 Thomas Browne also makes an elaborate analysis of the quincunx in his book The Garden of Cyrus. Taking his lead as well from Plato, Browne describes the quincunx as the “fundamental figure,” and says that “all things are seen quincuncially.”40 Browne most regularly finds this shape in gardens and in landscape. Such a connection between the psychological and the topographical clearly fits into the central argument of the present essay. Kinsella in his most recent works has used this ancient emblem to sign the perfection of a new self.

In the lines quoted from “Vertical Man,” the “desolate call” of the child recalls the “low cry / echoing—Camacamacamac” in “Good Night,” the final poem of Notes. Kinsella’s complex psychological “plot,” the transformation of psychic potential into full-formed self—“I” or “One”—requires an interpenetration of cosmic energies, solar and chthonic, male and female, light and dark. And so the “sperm of light,” another “single drop,” snakes its way downward from zenith to nadir to merge with the fructive female energies of “Good Night” and other poems in Notes From the Land of the Dead. Its descent Kinsella imagines as a journey through landscape, through “faint / structures and hierarchies / of elements and things and beasts.” The psychic result is “Quincunx,” a cosmic structure symbolizing the creative tension, “woman-animal,” that constitutes the “self”: “I stared, duly blinded.” Kinsella’s cosmology reminds one of Yeats’s A Vision, and “Quincunx” may have the same symbolic meaning as the fifteenth of Yeats’s phases of the moon, the most perfect phase. The center of “Quincunx,” the fifth point, is “heart / ecstatically calm.” Yeats would have understood a heart-centered system: Kinsella may indeed be alluding to Yeats’s system in choosing One and Fifteen as titles for collections published as companion volumes.

The unity of One and Other Poems (1979) takes emphasis from the italicized prologues and epilogues that introduce and conclude each of the book’s three sections: “One,” “A Technical Supplement,” and “Song of the Night and Other Poems.” These poems continue the theme of psychic formation and reveal that another “plot” is underway, another cycle of death and rebirth after the “ecstatic calm” of “Quincunx.” Terrified once again, as before in Notes, the self has anxieties now associated with oral fixations, fears of being consumed, of being swallowed and digested. All of this in One has the same sexual meaning as the fear of caverns and black holes in Notes.

                                        There would be a
pang, I knew.
I associate this with the return of hunger.
During the last part I am coiled in
with giant particular forces among the stars,
writhing to escape. I manage it
in a final spasm, leaving my decrepit skin
clutched in fierce hands, and plunge downward,
fragments falling after me through space.

Looked at in a different way, the biological process of being consumed leads to another sort of “One,” now unconscious rather than conscious, a stage which suggests Phase One of Yeats’s moon cycle and which Kinsella describes in a “Song of the Night” poem:

A toothless mouth opens
and we throw ourselves, enthralled, against our bonds
and thrash toward her. And when we have
been nicely eaten and our parts
spat out whole and have become
‘one’, then. …


This cycle of fragmentation and digestion brings the self into contact with female and male energies now experienced as separated from the momentary unity of “Quincunx” and returned to their independent primal forms. One thinks of Yeats again, and the structure of the gyres. The epilogue to “One” emphasizes female energies as dominant: “the fall is cradled / immediately in a motherly warmth” (28); the prologue to “Song of the Night” emphasizes male energies as dominant: “He carried me, warm and chill, / homeward, abandoned, onward to the next shadow” (54).

The poems within each of the sections of One and Other Poems constitute efforts to maintain self-consciousness in the face of psychic fragmentation threatened by dissociated solar and chthonic energies. Or, to put the matter another way, these poems are efforts to avoid the trauma of hyperconsciousness which had led Kinsella’s persona into the land of the dead. Memory, myth, and history help to sustain the ecstatic balance of “Quincunx.” As so often before in Kinsella, landscape provides the enabling imagery. “Finistère,” a poem about the original Celtic migration to Ireland, is structured as a mythic encounter of sea and rock, of “mild mother” and “a wall of mountain … ‘Our father,’” (13–15). “38 Phoenix Street” and “His Father’s Hands” concern Kinsella’s father and particular landscapes connected with the family that have led Kinsella back to his roots. Predictably, such places—“Littered uplands. Dense grass. Rocks everywhere, / wet underneath, retaining memory of the long cold”—make him uneasy:

I do not like this place.
I do not think the people who lived here
were ever happy. It feels evil.
Terrible things happened.
I feel afraid here when I am on my own.


The poems in “Song of the Night” are mainly about his own wife and children and the places which have been important to them: “a wide wheatfield” in “Anniversaries,” “Thick green woods” in “Tao and Unfitness at Inistiogue on the River Nore,” and Gorumna island in “Song of the Night.”

Lyric poetry is always self-reflective, and so these mythic, domestic and historical poems in One and Fifteen Dead are about “self” broadly defined. But it would seem that Kinsella has now worked his way through a certain psychological process. By means of symbolic landscapes he has brought to the level of consciousness deep truths about the cycles of growth and decline that constitute human life. What terrified him in Notes From the Land of the Dead seems stoically accepted in One and Other Poems. There is always a sense in Kinsella of more to be learned, especially about identity, but further awareness for him now would seem to lie in community rather than in isolation. The subjects of the poems in the two recent volumes, poems much more directly linked to his poetry of the 1950s, indicate that Kinsella has become more hopeful about the possibility of human contact. His major means of defining and charting these new areas of human possibility continues to be landscape.


  1. Seamus Heaney has moved in a similar direction in his new collection Field Work (1979). Speaking about the book to Hibernia’s Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney said recently, “I don’t want any more Doors into the Dark; I want a door into the light” (Hibernia, October 11, 1979, p. 13).

  2. Thomas Dillon Redshaw uses the phrase “self-contemplation” to describe this phase of Kinsella’s poetic development. He sees hints of a movement from what he calls the confessional to the self-contemplative in Kinsella’s revisions of the Wormwood poems. Redshaw observes, but does not discuss in detail, the “self-contemplative” character of “Nightwalker” and “Phoenix Park.” “The Wormwood Revisions,” EIRE-IRELAND, VI, 2 (Summer, 1971), 152, 156. In a review of Notes from the Land of the Dead, Redshaw suggests that Kinsella is working on “a rudimentary mythology of the self.”

  3. “Vertical Man,” One and Other Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979), p. 30.

  4. Thomas Kinsella, Davis, Mangan, Ferguson: Tradition and the Irish Writer, Writings by W. B. Yeats and Thomas Kinsella (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1970), pp. 58–59. Quoted in Maurice Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella: With Darkness for a Nest (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1974), pp. 14–15.

  5. Harmon, p. 13.

  6. Harmon, pp. 13–14.

  7. Poems and Translations (New York: Atheneum, 1961), pp. 2–3.

  8. Poems and Translations, p. 7.

  9. Redshaw devotes a good portion of his essay on Wormwood to the revisions of “First Light” ÉIRE-IRELAND, VI, 2 (Summer, 1971), 132–42).

  10. Poems and Translations, p. 30.

  11. Poems and Translations, pp. 46–47.

  12. In fairness to Kinsella, one should note that he is not unrelievedly grim. But upbeat poems are rare and do not have the persuasive power of the darker vision. Among such upbeat poems would be “Midsummer,” “Who Is My Proper Art?,” “An Ancient Ballet,” “The Laundress,” and “At the Heart.” See Poems and Translations, pp. 9, 16–17, 14–15, 36; Selected Poems 1956–1968 (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973) p. 37.

  13. Poems and Translations, p. 22.

  14. Poems and Translations, p. 23.

  15. Selected Poems 1956–1968, p. 33.

  16. “New Voices in the Fifties,” in Irish Poets in English, ed. Seán Lucy (Cork: Mercier Press, 1973), p. 188.

  17. Poems and Translations, p. 57.

  18. In “A Country Walk” one finds further historical examples of the will-to-power in those without a sense of place, the Normans, Cromwell, and the English who have provoked Ireland into risings from 1798 to the present day.

  19. Selected Poems 1956–1968, p. 59.

  20. Kinsella makes the link between Nazi Germany and Bosch in his essay “Poetry and Man,” Directions (Summer, 1960). Quoted in Harmon, “New Voices in the Fifties,” p. 189.

  21. Harmon, pp. 70–79.

  22. Peggy F. Broder, “Breaking the Shell of Solitude: Some Poems of Thomas Kinsella,” ÉIRE-IRELAND, XIV, 2 (Summer, 1979), 86.

  23. Broder, p. 87.

  24. Nightwalker and Other Poems (New York: Knopf, 1968), p. 61.

  25. Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, in Basic Writings of C. G. Jung (New York: Modern Library, 1959), p. 316. Plato expresses the theory of opposites most unequivocally in his dialogue Phaedo, when Socrates says, “Everything which has an opposite is generated from that opposite and from no other source … If there were not a constant correspondence in the process of generation between two sets of opposites, going round in a sort of cycle, if generation were a straight path to the opposite extreme without any returning to the starting point or any deflection, do you realize that in the end everything would have the same quality and reach the same state, and change would cease altogether” (Phaedo, 72B, trans. Hugh Tredennick, in The Last Days of Socrates [Penguin, 1969], pp. 119–20). This sounds very much like Kinsella’s understanding of entropy or “dissolution.”

  26. Poems and Translations, p. 16.

  27. Jung, p. 312.

  28. See Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella, pp. 81, 90; Broder, p. 91. Harmon suggests that Notes is a “sequence of poems,” but he does not develop the idea.

  29. In her discussion of Notes, Peggy Broder uses the Knopf edition of Notes (1973) and the text of Notes in New Poems. 1973. See Broder, p. 80. These editions do not include “Invocation.”

  30. Harmon, p. 94.

  31. Notes From the Land of the Dead (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1972), pp. 9–15.

  32. Notes, pp. 19, 29, 33.

  33. Notes, p. 54.

  34. Broder, p. 96.

  35. Notes, p. 60.

  36. Notes, p. 68.

  37. Fifteen Dead (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979), p. 72.

  38. J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 136.

  39. C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 266.

  40. Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Other Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 131, 167.

Peggy F. Broder (review date 1981)

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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 Peppercanister Poems has previously appeared in American editions.

Readers will find in these two volumes evidence of a poet who takes both life and the writing of poetry seriously, and whose integrity in his search for meaning and for ways of recording the progress of the search and its results is evident. Poems 1956–1973 traces Kinsella’s battle with his craft from the early “Baggot Street Deserta” through the fine “Worker in Mirror, At His Bench” from New Poems 1973:

I tinker with the things that dominate me
as they describe their random
persistent coherences
I am simply trying to understand something
—states of peace nursed out of wreckage.
The peace of fullness, not emptiness.

(The poet’s increasing maturity can be seen in the light word “tinker”: he took himself much more seriously in “Baggot Street Deserta” where his work is “the strain of the rack.”)

Life and craft are inseparable, each contributing to the other. The struggle to put the experience into the poem yields not only the poem but a coming to terms with the experience. This restless and relentless search is bracketed in Poems by its first and last poems. The first verse in the volume:

Now, before I sleep,
My heart is cut down,
Nothing—poetry nor love—

expresses a difficulty in achieving what Yeats called the “perfection of the life / Or of the work.” The final lines of the volume testify that Kinsella has not relinquished the struggle:

Another storm coming.
Under that copper light
my papers seem luminous.
And over them I will take
ever more painstaking care.

Another poem (“Good Night”) toward the end of the volume asks “… Would you agree, then, we won’t / find truths, or any certainties …” but the search to find something to live by goes on. This poem concludes

daylit, we are the monsters of our night,
and somewhere the monsters of our night are …
here … in daylight that our nightnothing
feeds in and feeds, wandering
out of the cavern, a low cry
echoing—Camacamacamac …
that we need as we don’t need truth …
and ungulfs a Good Night, smiling
                                                            (ellipses in original).

There is nothing easy about either the good night or the smile. Kinsella’s affirmations are always hardly earned, for he sees life, as Yeats saw it, as tragic in ineluctably involving a conflict of opposites, a recognition of human limitations, an unbridgeable gap between the dream and the reality.

From his earliest work Kinsella has dreamed of finding a rational order in the universe, but as early as Another September (1958) he makes clear his suspicion that reason is not useful in moral issues; in the title poem of that volume nature only half tolerates human consciousness and “Justice, Truth, such figures” move, as the poem says, like women: that is, are knowable not by ratiocination but by intuition. Throughout Kinsella’s poetry the feminine is the bearer of visionary as opposed to rational or intellectual wisdom.

A major and persistent theme records Kinsella’s difficult acceptance of the validity of irrational knowledge. Tracing the theme through Poems 1956–1973, a reader would find it imaged in many ways. The poet who in the earliest volumes see reality in the mathematical order of the stars or of music comes to accept, through the agency of his wife and other women, a different kind of order: organic, pulsing, cyclical. And the forms that his poems take reflect his changing notions, moving from the traditional rhyme and stanzaic form of the earlier volumes to the freer shapes and imagery of his most recent works.

As he puts it in “Downstream,” Kinsella is “searching the darkness for a landing place.” In “Phoenix Park” the search finds its conclusion in a realization of the paradox that order is, in our life, only in flux, not in a starry precision, and that meaning comes through live, difficulty as that is of achievement; he realizes

The flesh is finite, so in love we persist;
That love is to clasp simply, question fiercely;
That getting life we eat pain in each other.

“Phoenix Park” bridges earlier poems and those in New Poems 1973, in which Kinsella relaxes the tight rational control of the first volumes and allows the emotions he is expressing to find their own rhythms, forms, images. It is, as the first poem of the book says, a demanding task:

Dear God, if I had known how far and deep,
how long and cruel, I think my being
would have blanched: appalled.

But the rewards for both life and craft are worth the struggle; he continues:

                                                            How artless,
how loveless I was then!

We are seeing the continuation of the quest adumbrated in the first of the “Night Songs” quoted above (“Nothing—poetry nor love— / Achieving”), the honest record of a man’s painful battle to find himself as artist and human being in his relationship with others.

Kinsella is largely a poet of relationships. To read through these books is to be struck by the multiplicity of his connections: with family, with friends, with the peopled past. Contemporary poetry is so frequently concerned with more inner notions than these: the question of reality, the search for identity, the investigation of the role of the imagination and the role of the poet. Kinsella is also concerned with such questions, but he grounds them in concrete human relationships, defining the self, for example, in its relationship to others, past, present, and future.

The Peppercanister publications that have followed New Poems 1973 continue the search for self in more overtly personal poems. One (1974) follows immediately from egg/zero symbol of Notes from the Land of the Dead and testifies to the necessity of exploring not only personal history, in such poems as “38 Phoenix Street” and “His Father’s Hands,” but also the ancient past, as in “Finistere” and “The Oldest Place.” The main body of poems is introduced and concluded by poems of dream—or nightmare—that give symbolic equivalents of straightforward narrative. In the opening poem the self appears as ravening serpent:

That. There.
Hurling toward it, whimswift.
Snapdelicious. So necessary.
Another. Throbflutter. Swallowed.
And another;

while in the final poem the self is one of many bits of “nightmare-bearing tissue” drifting together through “‘incommunicable’ dark.”

A Technical Supplement (1976) is a kind of book-between-books of poetry, Kinsella’s way of letting us in on what goes on behind the scenes, his version of Yeat’s “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” where the posed elegance of the completed poem originates. Images of life in extremity further attest to the perils of the quest, placing the self at the riskiest boundaries of the search. In the second section of A Technical Supplement, for example:

It would seem possible to peel the body asunder,
to pick off the muscles and let them
drop away one by one writhing
until you had laid bare
four or five simple bones at most.
Except that at the first violation
the body would rip into pieces and fly apart
with terrible spasms.

(p. 77)

The book is full of skin and blood and nerves, living things swallowing each other,

little scratching sounds
and brushing sounds outside the door
or muffled voices upstairs.

(p. 85)

But its final words are a summation of what the poet’s fierce dedication to craft means and yields: “glaring and growing.”

The final works of Peppercanister Poems,Song of the Night and Other Poems and The Minstrel, return from the extremities of A Technical Supplement to the narrative meditation of earlier expressions of the quest. For Kinsella, as for his compatriot Seamus Heaney (who said, “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing”), writing poetry is the essence of the quest for the self, giving shape to experience and making it intelligible, taking the eternal flux of Becoming and giving it at least a momentary Being.

Once again, in these works, Kinsella’s explorations for meaning involve the self with others: with wife, with children, with father. Kinsella’s poetry is, ultimately, tragic, for he cannot lose awareness of the unrelenting opposition between human aspiration and grim necessity; he records not only the moments of failure but the anguished process of struggle against it. The search remains an ordeal:

Somewhere on the island, Cannibal
lifts his halved head and bellows
with incompleteness …

The ravening beast of the self returns to thwart our struggle to reconcile its claims with those of others.

Yet Kinsella’s is not, finally, a poetry of despair, for if we must in the end die with dreams unfulfilled there is a new generation on the way to move perhaps another painful inch out of the darkness toward the dream. The last of the Peppercanister poems shows a faint, unquenchable hope:

A cross grain of impotent anger. About it
the iridescent, untouchable secretions
collect. It is a miracle:
membrane and mineral in precious combination.
An eye, pale with strain, forms in the dark.
The oddity nestles in slime
functionless, in all its rarity.
purifying nothing. But nothing can befoul it
—which ought probably to console.

Tentative as this is, it is positive. If we are impotent, there is hope for us if we do not lose our anger and our eye glaring into the dark. This oddity, this rarity called man somehow has escaped the ultimate defilement, and at their grandfather’s funeral

four girls and three boys separated themselves
in a ragged band out from our dull custom
and moved up close after it, in front,
all shapes and sizes,
grandchildren, colourful and silent.

Daniel O'Hara (essay date Winter 1981)

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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’
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 Director of Temple’s annual Spring Program in Irish Studies. Over the years he has produced a dozen books of poetry for major university and commercial publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, he has translated the ancient Irish epic, The Táin (1970), for Oxford, and recently, he has edited, with substantial commentary, for Wake Forest University Press The Selected Poems of Austin Clarke (1976). Clarke is Kinsella’s immediate predecessor in the Irish line of urban poets. Presently, he is at work on an anthology of Irish poetry from the ancient beginnings up to the latest currents.

Apparently, the critical surveyors of the contemporary poetry scene have had their particular axes to grind, selecting their evidence to fit their principles, and so have failed to see Kinsella’s work steadily or whole—or, in some cases, at all.1 But with the recent publication by Wake Forest of Poems 1956–1973 and Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978, no critic seriously concerned with the state of poetry and its relation to the present crisis in literary criticism will have an excuse for avoiding an encounter with Kinsella’s highly developed ironic art.2

This is not to say that Kinsella’s poetry is in any sense hermetic, closed in on itself like the ultimate agate. Nor does this imply, on the other hand, that the ever-flexible contemporary critic can simply apply to the poetry any one interpretive methodology from the current spectrum of high-powered reading techniques, the way a weekend handy man would apply his rusty plane to a swollen threshold. Rather, what I would like to suggest is that Kinsella’s ironic art aligns itself nicely with Harold Bloom’s antithetical criticism. They are like different mirror images of the same question of influence that revise and supplement one another.

Kinsella and Bloom have tangled over the question of influence in the past. Bloom records their wrestling match for posterity’s sake in A Map of Misreading as follows:

The interpretation of a poem necessarily is always that poem’s interpretation of other poems. When I said that once, in a lecture on the revisionary ratio of askesis, or influence as a metaphor for reading, a poet of real achievement rose from the audience to protest that his poems were not about Yeats but about life, his own life. To which I replied by asking where his stance, as poet, in relation to life originated, and by what means he had learned to define it so as to justify his writing a poem at all. But I should also have asked what he meant when he said his poems were “about” something, that this or that was their “subject.” The root meaning of “about” is to be on the outside of something, and a poem “about” life truly is on the outside of life. To study what poems are about is to interpret their outside relationships. A “subject” is indeed under something else, and a poem’s subject thus subjects the poem.3

And Kinsella has recently fired a salvo back at Bloom:

Let’s think first about Harold Bloom’s theory. If I understand it, it seems to have the death of poetry built into it: that if one of the effects of being influenced by a former poet’s work is of necessity to veer away, in your own direction, as a function of that diminishing influence, the circle will get narrower … No: the function of influence is a fructifying one; it helps, if the poet has the capacity, to enlarge the influenced poet. It is also, however, a very predatory thing on the part of the influencee: he will take what suits him. Yeats is very good at this—all the major writers are. And, blithely unconcerned with the truth of the thing they are taking out of context, they proceed to make use of it and cobble it into their own creation. You can see this pretty clearly in Pound: before you have found your own voice—manufactured your own version of the language—you cast around for various aids, and if you find a voice that more or less gets things said for you, you seize upon it with delight. The same applies to the borrowing of a point of view, borrowing an attitude toward form—toward all these enabling things. It really is a stepping stone to the discovery of your own methods. Either way of handling influence seems to me an expanding one; it opens out possibilities for the receiver, and makes him the more active partner in the exchange of influence. Bloom tends to view influence as a passive or defensive act and nothing much else; hence the necessary decline involved.4

Basically, then, the critic and the poet disagree over metaphors. Bloom prefers that of “stance”; Kinsella, like Nietzsche before him, prefers that of “stepping-stone” (among others). It is a question of perspective, clearly. Where one sees inevitable paralysis, Molloy and his sucking stones, the other sees potential opportunity: Arnold’s fetching touchstones, perhaps? This appears to be a difference of opinion over “psychic geography”5 in the land of the dead. Another way of putting this difference is to say that each one’s work reads the allegory of Eros and Psyche in its own way. Bloom, like one of the jealous sisters, knows for certain that the secret husband that comes at midnight to Psyche’s bower must be a monstrous serpent, otherwise how explain the great gifts Psyche has received in recompense. Nothing is got for nothing in the economy of love, right? Kinsella, on the other hand, acts like he and Eros were one, and so does care what shape envy and rumor may say he takes when he woos Psyche on his nocturnal visitations. Love’s architecture is truly his own business.

But I do not wish to appear to be simply deprecating the critic so as to flatter the poet by such an extended analogy, especially since I do believe that we have one thing to thank Harold Bloom for, at least. With an indecipherable leer, like that of the beggar at the opening of Browning’s notoriously suggestive poem, he has pointed our way to what was lying in our midst all along, namely, the prefigurative ironies of remembered scenes, their potential for divination. The prospects of memory are open to the creative will atop its brooding tower of eloquence. Regardless of how history may judge his particular evocation of the space of representation—its questionable resemblance to a Gothic dungeon or Roman arena—Bloom’s excavation of the poetic psyche, that ancient battleground of texts, has restored to the criticism of poetry a perspective sorely missed during the latter days of the reign of New Criticism. Poetry is, for poet and reader alike, the sublime way of recreating past origins in the interests of future aims, in a time of repetition and decline. In the final analysis, the autobiographical impulse of Post-Enlightenment writing requires that we become what we behold in the texts of the past—not necessarily what we say we can become in reading them—thanks to the daimonic “mirror effect,” as Kinsella puts it in “Worker in Mirror, at his Bench,” which spells out his grim poetic credo.6

In short, Bloom has reminded us that any good poem must be something like Spencer’s Garden of Adonis: a fabulous site where many possible selves are growing in the most uncanny of places, with only one possibility coming to full term at any one time. The others must await the expert caress of the tactful forceps before squirming into existence. The danger, of course, is that out of utter desperation or cynical indifference one may snatch too often at the same spot before memory can be replenished. The result is, at best, premature births, at worst, a generalized sense of sterility that is nothing more than a neurotically self-fulfilling prophecy. (Some would even say that this is Bloom’s present fate.)7 In any event, without doubt, the patience and care, the knowing generosity that marks the truly gifted poetic imagination is possessed by Thomas Kinsella. But, naturally, the real test of this view must come in reading the poetry.

“Thinking of Mr. D.” concludes the second volume of Kinsella’s poems, Another September (1958). It summarizes neatly many of his early poetic attitudes and points forward to many of his later positions:

A man still light of foot, but ageing, took
An hour to drink his glass, his quiet tongue
Danced to such cheerful slander. Yet his look
Was narrowed to an angry ember the young
Would pity, if they noticed—rage barred in
By age, inflamed by such a little gin …
He sipped and swallowed, with such a scathing smile,
And tapped a polished toe. His sober nod
Mordantly withheld assent. He fell
Into an abstract wrecking humour. Should
A man ‘beat the wall’ whose tatters lack
The act of blood? Better to turn his back,
Let new plains open across the dying coal
Time drops before him—bitten by flaming threads,
Paths that he must people from his soul,
By broken dykes and smouldering watersheds,
A planet he must cross to the dark side
There, in a wonder, to bring forth his fire
And dance on scorching leather …
                                                            When he died
I saw him twice; once as used retire,
On one last murmured, stabbling little tale,
From the right company, tucking in his scarf,
A barren Dante leaving us for hell;
Then, loping through that image, under warf-
Lamps that plunge him in and out of light,
A priestlike figure turning, wolfish-slim,
Quickly aside from pain, in a bodily plight,
To note the oiled reflections chime and swim.

(P, 32)

I think it is fair to say that both Bloom and Kinsella would agree that this early poem shows how what the poet intends to say about life is conditioned (rather than simply determined) by the range of imaginative styles handed down to him by the literary tradition. Granted that the figure of Mr. D. recalls a real person, the way it does also recalls the idiom of Auden (“Let new plains open … / By broken dykes and smouldering watersheds” and “A barren Dante leaving us for hell”); the early Shelleyean and later Blakean poses of Yeats (“the dying coal / Time drops before him” and “Should / A man ‘beat the wall’ whose tatters lack / The act of blood” rehearse, at least, “The Moods,” the Byzantium poems, and “An Acre of Grass”); and the ironic Joycean counter-vision of the possible pitiful self (an ageing Stephen Daedalus taking a perverse delight in noting the signs of his alienation) that the speaker must recognize so as to avoid becoming too much like what he still seems so attracted to: the now spectral genius of spiteful phantasmagoria (“his quiet tongue / Danced to such cheerful slander” and “A priestlike figure, wolfish-slim”).

The irony of this doubled sonnet, however, comes into its own only in the context of Kinsella’s later work. There are so many prefigurations of that work in this poem that to enumerate them all would require an article itself. Let us just look at one. Mr. D.’s final gesture of turning away from the sordid Dublin scene as if in “a bodily plight” “to note the oiled reflections” in the dirty Liffey “chime and swim” reappears in slightly different guise at the end of “A Country Walk” (1962), Kinsella’s most anthologized poem:

Under a darkening and clearing heaven
The hastening river streamed in a slate sheen,
Its face a-swarm. Across the swollen water
(Delicate myriads vanishing in a breath)
Faint ripples winked; a thousand currents broke,
Kissing, dismembering, in threads of foam
Or poured intact over the stony bed
Glass-green and chill; their shallow, shifting world
Slid on in troubled union, forging together
Surfaces that gave and swallowed light;
And grimly the flood divided where it swept
An endless debris through the falling dusk
Under the thudding span beneath my feet.

(P, pp. 56–57)

This defensive focusing of attention on the flux of shapes ceaselessly making and unmaking the rudiments of self-reflecting song, this act of sublime notation (if not of blood) is transformed in “Phoenix Park” (1968) into the figure of the ordeal cup in which the delicate distinct crystalline structures of memory and desire are stirring and taking form:

Look into the cup: the tissues of order
Form under your stare. The living surfaces
Mirror each other, gather everything
Into their crystalline world. Figure echoes
Figure faintly in the saturated depths;
Revealed by faint flashes of each other
They light the whole confines.

(P, p. 120)

The poet and his wife-muse must be willing to drink repeatedly from this cup if they are to continue to grow by enlarging their capacities for suffering and so for transmuting all the bitter secretions of life into visions of what the prose Prologue to the “Wormwood” sequence (1966) terms a “resumed innocence,” “the restored necessity to learn” (P, 66). Then throughout the long lyric sequence of poems inaugurated by “Phoenix Park,” which includes Notes From the Land of the Dead (1973), One (1974), and A Technical Supplement (1976), the cup of recollected potentiality turns into the ancient Irish Cauldron of Memory from which the entire race has come:

                                                                                I was alone
nearing the heart of the pit,
the light growing fitfully more bright.
A pale fume beat steadily through the gloom.
I saw, presently, it was a cauldron:
ceaselessly over its lip a vapour of forms
curdled, glittered and vanished. Soon I made out
a ring of mountainous beings, staring upward
with open mouths—naked ancient women.
Nothingness silted under their things
and over their limp talons.

(P, pp. 131–32)

What happens next to this play of forms in the sequence would take us from this opening poem of Notes From the Land of the Dead deeper into matters that cannot be broached at this time.

To return now to “Thinking of Mr. D.” This early poem adopts an Empsonian distance from its object, a kind of curator’s pose, that is certainly defensive, especially in light of the later poetry and its progressive turning inward from the great outer world and its unsolvable problems, to explore the secret hiding places of imaginative fire in the personal and racial pasts. My point is simply this: despite Kinsella’s recent protestations, a poem to be about anything at all must also be about how it is different from other poems (hence, its ironic play of allusions); and despite Bloom’s rabid hyperbole, a poem does intend to represent the literal figures of memory as well as to chart the latest contours in the typology of evasions that is modern poetry. Such figures as Mr. D. attract the poet’s revisionary impulses even as they make possible the representations of our common world. Interestingly enough, as Kinsella’s later career suggests, one often becomes in the process of understanding such seductively hollowed out figures most like that which one spends a good deal of one’s time avoiding. In other words, to recall the earlier excursion into allegory: Eros does become a monster of sorts from secretly identifying with the prophetic slander of Psyche’s bewitching sisters:

A figure struck and lodged in the earth
           and squatted, buried to the knees.
It started, absolutely tense.
           Time passed.
It settled gradually
           working like a root into the soil.
After it was fixed firmly
           the pent energy released inward.
Clarity and lightness
           opened in the hollow of the head.
Articulation, capacity,
           itched in the thumbs and fingers.
The heart fibres loosened as they dried
           and tangled back among themselves.
The whole interior of the body
           became an empty dry space.
The stare faded in the eyes
           which grew watchful, then passive
—lenses, letting the light pass easily
           in either direction.
The seam of the lips
           widened minutely in a smile.
The outer corners of the eyes crinkled.
           The lenses grew opaque, and began to glow.
And so he departed, leaving a mere shell
           —that serene effigy
we have copied so much
           and set everywhere.

(PP, pp. 78–79)

This excerpt from the third section of A Technical Supplement appears to be Kinsella’s whimsical revision of Bloom’s Gothic romance of the incarnation of the Poetical Character. “Artists’ Letters” from Song of the Night and Other Poems (1978) would seem in its own way to suggest Kinsella’s serious views on the matter.

Like “Thinking of Mr. D.” “Artists’ Letters” also clearly remembers many masters. Its rhetorical style suggests the conversational ease of the later Auden:

Folders, papers, proofs, maps
with tissue paper marked and coloured.
I was looking for something,
confirmation of something,
in the cardboard box
when my fingers deflected among
fat packets of love letters,
old immediacies in elastic bands.

(PP, p. 105)

Its initial situation ironically revises that of Yeats in “Circus Animals’ Desertion”:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.(8)

And its subject is inspired by Joyce’s recently published ribald classics of the genre:

I shook a letter open from
its creases, carefully, and read
—and shrugged, embarrassed.
                                                            Then stirred.
My hand grew thin and agitated
as the words crawled again
quickly over the dried paper.

(PP, p. 105)

Yet, as clearly, the somewhat stiff over-determination of sonnet form in “Thinking of Mr. D.” has given way to a more open and relaxed, a more colloquial flexibility familiar to American readers from William Carlos Williams’s last poetry, but here made wholly Kinsella’s own, especially when he must handle the influence of Bloom’s giants, Yeats and Stevens:

Letter by letter the foolishness
deepened, but displayed
a courage in its own unsureness;
acknowledged futility and waste
in all their importance … a young idiocy
in desperate full-hearted abandon
to all the chance of one choice:
There is one throw, no more. One
offering: make it. With no style
—these are desperate times. There is
a poverty of spirit in the wind,
a shabby richness in braving it.
My apologies, but you are my beloved
and I will not be put off.

(PP, p. 105; my emphasis)

More to the point is the fact that the earlier poem constructs a brilliant clock-work artifice for the speaker to peer down from onto his Dublin world; its bright assembly of fragments lifted from other writers’ works projects onto that background an uncertain vision of Kinsella’s own unique difference. “Artists’ Letters,” on the other hand, recreates the history of such ironic projects by making of the love-relationship an emblem of the writer’s “suspect” intercourse with his own self-mocking phantasmagoria:

What is it about such letters,
torn free ignominiously
in love? Character stripped off
our pens plunge repeatedly
at the unique cliché, cover
ache after ache of radiant paper
with analytic ecstasies,
wrestle in repetitious fury.
The flesh storms our brain; we storm
our entranced opposite, badger her
with body metaphors, project
our selves with outthrust stuttering arms,
cajoling, forcing her
—her spread-eagle spirit—
to accept our suspect cries
with shocked and shining eyes.
Artists’ letters (as the young career
grows firmer in excited pride
and moves toward authority
after the first facetiousness,
the spirit shaken into strength
by shock after shock of understanding)
suddenly shudder and display! Animal.
Violent vital organs of desire.
A toothless mouth opens
and we throw ourselves, enthralled, against our bonds
and thrash toward her. And when we have
been nicely eaten and our parts
spat out whole and have become
‘one,’ then we can settle
our cuffs
and our Germanic collar
and turn back calmly toward distinguished things.

(PP, p. 106)

This is the romance of interpretation from Goethe to Ricoeur and Said with a vengeance. Kinsella’s significance for a contemporary theoretical critic is that he provides the poet’s ironic answer to the Gnostic and cabbalistic speculations of Harold Bloom.

By saying this, however, I do not mean to leave the impression that Kinsella’s value is merely topical in this mandarin sense. Rather, the point I am aiming at is this: his poems, by ironically mirroring the rapacious mechanisms and clever ploys that stand behind the kind of sublime reductiveness of all great poetry, expose what a Bloom enjoys bemoaning even as he aspires to ape it in his criticism. For Kinsella “the passion is in the putting together” (“Worker in Mirror,” P, p. 180) of such poetic booby-traps, a position he spells out most clearly in one section of his appended glosses on the two fine elegies for his friend, John Reidy (Seán O Riada), Ireland’s greatest composer, who died on October 3, 1971:9

A voice from a dark corner near the fireplace began to sing. The song was Cásadh an tSugain and the singer Jerry Flaherty. I had heard the séan nos, or old style, of traditional singing before, without being attracted by the raw Oriental tonalities or the nasalised, strangulated delivery. For whatever reasons, the effect was different now. 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 the quality of the voice. It was a special voice, adapted (like a reptile or an insect) to its function. Mere beauty of tone would have distracted, attracting attention for its own sake. And the singer’s act of communication was thoroughly completed by his audience. They sat erect and listened, lifted their glasses and drank, and murmured phrases of appreciation. When the song ended there was a slight increase in the volume of general approbation but very little fuss. Something had been accomplished, and the entities which had combined to accomplish it separated and began to chat, in the smells of fish, rope, tobacco and porter.

(PP, pp. 151–52)

The most characteristic feature of Kinsella’s own style is this pursuit of clarity and justice, a transparency which will allow the “object” of the poetic imagination to be exhibited in all its primordial polyphony. It is the precision with which each phase of the developing poetic phantasmagoria is realized that counts, that insures a measure of responsibility at least.

Let me try to make my point in a more humorous way, with another ironic conceit. There is a Sesame Street publication for beginning readers called The Monster At the End of This Book. In it, Grover, the lovable furry monster with the slight speech impediment, pleads with the potential reader of the entire volume not to turn the first page because he is afraid of monsters, and the title clearly promises that one will appear at the conclusion. As each page is quickly turned over by the amused parent for the now hooked kid, Grover’s repeated pleas get more hysterical, his schemes to break off the reading more desperate and elaborate, until on the final page he discovers—to his overwhelming embarrassment—himself, of course. Where Bloom would see this situation of Grover’s “misreading” as a paradigmatic critical allegory of all revisionary texts, and would couch his vision in late Victorian gloom, Kinsella, I like to imagine, would find Grover’s self-created plight to be a subject for a kind of Nietzschean “black comedy,” a play of masks, since he understands that it is only one (among several) potentially transfiguring predicaments that a poet of tragic knowledge must face:

“Soft Toy”

I am soiled with the repetition of your loves and hatreds
And other experiments. You do not hate me,
Crumpled in my corner. You do not love me,
 A small heaped corpse. My face of beaten fur
Responds as you please: if you do not smile
 It does not smile: to impatience or distaste
It answers blankness, beyond your goodwill
 —Blank conviction, beyond your understanding or mine.
I lie limp with use and re-use, listening.
 Loose ends of conversations, hesitations,
Half-beginnings that peter out in my presence,
 Are enough. I understand, with a flame of shame
Or a click of ease or joy, inert. Knowledge
 Into resignation: the process drives deeper,
Grows clearer, eradicating chance growths of desire
 —And colder: all possibilities of desire.
My button-brown hard eyes fix on your need
 To grow, as you crush me with tears and throw me aside.
Most they reflect, but something absorb—brightening
 In response, with energy, to the energy of your changes.
Clutched tightly through the night, held before you,
 Ragged and quietly crumpled, as you thrust, are thrust,
In dull terror into your opening brain,
 I face the dark with eyes that cannot close
—The cold, outermost points of your will, as you sleep.
 Between your tyrannous pressure and the black
Resistance of the void my blankness hardens
 To a blunt probe, a cold pitted grey face.

(P, p. 99)

Well, on second thought, maybe …


  1. For a brief discussion of this and related topics, see my review-essay of Song of the Night and Other Poems and The Messenger (Dublin: Peppercanister, 1978) for Eire-Ireland 14 (Spring 1979), 131–35. Peppercanister is Kinsella’s own small private publishing enterprise located in his home in Dublin “across the Grand Canal from St. Stephen’s Church, known locally as ‘The Peppercanister.’” The previous information is from the Preface (p. 9) to Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978 (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest Univ. Press, 1979).

  2. Poems 1956–1973 and Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978 (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 1979). Hereafter these overlapping volumes will be cited parenthetically in my text as P and PP, respectively, with appropriate page numbers.

  3. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 75. I was present when this incident occurred.

  4. From pp. 4–5 of the manuscript of my forthcoming interview with Thomas Kinsella entitled “The Poetic Impulse” and to be published by Contemporary Poetry.

  5. Daniel O’Hara, “The Poetic Impulse,” p. 15.

  6. Daniel O’Hara, “The Poetic Impulse,” p. 12.

  7. The best philosophically grounded argument for this position is Paul Bové’s in the opening chapters of his Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980).

  8. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 332.

  9. See “A Selected Life” and “Vertical Man” in PP, pp. 21–23.

John D. Engle (review date Spring-Summer 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4647

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 you. Creation, growth, and survival are the stuff of us all.

To use a phrase from Baudelaire, Kinsella’s career has mixed symmetry and surprise. For the first dozen years following a 1956 chapbook, he steadily took on weight. Volume by volume, he toughened up his verse and mind, moving from a distanced, precious concern with death and the problem of evil towards a more muscular involvement, swapping elegance and gloss for a knobbier idiom. Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968) climaxed this phase. Half depression, half anger (he wrote) “at the continuum of waste, injustice, etc., in which we are apparently expected to survive,” it spurred the kind of “new Yeats” talk which has been de rigeur in Ireland since the War. Then Kinsella lost his way—or found it, depending on whom you talk to.

In either case, the sequence Notes from the Land of the Dead (1973) was a surprise. Where Kinsella had trained a somber, controlled gaze on present discontent, he now “turned to things not right nor reasonable”: the sources of the present self and its prime movers, creative imagination and the animal will to continue. The two form an odd syndicate, and Kinsella’s poems in the Seventies sound like it. The rough finish that Nightwalker brought to the poetry was still largely at the service of traditional form and cadence. Against this we have the free verse of Notes which is guided by inner tensions, just as secret nerves and tendons command the hand; it draws its abundant strength as much from the will as the ear.

Its jarring interiority repelled some readers and heartened others. I was of the latter camp, though even now certain of the poems read like a half-crazed explorer’s hasty log:

There is nothing here for sustenance.
                                        Unbroken sleep were best.
Hair. Claws. Grey.
                                        Naked. Wretch. Wither.

Lines like these haven’t helped Kinsella’s reputation—a recent review magisterially dismissed him for having “disappeared into the interior”—but they don’t tell the whole story either. Kinsella is an explorer, and there is poetic sustenance in his personal underworld. The poetry of Notes is not as extravagantly disheveled as it occasionally seems, and what comes dressed as nihilism turns out to be something else.

A recurrent metaphor in Notes (and the new book) is the speaker’s long, disturbing drop into the “dark nutrient waves” from which the self, like an evolved animal, emerged. One can call on Yeats, though the parallel shouldn’t be strained: “I am content to follow to its source / Every event in action or in thought; / Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!” Kinsella heads down, a quest hero, into the past and subconscious; he would retrieve the scary flotsam of memory, a dying old harpy of a grandmother or, perhaps, obsessive shadowplays drawn from a childhood reading of the Book of Invasions, Ireland’s ancient and wild Genesis. After the confusing bobs and weaves of something like a plot, he bears back his prize: a new awareness, at once modest and enough to change one’s life. The searching imagination, Kinsella discovers, is an orphan in a heart-breaking world of paradox and neither “truth nor any certainties”; it wins a little victory by its resolve to drive on anyway, accepting for nourishment what the world offers, as fierce as the body in the body’s rage to live. He has come through, but not by much. To Kinsella, art is the ritual of acceptance, the artist alchemizing bitterness into a kind of understanding.

Now we have this book, new self-surgery, further exploration: “It is time I continued my fall.” Peppercanister Poems brings together six years worth of poems, 134 pages strong with another twenty-odd in prose commentary; Kinsella published them originally on his backyard press, Peppercanister. These aren’t well-groomed lyric masterpieces, every hair in place. When it has counted most to Kinsella, as in Notes, his energy has gone into the loose and shaggy poetic sequence. Here among several pacing, growling elegies and a number of shorter poems, the stars are “One,” “A Technical Supplement,” and “The Messenger,” three sequences that extend the series begun in 1973. The sequence as we know it is not new—Yeats fiddled with it, Pound became its slave, and isn’t that what The Waste Land really is?—but since World War II it has stepped forward as a genre unto itself. Marrying sweep and lyric intensity, resisting limits on its heterogeneity, it is thriving for the same reason that the epic is not: it says that the world and the self are complex and that the poet sits at no privileged still point from which he can call experience at once to order.

And the sequence apotheosizes process. Things are always growing or becoming in Kinsella’s poems—a pearl gathers secretions to spawn new layers, crystals divide and multiply like mitotic cells. In “One” Kinsella plunges again through the crust of appearance into this region of process and origin. The eight poems send his thoughts again into a hoard of personal and common memory, back to his own childhood and further still to merge with those of Ireland’s mythical first wave of settlers, the so-called First Kindred of the Book of Invasions. This is Jung country. A coda to “One” helps clarify Kinsella’s intentions. He will arrive where we started, and know the place: the dim, muffled spot, deeper than biology, where the self begins. “The fall is cradled / immediately in a motherly warmth,” he writes. And from that moment each individual carries with it “the dark urge,” a chunk of shadow, like baggage: “It knows / only that it is a nightmare-bearing tissue / and that there are others

their ghost-companionship dissolves back
into private shadow, not often called upon.

Imagining himself into the earliest legend of his people, Kinsella surveys the divergent and confluent rivers of self and race; he charts the tiny streams of the individual as they fork off or reconnect. Across the “weird Atlantic” from Finisterre in Brittany come Kinsella’s version of the first Irishmen, drawn by what

                                                            ghostly hunger
tunneling our thoughts full of passages
smelling of death and clay and faint metals
and great stones in the darkness?

The language here is earthy and weighty and precisely evocative (“faint metals”) even as it stares across the border into the Mythic. Unfortunately, though, Kinsella strays across too often—metaphor becomes allegory, and the wires show. The sea the ancient invaders cross smells too much like amniotic fluid. Arriving in Ireland in a poem called “The Oldest Place,” they honor with offerings a mysterious black monolith that doesn’t exist except as an emblem:

With each gift, the giver
sighed and melted away,
the black stone packed more
with dark radiance.

To his credit, Kinsella has packed these lines as densely as the stone, with “i,” “k,” and “r” sounds, repeated words, internal rhymes. Yet the scene still comes off staged and representative: their independent courses run, countless rivulets converge again in the main channel. The dark is both origin and destination; in between, we carry the dark urge as a reminder.

Kinsella handles the theme with greater subtlety and resourcefulness when he turns to his own childhood for material. Along the way he gets the most from the sequence form, particularly its potential for cinematic juxtaposition. Take the same black stone which had stood like a stage prop at the end of “The Oldest Place.” In the next poem, “38 Phoenix Street,” it abruptly becomes a believable, weedy back wall at the oldest place in Kinsella’s life, his first remembered home. The child Thomas, a literary relative to Baby Tuckoo, is hoisted over it, just as “a mammy” lifts an infant from the other side. Among “dusty smells, cat, flower bells / hanging down purple red,” he recognizes “the other.” This is the earliest shock of physical entity, the first knowledge of one’s separateness. But how separate are we? To the boy watching his finger pick at a piece of dirt, the finger seems to have a discrete identity, a life of its own. Then again so does the worm which momentarily distracts him. The lesson is apparent when it quickly disappears back into the hole in the wall from which it had come. Like the black stone surrounded by worshippers—but without the portentous hocus-pocus—the garden wall reabsorbs the “wiry redgolden thing” into the darkness, its true home.

The wall and the hidden worm reappear under different guises in “His Father’s Hands,” one of the finest poems Kinsella has written. A rich blend of description and reverie, it shuttles across time and between abstractions without losing the edge of primary, tactile reality. Drinking with his father, he remembers his father before him, as he worked leather or played at the fiddle. There in the past, the young boy fidgets about, knocking nail after nail into his grandfather’s rude bench, an old wood block—“bright points among hundreds gone black, / other children’s—cousins and others, grown up.” He hears old tales of the Family, back when they moonlighted as stone-cutters or hid out croppies. And, “beyond that,” imagination unstoppably drifts, a haunting ritual of retrieval: “Littered uplands. Dense grass. Rocks everywhere, / wet underneath, retaining memory of the long cold.” This is back before “dispersals or migrations,” before “evolutions or accidents” led, in the way they do, to this boy by the fireside hearing an old man’s yarns and busying himself with nails.

The ending is an epiphany:

Extraordinary … The big block—I found it
years afterward in a corner of the yard
in sunlight after rain
and stood it up, wet and black:
it turned under my hands, an axis
of light flashing down its length,
and the wood’s soft flesh broke open,
countless little nails
squirming and dropping out of it.

With the immediacy of Pound’s bough, the wet, black wooden block turns under our hands too. In the last line, dactyls falling elegiacally, countless nails squirm and tumble from the rotten core. Another version of the stone and garden wall, the block seethes with symbolic life. Without strain or theatrics, it becomes the shadowy, compacted center Kinsella has been sounding this last decade. At the moment of individuation, discrete being rips free from the common, dark confusion.

The strength of the poem is that, for all the willed persistence of its theme, the ideas are given a local habitation. Kinsella writes vividly about his family, and Dublin lives in his words. Look at “The Messenger,” a long elegy for his father. According to the book jacket, it concludes the sequence begun in “Notes,” and indeed Kinsella has plumped it with distracting imagery from the earlier poems. All that really matters here is a son’s “half-sick” sadness and his affection for a real man. What tangy memories: the boy’s mind drifting at Mass, “an old turkey-neck in front, with a cured boil,” Father Collier haranguing parishioners into voting the Catholic line; and abruptly being dragged from church by his Socialist father, the priest behind, muscular in his soutane, “shouting Godless Russia at us.” Or, among the “man-smells / of leather and oily metal,” watching grandfather and father at the cobbler’s shop,

Son and father, upright, right arms raised.
Stretching a thread.
Trying to strike right.

Like many of Kinsella’s poems, “The Messenger” is a search for an angle of vision by which seeming disorder might resolve itself into order and significance. The death of a father raises a numbing, ugly “suspicion in the bones / as though they too could melt in filth.” At such moments the thread of human community becomes a delicate, necessary lifeline. In memory, in skills and pride passed on, in the inherited strength of a right arm, whether it’s used for cobbling or writing, a pattern of meaning beyond individual mortality emerges. As the body, “sensing its direction,” rolls out the chapel door, the “scattered tribe” regathers itself. The youngest of the clan know that they are both leaders and followers:

By their own lightness
four girls and three boys separated themselves
in a ragged band out from our dull custom
and moved up close after it, in front,
all shapes and sizes,
grandchildren, colourful and silent.

This is Kinsella close to his subject and to scenes he knows, the place to be. The poem’s few weak moments come when he asks “The Messenger” to bear more weight than it can. Here, as in “One,” Kinsella crams in mythical apparatus that isn’t needed; he doesn’t curb his imagination when he should. Follow this: the messenger of the elegy is the elder Kinsella as a post office boy biking proudly up the hill, showing “a clean pair of heels”; as the frontispiece makes clear, he is also Mercury conveying to man signs of order. Then Kinsella lets the metaphor fly away with him, for he soon dons an awkward set of wings to become a messenger from the past, a weird sperm cell-dragonfly presiding over his own conception; his sometimes violent father becomes a dragon heavy with, for all his cruelty, “the eggseed goodness”; the egg becomes a pearl, an emblem of memory that consoles because it grows, beautiful still, in the slime of dissolution; and so on. This is unmotivated and melodramatic, an elephant gun where BB’s would do. Though frequently they must be glossed by earlier poems, the individual images have potential; yet as Kinsella uses them, they crowd together too much, like children competing for attention.

When a container seems infinitely elastic, one is tempted to put too much into it. This is a risk Kinsella has taken with his move from the poem-to-a-page tradition and its inherent demands on craft towards the spacious energy of the sequence. Reading “One” and “The Messenger,” you get the impression that he has more on his mind than the well-made poem. “A Technical Supplement” leaves no doubt. It is just that, an addendum to the main work that anatomizes its artistic principles. Along the way, it demonstrates them in action. The result is probably the most complicated, chancy bit of writing in the new book; generally the gamble pays off.

“A Technical Supplement” comes right out with it: Kinsella has jilted the Muse. “Sad prowler,” he calls her, “If she dares come nearer … I’ll pierce her like / a soft fruit, a soft big seed!” Violent words, but Kinsella knows a Siren when he hears one. Poetry’s traditional values and assumptions flatter the poet; who wouldn’t be a demi-god if he could, redoing the Creation? This presumption, pleasant as “the touch under the shirt,” only sets the poet up for a rough morning after. “It is a question,” he says, “of / getting separated from one’s habits / and stumbling onto another way. The beginning / must be inward. Turn inward. Divide.” In “One” Kinsella limned what he means by this: “I wrote, bent like a feeding thing / over my own source.” As poet, he must share in the universal hunger of existence, the dark urge of “a living thing swallowing another.” He knows the limits of art: if we try to stall or fix existence, all we see is “a streaming away of lifeblood, timeblood … wriggling with life not of our kind.” It must be ingested alive and kicking and contradicting itself.

Of course this is by now no more than Modernist poetic dogma. You should come to “A Technical Supplement” instead for its bracing sense of the most personal kind of drama. In its twenty-three sections we follow a consciousness in action, rummaging for the correspondences that sharpen thought, working towards a conception that does matter. The poems made me continually aware of Kinsella’s uncommon mind—rational, husky, and darkly serious for the most part, but with a wildly imaginative edge to it. Often the test is whether the latter quality focuses or dissipates the force of the former. Here Kinsella’s fancy is extravagant and energetic, but not overripe as it sometimes is elsewhere.

Kinsella ferries us back and forth between two worlds. The first (primary?) is a dream-country inhabited by all manner of predatory animals and bristling with blades, points, and razors; the second we might call Daily Life. Denying the reader a stable foothold in either realm is an essential part of Kinsella’s strategy. He wants us to know what it feels like to be him the poet never fully at home in either himself: human, distractable, craving a proper lunch to keep the creative juice flowing—yet also haunted by an odd coterie of images that keep whispering secrets he can’t quite make out. The sequence begins ambitiously: “Let us see how the whole thing / works.” Emphasize the last word, for Kinsella delivers the thing-in-progress as well as anyone. This is him at the work desk with lively old prints of Viking spearheads. Seamus Heaney would fashion such materials into a perfect little talisman of primordial violence and present crisis; Kinsella cares more about the way the stuff of poetry sloshes about in the mind awaiting its formal birth:

A smell of hot home-made loaves
came from the kitchen downstairs.
A sheet of yellowish Victorian thick paper,
a few spearheads depicted in crusty brown ink
—Viking remains at Islandbridge—
added their shiny-stale smell to the baked air
like dried meat.
                                                            Man-meat, spitted.
Corpses scattered on the river mud
in suds of blood. …

These lines interest but do not arrest, which points to one reason why “A Technical Supplement” is not a reviewer’s dream. It quotes poorly, and, though the main line of the argument can be encapsulated, its plot and attendant subtleties can’t. Stylistically, it is made up of a little of this and that, a peasant soup; plucked from the broth, its ingredients taste wrong. Kinsella wrenches words about, stands them bare and anorexic on the page, leaves room for plainness, abstraction, even exclamation points. The poetry is rarely pretty but like coal, flashless, it burns long and hot. And when it is “poetic,” it is so subversively. One poem draws us into Swift’s slaughterhouse to watch the performance, all to a symphony of saws. Poetically, it is a tour-de-force of calm reasonableness, but its unruffled six-line stanzas of blank verse contain kicking pigs and “blood trickling / over nostrils and teeth.” Anthologized (as it recently was), the poem sells Kinsella short; in context it becomes a parable on the traditional imperatives of art—before our eyes, snorting dynamism is reduced to packaged lifelessness, steaks and chops. The chilly reserve of the poetry discredits the Muse, helplessly genteel, while this same detached skillfulness enacts a cool focusing of attention, a wholly dispassionate intensity that Kinsella is striving for.

These ideas get full play in the queer last “scene” of the sequence. The speaker, transparently Kinsella, looks into the mirror at himself, at everyone. Before his eyes—the effect is startling—his face begins “to separate, the head opening / like a rubbery fan,” forehead splitting, features multiplying. The conventional artistic response is to impose the human will upon a reality that won’t stop twitching, in this case by smashing the glass. But “the starred ruins / would only have started to divide and creep.” Stare them into “order” for an instant, then lose them in movement: this is the heroic, foredoomed human mission. The key again is acceptance. To understand, the act of attention must be total and the act of acceptance must be total:

That day when I woke
a great private blade
was planted in me from bowels to brain.
I lay there alive round it. When I moved
it moved with me, and there was no hurt.

To “turn inward, divide” means to come to a truce with paradoxical, messy existence, to absorb reality’s restless dividing and shifting. Again the metaphor is hunger: “to taste reality / and not to … to anticipate / the Breath, the Bite, with cowering arms / and not to. …” This poetry walks a tightrope; down below is fantasyland interiority, not Kinsella’s real insides at all. He stays up just as they do in the circus, by believing in himself, driving forward, and never looking down.

He does look around him, though. This will no doubt gratify those who have come to expect a response to the Northern crisis from all Irish poets. Kinsella sifts Ulster’s stained earth once in this volume. The opening poem “Butcher’s Dozen” was written in response to the Report of the Widgery Tribunal after the British Army’s 1972 murder of thirteen civilians in Derry. As Kinsella says in some helpful notes, it was “the nth in a historic series of expedient falsehoods,” a self-serving cover-up that only wagged a finger at the offending soldiers. Kinsella doesn’t wear the hat of the Public Poet well. The poem galumphs along in not-so-heroic couplets: “We all are what we are, and that / Is mongrel pure. What nation’s not / Where any stranger hung his hat / And seized a lover where she sat?” As he says, he “chose the doggerel route, and charged.” The problem here is not doggerel—this is political poetry after all, rushed out in a week—but that it’s not good doggerel such as Auden would sometimes write. The lines I quote, with their splash of 18th Century wit, are about as far as the poem rises above conventional wisdom. What does move us is the poignancy of the Irish situation itself and the ardent immediacy of response, as old bruises for the moment ache more, old sores run more. Coming right off the stove gives the poem its strength and ample weaknesses.

If “Butcher’s Dozen” was served up too hot, a poem on Kennedy, “The Good Fight,” sat a bit long on the counter. Kinsella started it shortly after the assassination, then “allowed time for the foolishness to digest”; when, ten Novembers later, it appeared as a Peppercanister pamphlet, he may have waited too long. The method is collage, the somewhat cold assemblage of Plato, T. H. White, Kennedy’s speeches, Oswald’s diary. It seems schematic in organization, as Kinsella simplifies where complexity might interfere with the design’s integrity: Oswald’s sole guilt, for example, is accepted “for the purpose in hand.” Oswald himself comes off as a TV movie loner, his motivation too easily explained. Certainly it is hard to write a good public elegy, but a poem like Harvey Shapiro’s “National Cold Storage Company,” slight but on the mark, shows it can be done. Next to much of the new work, “The Good Fight” is oddly flat, without vigor. In one area, though, Kinsella shows his poetic horse sense—he incorporates Kennedy’s own words live into the poem. After almost twenty years we may have forgotten that particular eloquence: “going to meet / the harsh bright demands of the West … adventuring with risk … our power / justified upon our excellence!”

Several of the shorter poems do succeed beautifully—particularly two elegies to Seán O Riada, soaked in booze and Celtic mysticism and accompanied by a spooky prose commentary, and “Tao and Unfitness at Inistiogue on the River Nore.” In the latter, Kinsella remembers exploring a Kilkenny village with his family. He merges precise natural description with reflections on art and history as he moves through a landscape, all in a way that recalls his most lasting early poems, “A Country Walk” and “Downstream” (1962). But if the manner of the poem looks towards the past somewhat, its themes do not. In a late afternoon haunted by historical ghosts, the family comes upon a pack of men, salmon poachers, part of the land into which they quickly disappear and players in a centuries-old game. Later, drifting in half light, they see what can only be one of the men, who appears and disappears:

We were near the island—no more than a dark mass
on a sheet of silver—when a man appeared in midriver
quickly and with scarcely a sound, his paddle touching
left and right of the prow, with a sack behind him.
The flat cot’s long body slid past effortless
as a fish, sinewing from side to side,
as he passed us and vanished.

Kinsella has a knack for endings. This one sends feelers into the dark well after the poem is over. An old way of life is going and gone, life is fluid and transient. But there is more. It is preceded by one-line “refrains” interspersed throughout: “Move, if you move, like water … Respond. Do not interfere. Echo … Be still as though pure … Be subtle as though not there.” The poet too must be a poacher, subtle, abdicating the coercive will, ready to fade from the landscape, feeding off land he can never own. Notice how the lines progressively shrink, as though the poem were willing its own disappearance, and the poet his. In the last line, after two anapests, a dying fall precisely, minimally enacts the verb. “Tao and Unfitness” is Kinsella at full voice, singing as he did in the early Sixties in “Downstream”—but about drifting with the current into shadow, not “searching the darkness for a landing place.”

Kinsella is at home now in darkness, the secret shadows where we create and were created. If he invites us into a world that at times proves too elaborately personal, if he tries to do too much with his poems, these are generous blunders. They shouldn’t obscure the fact that Kinsella is a serious poet of invention and honesty. In the States, he started to get some of the attention he deserves a decade ago, but still it has come slowly. All poets face hurdles mean and numerous, but the Irish face a particularly frustrating one, a certain Olympian shadow, stilts and all. Almost unwittingly, one looks to Yeats as a gauge or, worse, simply assumes that the Irish vessel ran dry in 1939. This situation is changing slowly. In America you hear Heaney’s name about frequently, and occasionally even those of John Montague, Derek Mahon, and young Paul Muldoon. With Kinsella’s newest and another released simultaneously by Wake Forest, Poems 1956–73, a virtual “collected” for those years, American readers will have another reason to take recent Irish poetry seriously. It’s time they do. For too long they haven’t seen a rich forest for the great-rooted blossomer.

Seamus Deane (essay date 1985)

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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 World War. Beckett, who had finally settled in Paris in 1937, and Francis Stuart, who went to lecture in Berlin in 1940, both produced trilogies between 1947 and 1950 which fell dead from the press. The condition of inertia in Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and that of dishonour in The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption and The Flowering Cross, can be seen now as figures of exile and refuge, explored in each case with an implacable disdain for the risks involved. Among these was the loss of an audience. Beckett had to wait until the sixties and Stuart until the seventies before any considerable recognition came. These novels exemplify the felt loss of energy in the conditions then prevailing in Ireland. Their incorporation of the European crisis was a rebuke of the Irish failure to sustain its earlier engagement with the twentieth-century world.

However, with the appearance of Thomas Kinsella’s first volume of poems in 1956, that incorporation finally began to take place in poetry. The sense of Ireland’s peripheral role in the European experience came home to Kinsella when he was a civil servant in the economically resurgent Ireland of Sean Lemass, the successor to Eamon de Valera. In ‘Nightwalker’ (1968) he imagines the glare of the gas ovens on the faces of two young Germans who have come to invest in the new Ireland:

                                                            Bruder und Schwester
—Two young Germans I had in this morning
Wanting to transfer investment income;
The sister a business figurehead, her brother
Otterfaced, with exasperated smiles
Assuming—pressing until he achieved—response.
Handclasp; I do not exist; I cannot take
My eyes from their pallor. A red glare
Plays on their faces, livid with little splashes
Of blazing fat. The oven door closes.

The same shock had been registered six years earlier in the poem ‘Downstream’. There, a row-boat journey through darkness turns to nightmare with the revived memory of a man who had died at this drear river edge and whose corpse had been found later, half-eaten. This story too had first been heard during the War. Its horror is understood as a salutary reminder of the necessity to confront such experience on the part of a sensibility which had been culpably innocent. While Kinsella is at this point entering the first stages of a long journey downwards into the sources of terror, he is also very deliberately identifying this confrontation as one badly needed by a culture which had grown provincial and isolated. To have been bypassed by the war is, it would seem, to have been condemned to a callowness which now must be overcome, no matter how bitter the price and how forced the growth.

                                                            It seemed that I,
Coming to conscience on that lip of dread
Still dreamed, impervious to calamity,
Imagining a formal rift of the dead
Stretched calm as effigies on velvet dust,
Scattered on starlit slopes with arms outspread
And eyes of silver—when that story thrust
Pungent horror and an actual mess
Into my very face, and taste I must.

In such passages Kinsella heralds not only many of the preoccupations of his later writings but also a preoccupation of much contemporary Irish poetry. That is, the need to break, however reluctantly, out of a deep insulation from the actual, and to take on again the burden of history and thereby to come to a recognition of horror and violence, the imposition of such forces upon an isolated, peripheral consciousness. Indeed, the attraction of violence for Irish poets is perhaps especially strong not merely on account of its pervasiveness but also because, as a theme, it provides an exit from provincialism. Certainly Kinsella has absorbed the shock of mass atrocity into his poetry so deeply that the issues he raises have very little of the local or peripheral about them. That image of the last three lines above, a face being compelled to feast on horror, recurs again and again in his work. Eating is the act of survival, but it is never far removed from disgust. Kinsella has an imagination which lives off pain and which must loom over it and feed on it or be shadowed by its alien presence and itself become the matter that is eaten. Examples abound. In ‘Leaf Eater’, a grub

Back on itself and begins
To eat its own leaf.

In ‘Death in Ilium’, written in Yeats’s centenary year, the ‘shadoweaters’ (critics, perhaps?)

Close in with tough nose
And pale fang to expose
Fibre, weak flesh, speech organs.
They eat, but cannot eat.
Dog-faces in his bowels,
Bitches at his face,
He grows whole and remote.

There are two measurements of distance in Kinsella’s poetry. One is the measurement of elegance, in which the poet as dandy displays his skills and craft yet remains damagingly removed from the actual. The other is the measurement of incoherence, in which the poet, in shock after the intense closeness of actuality, grows into the remoteness of near-silence, his speech broken into single words or phrases which have to travel a long way before they connect with another word or phrase. At the median point between these is the confrontation itself. There, actuality takes on all the customary lethal forms—death, illness, loss of love, historical and contemporary violence. Those poems in which elegance is the predominant feature are structures imposed on recalcitrant material. However, the elegance is never sufficient to entirely disguise a sour wisdom, although it is sufficiently there to make that wisdom somewhat homiletic in tone, more orotund than it has earned the right to be. So, In ‘Baggot Street Deserta’ (from Another September, 1958) we are told:

Versing, like an exile, makes
A virtuoso of the heart,
Interpreting the old mistakes
And discords in a work of Art
For the One, a private masterpiece
Of doctored recollections. Truth
Concedes, before the dew, its place
In the spray of dried forgettings Youth
Collected when they were a single
Furious undissected bloom.

It is easy to admire the drive of the verse, even though the syntax is pursued at the expense of line-form. There is, for instance, no escaping the breath pauses before and after the word ‘Youth’ at the end of line 8, although the syntax attempts to wriggle free of them. But the list of abstractions—Art, Youth, Truth—bedevil the propositions, giving them a false air of profundity. Still, in poems like ‘Another September’ or ‘Mirror in February’ Kinsella can sustain a sweeter lyricism which manages to survive the habit of putting large universal questions. In ‘Mirror in February’, for instance:

And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more?

the polysyllabic ‘mutilated’ stands out wonderfully well in its monosyllabic surround. It is also a highly characteristic verb. The stanza in which it occurs also contains the words ‘hacked’, ‘defaced’, ‘brute’, all of them harbingers of the violence which is still, at this stage, contained by the stylish, slightly pompous close:

                                                            In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

But the structuring capacity of style is under pressure even in these early poems and it is difficult to remain insensitive to the threat of experiences too powerful, too inchoate to be accommodated. ‘A Country Walk’, a meditation on violent history and the banality of the present, records the release of the imagination from the conventional versions of past and present through the figure of the swollen river and through a concentrated observation of the switches and changes in the surface currents of the dishevelled flood as it races under the bridge where the poet stands. This image is deliberately turned into a small allegory and then dismissed in ‘Ballydavid Pier’, in which the foetus of an animal floating in the harbour waters becomes a version of the monstrous element in life itself. But that is not, it seems, a satisfying structure. The thing finally remains itself, just beyond the range of structuring’s good intentions:

The angelus. Faint bell-notes
From some church in the distance
Tremble over the water.
It is nothing. The vacant harbour
Is filling; it will empty.
The misbirth touches the surface
And glistens like quicksilver.

As with grotesque physical objects, so too with grotesque historical ones. Castles and museums are not haunted, in Kinsella’s poetry, by nostalgic voices. They are more often seen as false structures imposed on a complex past, or on a humiliated people, removed from the pungent complexity of the actual and more readily subject, on that account, to the very ruin which they record or cause. King John’s castle, in the poem of that name, ‘rams fast down the county of Meath’. But it stands now ‘in its heavy ruin’, not naturalized into but apart from the landscape in which it stands. Similarly, in other poems, nightmare enters into and forms an unhappy and uneasy truce with the common, domesticated daylight, the dominant structure here being marriage and its foundation ‘the hells of circumstance’ (‘Remembering Old Wars’). In all of these instances, the confusion of experience rebukes the symmetry of structure. History, marriage, the imagination itself, are at odds with the experiences which constitute them. As forms of order, even as words which imply a certain categorized orderliness, they are denials of disorder. Yet denial is as far as Kinsella can take the matter. He can arrest the disorder, in policeman fashion, but he has no court before which to bring it—or, more exactly, he has no native court before which he can bring it. For disorder is no offence in the Irish poetic (or political) tradition. The policing of it is, in fact, a kind of betrayal. Where ideas of intensity, even of uncouthness (understood as the social equivalent of intensity) rule, and where their supremacy in human experience is supported by the experience of breakdown and disaster, a poetry which seeks to elaborate structures of response, a whole architecture of feeling, is in danger of passing beyond the point of recognition. Seeking some parallel and support for his plight, Kinsella turned to America and found it mirrored there in various writers but most of all in the poetry of Ezra Pound.

In Wormwood (1966) and in Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968) Kinsella attempts to establish in poem sequences the dual sense of experience as process, with the flavour of the instantaneous and disorganized, and experience as pattern, with the sense of retrospect established by virtue of the fact that he is writing. The impression of an unfolding structure is allied throughout with the impression of a certain repugnance which is being experienced in close-up, when the pattern is not visible but the taste is inescapable. No image in these poems leads a casual life. Local felicities are allowed, but they are subsumed always into a larger structure, although the effort often feels like the triumph of a determined will over a nauseous physical reaction. The image of the looming face, the eating of a ‘mess’, the digestion of this into psychic energy, all contribute to a sense of claustrophobia which would be overwhelming were it not relieved by their association with varieties of natural process—the formation of crystals and rocks, the growth of living tissue, the complex action of water. If the imagination feeds on experience, then it is merely rehearsing a natural process in which all the elements share. Thus the introversion implicit in the trope is rescued from neurosis and is converted into a harmonious relationship with other things. Still, the repugnance remains, indicative of the need for determination and of the sheer difficulty of amalgamating a painfully miscellaneous personal and historical experience into a comprehensive structure.

Underlying all this effort is the ambition to translate the laws of primary nature into the realm of culture, or secondary nature. The risk, of course, is that the poetry is what gets lost in the translation, because the apparent incongruity between these two worlds of nature and culture is too great. It is the plight of the modern metaphysical poet. How, for instance, is the process of biological evolution to be re-imagined so as to reveal something about the nature and process of human love? The question is answered in many poems, above all in ‘Phoenix Park’, in the deployment of a series of interconnected images which clarify the movement of the poem from the crisis of illness to the recovery of health. A fractured twig, a consuming fever, a child devouring mushrooms, a crystal forming, are all placed to connect with ideas of illness, recuperation, the wholeness of health, so that in the end we may see a harmony between the human and the natural worlds which are interfused throughout the poem. The harmony is not, however, pre-established and it may be thought is not securely established at all, at any point. This in itself is evidence of Kinsella’s readiness to take the risk of believing that the desire for such a harmony may be an enchantment from which he needs release. Human experience does not, after all, provide laws of order and system which a study of the non-human world more gratifyingly provides. It is at this point of disappearing faith that his power of assertion takes control. The hope of establishing an order is nourished by the search for the opportunity of doing so. The carefully charted internal relationships in the poem and its extended relationships with the Wormwood sequence (for example, those between ‘The Secret Garden’ and Part IV of ‘Phoenix Park’) support the reader’s sense that order will, at whatever expense, prevail. The bright will to control, the slowly elicited but surely established confidence that ‘Laws of order I find I have discovered’, the drive in Kinsella towards mastery, are ways of appeasing a hunger which itself remains unexamined. Structure is one thing. ‘Mess’ is another. What makes their opposition fruitful is the desire each has for the other, indeed to become the other. Until the early seventies Kinsella’s work had in effect ratified the existence of this desire. Thereafter, he was more inclined to push further and explore its nature and history.

In the earlier work, poems had been arranged around fairly simple and ready-made oppositions and most of the energy had been expended upon the stylish elegance of the variations which could be played upon these. But, as the oppositions became more subtle and their embodiment more delicate, the elegance began to fade. A certain cumbrousness began to dominate the poems, as though the difficulty of writing them were somehow being made an integral part of the difficulty of reading them. This loss of elegance seemed to some readers to indicate a loss of control. But since the poet is trying to transmit to us the experience of lost control, his foregoing of elegance is not really an indication of failure. Instead, he chooses to demonstrate the process by which he arrives at his moments of balance. The poem is not a structure; it is an action in which structures appear and disappear as part of a complex process in which the poet, as well as the reader, is involved. The earlier poetry, based on oppositions, gives way to a poetry in which a dialectical relationship was being sustained between modes and moments of order, modes and moments of dissolution. This contained, at the least, a reminiscence of Pound’s theory of the Vortex and of his practice in The Cantos. Kinsella’s own description of this, in a review of The Cantos, is to the point: ‘The meaning is a matter of vortices eddying about us as we possess ourselves of the contents of the poet’s mind. Everything is dramatic and immediate, concerned with ideas only in so far as they manifest themselves in action.’

From 1975 onwards, when Notes from the Land of the Dead was published, the central analogy in Kinsella’s poetry is that between biological and imaginative processes. He displaces the anxieties which had governed Nightwalker and Other Poems from their ultimately consoling contexts of history and domesticity. Instead, he rereads them in the wider range afforded by his association of the biological impulse towards birth with the desire for form, and the impulse towards death with the desire for formlessness, the inchoate. This analogy is then further enriched by material (sometimes translated directly, sometimes obliquely referred to) taken from early Celtic literature, particularly the Lebor Gabala Erenn, generally known as The Book of Invasions. In this, myth and history mix to form patterns of invasion and absorption, violence and recovery. At another level, the poem resumes the history of Kinsella’s family, emphasizing the cycle of birth and death, the transmission of knowledge and of physical resemblances, and centring on his own place within these processes. The result is a series of dramatic, if abrupt, vignettes in which various levels of experience are interlarded one with another.

I feed upon it still, as you see;
there is no end to that which,
not understood, may yet be noted
and hoarded in the imagination,
in the yolk of one’s being, so to speak,
there to undergo its (quite animal) growth,
dividing blindly,
twitching, packed with will,
searching in its own tissue
for the structure
in which it may wake.

The story of evolution, of the Fall, of Irish history, of the Kinsella family, all become intricately interrelated in the endeavour to explore the growth of consciousness to the point where it becomes the object of its own activity. This is the point of differentiation between first and second nature, the point at which the human world assumes to itself the role of the creator of the systems by which it knows itself.

As a result, rapid transitions are constantly taking place in the poetry, as images from disparate areas touch one another, their diversity fuelling the poet’s desire for a unity in which pattern rather than process will be perceived. A technique of analysis, like surgery, used in A Technical Supplement (1976), with illustrative plates from Diderot’s L’Encyclopédie, and with obvious extensions of meaning to include the whole analytic procedure of rational investigation commemorated in that work, can lead to an ‘invasion’ (of the body, or of any sphere) but can result, finally, in the discovery of the wholeness that is more than a sum of the parts. Similarly, in The Good Fight (1973), the assassination of President Kennedy is seen as an act of violation which nevertheless, in destroying over-exalted hopes of perfection, with their Platonic overtones, might restore the poet and the community to an acceptance of the way things are and thus allow culture, secondary nature, to produce its poems as politics produced its Kennedy:

—their gleaming razors
mirroring a primary world
where power also is a source of patience
for a while before the just flesh
falls back in black dissolution in its box.

The idea of order derives from the experience of disorder. One is always becoming the other. There is no point of balance or of perfect rest between the two. In language, too, the synthesis which words can achieve coexists with the dispersion they narrate.

Although Pound is clearly an active influence here, Joyce’s shadow also moves over these pages, reminding us of the modern Irish ambition (as exemplified in Yeats and in Joyce) to transcend inherited and provincial disorder in cosmopolitan systems of order which, in their ductility to the desire of the author remind us of the capacity of language to systematize anything it chooses to include. In Kinsella’s case, the darkly introverted quality of the poetry is never surrendered to his esprit de système. In fact, the basic vocabulary of his poems scarcely alters over thirty years, although his use of it does gain in power, especially after 1973. It is a vocabulary which emphasizes a radical violence. The blind force which makes the packed tissue grope towards full growth, the blind hunger that eats and digests all that comes its way, the conqueror who destroys that he may build, the love that renews itself through pain, the endurance which absorbs assaults, the English language which revives itself in his own work on the corpse of the Irish language it destroyed, are all emanations of an invincible energy which marauds to create. Nature kills, culture defends, but the lethal element persists in each since defence is also a form of violence. Imagination, which is neither one nor the other, but which participates in both, cruises continuously, unslackening in its savage desire to remain free, on patrol between habitation and wilderness.

In five of the seven poems which follow Notes from the Land of the Dead, Darwin and Renan are the haunting nineteenth-century presences who provide the background to the theme of an originary violence, figured here as the matted skull in ‘St Paul’s Rocks: 16 February, 1832’ or as the mangled corpse of ‘The Dispossessed’. The first of these poems describes, via an entry in Darwin’s journal of the voyage of The Beagle, an island paradise. Then it details the struggle for life which has made this island, swarming with predatory life, the thing it is. Violence stains the roots of our conception of Paradise, the blessed isle. In the same way, the poem ‘The Dispossessed’, based on the account given in Renan’s Vie de Jésus, describes the Christian paradise of love which Christ preached in Galilee before the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. Thereafter, in leaving Galilee and taking arms against the forces which destroyed John, Jesus created in all men a dissatisfaction with earthly things which was itself darkened even further by Christ’s own murder, the bloody corpse which lies across the threshold of Christianity. These poems help us to see, in retrospect, the power of the Nightwalker sequence, in which the originary violence is that of the Irish Civil War, attendant upon the birth of the new State; and in Notes itself, the originary violence is associated with the first discovery of Ireland as an apparently paradisal land which nevertheless is ruled over by dark and sinister forces. A similar discovery haunts the poems of the sequence One (1974), especially ‘Finistere’ and ‘The Oldest Place’. Yeats’s apotheosis of violence as a creative force is subjected by Kinsella to a gloomy and complex reconsideration. A tragic condition is expressed through violence. Ireland’s history, from the first invasions to Bloody Sunday and the long sequence of intervening crises, manifest that. But his sense (not unknown to Yeats) of the intimacy between barbarity and civilization is intensified in his later poetry to a point beyond the tragic, as in ‘Worker in Mirror at his Bench’:

I am simply trying to understand something
—states of peace nursed out of wreckage.
The peace of fulness, not emptiness.

If culture itself is always in a state of illness, infected by violence, poetry is culture in a state of convalescence, homeopathically immunized against the disease.

Kinsella’s work is thus a persistent inquiry into the whole question of culture and, within that, into the nature of poetry in so far as poetry can be made distinct from culture and yet part of it. He incorporated into the sphere of his poetry’s action more than any Irish poet before him, even including Yeats. The Gaelic tradition (for which see, as the most obvious manifestations, his translation of The Táin and of the Gaelic Poems in An Duanaire,) the modernist tradition (including Pound, Yeats and Joyce), and an eclectic knowledge in several other fields, are subsumed into his verse with sufficient energy to become integral parts of it. After the somewhat broken, if noble, careers of Clarke and Kavanagh, Kinsella’s is a testimony to the enabling strength of a tradition, of a sense of continuity which is greater than the sense of fragmentation. He has always worked on a large canvas, but with a concentrated, even finicky, precision. It has been his ambition to do no less than

let our gaze blaze, we pray
let us see how the whole thing

John Lucas (review date 16 January 1987)

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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 poem as ‘A Country Walk’, which takes up the subject of Ireland’s troubled history, you can’t be sure whether Kinsella uses his chosen landscape as an intendedly apt metaphor of the troubles or as an escape from them. Kinsella sees the cross ‘Of one who answered latest the phantom hag, / Tireless Rebellion, when with mouth awry / She hammered at the door, disrupting harvest’. The ‘hag’ is, I assume, a rebuke to those who identify the spirit of Ireland with a ‘young girl … and the walk of a queen’, but I cannot see what harvest the phantom could possibly disrupt. Harvest for whom? If to identify Ireland with the young girl is mystificatory, it is no less so to imagine that Tireless Rebellion somehow prevents what would otherwise be unending fruitfulness. To some extent this is forgotten by the end of the poem, where Kinsella is beside the hastening river (Yeats’s ‘living stream’ is not far away) and sees ‘a thousand currents’:

                                                            their shallow, shifting world
Slid on in troubled union, forging together
Surfaces that gave and swallowed light;
And grimly the flood divided where it swept
And endless debris through the failing dusk
Under the thudding span beneath my feet.

Yet even these lines, impressive as they are, leave me with the uneasy feeling that the poetry is taking refuge in its rhetoric.

I suggest, though tentatively, that Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’ may be behind the closing lines of ‘A Country Walk’. What is certain is that Kinsella’s move to America in 1965 opened him up to the influence of other American poets. ‘A Hand of Solo’ reads like an apprentice piece for ‘Black Mountaineering’; ‘Drowsing Over the Arabian Nights’ is Robert Bly out of James Wright; and ‘Crab Orchard Sanctuary: Late October’ couldn’t exist without Roethke’s ‘Meditation at Oyster River’. None of these poems is bad but all of them have the air of being the work of a pasticheur. To put it rather differently: Kinsella is a careful, scrupulous craftsman, but it isn’t possible to say of him that he is ever confidently his own person.

Denis Donoghue (review date 26 February 1987)

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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 fortification of New Ross, a town in County Wexford, in 1265. Gradually, Norman French declined, and English, too, yielded to Irish. As late as the middle of the sixteenth century, English was spoken only in Dublin and the surrounding Pale.

But English began to assert itself when the Crown seized lands in Ireland and settled planters upon them. When Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, the plantation of counties Leix and Offaly began. Under Queen Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary in 1558, Ireland was still troublesome: the natives had not yet acquired a taste for what Sir Philip Sidney in 1577 called “the sweetness of due subjection.” Much of Munster was settled in the years after 1579, but the North remained in Irish hands till 1603 when the Earls of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, leaders of a doomed revolt, took ship for the Continent. King James VI of Scotland had become King James I of England in 1603. In 1607 he started the Plantation of Ulster, dividing the lands of the Earls into settlements for his Scots and English supporters. The violence in Northern Ireland today is the direct if distant consequence of that plantation.

But the dominance of the English language over the Irish was not completed until Cromwell sailed to Dublin in August 1649 to punish those who still remained royalist after the execution of King Charles. Within three years Cromwell and his generals had arranged to pay his soldiers by giving them the best land in Ireland. The native Irish and the “Old English” who occupied the east and south of the country were sent “to Hell or to Connacht.” English became the dominant language of the three richest provinces in Ireland, and Irish was confined to the poorest. Irish persisted in remote villages along the western shores until the dreadful famine of the years 1845–1849. During those four years, one million people were lost to Ireland by death or emigration—the population before the famine was eight million. Parents knew that their emigrating children had a better chance in America if they could speak English. Irish was the language of destitution.

In 1892 a scholar, Douglas Hyde, founded the Gaelic League to foster an interest in nationality, the ancient Irish sagas and poetry, and to recognize what he called “the necessity of deanglicizing Ireland.” In 1893 he published Love Songs of Connacht, a selection of poems which he translated, some into English verse, more into English prose. He wrote the book for the benefit of “that increasing class of Irishmen who take a just pride in their native language, and of those foreigners who, great philologists and etymologists as they are, find themselves hampered in their pursuits through their unavoidable ignorance of the modern Irish idiom, an idiom which can only be correctly interpreted by native speakers, who are, alas! becoming fewer and fewer every day.” Love Songs of Connacht inspired scholars and poets to devote themselves to early Irish literature: it was one of the several books that showed Yeats what might still be done, even if one’s access to the literature were only by way of English translations and immense good will.

Hyde was not the first translator. Several Irish poets—Jeremiah J. Callanan, William Allingham, Samuel Ferguson—preceded him in listening to the early Irish poems and developing, in English, an Irish cadence or tone. Swift and Goldsmith took their formal bearings from various modes of English and Latin poetry, but many of their contemporaries—Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, Aogán Ó Rathaille, Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, Brian Merriman—wrote in Irish, and pursued elaborate metrical forms devised by word-loving precursors. The Irish tradition provided an alternative and in some cases an adversary recourse for such poets as Mangan, Ferguson, Davis, Yeats, Pearse, and Thomas MacDonagh. It is now a matter of choice whether an Irish poet writes in Irish or in English; there are ready traditions, either way.

In 1969 the poet Thomas Kinsella translated from a late-fourteenth-century manuscript Táin Bó Cuailnge, the central saga of the Ulster cycle and, in one of its several versions, the oldest vernacular epic in Western literature. In 1981 he collaborated with Sean Ó’Tuama in publishing An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed, 1600–1900, giving the texts in Irish and verse translations in English. Kinsella has now fulfilled the logic of these transactions by compiling the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse in which the choice poems in Irish, English, Latin, and Norman French find their historical places. Halfway into the book, the Latin and the Norman French have receded, and Irish and English poems continue together, step by step if not cheek by jowl.

The two traditions are as different as the two languages. Some of the Irish poems—Mac Cuarta’s “Tithe Chorr an Chait,” Ó Rathaille’s “Gile na Gile,” Mac Giolla Ghunna’s “An Bonnan Bui”—are heartbreaking, but they break one’s heart upon the same loss. They tell one story and one story only, the defeat of old Ireland, the destruction of a high civilization, the scattering of the earls. After a while, one is nearly ready to tolerate Joyce’s saying that the Celts contributed to Europe nothing but a whine. The poets who write in English—even Yeats—are not superior to the Irish poets in talent or genius, but luckier in their opportunities—they need not pluck the same strings of the harp.

When the English edition of Kinsella’s book appeared a few months ago, some reviewers charged him with vanity for using, in virtually every Irish poem, his own translations. As translator, he occupies half the book, and turns up again in his own right as a poet writing in English. Vanity, my own or another’s, has never troubled me. But there is an aspect of Kinsella’s decision which is a worry.

By choosing to use his own translations, Kinsella has suppressed the record of a period—roughly between 1850 and 1930—in which Anglo-Irish translations of the Irish poems were virtually the only form of life the poems had. Only a handful of scholars had access to the poems before the nineteenth-century poets had translated them into English. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Moore, and their colleagues were not scholars; they depended upon translations, versions, imitations—call them what you like—for their sense of a poetic tradition different from England’s tradition. The common reader’s dependence upon the translators was even more extreme. If Kinsella’s translations were the answer to my every prayer, I would still feel that they had deleted a crucial phase in the historical life of the poetry.

Kinsella has defended his procedure by saying that “there is a great unevenness in the range covered” by earlier translations, “and no agreement on accuracy.” On that second point: it is true that modern scholars have brought textual learning to bear upon some of the chosen poems, and that some changes are definitive. The researches of Thurneysen, Kuno Meyer, Osborn Bergin, and other scholars have been furthered by such work as Eleanor Knott’s edition of Tadhg Óg Ó hUigínn, Robin Flower’s The Irish Tradition, T. F. O’Rahilly’s Dànta Gràdha, Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics, and James Carney’s Medieval Irish Lyrics. Sometimes the results are decisive. Kinsella couldn’t very well have used, say, Hyde’s translation of “Ni Bhfuighe mise bas duit,” now that the penultimate line reads “aithne dhamh ma bhid na mna”—“I know well how women are”—rather than “A bhos thana, a bhraighe bhain”—“Little palm, white neck, bright eye,” as Hyde’s coy version goes.

But there are only a few such instances. Even in that case Kinsella could have used Frank O’Connor’s translation, which takes account of the emended text:

O woman though you shame the swan
           A wise man taught me all
he knew,
I know the crooked ways of love,
           I shall not die because
of you.

Perhaps it is too Tennysonian for our ears, but Tennyson’s music was one of the categories by which Frank O’Connor and other readers construed the poems: it is part of the record of reception. As it happens, Kinsella’s version misses by just as much the subtle music of the original:

Lady with swanlike body,
          I was reared by a cunning
I know well how women are.
          I will not die for you.

This is too laconic, too Dublinesque; it is a style which, to escape Yeats’s clamor, has settled into a worldly, no-nonsense tone which some speakers in Joyce’s Dubliners also exemplify.

Kinsella is devoted to this tone. I infer from his own poems, because it is a well-tempered version of the sounds he heard in his father’s house and the streets that surrounded it. But it makes the Irish poems he translates sound abrupt, as if he found their rhymes too measured to be borne. He translates “An Cuimhin Leat an Oiche Ud”:

Remember that night
          and you at the window
with no hat or glove
          or coat to cover you?

It is handsome in its way, but the way is far more rapid than the original:

An cuimhin leat an oiche ud
          a bhi tu ag an bhfuinneog,
gan hata gan laimhne
          dod dhion, gan chasog?

So I prefer Eugene O’Curry’s old translation, although it sins by excess as it drifts through later stanzas:

Do you remember that night
When you were at the window
With neither hat nor gloves
Nor coat to shelter you?

The difficulty of translating Irish poetry into English is notorious: it is evidently impossible to satisfy the technical complexity, the elaborate weaving of consonantal and vowel rhymes, the rhyming of an unaccented with an accented syllable, and so forth. It is a poetry predicated on the understanding that in this harsh world syllables alone are certain good.

Here is the first stanza of an anonymous poem of the eleventh century, an invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary as if spoken by Colum cille:

A Maire min, maithingen,
          tabair fortacht dun,
a chriol cuirp choimdeta,
          a chomrair na run.

Gerard Murphy translated it into prose: “Gentle Mary, good maiden, give us help, thou casket of the Lord’s body and shrine of all mysteries.” Kinsella takes care of the sense, and lets the sounds take care of themselves:

Mary mild, good maiden,
          grant us thine and,
shrine of the Lord’s body,
          casket of mysteries.

But even a reader who lacks Irish can see and hear that Kinsella’s verse is no closer than Murphy’s prose to the murmuring of the original.

Kinsella’s principle of choice, especially among the modern poems, is clear but tendentious. He has chosen the poems which, good enough in their own right, have the further merit of illustrating the torsion of the two traditions. Sometimes the theme itself is allowed to displace a poet’s better work. Yeats, Máirtin Ó Direáin, Richard Murphy, and Michael Hartnett have written better poems than those under their names in this anthology, but Kinsella has reached for the poems in which the theme is opportune. Yeats is represented not by “Among School Children,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” or “Byzantium” but by “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland,” “On Those that Hated The Playboy of the Western World,” “Easter 1916,” “The Seven Sages,” “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” They would be the best poems of another poet, but not of Yeats. The anthology ends, too neatly, with Michael Hartnett’s “A Farewell to English.”

One omission I find bewildering: no Joyce. Without “The Holy Office” and “Gas from a Burner,” the story Kinsella offers to tell is incomplete.

As for the poets of the so-called Northern Ireland Renaissance, Kinsella has a sharp comment in his introduction:

The idea of such a renaissance has been strongly urged for some time (with the search for special antecedents usually settling on Louis MacNeice), and this idea by now has acquired an aspect of official acceptance and support. But it is largely a journalistic entity. The past, in Northern Ireland, is not.

It is, I am afraid: at least the past since 1607, which Ian Paisley can reasonably claim to speak for. I agree with Kinsella that some of the current interest in poets of the North is factitious, a function of the more pressing interest in Northern violence. …

Ben Howard (review date Summer 1987)

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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 anthology is bound to reveal a bias, however balanced it may appear.

Thomas Kinsella has long since taken sides, both as the author of an anti-British broadside and as the leading translator of poetry from the Irish. In “Butcher’s Dozen” (1972) Kinsella recalled the violence of Bloody Sunday and alleged a coverup by the Widgery Tribunal. In his editorial role he has more subtly attacked those literary prejudices which venerate the Anglo-Irish canon and demote the native tradition. Kinsella’s translation of The Táin (1969) made the eighth-century saga available to the general reader and reasserted its importance in world literature. His translations of three centuries of Irish verse, collected in An Duanaire, have done much to make Irish poets—and American readers—aware of an endangered heritage. And now, in his radical revision of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1958), he has taken his effort one step further, setting his new translations of Irish poetry beside the Anglo-Irish canon. His stated purpose is to “present an idea of these two bodies of poetry and of the relationships between them.” His achievement in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse is to chronicle the flowering and decline of the oldest vernacular poetry in Western Europe.

Kinsella’s selections tell a melancholy story. Beginning with a poem in praise of St. Colum Cille (A.D. 597) and ending with Michael Hartnett’s “A Farewell to English” (1975), Kinsella’s history spans fourteen centuries, placing well-known Anglo-Irish poems beside obscure or famous Irish texts. The balance is never even—and never easy. From the sixth through the twelfth centuries a mixture of Christianity and pagan naturalism, Latin and vernacular Irish gives rise to songs, prayers, epitaphs, and lyrics of sensuous immediacy, notably those attributed to Colum Cille (“I am sad for the tearful cries / from the two shores of Loch Febail: / the cries of Conall and Eogan / lamenting as I left”). Over the next four centuries a body of candid love poetry emerges, concurrent with the work of the bardic order, whose era begins with eulogies for local chieftains and ends with laments for their own dispossession. After the Cromwellian wars the vitality of Irish poetry quickly dwindles, as the once-privileged bards become outcasts, and such survivors as Aogán Ó Rathaille and Dáibhi Ó Bruadair are left to mourn a fading culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, its vernacular eroded by famine and oppression, poetry in Irish has suffered the fate of the Irish harp, despite the efforts of Mangan and Ferguson to bring it back to life. Little wonder that the tenor of Irish verse, from the Flight of the Earls to the ascendancy of Yeats, largely embraces sounds of lamentation, relieved by Brian Merriman’s “The Midnight Court” and other moments of comedy and satire.

Kinsella’s anthology is not the first to tell this rueful tale. Its most recent forbear is John Montague’s Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974), which includes many of the same texts. What distinguishes Kinsella’s book is both his scholarly thoroughness and his almost total reliance upon his own translations. Where Montague drew on the work of many hands, Kinsella has left his distinctive mark on nearly every poem. Here, for example, are two versions of a stanza from Piaras Feiritéar (c. 1600–1653):

Gentlest of women, put your weapons by,
Unless you want to ruin all mankind;
Leave the assault or I must make reply,
Proclaiming that you are murderously inclined.
Put by your armour, lay your darts to rest,
Hide your soft hair and all its devious ways;
To see it lie in coils upon your breast
Poisons all hope and mercilessly slays.

—Trans. Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin

Lay your weapons down, young lady,
                    Do you want to ruin us all?
Lay your weapons down, or else
                    I’ll have you under royal restraint.
These weapons put behind you:
                    hide henceforth your curling hair;
do not bare that white breast
                    that spares no living man.

—Trans. Thomas Kinsella

Here Kinsella’s drift is toward greater physicality and away from the clichés of English verse. The conventional tropes of slaying, darts, and armor give way to the stark image of a bare white breast.

Elsewhere Kinsella restores Irish proper names and place-names, recovering the strangeness of the originals:

O if he lived, the prince who sheltered me
And his company who gave me entry
On the river of the Laune,
Whose royalty stood sentry
Over intricate harbors, I and my own
Would not be desolate in Dermot’s country.

—Aogán Ó Rathaille, “A Time of Change,” trans. Eavan Boland

If that guardian King from the bank of the Leamhan lived on,
with all who shared his fate (and would pity my plight)
to rule that soft, snug region, bayed and harboured,
my people would not stay poor in Duibhne country.

—Trans. Thomas Kinsella

Here Kinsella’s rendering bespeaks an intimacy with landscape, while honoring the tradition of the Dindsenchas—the lore and legendry of place-names. It also sends us to his extensive notes, where we learn that Duibhne (pronounced dív-na) lies in the Dingle Peninsula.

Those of us without Irish cannot judge the fidelity of Kinsella’s translations, though their gains in directness seem unassailable. At the same time we can wonder a little at his choices from the Anglo-Irish tradition, where his taste is at once conventional and idiosyncratic. Old favorites by Goldsmith, Mangan, Davis, and Ferguson are included. Thomas Moore is given a fair hearing. But in the selections from modern Irish verse one is left with the impression that poems have been chosen as much—or more—for their bearing on Irish affairs as for their intrinsic merits. And certain omissions are puzzling.

Kinsella has, for example, included Yeats’s “1916,” “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” and “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland,” but not the Byzantium poems or “Leda and the Swan” or “Among School Children.” Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” is excluded, as are Patrick Kavanagh’s early Monaghan poems and the entirety of The Great Hunger. John Montague, author of several book-length sequences, is limited to four minor lyrics; and the choices from Heaney include nothing from Station Island—perhaps his most important collection. No doubt considerations of space dictated some of these omissions, but they create imbalances nonetheless, as does the complete absence of women writers after 1800.

Given its breadth and historical depth, Kinsella’s anthology should remain an invaluable resource for many years to come. To appreciate the high achievement of modern Irish verse, however, we might do better to look to Paul Muldoon’s new anthology [The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry], one of the most valuable in the Faber series. Like Kinsella’s it is anything but neutral, but it is astutely edited, and it presents some of the best work produced in (or about) Ireland during the past four decades. …

I, for one, hope that both Muldoon’s intelligent anthology and Kinsella’s more compendious book find the wide audiences they deserve.

Hilary Pyle (review date November 1987)

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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 various infiltrators such as Christians, Norman-French, and English established themselves, so the particular character of ‘Anglo-Irish’ poetry, or ‘Irish’ poetry written in the English tongue, gradually came into being. He starts with three anonymous poems of the sixth century. ‘He is coming, Adzed-Head’ is a terse denunciation of Christians, perhaps written, and certainly preserved by Christians. He ends with the equally strong, but more verbose, extract from Michael Hartnett’s ‘Farewell to English’. Michael Hartnett, born in 1941, abandoned the English language to write solely in Irish.

Starting ten centuries, then, before the original Oxford Book of Irish Verse, a great deal of the present volume consists of poetry translated from Irish. Thomas Kinsella has much experience of this. Only five years ago, with Seán Ó Tuama, he published An Duanaire, an important collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century poems, both in the Gaelic, and in English translation. Some of the translations in the New Oxford Book are drawn from An Duanaire—for instance the five examples of Aogán Ó Rathaille—but by no means all derive from that anthology. In his recent collection, too, he includes translations of twentieth-century poets writing in the Irish language, such as Pádraic Pearse, and Máirtín Ó Direáin who recently published his Tacar Dánta with translations. (Irish writers are now reaching wider audiences in this way.) Seán Ó Tuama and Máire MacEntee are omitted by Kinsella, presumably because of space. Eminent poets like Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Eithne Jordan, and a host of modern contemporaries are excluded, as well as established poets of the Irish cultural renaissance. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that Dr Kinsella includes not a single woman poet in this anthology, with the exception of the conjectural author of The Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire.

Dr Kinsella admits that it has not been possible to represent the tradition adequately, but pursues his initial theme first and foremost, looking for ethnic relevance, or reference, in the poets of past and present whom he chooses. ‘The complexity of that past and the nature of that remove are suggested in the selection of poetry that follows’, he writes in the introduction.

It should be clear at least that the Irish tradition is a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction, of two major bodies of poetry asking to be understood together as functions of a shared and painful history. To limit a response to one aspect only, as is often done—to the literature in Irish, through specialized academic concerns or out of nationalist emotion, or to the literature in English as an annexe to British literature, an ‘aspect of the Anglo-Saxon experience’ (as I have heard it put), or out of mere convenience—is to miss a rare opportunity: that of responding to a notable and venerable literary tradition, the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe, as it survives a change of vernacular.

Through his selection, it is possible to compare the eighteenth-century wit of Swift with the earlier, but similarly hardy, Gaelic satire of Ó hEoghusa and Feiritéar, or the rich, overwritten translations of Mangan with the drawing-room prettiness of his contemporary, Thomas Moore. Moore, though, is surely over-represented, with the same number of poems as are chosen from W. B. Yeats, and at the expense of more worthy, more modern writers. Kinsella’s own ‘gloss’, ‘Wyncote: Pennsylvania’, is directly in the Old Irish poetic tradition, and yet genuinely of the twentieth century, in its trenchness and ambiguity.

Floyd Skloot (essay date March 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4025

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 surprised he didn’t pronounce his name right. It seemed likely that working with him would proceed in an orderly enough manner—an Irish Catholic and a New York Jew deep in the part of Illinois they call “Little Egypt.”

On the other hand, here was this rollicking chant of a poem by Lawrence, this teeming, excessive paean to a state of mind, and Kinsella seemed to love it. He’d entered it fully, reading aloud in his clipped voice, highlighting the repetitions and echoes, sounding oddly urgent as he passed through the poem. Clearly, this was the active involvement of a reader who believed in the poem, almost despite himself. I sat there wanting Lawrence to tighten the thing up, exercise some control, while Kinsella kept saying that what made “Autumn at Taos” a good poem was how closely it came to the thing it was perceiving. He acknowledged its flaws and mannerisms, but the poem was onto something he valued and wanted to do himself. He talked about stripping away everything that stood between the song and its expression—predetermined forms and logic, imposed shapes, literary reference, anything that suggested the presence of a writer behind the poem. My head was spinning.

The Kinsella I came to study with wrote elegantly structured, lyrical poems in a harshly clear tone of voice (“I fold my towel with what grace I can, / Not young and not renewable, but man”). The Kinsella I found was saying that “the relationship between the thing perceived and the perceiving self must be personal, otherwise it would be sentimentalized and exaggerated.” Later, he spoke about “an articulated descent into the psyche,” saying, “I think this is what poetry is now all about—the growth point.” He said he was toying with automatic writing, exploring the subterranean territory of the psyche. He wanted to achieve a kind of poem that dictated its own form in order to leap from “Phoenix Park,” with its rigidly controlled eleven-syllable lines and narrative framework, which he felt was the best he could do in the traditional way. Talk of technique seemed beside the point.

Even after I learned to separate the man from his poems, an important lesson for any twenty-two-year-old, Kinsella kept surprising me. Challenge was always in the air. He came across as stable and what you might call tidy if it didn’t sound so peculiar. He’d been an administrator in his country’s finance department for many years before coming to southern Illinois and seemed eminently capable of management. But there was also this sense of artistic upheaval around him, an air of quest. We would meet in a small group, just Kinsella and three young writers. He was willing to discuss our work from time to time, but there was much greater emphasis placed on studying poems he would assign. He seemed to be heading somewhere, exploring new territory for himself as well as for us, and was uneasy with formal analysis or exegesis. As we examined in depth the poems he was interested in at the time (Eliot’s “Marina,” Creeley’s “The Finger,” Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), the questions that kept emerging were how the poems communicated, how they removed artificial barriers and achieved meaning, how they approximated the flow of thought.

From the vantage point of 1990, the essence of my bewilderment seems obvious. I’d caught Kinsella at the very moment he was transforming himself into a poet entirely unlike the one I had come to study with.

With the publication of Blood and Family,1 Thomas Kinsella’s work is now appearing in America for the first time in ten years. The volume, consisting of one long poem and four extended sequences, is typically formidable. Little that could be imported from outside the world of these poems will help one penetrate their layered surfaces; one enters and attempts to follow where the twists of association lead. This is the first page of the book, introducing “The Messenger,” a poem in memory of the poet’s father, who had recently died:

For days I have wakened and felt immediately
half sick at something. Hour follows hour
but my shoulders are chilled with expectation.
It is more than mere Loss
                                        (your tomb-image
drips and blackens, my leaden root
curled on your lap)
                                        or “what you missed.”
(The hand conceives an impossible Possible
and exhausts in mid-reach.
                                                            What could be more natural?)
Deeper. A suspicion in the bones
as though they too could melt in filth.
Something to discourage goodness.
A moist movement within.
A worm winds on its board.
A rim of hide lifts like a lip.
A dead egg glimmers—a pearl in
glimpsed only as the muck settles.
The belly settles and crawls tighter.

Vintage Kinsella. There is the crisp voice laying out a scene and beginning to analyze it, another voice from deeper inside the speaker’s head commenting until a dialogue between components of the psyche is engaged, the call from still another voice—the counselor—for continued penetration (“Deeper”), and then the emergence of familiar symbols from the psyche’s depths.

Indeed, despite the decade’s interruption, a reader of Blood and Family feels immediately in familiar Kinsella territory. That feeling is enhanced by the fact that the volume begins with “The Messenger,” which is the poem that concluded his previous volume. This is one of many deliberate gestures back to earlier work. The imagery of muck and mire, of ooze and egginess and animal matter, is here again. One sequence, “Her Vertical Smile,” refers to several other sequences Kinsella wrote about his friend, the late Irish composer John Reidy (Seán O Riada). Another (“Out of Ireland”) revisits Reidy’s burial place, where earlier long poems were set, and is a sequence of seven love poems incorporating details out of Kinsella’s love poems from as far back as the early Sixties. A full understanding of the volume’s longest sequence, “Songs of the Psyche,” also requires recognition of scenes and language from previous poems. A central section of this sequence is, in fact, a return to the “tree with a twisted trunk” from the 1966 sequence “Wormwood.” It incorporates and comments on both the tree and the married couple from that earlier work. Familiar lines, which operate like stage directions, occur throughout (“I settled back and / turned inward”).

All of this shouldn’t imply that the poet has run out of inspiration and is repeating himself. Rather, these connections are meant to show that he is engaged in an ongoing project, with each installment offered to the public as a work-in-progress. Kinsella’s project is a quest, in the form of one extended work spanning the years of his maturity, to re-define for himself what poetry is and what the proper relationship might be between singer and song. Is it possible for nothing to intervene between the song and its expression in poetry? This is the quest he began in the mid-1960s.

First and foremost, Blood and Family reconfirms that the project is continuing. This is not simply another discrete book to add to the shelf.

In 1979, when Wake Forest University Press issued Kinsella’s poetry in two volumes, his career seemed to have reached a point of culmination. One Wake Forest volume contained selected early poems, those on which his substantial reputation had been built. They culled the exquisitely accomplished formal verse he wrote through his early forties, which had prompted critics to include Kinsella among the few poets of the first order writing in English. In addition, the volume ended with a transitional group of poems written in a new manner that was to become characteristic, as in these lines from “Notes from the Land of the Dead” (1973):

Falling. Mind darkening.
                    Toward a ring of mouths.
                                        Time, distance,
           meaning nothing.
                                                                                No matter.

When critic Calvin Bedient got a look at these newer poems, he lamented Kinsella’s “death of the will to order,” feeling that the poet had brooded himself to pieces. Like many other critics, he wanted the old grace and poise of Kinsella’s art. It is worth noting, however, that this new poetry was written during a period widely characterized by protest and rebellion. The university where Kinsella was teaching, like many during the spring of 1970, was shut down by rioting in the wake of the Kent State killings. Poise and grace seemed irrelevant to many poets then, and Kinsella, as the harsh cultural and political observations of his poems always demonstrated, was not immune to such forces.

Even so, the issue in his new poetry was the will to order; it had not died in Kinsella, it had just begun to transform. There was to be another kind of order from now on. That was the logic behind breaking his oeuvre where the Wake Forest collection did, underscoring the idea that post-1968 Kinsella was another writer altogether.

The second volume contained all the poems of this other Kinsella. These were poems he originally published himself, in pamphlets issued by his own Peppercanister Press, founded in Dublin in 1972. They were all extended sequences or long poems in his new manner, feeding off each other, picking up symbols and references as they moved along. Each new piece was an addition to “The Entire Fabric,” as Kinsella entitled one poem. He was being quite clear about the nature of his ongoing project, even providing (in “Vertical Man”) a plot summary of its system and a portrayal of his working methods amid the project’s elaborate blueprints: “remove and put down the spectacles and bury / my face in my hands, in self-devouring prayer, / till the charts and notes come crawling to life again / under a Night seething with / soft incandescent bombardment!”

At that point—in the 1979 Wake Forest volume—there were eight of these Peppercanister pamphlets, whose range of reference included natural history, politics, love, music, aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology. One finished the Wake Forest books wondering what Kinsella might do next, since he’d written that “The Messenger” concluded the series. It seemed possible that the shaping impulse might reassert itself now that literal and figurative fathers had been buried.

Most of what he did next was to translate from the Irish and edit The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986). Those two efforts overlapped and took a long time because, in preparing the anthology, he rejected all but a few existing translations from the Irish and instead translated roughly fourteen centuries’ worth of verse himself. So there has been ten years’ worth of suspense about his work, especially for those who did not have access to the new series of Peppercanisters. Beginning Blood and Family with “The Messenger” lets the reader know at once that Kinsella means us to read his new work as another wing of the project, one which wraps around all that came before.

The point is, this is shaping up to be Kinsella’s Cantos.

Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to a generation of writers who abandoned formal poetry in mid-career, rejecting its metrics and rhymes, its logic and traditional order, its subjects and stances, in search of freedoms more suitable to the world as they found it. All came to artistic maturity during a time of cultural upheaval, when refashioning one’s style and life was part of the Zeitgeist. His cohorts include Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, John Montague, Thom Gunn—poets noted both for their early mastery of the inherited tradition and for their later movement into freer, more flexible verse and open forms.

Kinsella changed in mid-career, but he evolved like none of his contemporaries: he did not become a fantasist, he did not dedicate himself to the stripped-down image and “pure clear word,” he did not become a mystic or withdraw from the self, he was not distrustful of language. Instead, he held onto the notion of form, although rejecting the ordering principles of rhyme, metrics, and those imposed patterns at which he was so adept. Fascinated by the relationship between the thing perceived and the perceiving self, he turned inward to investigate imagination and its muse, seeking an alternative form within the material itself. Since that material was his own psyche, Kinsella’s formal precepts quickly came to resemble those of his countryman James Joyce rather than W. B. Yeats, to whom he was so often compared.

To mid-career, Kinsella had certainly been regarded as a distinguished poet, the dominant presence among his generation in Ireland. There was an image of authority connected with his endeavors, perhaps because of his seriousness, staying power, and the commanding voice that characterizes his poetry. If anyone was going to continue the Yeatsian tradition, some critics thought it was Kinsella. But they overlooked the ominous strain of dislocation in his poems, their obsession with departure and erosion, their growing sense of the gap between imagination and life. The poems are filled with restlessness: “life is hunger, hunger is for order, / And hunger satisfied brings on new hunger / Till there’s nothing to come.”

Then—in the late 1960s—the elegant poet of anthology pieces such as the intricately rhymed meditation “Mirror in February,” or the lyrical terza rima quest “Downstream,” went silent. After the massive “Phoenix Park,” which, along with the title poem, concluded his 1968 collection, Nightwalker and Other Poems, the shaping impulse, so central to his work until then, seemed to have exhausted itself. He could no longer be the poet of the “will that gropes for / structure.” I’ve always taken the little poem “Leaf-Eater” from that collection as the model of Kinsella’s position at this point in time:

On a shrub in the heart of the garden,
On an outer leaf, a grub twists
Half its body, a tendril,
This way and that in blind
Space: no leaf or twig
Anywhere in reach; then gropes
Back on itself and begins
To eat its own leaf.

Never one to do things moderately, Kinsella gave up his career in Ireland’s finance department and moved from Dublin to Carterville, Illinois (what you might call suburban Carbondale), in order to teach at Southern Illinois University and devote more time to his writing. The poem “Phoenix Park” confronts the agony this relocation involved: “One stays or leaves. The one who returns is not / The one, etcetera. And we are leaving.” The stakes were very high for Kinsella at this moment—giving up a career and homeland for the sake of his art, uprooting his family—and there can be no doubt that he was responding to great internal pressure for change.

He began reconfiguring his poetry as well. What emerged were poems exploring the workings of human consciousness. As he said in “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench,” a major poem from this period: “I tinker with the things that dominate me / as they describe their random / persistent coherences … / clean surfaces shift / and glitter among themselves.” Apparently formless, deeply interiorized and associative, his new poems were presented as they emerged from some plane of the poet’s psyche. Their only structural logic was the utterly private connections of one man’s mind. Often, they would begin with a kind of pep talk intended to put the poet in the proper frame of mind: “the beginning / must be inward. Turn inward. Divide.”

It must be said that the strangeness and idiosyncrasy of Kinsella’s new poetry have little to do with the content of his poems. His poems now are about the same things they were always about. Their themes remain the struggle for continuity and stability in the face of overwhelming erosion. “Out of Ireland,” like many other poems, states it clearly enough: “We stumble / in gathering ignorance / in a land of loss / and unfulfillable desire.” The focus of Kinsella’s poems remains married love, the artistic act, and the history of his family and country. What is always changing is the approach, the ways Kinsella finds for poetry to communicate. The poems enact his explorations into the meaning of poetry, its function and uses, and the way its materials are assembled. (A section of “Out of Ireland” called “The Furnace” seeks to capture this quality: “Intensifying, as iron / melts in the furnace / —intensified into flowing fire, / aching for a containing Shape.”) They demand that a reader complete the act of communication, that he be one element of the containing Shape. They invite a reader intimately into the poet’s psyche, lacking order because they emerge from the psyche’s chaos, from its disordered regions. To the extent that there is song, its melody traces the jagged line of consciousness.

This will all sound like gobbledegook unless you can see a whole poem. Quoting, however, is tricky, because the typical Kinsella poem now is either an extended fifteen-page sequence relying on angles and interconnections among its parts, or a four-hundred-plus-line extravaganza. Here is another section of “The Messenger.” It occurs at the poem’s end, following a deep childhood memory and preceding the moment the father’s coffin emerges from chapel:

A cross grain of impotent anger. About
the iridescent untouchable secretions
collect. It is a miracle:
membrane and mineral in precious combination.
An eye, pale with strain, forms in the dark.
The oddity nestles in slime
functionless, in all its rarity,
purifying nothing. But nothing can befoul it
—which ought probably to console.

Kinsella’s poems tell a reader very little in the normal sense of speaker-to-listener. Instead, they rely on a dynamic relationship in which the reader must participate or else the poems will simply collapse.

So Blood and Family is notable for several reasons. Like the periodic installments of Pound’s masterwork, it both clarifies and expands what came before. Taken alone, as a separate book, it presents a decade’s work by a major writer at the peak of his career, ardently pursuing his complex aesthetic. To the extent that its individual poems can be appreciated independently, the volume contains two of Kinsella’s most powerful and accessible works, “The Messenger” and “St. Catherine’s Clock.” Further, Blood and Family emphasizes again that Kinsella is through with traditional poetic structure and earnestly engaged in the modernist task of making it new. Moving him still closer to his ideal, where nothing should intervene between the song and its expression, Blood and Family is a challenging and harsh book, by turns funny and tender, an interesting thing to read. In other words, this is The Goods.

But for a long time I’ve been thinking about the paradox this new work presents: it gets harder and harder to like Kinsella’s poems, but easier and easier to appreciate them. This is not simply a matter of their being difficult—not even his early lyrics were easy. Rather, I think the lack of surface appeal results from Kinsella’s having eschewed poetry’s musical qualities in his absolute devotion to the thing being perceived, which, in his case, is an edgy, jangling psyche.

Nevertheless, the scope and originality of what he is doing are awesome. To illustrate the point more fully, perhaps like should be replaced by hear. It gets harder and harder to hear his poems. It’s not just Kinsella’s approach to poetry that has changed, it’s his very conception of poetry’s purpose as well. One doesn’t listen to a Kinsella poem any more, one studies it.

This is not to say that the poems fail to communicate. They do, but in a way that may be more demanding than for readers of the Cantos. Neither a shelf of reference books nor an ear for music would serve a reader well with Kinsella. He suggests what the experience is like for both poet and reader in “Songs of the Psyche”:

Yet it is
                    a matter of
negative release:
of being thrown
                    up out of a state of storm
into a state of peace
or sleep,
                    or a dream,
or a system of dreams.
By normal process
                    organic darkness,
in potentia all things,
would summon
                    Self firstly into being,
a Shadow in actu,
an upright on a flat plain,
                    a bone stirs
in first clay
and a beam of light struck
                    and snaked glittering across a surface
in multi-meanings and vanishes.

Each poem is an almost overwhelming challenge to its readers. Each is an ambitious effort to “see how the whole thing works,” as he said in the brilliant 1976 sequence “A Technical Supplement.” With enough re-readings, and especially with adequate grounding in Kinsella’s recent work, the poems eventually yield their vast richness. But it is certainly rarified work, whose appeal is limited the closer it comes to achieving its goals. The song of Thomas Kinsella is not for every audience.

This is poetry of high ambition, conceived on a grand scale and demanding the fullest engagement. Indeed, there is a feeling of urgency and importance about all Kinsella’s projects—the poems, with their historical and psychological sweep reminding the reader of a less high-hat Pound; the translations, where Kinsella seems determined single-handedly to replace more than a millennium of accepted renderings; the anthologies, both The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse and the Dolmen Press’s An Duanaire, 1600–1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), edited with characteristic independence and sweep. But still, even for one who admires the work and the man, something elemental about poetry is lost in the bargain as awe replaces deep feeling.

For me, several issues emerge from the encounter with Kinsella’s newer work. It underscores that traditional poetics are somehow a critical element in communicating emotion. Stripped to most direct utterance, with nothing between the singer and the song, the poems cast their readers adrift on the stream of consciousness, seeming to grant intimacy in exchange for power. Close as they are to the poet’s psyche, they seem to utter rather than to sing. I can appreciate them, work over them, and feel as though I am in touch with the poet—but I am not moved to read them aloud, not stirred by their music. I cannot feel them before I understand them.

Finally, why is Kinsella so obsessed with how to communicate? I take this to be more than just a concern with the forms of poetic expression. His love poetry, his poetry of familial and national history, and his poetry of the artistic act have now merged and in each strand the fundamental concern is that continuity is compromised. There appears to be a deep-rooted despair over not being able to bridge the boundary between self and other. At its center, Kinsella’s poetry remains the work of a man exploring through words his sense of utter isolation within the self.


  1. Blood and Family, by Thomas Kinsella; Oxford University Press, 89 pp.

John Drexel (essay date Spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3194

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 collection in nearly ten years, affords an opportunity to reassess a poetic career now in its fourth decade.

When Kinsella began publishing in the 1950s, the reigning Irish poets of the day were Austin Clarke, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, and, not least, Patrick Kavanaugh—all formidable and accomplished writers, if under-rated at the time, and all since canonized to some extent in Ireland’s literary history. John Montague and Richard Murphy were just emerging. Montague, Murphy, and Kinsella are now the bridge between the younger poets (Heaney, although he is now in middle age, and his followers) on the one hand and the more rigorously austere Clarke and his generation on the other. It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that we find Kinsella’s work informed by an obsessive tension between sensuality (of language, perception, and experience) and ascetism or austerity (again, of language, perception, and experience).

If pleasure in language for its own sake is to be taken as a central element throughout Irish literature, Kinsella subverts this tradition. In much of his work, there is a sense of speech halted, of desire unfulfilled. Like that of Geoffrey Hill, the British poet to whom he is most often compared, Kinsella’s work is marked by a fundamental mistrust of language and of its effects. He seems to be carrying on an internal dialogue rather than a dialogue with the reader. But his writing is less concerted and, taken as a whole, less concentrated than that of Hill and of Charles Tomlinson, another British poet whom he in some respects (not least in the longevity of his talent) resembles. Seamus Deane has suggested that Kinsella’s overriding theme is the burden of history-as-nightmare. Certainly he is the most European, the least parochial, of contemporary Irish poets—and the most naked, the least adorned. At times, as in Nightwalker and Notes from the Land of the Dead, for example, he is driven to apologize for Ireland’s dissociation from the mainstream of twentieth-century European life—not least its dissociation from World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Painfully conscious of his country’s place in the backwater of twentieth-century history (the continuing Troubles in the North notwithstanding), he feels compelled to project his consciousness into the heart of central Europe’s history; yet this identification is never literal. Whatever his personal reasons for his departure from Ireland—he lives for much of the year in the United States, and teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia—metaphorically, Kinsella’s flight from Ireland is a flight from provincialism into the universal.

Kinsella has identified his themes—indeed, his preoccupations—as “love, death, and the creative act.” He is concerned most with “persons and relationships, places and objects, seen against the world’s processes of growth, maturing, and extinction … questions of value and order, seeing the human function (in so far as it is not simply to survive the ignominies of existence) as the eliciting of order from experience …” Certainly these concerns are not unique, and Kinsella is not alone in exploring them. The throwaway parenthetical phrase, however, indicates the bleakness of his obsession: he writes out of the conviction that what he writes is necessary, but with little hope that it will change the world or measure up to his own standard of poetic success. The hallmark of his literary career is his persistence in the face of the fear of failure.

Early and late, Kinsella’s poetry is, like Larkin’s, a poetry of deprivation:

Now, before I sleep,
My heart is cut down:
Nothing, nothing
—Poetry nor love—achieving.

—“Night Songs”

The other props are gone.
Sighing in one another’s
Iron arms, propped above nothing,
We praise Love the limiter.

—“Je t’adore”

… it grows dark and we stumble
in gathering ignorance
in a land of loss
and unfulfillable desire.

—“The Land of Loss”

But while Larkin couches his deprivation in elegiac tones, Kinsella—especially in his later work—attempts to strike a more cosmic note, imbues his verse with a more feverish apprehension. Throughout his work, he takes exile as the supreme metaphor for loss, terror, speechlessness. Anguish is the central emotion in his poetry; and his central image (though not exclusively so, as we shall see) is darkness. His mode is endurance rather than triumph or transcendence. He works, quite deliberately, in isolation; if he is at all conscious of his readers it is only of the fact that they are few and are merely incidental to the creation of the verse, that they are bystanders rather than partners. Kinsella displays no interest in writing a perfect poem or even a polished poem; his intention is neither to impress nor even to persuade, but simply to stand witness to the movement of his own mind.

Kinsella’s poetic achievement cannot be properly measured in terms of the sum of its individual parts. He would not have us judge his poems as independent texts, but rather as imperfect pieces that find their significance only within a larger design. As he himself has said, “the things behind form were what bothered me … the sequence rather than the finished single object.” By definition, such poems cannot stand on their own; they are fragments that the reader must piece together as best he can. A Kinsella poem is neither self-contained nor self-referential; nor is it a linguistic artifact to be deconstructed. Poetry, for Kinsella, is not so much a product as a process of thought and of discovery. One senses, as in Pound, whom he admires, that the poem (or the sequential succession of poems) is merely a map to the thought and experience that lies behind and beneath it, always just beyond the reader’s grasp. A mature Kinsella poem does not pin down a meaning but rather chases it. “Here the passion is in the putting together,” he declares in the somewhat fleshless and yet sensual “Worker in Mirror, At His Bench” (New Poems 1973), and continues:

Yes, I suppose I am appalled
at the massiveness of others’ work.
But not deterred; I have leaned my shed
against a solid wall. Understanding smiles.
I tinker with the things that dominate me
as they describe their random
persistent coherences …
clean surfaces shift
and glitter among themselves …
Pause. We all are vile …
Let the voice die away.

The odd phrase “understanding smiles” may be the key here, and it works in at least two ways: “Understanding” (an abstract noun, and capitalized) smiles upon the poet; and the poet, not without a touch of irony, understands the smiles (both bemused and knowing) of his readers. The persistent refrain that haunts the third and final section of this poem is the single word “forgotten.” Often, as it is here, a Kinsella poem is a fragile attempt to recollect a dream, or to beget some realization of a better life out of a dream. But just as often, in the same poems, as I have suggested, the poet’s vision is begotten in darkness and remains there, lodged in the recesses of memory. Kinsella seems to want to declare, with George Garrett’s Salome, “I had a dream of purity / And I have lived in the wilderness ever since.” But even the ability to utter this sort of wild and blinding recognition eludes him; the voice is always dying away. It is a brave and startling confession for the maker, whether poet or potter, to acknowledge that he merely tinkers with the things (themes) that dominate him, rather than mastering them. The randomness of his success too is an admission of the maker’s impotence rather than a demonstration of his power.

Again and again, Kinsella’s poems work out to no resolution; they do not conclude with the force of Yeats’s closed boxes. While Yeats’s famous rhetorical closing questions seem to imply a deeply-held belief, Kinsella’s stuttering interrogatives dissolve into silence, not even evoking an echo. Future scholars, I think, may find a fertile subject for doctoral theses in Kinsella’s use of ellipses, his halting, unfinished utterances. This lack of resolution (though not of tension) in the poems of his maturity is allied to, and helps explain, his apparent lack of interest in form and in the music that most readers expect to find in verse.

What most disturbs Kinsella’s reader is the poet’s apparent refusal to specify the actual setting of his experience. Kinsella’s poems, unlike those of most of his compatriots, resist being rooted in real, perceptible places, but are first and foremost manifestations of the poet’s inner life, his troubled consciousness. When we read Heaney we see a real alder branch; for all its moral and metaphorical implications, Mahon’s disused shed in County Wexford is quite solid, as are Montague’s dolmens and old people, Murphy’s curraghs and islands, and even (in spite of her quicksilver imagination) McGuckian’s blue houses. With Kinsella, we can never quite see where we are; the places and events in his poems rarely seem individual and experienced, but are generalized and projected. Here, it seems to me, is the central paradox of all confessional poetry as such. The landscape of “Downstream,” for example—a typical Kinsella landscape—partakes of the burden of history as the poet imagines ”nude heards [sic] of the damned” that move in a “barren world obscurely lit / By tall chimneys flickering in their pall.” These images of the Holocaust are imagined as he glides downstream (on what nameless river?) “in the mirrored dusk,” past a “ghostly bank” and through “dark woods,” “the alleys of the wood.” The Dantesque imagery is obvious, but the impact is muted precisely because the imagery is at once so general and so private.

In his tortured, tortuous syntax Kinsella becomes both the pursuer and the pursued. The terms in which he works are terms of both engagement and escape, exile and return. As Deane again has suggested, Kinsella’s poems move in the uneasy realm where nature and culture overlap and co-exist—nature being what we are and culture what we have made of ourselves.

What I have been describing, however, is Kinsella’s later verse—that is, his writing over the last twenty or twenty-five years. His early work, on the other hand, in retrospect points to this sort of development but does not entirely predict it. Another September, for example, is freighted with elegant lyrics that strain to simulate an early-Yeatsian romanticism, with its languid rhetoric, as in this stanza from “Death of a Queen”::

They sent counsellors and music
Out across the promontory of her grief;
And anger, after a while,
Was released, shouldering like a bull;
But startle or sweeten to life
Her eyes, streaming with memory, could not.

(That shouldering, surely, must be a misprint for shuddering?) And this stanza from “The Travelling Companion”:

‘End and done with’ never ceases,
Constantly the heart releases
           Wild geese to the past.
Look, how they circle poignant places,
Falling to sorrow’s fowling-pieces
           With soft plumage ahast.

Yet even here he is beginning to labor under the burden of history, saying, with Stephen Dedalus, that history is a nightmare from which he has yet to awaken.

Kinsella’s lyric phase culminates in Nightwalker and Other Poems. Here, in such poems as “Tara,” the lyrical impulse is married to a specificity of detail, a carefully modulated diction, and a formal grace—qualities often conspicuously absent from his later sequences:

The mist hung on the slope, growing whiter
On the thin grass and dung by the mounds;
It hesitated at the dyke, among briars.
Our children picked up the wrapped flasks, capes and baskets
And we trailed downward among whins and thrones
In a muffled dream, guided by slender axe-shapes.
Our steps scattered on the soft turf, leaving
No trace, the children’s voices like light.
Low in the sky behind us, a vast silver shield
Seethed and consumed itself in the thick ether.
A horse appeared at the rampart like a ghost,
And tossed his neck at ease, with a hint of harness.

I quote this poem in full because, although not wholly representative of his early work, it suggests the direction he could have taken. At the same time, embedded in it are indications of the line he was to follow shortly hereafter. It is a farewell, both personal and poetic, literal and figurative, to the Ireland of “mist … on the slope.” It announces Kinsella’s departure from “ease,” his growing recognition of a hostile or at least indifferent natural world that seethes and consumes not only itself but those who inhabit it, whether wild or human. It is a world the poet can only apprehend by surrendering to the unconscious, the “muffled dream.”

The recurring and dominating image of Kinsella’s darkest poetry is not darkness itself, but the human mouth. Indeed, from the mid-sixties on, his work is obsessed with what Seamus Heaney, later and in another context, calls “the government of the tongue;” or, if you will, the word made flesh. It is the mouth that, as it eats, tastes, speaks, sings, and kisses, creates our greatest intimacy; but the same mouth gnaws and devours; it cries from unsatisfied hunger, and is a portal of decay. Thus, in “Phoenix Park,” “A child plucks death and tastes it.” “Nightwalker” begins, “I only know things seem and are not good. / A brain in the dark, and bones, out exercising / Shadowy flesh; fitness for the soft belly, / Fresh air for lungs that take no pleasure any longer.” In “Ritual of Departure,” “I scoop at the earth, and sense famine, a first / Sourness in the clay. The roots tear softly.” And in “Phoenix Park,” again, the poet dreams of

A blind human face burrowing in the void,
Eating new tissue down into existence
Until every phantasm—all that can come—
Has roamed in flesh and vanished, or passed inward
Among the echoing figures to its place,
And this live world is emptied of its hunger
While the crystal world, undying, crowds with light,
Filling the cup … That there is one last phantasm
Who’ll come painfully in old lewd nakedness
—Loose needles of bone coming out through his fat—
Groping with an opposite, equal hunger,
Thrusting a blind skull from its tatters of skin
As from a cowl, to smile in understanding
And total longing …

John Montague, generally an admirer of Kinsella, has expressed reservations about the “Gothic extravagances” in Wormwood, Kinsella’s sequence about married love, and his first foray into the sequence form. In Montague’s view, Kinsella’s feverish rhetoric is pitched beyond the weight of the subject matter; the poet faces his own extinction too self-consciously; the poem’s subjectivity almost precludes the reader’s involvement. Edna Longley, too, has taken Kinsella to task for what she regards as indulgent self-involvement in many of these long sequences. Regarding “Nightwalker,” I would only add that indeed, although the poet is under no obligation to prove that his assertions are true, if his poems are to have potency they cannot rely solely upon passionate generalizations nor, on the other hand, upon observations that are singularly personal. Eliot knew this, of course, and so, in his way, did Larkin, as do the most rigorous and uncompromising of our living poets, Hill and Mahon and Milosz. One never feels that they are straining for effect; their moral angst is expressed as authentically and as artfully as it is felt. Kinsella’s passion is never in question, but his anxiety and indignation can undermine the poetry. In his effort to quarry order out of chaos, chaos often seems to have the upper hand. This fragmentation persists to an even greater extreme in Notes from the Land of the Dead. Here again, the double imagery of the mouth and darkness predominates; indeed, it is introduced in the first sentence: “A snake out of the void moves in my mouth, sucks / at triple darkness.”

Kinsella’s most recent book brings together the contents of five limited-edition pamphlets previously brought out by his own Peppercanister Press. Thematically, it breaks no new ground; formally, it extends his experiment with language and the possibilities of poetic utterance in ways that would not have seemed alien to Pound. There are moments of great intensity and even of poetic beauty in these poems, but, in spite of Kinsella’s strategy, these moments never quite connect with each other to produce a cumulative effect that transcends them. Yet I would not be surprised to find, on subsequent readings, that this has been his strategy all along. The fragmentation and the grimness of his vision resist the steady and civilizing cadences of the iambic line.

I would not venture to predict the shape of Thomas Kinsella’s next book. I suspect that his best work is behind him—but only because what he has already achieved could not have come easily and without cost. What I do know is that Kinsella is entirely his own person. 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. He will always go his own way.

Works Cited

Deane, Seamus. “Thomas Kinsella: ‘Nursed out of Wreckage.’” Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880–1980. London: Faber & Faber, 1985: Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 1987.

Haffenden, John. Interview with Thomas Kinsella in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Kinsella, Thomas, Another September. Dublin: Dolmen Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, 1962.

———. Nightwalker and Other Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

———. New Poems 1973. Dublin: Dolmen Press; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1973.

———. Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 1979.

———. Blood and Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Steven Matthews (review date 17 June 1994)

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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 own business of writing. Yet the wilful cantankerousness of much of the book—its splenetic denunciations of the Dublin City Corporation for its inner-city development policy, and the scorn for his contemporaries—conjure the spirit of the native precursor, Yeats, whose “own sour duel with the middle classes” is meditated upon in another remarkable poem, “At the Western Ocean’s Edge”. In that poem, Yeats’s “mental strife” is seen as winning through to mastery, to personal, even religious, insight, “renewal in reverse, / emotional response, the revelation”. At the end of the long poem which opens From Centre City, “One Fond Embrace”, Kinsella seeks to anticipate a possible response to that poem’s militant strife, and does not seem able to envisage such culminatory “revelation”. He admits “That there is more spleen / than good sense in all of this”, quoting again from the letter to Voltaire in which Diderot questions the usefulness of writing philosophy (“The Athenians were never wickeder than in the time of Socrates”) that had formed the epigraph to Kinsella’s “A Technical Supplement” in 1976.

In that earlier work, Diderot’s insight authorizes a gut-churning exploration of corporeality, “man-meat” and Manichaean self-division. In From Centre City, the renewed questioning of the usefulness of writing lends energy both to the splenetic denunciations and to that intent exploration—in poems like “A Portrait of the Artist” and “Brothers in the Craft”—of the sources and resources of the poet’s business which refuse the attrition of contemporary urban and cultural life. The “centre city” which emerges from these poems is haunted by “Invisible speculators, urinal architects, / and the Corporation labouring to turn it into a zoo”. Such spleen, however, is sometimes itself tainted, as when the mess left behind by “the telephone people” is dismissed as “Culpable ignorance, distinguishing Man / from the cats and other animals”; or when, in “The Stable”, a plain, moving elegy for a beloved neighbour, the tone is nearly wrecked by the concluding line-and-a-half: “And he wasn’t gone / a month when the local roughs were in.”

Yet, as another poem has it, “worst is the fool that foldeth his hands / and eateth his own flesh”. The energy in purging, in renewal through a letting of hate and vexation, is a constant in the collection, whether in a poem about bringing aid to a trouble-stricken town in Ulster, “Apostle of Hope”, to those recalling days spent in the office, like “Administrator” and “Social Work”.

From Centre City seems in some ways, then, a necessarily transitional collection. Kinsella is perhaps the most intellectually inquiring and formally experimental of contemporary Irish poets; the concentrated, vigorous, passionate sense of loss and betrayal in this book promises a revelatory renewal beyond the limits of “our foul ascending city”.

Floyd Skloot (review date 18 March 1995)

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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 while at University College, Dublin, an administrator in Ireland’s Department of Finance for some 15 years and a man who by skill and temperament is driven toward “management of material / in all the fine requirements,” Kinsella has spent his creative career exploring the “will that gropes for / structure.” He has always been clear about what drives him: “Here the passion is in the putting together,” he wrote in a poem from the early 1970’s: “I tinker with the things that dominate me / as they describe their random / persistent coherences.” What has dominated him in recent years is what has dominated him almost from the start: “a structure for my mess of angers,” as he says in a poem from his new book, or examining the way “Versing, like an exile, makes / A virtuoso of the heart,” as he said in a poem from his first book—structure for the essentially unstructurable.

Despite his devotion to organization and control, Kinsella has turned out to be the Bard of Chaos, a weaver whose “web of order” must be constantly rewoven to contain the resistant, erosive world he inhabits. In his quest for order he has gone from being a poet of elegant craft and traditional form to one of structural innovation and incompleteness as the order he seeks, the “total theme—presented / to a full intense regard,” proves ever more internal and elusive.

On the last page of From Centre City, Kinsella presents a man turning his back on the city and all it entails. It is not only the accurate image of a poet retiring, choosing to take up country life in a small village in the Wicklow Mountains, it also captures Kinsella’s present situation in Irish letters:

I have known the hissing assemblies.
The preference for the ease of the spurious
—the measured poses and stupidities.
On a fragrant slope descending into
the fog
over our foul ascending city
I turned away in refusal,
and held a handful of high grass
sweet and grey to my face.

At 66, and after more than four decades of continuous publication, Kinsella occupies a peculiar place in his country’s literary life. Emerging as a new voice in the late 1950’s, he was the “favored one” in the scattered family of Irish poetry, often referred to as the successor to William Butler Yeats. But despite his position at center stage among “the hissing assemblies,” he “turned away in refusal” repeatedly—leaving the country for several years during the height of his renown, abandoning the traditional way of writing poetry that he had mastered so young, establishing a publishing house, the Peppercanister Press, which issued only his own work. Although he eventually returned to Ireland, he has slowly been nudged aside like a respected but crotchety uncle. Despite steadily producing brilliant work and being engaged in a long-term project comparable only to Ezra Pound’s Cantos among 20th-century poets. Kinsella’s reputation—at the moment it should be brightest—is in danger of eclipse.

Kinsella’s early poetry that attracted so much acclaim was orderly, elegant in language and technique, traditionally controlled. He wrote lyrics such as “Another September” (1958), which opens with this eight-line stanza:

Dreams fled away, this country bedroom,
With the touch of the dawn, wrapped in a minor
Hears through an open window the garden draw
Long pitch black breaths, lay bare its apple
Ripe pear trees, bramble, windfall-sweetened
Exhale rough sweetness against the starry slates.
Nearer the river sleeps St. Johns, all toil
Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates.

Many characteristic Kinsella moves and themes are already present here. The verse is tightly rhymed, exquisitely balanced between abstractions and specifics, rooted in place yet easily universal; the metrics and pacing are managed with authority as in the fourth line, where the breath is slowed by the accumulation of stressed syllables and punchy consonants, then relaxed with a return of iambics and open vowels.

The influence of Yeats and W. H. Auden was clear in such early work as “Fifth Sunday After Easter” (“April’s sweet hand in the margins betrayed / Her character in late cursive daffodils: / A gauche mark, but beautiful: a maid.”). But Kinsella’s voice quickly established itself over these echoes. The anthology piece “Mirror in February,” from the 1962 collection Downstream, marked the height of Kinsella’s achievement in the lyric mode:

The day dawns with scent of must and
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed—my
Idling on some compulsive fantasy—
I towel my shaven lip and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

Kinsella has long been concerned with the struggle for continuity and stability in the face of overwhelming erosion. He focused his attention on issues of married love, the artistic act and the history of his family and country, regardless of the form or scope of his poems. In addition, there was always an impulse to work in a longer, meditative framework, and it became increasingly attractive to Kinsella in his mid-30’s. His 1968 collection Nightwalker and Other Poems, consolidating his reputation internationally, included both the 400-line title poem and the 225-line “Phoenix Park,” along with a 161-line poem called “The Shoals Returning,” a 134-line poem called “A Country Walk,” as well as “Downstream,” a mere 83 lines long. Almost nothing rhymed, in these poems; they were less arranged, more open. They were interior to the point of being subterranean, Joycean rather than Yeatsean, yet they included more of the outside world than ever before. Things welled up and demanded to be included in poems that would have ruled them out before. History, politics, literary reference. The poems teemed.

Kinsella was moving toward a poetry in which, he has said, nothing should come between the poet and his material, between the things perceived and the perceiving self. No inherited forms, no imposed structure, no real endings or beginnings. “I have never seen,” Kinsella said in an interview with John F. Deane, editor of Dublin’s Dedalus Press, “why a poem need end absolutely with its final line. It can lie in wait, with the dynamics available.” As though to underscore the point, Kinsella began his 1988 book Blood & Family with the same long poem, “The Messenger,” which concluded his previous book, Peppercanister Poems, 1972–1978. New poems often echoed back to earlier poems.

Those 10- and 15-page poems Kinsella wrote at mid-career were to look like short ones compared with the book-length sequences such as “Notes from the Land of the Dead and One,” or 25- and 30-page poems like “St. Catherine’s Clock” and “A Technical Supplement.” Like Pound, Kinsella has in many ways been writing one long, ongoing poem since 1965 or so, an exploration of “how the whole thing works.”

At this juncture in his career—the late 1960’s—Kinsella was in self-imposed exile after a 20-year civil service career in Ireland’s Ministry of Finance, living in the small town of Carterville in southern Illinois, far outside the framework of his entire previous adult life, and clearly on a journey. He was turning his back on everything that had brought his work to public approval and rejecting the imposition of order. Instead, as he later said, “I believe the significant work begins in eliciting order from actuality.” He also has commented that it is “out of ourselves and our wills that the chaos came, and out of ourselves that some order will have to be constructed.” For Kinsella, this meant abandoning such traditional ordering devices as meter and rhyme, then narrative, eventually even rejecting beginnings and endings. Drawing the reader into the communication loop, relying upon the reader’s immersion and involvement to complete the act, Kinsella was committed to changing the essence of how a poem worked.

From Centre City is both angrier and more mellow than what has come before. “Better is a handful with quietness / than both hands full / with travail and vexation of spirit,” he says in the invocation to Part Three of the book. More accessible than its predecessor Blood & Family,From Centre City has a charm and cohesiveness that nicely balance its despair over waste and corruption, “this sick place” with its entropic urge toward fracturing and disorder. It is almost as though getting out of the city, being surrounded at last by ravens and grass and “dry trees standing quiet in their own grain,” has provided a tentative sort of hope, or at least a personal balm against “The Process as it hath revealed / its Waste on high.”

But it takes him a while to get there. The book opens with an acrimonious but self-mocking poem in 96 tercets entitled “One Fond Embrace.” It is a splenetic balancing of the literary record, which Kinsella labels “a private accounting,” where those figures from his past who are now brought to the speaker’s table are invited to “Take one another / and eat.” It begins:

is enough:
poring over that organic pot.
I knuckled my eyes. Their drying jellies
answered with speckles and images.
I leaned back and stretched
and embraced all
this hearth and home
echoing with the ghosts
of prides and joys,
bicycles and holy terrors,
our grown and scattered loves.

The scene is a familiar Kinsellan moment, going back to “Baggot Street Deserta” from 1958, as the poet sits back exhausted from his writing (“that organic pot”) and lets his thoughts run loose over the themes of art, love and place. He considers his Dublin neighborhood, “the brick walls / of this sagging district, against which / it alerts me to knock my head,” its sordid history of religious and economic struggle (“Our neighbourhood developer / thinking big in his soiled crombie”) and the despoiling of its character (“planners of the wiped slate / labouring painstaking over a bungled city / to turn it into a zoo”) until he gets himself sufficiently agitated (“May their sewers blast under them!”) to seek escape (“And I want to throw my pen down. / And I want to throw my self down / and hang loose over some vault of peace”). However, the sour mood has taken too deep a hold; looking out the window at “Bright gulls, gracefully idling / in the blue and wholesome heights / above our aerials,” at “fatted magpies” and invisible grey maggots and a “baby spider / so swift / on the painted sill” only leads him to think of his fellow citizens with their “grasping manners” and “natural behaviour,” and then of his “friends and others, of whose presences, deteriorating / here, there and elsewhere / I am acutely aware.”

So begins an indignant summoning forth, person by person, of nearly two dozen such unnamed friends and others—literary, political, bureaucratic, religious—for their fond embrace (“Here’s a hug while the mood is on me”) as their true characters are revealed and old scores are settled. For example: “You, peremptory and commanding so long ago, / that so swiftly and methodically / discovered your limits.” Or “You, in morose inadequacy, / settling your contemporaries in order of precedence, / denying what you still might: discern.” Mean and often funny in the way that good satire can be, the poem is saved from being burned in its own acids by its ironic foundation and knowing all along that it is wildly overboard (“there is more spleen / than good sense in all of this, I admit”). Besides, it has an ultimate source that is deeper than merely personal sourness.

Indeed, the deepest disgust is saved for perpetrators of the unceasing internecine troubles that have beset Ireland for so long: “remember we are dealing with the slow to learn, / whose fathers, wiping the blood up after yours, / fought the wrong Civil War.” Finally the ranting culminates in a prayer, informed by the harshest of realities and still tottering on the balance point of anger, that both Catholic and Protestant somehow learn to co-exist: “Thou that smilest however / on the pious of both persuasions / closest to the sources of supply / guide us and save.” It even appears now that the prayer is being answered. From Centre City offers movements that modulate the old anger, encouraging the reader to see it as part of a full and honest response to reality.

“One Fond Embrace” is followed by a sequence of nine poems rooted in the intimate agonies of conflict, love, death and dislocation. They explore moments of change that have become critical touchstones in the poet’s life, epiphanic points of measure returned to in memory—a critical meeting, the surprise of passion, relocation, aging, the deaths of family and older writers, violent conflict. As people change, so do such moments, which “absorb in their changes / the radiance of change in us, / and give it back / to the darkness of our understanding.” We evolve, of course, and our perceptions and memories alter, but Kinsella’s point is that a dynamic process is at work between self and world, “the energy of chaos and a shaping / counter-energy in throes of balance.” A reader becomes exposed to the poet’s obsessive watchfulness, what Kinsella calls “The Impulse, ineradicable” in the poem “Apostle of Hope,” a drive for “Scrutiny; / manipulation toward some kind / of understanding.” It is a theme that has been at the core of his work from the beginning.

A grim sequence of poems, with anguish and loss dominant. In a different order and some in different forms, these poems appeared as the 1990 Peppercanister pamphlet entitled Personal Places. The one that is new is also the centerpiece of the section, a powerful three-part poem entitled “In Memory,” which takes place during the funeral of an older and respected poet—probably Valentin Iremonger—and shows Kinsella mixing a structural and tonal elegance reminiscent of his earlier work with the directness, interiority and shifting surface of his recent work. That the dead writer bears similarities to the mourning poet is made strikingly clear—like the younger Kinsella, who served his country in the Ministry of Finance while also forging his identity as a poet. Iremonger had a career in public service too, eventually becoming Ireland’s Ambassador to India and to Luxembourg while remaining active as a poet and editor.

Among the several poems in the book that concern moments of change, there is a moving one about the demise of a local stable and its dray (“he wasn’t gone / a month when the local roughs were in”). Birds outside the window, the bell on Haddington Road, mysterious strangers, “the remains of a cement mash / emptied direct on the clay” of the back lane which reveals “the slovenliness of the City and its lesser works”—these poems are full of curious homages to a way of life. They lead him to utter a poetic credo in the form of a prayer: “Lord, grant us a local watchfulness. / Accept us into that minority / driven toward a totality of response, / and I will lower these arms and embrace what I find.”

The final section of From Centre City includes “Open Court,” another long poem about literary ambition, this one written in couplets, a form he referred to in “The Stranger” as his “pulse of doggerel case.” Subtitled “a fragment,” it is nevertheless 167 lines and, like Finnegans Wake, neither begins at the beginning nor ends at the end and is like spending a long session in a pub crammed with loud, washed-up writers emitting their “chorus of disgust:” It is less savage than “One Fond Embrace” because less intimate, distanced by its form and mocking humor, as though the poet has finally escaped a danger zone where he might be hurt.

Which, in fact, he has. The book ends with a series of three short poems that find the poet out of centre city, discovering fresh metaphors for his familiar themes. In the first, the poet is caught at another key juncture of transition: “I left the road where a stile enters the wood.” Here the discovery of a dead bat (which, like inspiration, like the poet in the poem, is “meant only to be half seen / quick in the half light” while it is “snapping at the invisible”) allows for the sort of vigorous connection that promises a new focus and vigor in the work. In the second poem, “Our raven couple / flying together, up toward their place / on the high rock shoulder” suggests hope for the continued exploration of his theme of love.

From Centre City enacts the very process its poems speak about. Moving from deep-rooted harshness to tentative grace, evolving out of the same material seen in different ways, the work continues to flower as it remains open to the world, total in response. However fashions may change regarding poetic reputation, it seems likely that Kinsella’s unique voice will manage to be heard in the only way it can—on its own terms.

Thomas H. Jackson (essay date 1995)

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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 firmly defined sense of its cultural tradition is that the culture may be a dead one and populated, moreover, not so much by ossified figures of the past as by ossified illusions. Thus Hugh Kenner can quote from Patrick Kavanagh’s short-lived paper the drearily Philistine comments of Mr. T. O’Deirg, Minister for Lands, in 1952, to the effect that “it was a pity that there was not now the close connection between the poets and the people such as existed fifty years ago.” Mr. O’Deirg hoped to see a revival “of popular poetry that would bring nationality to its bosom such as Ethna Carberry did in her time.”3 Ethna Carberry was the pen name of Anna Johnston (born 1866, obit. 1902), cofounder of the Gaelic-culture magazine Shan Van Vocht and author of a poem about the voyage of the Erin’s Hope (“A sail, wind-filled from out the West! our waiting time is done; / Since sword and spear and shield are here to free our hapless One!”). It is not clear why Mr. O’Deirg’s shaky grammar cited her rather than some better-known colleague—perhaps W. B. Yeats.

Every age—every month—of course has its fatuous politicians, but commenting historians as well as eyewitnesses of the time seem unanimously agreed on the dreariness of the Irish fifties. Ireland was still in the grips of the cultural and economic doldrums that had beset the country since Independence, still grieving over the wound that had torn away its industrial northeast and continuing, it would seem, to confuse parochialism and provinciality with national integrity. With respect to literary life, there were a handful of short-lived little magazines—John Ryan’s Envoy, David Marcus’s Irish Writing, Kavanagh’s Weekly, and the Kilkenny Magazine, but until the founding of Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press there was no publisher in Ireland for books of poetry by Irish writers,4 and even Miller’s enterprise, in which Kinsella played an important role, was for a long time something of a kitchen-table operation. Moreover, if the handful of little magazines in the late forties and early fifties give the impression of a lively up-and-coming generation of new poets, inspection of the tables of contents tends to yield the same names over and over: Clarke, Kavanagh, Valentin Iremonger, Anthony Cronin, James Liddy, Pearse Hutchinson, and, eventually, Thomas Kinsella: not quite a horde, even for so small a nation as Ireland. There were, or had been, two possibly major figures; but one, Austin Clarke, was wasting his time on reviewing (like Pound years before), and the other, Patrick Kavanagh, was seething in the relatively sterile rage of the contemned and patronized alien clown.

On the other hand, if you are one of a half-dozen young poets barely or not yet out of college, sitting around a table plotting aesthetic revolution, things can look fairly lively if you don’t step out into the street. Alan Simpson stepped into the street, so to speak, in 1957, when he mounted a production of Tennessee Williams’s Rose Tattoo. He found himself the target of a police prosecution for presenting an indecent performance that took him a full year to resolve; the year after, the archbishop of Dublin, with the support of the Dublin Trade Unions, managed to put the kibosh on a Dublin theater festival that wanted to stage a dramatization called Bloomsday along with some mimes by Beckett. Censorship of this sort seems to have represented the fag end of an Irish Ireland movement that was mounted after Independence and which blended all too well with the Church’s fastidiousness about “moral” (sc., “sexual”) matters under the umbrella of official censorship.5 Writing of Clarke’s career in 1974, Kinsella himself began with the remark that “In those flat years in Ireland at the beginning of the nineteen fifties, depressed so thoroughly that one scarcely noticed it, the uneasy silence of Austin Clarke added a certain emphasis” (Kinsella 1974, 128).

Not quite a decade earlier he had spoken of his own situation as a poet in Ireland out of an isolation it is to be hoped few poets ever have to confront. Looking at Irish poets writing in either Irish or English, he said, “the word ‘colleagues’ fades on the lips before the reality: a scattering of incoherent lives. … I can learn nothing from them except that I am isolated” (Kinsella 1970, 51). This is a remark about loneliness, perhaps, and concerns the life of the poet, but he goes on to address issues far more deep-running. The principal issue the poet addresses in “The Irish Writer” is the difficulty any Irish poet experiences in finding, and feeling, an identity, a difficulty arising from the terrible ungroundedness Kinsella feels at this point to be the plight of anyone who would be a poet in Ireland. The country, of course, has a rich literary past, but of those riches Kinsella said, “I recognize simultaneously a great inheritance and a great loss. The inheritance is mine, but only at two enormous removes—across a century’s silence and through an exchange of worlds” necessitated by the “calamity” that was the death of the Irish language. He quotes sympathetically the complaint of Daniel Corkery: “Everywhere in the mentality of the Irish people are flux and uncertainty. Our national consciousness may be described, in a native phrase, as a quaking sod. It gives no footing. It is not English, nor Irish, nor Anglo-Irish” (Kinsella 1970, 60). With the present profitless and the past locked away, Kinsella concludes that “The only semblance of escape—consonant with integrity—is into a greater isolation.” At this stage in Thomas Kinsella’s work it seems that wherever the poet turns he confronts isolation and irrelevance. How far-reaching such feelings were in Kinsella’s earliest writing can be seen in one of the impressively ambitious poems in his first major collection, “Baggot Street Deserta.” It is a meditation on poetry at once ambitious and grim, calling the ethical standing of the art into question even as it asserts the continuity of poetry with nature itself and with human endeavor in general. Early in the poem a semianimate nature engages with the speaker’s pathetic fallacies:

                    The window is wide
On a crawling arch of stars, and the night
Reacts faintly to the mathematic
Passion of a cello suite
Plotting the quiet of my attic.
A mile away the river toils
Its buttressed fathoms out to sea;
Tucked in the mountains, many miles
Away from its roaring outcome, a shy
Gasp of waters in the gorse
Is sonnetting origins.

(AS, 29)

His sleeping fellow citizens unconsciously perform their version of his creative activities, as “Dreamers’ heads / Lie mesmerised in Dublin’s beds / Flashing with images, Adam’s morse.”

But the fruits of this unwitting unity are not much: to the “lingering threadbare cry” of a curlew the poet adds his

                    call of exile, half-
Buried longing, half-serious
Anger and the rueful laugh.
We fly into our risk, the spurious.

And the reason for this is gloomily sweeping:

Versing, like an exile, makes
A virtuoso of the heart,
Interpreting the old mistakes
And discords in a work of Art
For the One, a private masterpiece
Of doctored recollections. Truth
Concedes, before the dew, its place
In the spray of dried forgettings Youth
Collected when they were a single
Furious undissected bloom.

The modernist dream of poetry as cognition receives this grim dismissal:

Out where imagination arches
Chilly points of light transact
The business of the border-marches
Of the Real, and I—a fact
That may be countered or may not—
Find their privacy complete.

It is characteristic of the early Kinsella that such verbal virtuosity should be deployed to assert its own futility—the poet-speaker clearly will entertain no illusions about any putative continuity of mind with reality. One finds in the early Kinsella a poet of great verbal skill manifesting again and again a conviction of the limited power of his own impressive art and a sense of his own randomness, shut out from the real by the very nature of reality and cut off from any nurturing past by the depredations of history. For some years during the early stages of his career, the most he would claim for his art in general was that “one of the main impulses to poetry … is an attempt more or less to stem the passing of time; it’s the process of arresting the erosion of feelings and relationships and objects which is being fought by the artist. … he is there to combat the erosion” (Orr 1966, 106). Such talk constitutes a considerable retreat, if the term is fair, from the major traditions of English-language poetry—certainly from the claims of the major Romantic poets and the major modernists—a retreat, perhaps, toward the attitudes of the Movement poets across the Irish Sea.6

And yet the modern Ireland that produced Thomas Kinsella stems from a culture that ascribed great powers and great importance to poetry, and the art itself in Ireland can claim weighty historical sanctions. The practice Wordsworth may have been emulating in grouping some of his works as “Poems on the Naming of Places,” for example, goes far, far back in Irish poetry. Not all the dindshenchas, the lore of high places and of place names, were written in verse, but a large proportion were. Compiling such lore was an important function of poets in ancient Ireland, and it is not far-fetched to connect this fact with the striking prominence of nature poetry in the Irish past. The great scholar Kuno Meyer wrote that “To seek out and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as [to] the Celt.” Commenting on this characteristic of Celtic literature, Seamus Heaney remarks on the “love of place and lamentation against exile from a cherished territory” which is a “typical strain in the Celtic sensibility” (Heaney 1980, 182, 184). Modern poems like MacNiece’s “River in Spate” make it clear that this strain has by no means died out—and his “Train to Dublin” simply focuses it on an object that happens to be European industrial rather than Bronze Age Celtic. More and more Kinsella’s own work comes to be liberally marked by the echo, if not certainly the effects, of this tradition—like the late poems “38 Phoenix Street” and “Bow Lane,” the relatively early “Phoenix Park” expands a place into its meaning, and the poet’s use of the drawing of Dublin’s Peppercanister church as the emblem for all his Peppercanister series speaks for itself as an appeal to place and the significance of its name.

Nor was explaining place names the only official and quasi-official function of poets. As in other heroic cultures, Gaelic poets were the recorders of great deeds and great events. The Senchus Mor, a compilation of ancient Irish law, states that “until the coming of Patrick speech was not suffered in Ireland but to three: to a historian for narrative and the relating of tales; to a poet for eulogy and satire; to a brehon lawyer for giving judgment according to the old tradition and precedent” (Flower 1947, 4). Robin Flower, from whose book that passage is taken, points out that “the name fili, ‘poet,’ originally with a wider meaning ‘seer,’ comprehended all these functions of the men of learning in pre-Christian Ireland” (4).

Flower’s reference to the meaning seer reflects the fact that in some old texts the terms fili and drui, druid or prophet, or seer, were interchangeable (Knott and Murphy 1966, 21). According to the Lebor Gabála Erenn, the Book of the Takings of Ireland, when the sons of Mil, the true stock of the Irish people as we know them, arrived on the shores of Ireland, the first act was the improvisation of a poem-prayer by Amargin, who in himself combined the roles of leader, warrior, and poet (Macalister 1956).

The fili was not a wandering minstrel nor yet an undergraduate taking creative writing as an elective. In times less legendary than the days of Amergin, the fili was a member of a true literary elite who earned his place through an astonishingly arduous professional training. In the first place, it was a strictly hereditary calling. And it seems there were no less than seven grades of poet; the highest required the mastering of seven years of training—fourteen years, according to one source. We can get some idea of the fantastic labor involved from the fact the tenth-century Book of Armagh lists 350 distinct meters—of which practicing bards tended to make use of 100 (Power 1967, 32). Add the information that the training was entirely oral and that bardic poems often ran to the neighborhood of a hundred quatrains, and it is plain that the status of the fili was no soft touch. The usual method of training seems to have involved the assignment of a topic to the trainee, who would lie solitary in a dark room composing his poem in his head. When it was ready, according to Power, “light and paper were brought in and the young man wrote down his efforts.” It remains to add only that the metrical intricacy of these compositions staggers the modern imagination; they make something like Comus seem the merest bijou.7

What made this fantastic labor worthwhile was the public standing enjoyed by this privileged class of artists. They were indispensable appurtenances of any court, wielders of a skill of positively divine importance, and by the late Middle Ages, graduate filid could go job hunting with all the confidence with which holders of Ivy League law degrees would for a time pursue jobs on Wall Street. Satire was a potentially mortal weapon at the disposal of poets, and much feared. “Greedie of praise they be,” wrote Robert Stanihurst of Irish kings, “and fearfull of dishonour, and to this end they esteeme their poets who write Irish learnedlie and pen their sonets heroicall, for the which they are bountifullie rewarded, if not they send out libels in dispraise, thereof the lords and gentlemen stand in great awe” (Knott and Murphy 1966, 77–78). Caiér, king of Connacht, lost his throne when his nephew, the poet Néde, subjected him to a satire so scathing that it raised blisters on his face; a king with a blemish is unfit to rule, and Caiér fled in shame. Joyce was pursuing this tradition in conducting his vendetta against Oliver St. John Gogarty in the pages of Ulysses, and that self-congratulatory poetaster subscribed to it himself in his anxiety over the knowledge that Joyce was prepared to satirize him in the figure of Buck Mulligan.

On the one hand, then, there was that dormant precedent, and a vast body of vigorous and honorable cultural history for poets to tap if they could, though they would have to tap it with more vitality and authenticity than had characterized the gestures of the Revivalists and their successors. On the other hand, we have Kinsella and other Irish writers in the middle of this century claiming one way or another to be operating in a poetic wasteland. Thomas Kinsella’s recovery of the energizing power of that tradition is one of the most impressive developments in contemporary letters.

He certainly begins at what seems that furthest possible remove from the history whose outlines I have just traced. His conception of the artistic act was the source of stringent limits he set to both language and imagination, which produced, in his first major collection, Another September, a poetry like that in “Baggot Street Deserta,” scrupulously bounded. The young Kinsella is perfectly serious about his art, but he is most reluctant to make any grandiose claims for it. For the early Kinsella, poetry is at best a holding force resisting the inevitable processes of entropy.

A reader taking up Kinsella’s early collections—Poems,Another September, even Downstream—might be puzzled by those remarks about stemming the passage of time and arresting erosion, and might well feel that the poems do not so much stem the passage of time and the process of erosion as lament their inevitability, or at any rate that they leave quite open the question of just how the stemming is to be seen as taking place. Not that “feelings and relationships and objects” must mean only concrete physical facts. A clear or striking conception, for example—which might stem only from an effectual collocation of words—may be triumphantly preserved by the order of the poem, as in the closing section of “The Fifth Season”:

Some, who have comely daughters, watch
A spray of God’s wit light the gloom,
A tree of nerves vividly breaking.
All that drifts into the tomb
Is a body still or a body speaking.

(AS, 35)

Lines like those, with their complicated vowel patterns approaching assonance—comely against gloom, speaking against breaking, the vowels of vividly against those of light, body against tomb, and so on—probably reflect Kinsella’s qualified admiration of Austin Clarke, but in any case they seem to aim at an experience intricate but, like the effects of his temporary enthusiasm for Auden, chiefly verbal. A manifestation of limit in dealing with a scene more vividly external occurs in the early poem “Lead.” There the speaker meditates on two ancient leaden dice he has found at Luttrell’s Glen and toward the end of the poem contemplates the implications of their making:

Drowned in a leafy dusk, paused over metal,
The mind leaped towards the clash of the real.
Its leather-vizored workmen, stuped in flame
And stumbling about such forges, in their time
Roofed many a teeming manor
With sheeted calms no violence could dispel;
Now stood as the light encircled them
Blinded against their black-and-ruddy banner;
Then plunged into the columned Autumn burning.
Craft and craftsman, risen out of nothing,
Sank to a jackdaw chatter in the head.
The road to Dublin churned back into mud.
Gaea, naked as slate,
Caught in her fern those quenched eyes, scarred with seeing
Let drop like dice the aproned dead
Stretched in silence under this estate.

(AS, 45)

The vigor of mind here is unmistakable; the speaker has clearly formulated for himself a vivid sense of process and personal meaning. He has articulated a strong experience and thereby preserved it from loss, as well as gaining an experience in the process of articulation itself. On the other hand, the speaker’s mind does run to the fact that these ancient lead workers must have made roofs, their most significant work something that bespoke the necessary separateness of self and other, and the speaker’s closing thought is of the “aproned dead,” utterly finite, “Let drop like dice / Stretched in silence under this estate.” The precise articulation of an experience—any experience—then, is a means of stemming loss, but that is as much as honesty will allow the early Kinsella to claim. Turning aside as mere indulgence the imputation to poetry of any meaningful consolatory power, this work is almost uncompromisingly stoical. At the time of the 1966 interview with Peter Orr, Kinsella was concerned to say that the poet must rise above partisan involvement in the subject matter of his verse and that “the quality of the instant itself … doesn’t impose any actual, necessary, stateable conditions” on the poem. There is an anxiety here about the autonomy of the poem that Kinsella would eventually cease to worry about, a desire to protect the poem, as a matter of aesthetic purity, from the encroachments of the nonliterary. He recognized some such considerations in a later interview, where he remarked that “I think at the beginning my poems were influenced by literature more than by fact. I would regard the direct dealing with matter as something that requires great sophistication and equipment.” “For the moment,” he went on to say, “it would appear to me that the artistic act has to do with the eliciting of order from significant experience, so as to come to terms with that experience on the basis of understanding of some kind” (Haffenden 1981, 104). There is a slight but significant difference between these two sets of remarks, and the straightforwardness with which we can take the earlier statements is attested to by the very form of the early work. “Mirror in February,” the last poem in Downstream, already involves a move away from the staid stoicism of his very earliest work, but for all its skill, its language seems cautious and limited in the light of the work that would come later:

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the 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.

(One, 63)

Stoic or not, this is highly expressive, and the imagery is perfectly adequate to its purpose—but it is certainly not unconventional. The structure of the mournful wit in bearing and defaced is not beyond the powers of rational perception; the speaker has found some fortuitous verbal relations—an order—in a world given over to otherwise shapeless entropy. Indeed, the strategy of the whole poem is the fairly straightforward one of simply naming things or situations and then meditating on them:

The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half-dressed—my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy—
I towel my shaven lip and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.
It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

(D, 63)

This deliberate boundedness has significant concomitants. To compare Kinsella’s early poems with work by his contemporaries, poets like John Montague and Richard Murphy, or even a later contemporary such as Seamus Heaney, is to be struck by the latter poets’ ties to landscape and place, to history and to Ireland, which Kinsella—the early Kinsella, at any rate—only sometimes shares. For good historical reasons those poets seem almost burdensomely conscious of their Irishness early in their careers, insistently localist in their subjects and their themes. It is tempting to see Kinsella’s avoidance of such orientations and his early assertion that his poetry was “completely separate” from his status as either an Irishman or a quondam Catholic (Orr 1966, 107) almost as a kind of self-exile—a strategy functioning, like his pursuit of the intricacies of assonantial verse, to afford him some untroubled space within which to carve a secure aesthetic arena.8

A mere half-dozen years after Another September, however, in Notes from the Land of the Dead the mode of discourse and the conceptual orientation have undergone a radical change. In “A Hand of Solo” the speaker as a boy bites into a pomegranate: “I sank my teeth in it,” he says,

loosening the packed mass of dryish beads
from their indigo darkness.
I drove my tongue among them
and took a mouthful, and slowly
bolted them.

(NLD, 15)

The action imaged here is the temporal precursor of the action with which the poem begins:

Lips and tongue
wrestle the delicious
                    life out of you.
A last drop.
                    A moment’s rest.
In the firelight glow
the flickering
                    shadows softly
come and go up on the shelf:
red heart and black spade
                    hid in the kitchen dark.
Woman throat song
help my head
                    back to you sweet.

(NLD, 13)

It is not the Proust-like revival of one experience by another that is noteworthy here, but the way the images assemble meaning as the poem unfolds. The tongue recurs, for example, in the image of the lamp burning in the shop where the boy goes to get a sweet from his grandmother:

She was settling the lamp.
Two yellow tongues rose and brightened.
The shop brightened.

(NLD, 14)

The beady pulp of the pomegranate is anticipated by the “Strings of jet beads,” around the grandmother’s neck, and three poems later in the collection, in “The Tear,” it will be casually revealed that the hangings at the entrance to the grandmother’s room are “A fringe of jet drops,” which are visually linked to the title and the subject of the poem itself as well as to the beads that wreathe the grandmother’s neck in “A Hand of Solo.” This poem is not simply recollecting, simply defeating time by naming over some emotionally charged bit of past experience; rather it aims at a complicated kind of understanding that goes considerably beyond Kinsella’s early intent merely to stem the passage of time. This is the collocation of order and understanding Kinsella spoke of in the Haffenden interview, and it represents the very deep changes in his poetry that the subsequent pages here will pursue: from the stoicism of the early work through the discovery in the poems in Nightwalker of a coherence that lifts history above mere anguish, to a radically analytic stance in the late work that explores the growth of consciousness and the very processes of meaning. The changes entail stylistic development from the basically presentative language of the first collections to a profoundly exploratory language in the later work and a change in stance from an observational, externalist pose to the exploration of energizing vision from within. To the extent that Davie’s remark about poesie pure (see note 8 to this chapter) suggested an independence from “occasion,” a power in the poems to spring free of the immediate emotional impact of an event, it was prophetic, as we shall see. Overall the developments to be traced in the chapters to follow here constitute a remarkable and fundamental revolution in Kinsella’s poetic, a revolution that opened the way to the comprehensive recuperation of the Irish past and furnished a basis for nothing less than a revivification of contemporary Irish poetry.


  1. Thus Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (writing of France, to be sure, and women, but the atmosphere is not unique to France): “And why don’t you write? … Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great—that is, for ‘great men’” (Cixous 1981, 246).

  2. Cf. Lyons 1973, 651: “The most striking conclusion to be drawn from a study of the papers actually taken by the students at the Leaving Certificate—the more important of the two examinations from the career point of view—is that secondary education in Ireland retains to the present day a strong literary bias.” The Civil Service Kinsella entered (when he joined the Department of Finance) was still, moreover, an elite service; it had its pick of the top hundred or so school leavers every year, and it is still said to be peppered with writers and would-be writers. Kinsella’s early books were reviewed—and not merely as colleagueal curiosities—in the Civil Service Review.

  3. Cited in Kenner 1983, 242. Kavanagh’s Weekly, of course, was the publication of the redoubtable Patrick Kavanagh—for as long as his funding lasted.

  4. See Skelton 1965.

  5. See Brown 1985, chaps. 1, 2, and 7; and Lyons 1973, 685–93.

  6. By whom, however, he does not seem to have been very impressed. See his review of New Lines in the Irish Press (1 Dec. 1956), where he describes the writers in that anthology as “the school of University poets” who present “a common front of intellectualized unecstatic verse.” Those comments are not thrown out scornfully, but they make Kinsella’s feelings about that kind of poetry pretty clear.

  7. Consider, for example, Hyde’s account of the combining of aird-rinn and deibhidh meter: the rhyming word which ends the second line of a pair must “contain a syllable more than the rhyming word which ends the first, while if the accent falls in the first line on the ultimate syllable it mostly falls in the second line on the penultimate, if it falls on the penultimate in the first line it generally falls on the antepenultimate in the second” (Hyde 1906, 483–84).

  8. Donald Davie noticed this aspect of Kinsella’s work as early as 1957. He found in Poems of 1956 a kind of poem “hardly to be found in Irish poetry outside W. B. Yeats, a sort of impersonal poesie pure, each poem creating its own universe of images not derived from any occasion nor tied to any particular situation” (Davie 1957, 47–49).

Patricia Craig (review date 26 January 1996)

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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 remoter parts of the country”—where it has remained ever since. And—through the medium of poetry—it recorded its own dissolution, its worsening fortunes, while these were taking place. “The hidden Ireland”—that is, the Ireland inaccessible to the non-Irish speaker: this was Daniel Corkery’s term (and the title of a study he wrote in 1925) to denote the cultural resources of the unregenerate Gaedhal. It functioned side by side with the other, “official” Ireland, but its self-containment was such that—as Kinsella points out—a situation arose in which two major poets of the early eighteenth century, Aogán O Rathaille and Jonathan Swift, could live out their lives in total ignorance of one another’s existence. Nevertheless, the literary tradition that each of these represents is a factor in the inheritance of the modern Irish writer.

Kinsella goes on to consider the last great poems in Irish, Eibhlín Dubli Ní Chonáill’s “Lament for Art O’Leary”, which perhaps has suffered a little, like Yeats’s “Easter 1916”, from over-exposure; and Brian Merriman’s “The Midnight Court” (c 1780), a work of astonishing energy, comedy, robustness and social criticism, which brings the long Gaelic tradition to a full-blooded ending—or at least a point of snapped continuity. Between these and Yeats, Kinsella says, it was largely a matter of dwindling Irish, and the onset, in English, of what he dubs “shamrock and Paddy nationalism”, which between them engendered an ineffectual literary climate—“the long inertia”—leaving poets of the nineteenth century floundering about. However, even while the Irish language was dying, it was coming into the hands of scholars and antiquarians, preservers of a kind: first of all, translation into English ensured a form of survival for Gaelic literature, before the drive to reinstate the language itself got under way in the 1890s. The Dual Tradition opens with Yeats, and his complicated relationship to Irish—not speaking it, but regretting its disappearance, and appropriating some of its properties: in which undertaking, Kinsella tells us, “Lady Gregory was very helpful”. In particular, her collection of stories from the Ulster cycle, Cuchulainn of Muirthemne (1902), was helpful to the poet in his pursuit of emblems and archetypes distinctly Gaelic. Kinsella quotes Lady Gregory’s extraordinary dedication to the book, in which the grande dame of the district addresses the people of Kiltartan in a tone at odds with the smallest spirit of democracy, and factitious syntax to boot—“my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough”: that sort of thing.

The Dual Tradition is an essay, not a full-scale history of the subject; but Kinsella, as poet, critic and translator of the works collected in the influential anthology Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), is well equipped to state his case with cogency as well as brevity. Occasionally, however, he overlooks a connection or two within the network of English-language/Gaelic give-and-take. The “Lament for Thomas MacDonagh” by Francis Ledwidge, for instance, which opens with the lines, “He shall not hear the bittern cry / In the wild sky, where he is lain”, harks back to MacDonagh’s well-known version of “An Buineann Buidhe”, “The Yellow Bittern”, by the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet Cathal Buidhe Mac Giolla Gunna (“The yellow bittern that never broke out / In a drinking bout, might well have drunk: / His bones are thrown on a naked stone / Where he lived alone, like a hermit monk …”). And a later poet, Roibeard O Farachain (Robert Farren), has linked the three, Ledwidge, MacDonagh and Mac Giolla Gunna, in a further address to the resonant bygone corpse: “O yellow bittern, yours was a brilliant ending, / it bound in a ghostly friendship three like these. …” And Seamus Heaney, in Field Work, has a lament for Francis Ledwidge.

It’s not surprising, given his yen for inclusiveness—of language, of literature, of Irishness in all its forms—that Kinsella should repudiate all attempts to treat the North as a cut-off entity, and regard the idea of a poetic “renaissance” there, more or less coinciding with the recent conflict, as—at best—an overstated axiom. He’s reluctant to allow Northern poets to have it both ways—criticizing Heaney, for example, for accepting a Gregory Award, while “refusing” to be included in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. The dual tradition is one thing, dual nationality another. (In fact, Heaney appears prominently in that anthology; what he refuses, after the event, in his “Open Letter” of 1983, is the adjective “British”.) Kinsella foists a “colonial” background on Louis MacNeice, born in Belfast, and relegates him to British literature in any case; on the evidence of his poetry, Kinsella says, he’d have suffered uneasiness to find himself presiding over “an Ulster branch of modern British verse”. Ulster—six counties of it—is inescapably provincial, as far as Kinsella is concerned, unless it’s considered in relation to the rest of Ireland. This is one way of looking at it—however, Kinsella underestimates the distinctiveness of the conditions prevailing there, and, as a consequence, misreads the work of at least one Northern poet, John Hewitt, whose dissenter integrity and egalitarian drive are somehow twisted into a kind of colonial sniffiness.

William Pratt (review date Autumn 1996)

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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 the other greatest writer to come out of Ireland, is half of any Irish “dual tradition,” and though Joyce criticized Ireland much more resoundingly than Yeats, Joyce was an Irish Catholic by birth, whereas Yeats was a Protestant of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. What if Joyce rejected both Ireland and Catholicism and left his native land for permanent exile, while Yeats was an ardent Irish nationalist who became a senator in the Free State? Blood is thicker than water, and today in Ireland Joyce has become the writer of the people while Yeats has become the writer of the gentry. Kinsella sums up the difference succinctly, as seen by the current generation of Irish writers: “Yeats stands for the Irish tradition as broken, and Joyce stands for it as healed.”

Kinsella’s book is instructive to any reader who is not Irish, since it makes distinctions that are exclusively ethnic, unrelated to artistic merit. Yeats and Joyce are exceptional; they are part of a world tradition of literature, but the same is not true of Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh, who also wrote English in an Irish manner. Beckett stands apart, as much French as Irish, in the dramatic tradition of Wilde and Shaw more than of Yeats and Joyce, yet Kinsella treats him as a poet too, but barely. And what of his own generation, since Kinsella is a poet of no mean accomplishment himself? Surprisingly little comment, except to differentiate himself from Seamus Heaney, whom he places as a Northern Irish Catholic, a rather limited provincial identity for a winner of the Nobel Prize. Disallowing Swift and Goldsmith in the eighteenth century as English colonials, treating Irish poets of the nineteenth century as romantic versifiers, glossing over most twentieth-century Irish writers, Kinsella is left finally with Yeats and Joyce to form the two halves of a “dual tradition.” Since they are neither Irish nor English but Anglo-Irish, Kinsella’s argument seems self-defeating: it has not establiished a tradition based on two languages so much as a tradition based on two great writers.

M. L. Rosenthal (review date Fall 1996)

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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, of two dual traditions. The first was created by the overlay of Christianity on an originally “pagan” culture. The second, now dominant, comes from the subordination of a Gaelic-speaking people by the military power and the language of the English invader.

All this is in a broad sense common knowledge. But Kinsella, speaking out of close attention to the slow unfolding of Irish poetry in both languages, breaks down familiar generalizations into important, unfamiliar particulars. He offers a politically sensitized historic overview that nevertheless reflects a poet's primary concerns. He has pondered Yeats’s complaint that Ireland is “a community bound together by imaginative possessions” hard to communicate because so very few writers, or people generally, are “born to” the Gaelic any longer. The Dual Tradition accepts Yeats’s premise and acknowledges the problem, but goes on to describe the warring phases of poetic development as an irreversible reality Irish writers must (and do) cope with as best they can.

In so doing—especially in tandem with the Oxford anthology—the book becomes an invaluable guide. The two volumes form the basis for enlightening study, whether on one’s own or in a classroom. But Kinsella’s main critical purpose is to clarify, through empathy with the psychological pressures underlying individual poems, the accumulated components revealed in Ireland’s poetry. He is fascinated by key points of crisis: e.g., when native Irish poets felt the encroachments of Christian priesthood on the “pagan” world they had taken for granted; when the bards lost status because of the dispossession of their aristocratic patrons; and when British repression of the old Irish culture and speech completed their impoverishment and also transformed the people into colonials.

In this last context, Kinsella’s discussion of the inevitable need for publication and recognition outside Ireland by Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and later poets is masterful. And he is repeatedly eloquent on the whole existential tangle: “the dual state of things: the sullen Irish, dispossessed but refusing to disappear” while their “high and dry” conquerors long to feel “really at home.” The Dual Tradition is vitally revealing in the way it shows the real, violent way in which cultural and religious power-struggles have shaped the language and spirit of Irish poetry. It is also enormously suggestive—without saying a word on the subject—when one thinks about comparable issues in the poetic history of other countries. Cultural “unity” has been forged out of bloody conquest and repression almost everywhere, and the United States is hardly an exception.

Donatella Abbate Badin (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6908

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 pieces, reflecting dissatisfaction with his early production, the “pointless elegance” of which he resents.1

Many readers who were enchanted by the self-control of that first phase were put off by the appearance of Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972) and the first Peppercanister volumes that followed it.2 These works announced a new phase where the irrational and the incoherent seem to dominate. As of 1972, Kinsella started turning inwards to undertake a self-exploration along Jungian lines, which reached into the depths of the psyche and the mythical past of Ireland. The poems are apparently formless; the poet seems to dispense with rhythmic, structural, and syntactical modules and follows the free associations of mind and memory. Yet, thanks especially to the sequential form in which they are organized, lines of coherence appear even in these collections of poems; they are, in fact, an organic whole which shows close links to the concerns and thematic strains of the preceding phase.

There is no dramatic break in continuity between the second phase and the third, which is documented by the Peppercanister poems collected in Blood and Family (1988) and From Centre City (1994). The poems in these two collections are not as inward-looking as those of the preceding phase since the central persona is facing the social and cultural context rather than his or her psyche. Stylistically, Kinsella appears still to be engaged in his modernist search, although his poetry seems more accessible, even deceptively simple. But this is an illusion only: Kinsella does not return to formalist and traditional ways of expression, and he remains as elusive and demanding a poet as in the preceding phases.


Kinsella’s career is a complex yet coherent whole in spite of the plunge into the subconscious and the idiosyncratic style of the post-1968 phase. While the approach is different and the techniques more daring in his recent poetry, the content of his poems has always been, and still is, animated by a process of self-investigation and by the search for a point of stability in the face of erosion. A long meditation on what it means to be a poet and how poetry is elicited out of experience, constitutes the ruling continuity of his distinguished career. Similar situations, characters, and thematic concerns reappear in each phase, enriched each time by the significance they have acquired within the macro-text. Different imaginative contexts or stylistic approaches should not make us ignore the links and echoes between different works. A number of internal quotations from his own poems, in fact, underline their interdependency.

Repetition, indeed, is one of the features of Kinsella’s poetry, and the poet himself alerts us to this by focusing on the use of repetition in Mahler’s music: “the readiness … / to try anything ten times / if so excessive matter can be settled” (B&F, 44). To this day, Kinsella tries to make the “excessive matter” of his experience settle in poem after poem and sequence after sequence.


The main unifying factor in Kinsella’s long poetic career can be found in his search for order. The artistic act, as Kinsella has declared at various moments of his career, is a tool for “eliciting order from experience,” or from “significant data.”3 The ordering impulse dominates Kinsella’s poetic venture; it is apparent both overtly, in the abstract patterns, ordered sequences, symmetries, and formal designs; and, covertly, and much more effectively, in the image patterns of his poems. These patterns, suggesting “a bare possibility of order,” are in contrast to the equally idiosyncratic patterns of disorder, darkness, and decay linked to Kinsella’s constant perception of “dislocation and loss” on both the personal and the national planes.4

In commenting on Nightwalker and Other Poems, Kinsella gave a blue-print for his poetic project:

The first two sections of the book begin with certain private experiences under the ordeal, and follow with celebrations of the countermoves—love, the artistic act—which mitigate the ordeal and make it fruitful, and even promise a bare possibility of order.5

The constants of Kinsella’s poetic oeuvre originate in these two alternative expressions of his concern for order: on one hand, the “ordeal of life” with its attendant images of disorder, waste, darkness, and decay; on the other hand, the “countermoves” of love and the artistic act with their patterns of positive images. The two poles affect both subject matter and textual strategies, and even more so the basic plot of Kinsella’s individual poems and sequences of poems.

This concern for a patterned order, together with the images that most often convey it, emerges from the epigraph to Downstream, which describes a sort of prime moment in creation and human experience:

Drifting to meet us on a darkening stage
A pattern shivered: whorling in its place
Another held us in a living cage
Then broke to its reordered phase of grace.(6)

These lines provide the key to a coherent reading of the different volumes. An attempt to grasp the structure of order underlying apparent chaos, and to obtain a brief glimpse of understanding or a momentary sense of identity, is temporarily rewarded and then inevitably defeated by the spirals and destructive eddies of events. The anguished and frustrated poet, confronted with a new formlessness, is spurred to resume his search for that elusive “reordered phase of grace.” It is this basic, unresolved cycle that the student of Kinsella’s work must bear in mind when faced with the otherwise baffling diversity of the poems and their marked changes in style.

In the prologue to Nightwalker (1968), the author expressly declares that his poetry is dictated as much by “the shambles of the day” as by the “will that gropes for structure” (SP, 85). “Shambles” and “structure” are the two semantic cores around which consistent thematic and imagistic strains cluster. These provide a most impressive instance of continuity, and are to be recognized in the permanence of certain themes—the most obvious ones being “love, death and the artistic act” (Deane, 89)—and, more especially, in the recurrence of certain webs of images and certain metaphors, and in the similarities in the textual strategies adopted; as the present author has extensively demonstrated elsewhere.7

These instances are rooted in the dichotomies of order / waste or shambles / structure, and show Kinsella’s oeuvre as an “ongoing project, with each installment offered to the public as a work-in-progress,” as one reviewer wrote.8 Each volume, in the eyes of another reviewer, constitutes an “accretion to an extraordinary enterprise.”9 To put the accent on continuity has become an axiom of criticism on Kinsella.


Kinsella’s poems display a great variety of poetic forms and a narrower range of subject matter, contained within the limits indicated by the poet as the “ordeal of life” and its “countermoves,” and conveyed by repetitive patterns of images.

The way the human race, confronted with the many personal and public problems that beset it, arrives at “some kind of understanding” (be it through love, the artistic act, or a simple immersion into darkness) is the chief theme of Kinsella’s poetry at all stages.10 He perceives life as a process of continuous loss and waste, out of which the self must shape its identity; it is a “cup of ordeal” (“Phoenix Park,” SP, 104) which must be drunk in order to find what lies at its bottom. The characteristic plot of Kinsella’s poems is a confrontation with darkness, waste, or suffering followed by a brief moment of self-realization.


Autobiographical experiences are the mainstay of Kinsella’s poetry since it is out of them that the poet extracts the instances of the ordeal, as well as the reasons for the countermoves on which his metaphysical constructs and his intimations of order rely. All through his career, Kinsella has made poetry out of the raw material of his personal life, responding to the various events with a continuous stream of writing although he admits that he cannot handle “day-to-day information” the way Pound handled “so satisfactorily what happened to him” (Fried, 6), and feels shy about mythicizing himself the way Yeats did. “I see poetry,” says Kinsella, “as a form of responsible reaction to the predicament one finds oneself in. If a person has this impulse to record the important situation, I believe that is required. I’ve no idea what use it is. But I know it has something to do with continuity, with trying to compensate for the limited life span of the individual and things of that kind. It is essential to get the matter recorded and then disappear” (see appendix, p. 199).

Each of his volumes contains a number of poems on the development of self and on significant family or love relationships. Some compositions dealing with exemplary or monitory figures from his own entourage, or from his cultural and historical background, are also present in each of the main volumes of his production. Yet Kinsella never quite abandons himself to the full, documented, and factual song about himself. A natural reticence keeps him from a full revelation of personal circumstances and makes him choose oblique ways of confession: poetic personae, pathetic fallacies, metaphors, and even allegories. The factual data are sublimated out of recognition. Reticence, indeed, is the keynote of his personal poetry even when underpinned by naturalistic details.

Poetry, to Kinsella, is a continuous rumination on life rather than a revelation of circumstances. “I opt for poetry as an accompaniment [to life],” he says, “and work on significant memory, on data that refuse to go away, so as to make sense of relationships, including family relationships, in developing a sense of history and what history is for. And finally, using history as a device, an aid toward understanding” (Fried, 7).


History, myth, cultural tradition, and the public sphere are, however, also part of the poet’s “significant memory,” especially in what the poet calls their “private uses”; that is, the integration of the public within the fabric of the personal. The constant allusions to his cultural and historical context, and the presence of many Irish motifs, give the lie to the impression that Kinsella is only a personal or self-reflexive poet, who is detached from Irish concerns. The public sphere is a cause of dissatisfaction and invective in the many satirical poems of the early and late Kinsella, but love for Dublin and for the land transpires from many of the urban poems. History and myth are sources of subject matter in themselves or objective correlatives of personal modes of being. The same two elements which characterize the personality of the poet—privacy and public commitment—are, in fact, also present in Kinsella’s poetic career from its very beginning.


Both the personal and the public spheres are sources for instances of the “ordeal”: harrowing experiences such as facing spiritual and physical suffering, being confronted with the death of someone one loves, or facing one’s own mortality. What Kinsella, in a poem, calls “love’s difficulty”11—misunderstandings, separation, disappointments—provides, predictably, another source of inspiration. At one stage the ordeal is that of plumbing one’s psyche; at another, it is that of confronting public vexations, ranging from economic policies to political injustice and urban destruction. Kinsella’s self-reflexive inclination makes him repeatedly dwell on the anguish of writing and on questions related to its purpose. Finally, traveling and exile are quintessential Irish themes which appear repeatedly.


The paradigm of the voyage, indeed, is a time-honored allegorical device often adopted by Kinsella to represent the confrontation with the ordeal. Kinsella’s voyage poems, which take the hero through many vicissitudes toward a single goal (the recognition of identity or of a pattern of order in reality), are shaped as Joycean peripatetic Odysseys or old Irish voyage poems (imrams). Among these are A Country Walk,Downstream,Nightwalker, and even, partially, Phoenix Park. At a later stage, the voyage takes the shape of a descent into the underworld, after the paradigm of Dante’s Inferno. This underworld may be a psychic one (the subconscious world of the poems of Jungian exploration; for example, Notes from the Land of the Dead,One, and Songs of the Psyche) or, in the later poetry, an urban one (From Centre City and Open Court).

All the voyages imply a quest through ordeal and, in the more optimistic ones, a temporary reward, such as, in Downstream, the return to a “reordered phase of grace.” A momentary sense of understanding, implied in the perception of a design or the achievement of some form of union, represents the climax of Kinsella’s typical initiatic voyages.


While traveling is the arch-allegory for facing the ordeal of life, the landscapes traversed supply the imagery pervading Kinsella’s poetry. The realistic landscapes of the early works and the archetypal or symbolic ones of mid-career, both yield recurring images related to waste. Rotting matter, excrement, dust, and ruins accompany the traveler toward the reward for Kinsella’s typical initiatic quests.

Although the aim of Kinsella’s poetry is to catch a glimpse of order, the poems are dominated by its opposite. An amazing number of images—indeed entire poems—inspired by the themes of disintegration, disease, and waste are the counterparts to a fragmented sense of self and history.

Hardly a house stands upright and intact when Kinsella’s imagination turns to the traces of man in urban and rural settings. “King John’s Castle” is in ruins; chicken wire surrounds Coole Park razed to the ground (“Magnanimity,” SP, 80); royal Tara is reduced to dung-covered mounds (“Tara,” NOP, 24). Kinsella’s last look at Dublin, in “Phoenix Park,” reveals a city where “dead men, / Half hindered by dead men, tear down dead beauty” (SP, 108). The frequency of such images reflects an obsession that goes well beyond the many ruins actually present in the Irish landscape.

These crumbling buildings may also be seen as oversimplistic synecdoches for the “broken tradition” and the mutilation due to “the death of a language,” which are part of the significance of the past.

The awareness of decay, which is central to Kinsella’s perception of the urban and natural worlds, also affects his view of man. The poet is particularly responsive to failing powers or to outright disease. His father is remembered “supine, jutjawed and / incommunicable, privately / surrendering his tissues and traps” (“The Messenger,” B&F, 8); his wife, “brilliant with illness” (“Phoenix Park,” SP, 102); his dying grandmother is recognized through the “smell of disused / organs and sour kidney” (NLD, 20). Kinsella can rightly say of his world: “there’s a fever now that eats everything” (“Phoenix Park,” SP, 102).

Decay and death color Kinsella’s relationship with both his familial and cultural forebears. A sense of waste and stark horror accompanies the commemoration of his literary and artistic masters, who are evoked as diseased or dying: the poet Egan O’Rahilly, with “red eyelids” and “the shrew his stomach” (“The Poet Egan O’Rahilly, Homesick in Old Age,” SP, 81); the musician Sean O Riada, associated in death with a rat killed during the excavation of his grave; Yeats abandoned to the inquisitiveness of critics and biographers like a carcass abandoned to preying animals. Elegies dominated by horror rather than consolation, as a matter of fact, abound at all stages.

The search for order must begin with its negation. The image of waste is but one of the poles between which Kinsella’s poetry moves. An equally distinctive aspect of his poetry is the countermoves, and the positive images that accompany them, which represent the quester’s reward. The two sets of images and themes are the carrying columns of the hidden architecture of his poems.


Epiphanies of order are conveyed either by positive sensorial images or, thematically, by such fruitful experiences as love and the artistic act. Both kinds of epiphanies are supposed to give access to understanding and a sense of identity, which are the two declared aims of Kinsella’s poetic enterprise.

Love, termed in “Phoenix Park” as “the one positive dream” (SP, 102), appears in many poems as the only way to oppose waste. It is something through which human beings grow and “understanding may be gathered” (“Nightwalker,” SP, 96). Yet, even from the beginning, love is not idealized; there is a continued awareness of “love’s difficulty.” Kinsella’s love poetry, too, like his travels, revolves around two extremes.

Kinsella’s first volume, Poems (1956), was an act of courtship to his future wife, who was made to appear both as a woman and as a muse. Later on she became the symbol of femininity, whose ability to trust her senses and intuition he hailed, exclaiming “Everything you know you know bodily” (SP, 102). In his Jungian phase, female qualities are the submerged element searched for in the quest for “individuation,” which in Jungian psychology is the discovery of one’s hidden, unique, and true self. Love understood as solidarity between man and woman animates the more recent poetry.

A distinctive aspect of Kinsella’s poetry at various stages of his career has been its metapoetic nature. By returning repeatedly to the topos of the work of art—and by turning into subject matter the difficulty of expressing what is inexpressible—he has been conducting a long poetic reflection on the nature and function of poetry. Besides the many poems which discuss the artistic act directly, there are also several portraits of fellow artists who become specific masks through which Kinsella analyzes his commitment. Poetry, as he said to Peter Orr, is an instrument of “detection of the significant substance of the individual and common past.”12 Yet from the beginning of Kinsella’s career, the “attempt to hold things in place,” so earnestly maintained in his prose, is seen in an ironic light in his poems. Ironic self-images or self-deprecating poetic personae appear at all stages of his lifelong reflection on poetry. At times he chooses to represent the artist as a modest, methodical craftsman ordering his desk, in “Before Sleep”; or, in the prologue to Downstream (“I wonder whether one expects”), as a habitue of “the morning train, / The office lunch” (SP, 41); or as a clownish ringleader mustering his “bored menagerie” while “Futility flogs a tambourine” (SP, 41). In “Worker in Mirror” the artist has “the flashy coat, the flourished cuffs” and “floppy flower” of the stereotypical representations of artists.

In “Baggot Street Deserta,” poetry is:

Interpreting the old mistakes
And discords in a work of Art
For the One, a private masterpiece
Of doctored recollections.

(SP, 26)

Yet under the stance of self-deprecation, typical of the twentieth century, there are glimpses of the prototypical figure of the Orphic-inspired artist, as when he promises himself: “in the morning I will put on the cataract, / Give it veins, clutching hands, the short shriek of thought” (“Before Sleep,” SP, 79).


The recurrence of clusters of words grouped around common semantic centers characterizes Kinsella’s poetry and constitutes one of its elements of continuity. These patterns of images, both of a positive and a negative nature, present themselves in poems far apart from one another in everything else, and constitute one of the characteristic aspects of Kinsella’s poetry.

In the many initiatic voyages of Kinsella’s poems, the traveler goes through darkness, decay, confusion, and fragmentation—a whole register of undesirable situations—to be allowed a brief encounter with more desirable signals: tastes, perfumes, patterns of light, and organic tissues.

In the work of a poet who defines the desire for understanding in terms of that prime Irish metaphor, hunger, it is not surprising to find that sensations of taste play a major role. Vague or clearly defined tastes and smells signal visionary moments. “A tang of orchards” announces the apparition of the Muse in one of the first poems composed by Kinsella (“Night Songs,” SP, 11). Images connected with taste are too numerous in each volume to be listed. “Brief tongues of movement / ravenous, burrowing and feeding,” are rewarded, in “Ely Place,” with “After lunch / A quarter of an hour at most / of empty understanding.”13 The group of images related to taste and eating is indeed a distinctive aspect of Kinsella’s poetry.

Kinsella also uses his other senses—hearing, touch and sight—for evoking images of unity and the discovery of a structure. Music plays a fundamental role in signalling a harmonious unity, especially in the poems inspired by the musicians he admired. John Scotus Eriugena’s concept of polyphony is the key fiction to which all of Kinsella’s quests tend:

                    that the world’s parts,
ill-fitted in their stresses and their pains,
will combine at last in polyphonic sweet-breathing

(“Out of Ireland,” B&F, 61)

But it is sight that provides the most obvious group of images expressing an epiphany, as the Greek root of the word implies.14 It is often nighttime in Kinsella’s poetry; a nighttime replete with stars, moonlight reflections, lamps and lampposts, beams and lighthouses. Verbs such as “glitter,” “glisten,” “glare,” “glow,” and “flicker” are among the most frequently used words in Kinsella’s vocabulary. A vision of constellations is the privileged way for conveying a pattern of order. As the search for identity and the search for individuation come together in Kinsella’s Jungian phase, organic symbols of growth and completion such as eggs, embryos, crystals, or pearls announce that waste may reveal at its heart not only order but also an organic sense of accretion.


The search for order, which is at the origin of Kinsella’s imagistic patterns and the dialectical structure of his poems and sequences, also determines his choice of rhetorical strategies. Often a poem is based on the description of an ordered sequence, or of routines and rituals which act as synecdoches to prove that laws of order are at work in the reality around him; even when shapelessness, chaos and decay seem to dominate. Such are the nighttime routines described in “Before Sleep,” and the ritual of making tea in the opening poem of Notes. Both devices are a mise en abyme of the poetic act as an order-imposing one, tinged, however, with ironic skepticism as to the actual possibility of an artistic construct really inducing order.

A number of specific recurrent metaphors in Kinsella’s poetry signify the search for identity. Tropes related to hunger, drinking, and eating are the central ones of Kinsella’s middle years, closely linked to the “cup of ordeal” metaphor which appears in full force in “Phoenix Park”:

The ordeal-cup, set at each turn, so far
We have welcomed, sour or sweet.
.....Look into the cup: the tissues of order
Form under your stare.
.....Laws of order I find I have discovered
Mainly at your hands …
.....That life is hunger, hunger is for order,
And hunger satisfied brings on new hunger
.....And I taste a structure, ramshackle, ghostly,
Vanishing on my tongue.

(SP, 104–6)

Drinking and eating in an actual or metaphoric sense often lead to perceptions of self and pattern even if the result is partial and temporary.

A central figure in Kinsella’s poetic world is that, suggested clearly in “Phoenix Park,” of “A blind human face burrowing in the void / Eating new tissue down into existence,” or of a snake sucking “at triple darkness” (SP, 105, 109). Many of the poems of Notes from the Land of the Dead and One and Other Poems are centered on a primordial, never-satisfied hunger. The reciprocal preying of creatures in the natural world (owls, serpents) represents the destructive process necessary to obtain a new identity through the integration of elements submerged in the unconscious. Asked about this in an interview, Kinsella commented:

[T]he act of eating [is] an image of what goes on in the experience of reality. You are presented with the scraps, the disordered, and you absorb it, process it, and it is absorbed, with some relationship with an idea of order. That is eating and also digesting.

(Fried, 16)

Mirrors also appear frequently in Kinsella’s work—even in such titles as “Mirror in February” (1962) and “Worker in Mirror at his Bench” (1973)—as essential tools of the process of self-recognition, as well as of the self-reflexivity of the metapoetic exercises.

For much of Kinsella’s career, allegory provides an ample structure of order; whereby a senseless, random experience acquires sense, point by point, through an implicit equivalence with the more ordered experience of the cultural model chosen. Kinsella’s allegorizing habit goes back to Dante, Shelley, and, more recently, his acknowledged model, Auden, who often used this device, even while deflating it ironically. The author’s elusiveness and reticence find a precious tool in allegory, which, in John Whitman’s definition, is “an oblique way of writing” concealing “many of its secrets.”15 By favoring a technique that foregrounds its will to conceal, and dramatizes the opacity of language and its need for a key, Kinsella expresses an inherent pessimism in language.

Kinsella’s poetry is repetitive, and it grows by accumulation and resonance. His poems follow the same itinerary, moving from waste and confusion to a brief moment of understanding, or a “provisional” structure of meaning. His material often generates such an enlightening vision, whether he deals with autobiographical material or elements outside himself, such as historical and mythical figures or ones from his personal entourage. Yet at times the pattern would hardly be recognizable unless one brought familiarity with his poetry to bear.

Often the positive moment becomes a celebration of the capacity of poetry to transform waste imaginatively into a positive linguistic construct. The “glory” of the modern poet, writes Kinsella in “Poetry since Yeats,” lies in his “articulate, order-imposing” search, which is ultimately a search for a poetic language.16 His quest for order and values is essentially linguistic. The tissue he has been trying to perceive is a fabric of words, rather than a transcendental or abstract tissue. He is seeking the ordering process of imagination. The web of images we have examined is capable of translating into words his vision of the desperate human condition, his concept of life as endurance, and, particularly, the relationship between the two. Writing poetry implies denying waste and disorder.


While Kinsella has remained faithful to his early themes and imagery, in the course of his career he has conspicuously altered the textual strategies he has used. These too are dictated by the two alternative expressions of his poetic concern—the disorder evoked by the “ordeal of life,” and the positive images corresponding to the “countermoves.” Thus, when, as in the first phase, disorder and disintegration dominate his poetic universe, he is most concerned in creating a sense of stylistic order. But when he believes that a principle of abstract order is inherent in his apparently fragmented universe, the tissue of his poetry is at its most ragged.

The greatest change in Kinsella’s poetry, which creates an impression of discontinuity, thus, lies in its diction, structure and prosodic aspects. In the 1956–1968 phase, Kinsella exorcised disorder by foregrounding external order through his use of traditional forms and regular prosodic patterns. In his early years, Kinsella was, indeed, quite a virtuoso in the use of external forms of order. The first voice Kinsella forged for himself was precious, elegant, and conservative in form. Yet even his early poetry shows a wide range of experimentation within traditional parameters, alternating from the predictable to the striking. From sonnets to ballads, from blank verse to rhymed and unrhymed terza rima, and, eventually, to free verse, Kinsella explores many forms; familiar or of his own design, cosmopolitan or Irish, in a show of bravura which he now rejects as “unnecessary.” Even at his beginning, in fact, he was aware of the clash between the grace of forms and the ungracefulness of the experience. Increasingly, grating notes, odd rhymes, and indecorous images disturbed the decorum of his poetry, until he altogether discarded the external order of the “well-made poem,” considering it insufficient to resolve the discontinuities and conjure up structure. In various interviews, he revealed that he felt “the strict forms were borrowed and imposed.”17

By the time he came to write Nightwalker and Other Poems, Kinsella had mostly abandoned end-rhymes, and his versification was drifting towards more flexible semiformal solutions. He adopted not only free verse and “the open sequence,” but also fragmentation and disorder used as expressive strategies. By the 1970s his experiments with free verse had become extravagantly untraditional. With Notes from the Land of the Dead, the formalist Kinsella seemed to have adopted formlessness as a device, and his poetry appeared shockingly free, even while still seeking musical effects through internal phonic associations. Starting with Nightwalker and Other Poems in 1968, and confirming the trend in Notes from the Land of the Dead in 1972, Kinsella reacted to waste in personal life, and to the dispossession of Ireland and the world, by refusing poetry as “music or mimesis for its own sake” (O’Driscoll, 65) and by foregrounding obscurity and lack of pattern (the negation itself of order) as significant devices—mimetic and ordering acts themselves, in a way, but of a more complex nature. The ordering function devolves on the reader since “communication that needs no completion,” says Kinsella, “is a waste of time.”18

More recently, the poetry of the late Peppercanister pamphlets has been characterized by composure and simplicity. There are no exhibitions of bravura as in the early phase, nor of daring avant-garde technique as in the poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kinsella, in short, has been steadily moving away from the running rhythms and regularities of his early attempts (the external patterns of order) and the syncopations of his middle phase, toward what G. M. Hopkins called “the rhythm of common speech.”19

A refusal of a unitary poetic language and a heterogeneous mixture of different voices and stylistic levels, characterizes Kinsella’s oeuvre and makes it an example of a Bakhtinian heteroglossic text. Rapid switches—sometimes within the same line—from Latinate to Anglo-Saxon lexis, or from a colloquial and demotic style to a more formal and literary diction, bring about an element of surprise and defamiliarization. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he alternates between high-flown bardic tones, or a language of trance, and a diction drawing on contemporary usage with many deflatory, bathetic terms. Even when his poetry was most structured, he tried to obtain contrapuntal effects by seeking the interplay of regularity and irregularity; of lyrical and musical effects against flat and grating sounds. An element of surprise has always been present in his poetry at both the aural and the semantic levels. This characteristic has been noted by Hugh Kenner, among others, who calls this “the Kinsella Effect: an irruption of darkness and violent enigmatic language” into “recognizable experience.”20

All this makes for the complex musicality and notable difficulty of his texts. In spite of the many rhythmic and metric experiments in the early work, and the musical patterning of the longer poems of his later production, Kinsella’s poetry does not appeal directly to the ear but rather to the mind or the eye.

The lack of musicality is one of the many elements which makes Kinsella’s poetry challenging and daunting—a problem which the poet makes no bones about, as he expects total commitment from his readers. Kinsella’s difficulty goes well beyond the modernist technique of loosely putting together his texts. His poetry presents a number of characteristic strategies which put high demands on the reader.


The chief causes of difficulty are a tendency to abstraction, the density and layering of his diction, the presence of defamiliarizing passages, the heteroglossia, and the intertextuality.

One specific device which distances the poems, by removing them from the personal to the general plane, is the absence of vital facts about the circumstances of the poem. The poems hint at precise events about which the poet gives little or no information. The reader is only offered fragments of episodes with no indication as to antecedents, or chronological and spatial location. Many of the portraits seem to refer to real people whose names, however, are withheld. Thus the reader is left guessing; unable to attach the poem with certainty to Kinsella’s biography, or to actual political and cultural figures or events. This incompletion defamiliarizes the poems and adds to their power, creating a sense of puzzlement and mystery in the reader.21

Intertextuality is another strategy which puts high demands on Kinsella’s audience, especially since he refers to other texts without giving any indication that he is doing so. Yet it is intertextuality which gives his poetry its peculiar stratification and allusiveness, allowing it to operate, to borrow George Steiner’s words, “in an echo chamber of motifs.” Steiner goes on to explain how essential intertextuality is for poets, but also how, paradoxically, it makes their work inaccessible to a modern public unable to understand the references. “Books … speak and sing inside books. … Thematic presences are, as in music, the instrument of economy. They shorthand the wealth and depth of adduced meaning.”22 Kinsella frequently recurs to this kind of shorthand, but often the complex resonances of his text are wasted on his public.

The allusions are not only to written texts, they are multimedial: music and musicians (i.e., O Riada, Mahler) are often evoked, and pictorial references are part of the subject matter. Illustrations and other visual elements become an essential part of the text. In “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again,” the poem’s closure consists of a pen drawing of an oval open shape. The picture is part of the text and alludes synthetically, with a single line, to zero, a broken egg, and a snake figure biting its tail (the uroboros); all three of which are central symbols of the sequence of poems.

The graphic presentation of the poems has also been an instrument of economy from the very beginning. Kinsella has made extensive use of graphological patterning—such as the switch to italics and other fonts, the use of capital letters, and the alternation of poetry and prose—as a strategy of signification. Paratextual elements have great importance in Kinsella’s shaping of longer poems and sequences. He turns to numbered divisions and subdivisions—mottoes, prefaces, epigraphs, illustrations, and even footnotes—to bring out the underlying structure to the eye. This is one more confirmation of the visual quality of Kinsella’s poetry.

The above are just a few of the devices adopted by Kinsella in his texts. A passage by Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish music, chosen by Kinsella as the epigraph to Out of Ireland, reflects his lifelong search for effective technical strategies which become, in the course of his career, increasingly unobtrusive and all the more refined: “the perfection of their art seems to lie in their concealing it, as if ‘it were the better for being hidden. An art revealed brings shame.’” (B&F, 58).


Kinsella has repeatedly dodged any questions of continuity in his poetry and has appeared embarrassed by much of what he wrote in his younger years. And yet the later work could not exist without the thematic and structural foundations laid in the early years. The work of Kinsella’s first fifteen years constitutes a sort of fertile terrain out of which grow the roots of the major poems of the late-1960s (such as “Wormwood,” “Nightwalker,” and “Phoenix Park”), which in turn are the founding stone of Notes. Out of this major group grow the tendrils that feed into the various Peppercanister sequences; many late poems appear as “revisitations” or rewritings of earlier ones.23 Moreover, phrases and symbols develop from book to book, and there is a mesh of recurring images that signal similar motifs and states of mind. This “system of living images,”24 as Kinsella terms it in the poem “At the Head Table,” provides signposts in an itinerary through the landscape of his poetry, which will guide the reader from phase to phase without making him lose sight of the poet’s main concerns.

Becoming aware of these continuities, and keeping an eye on cross-references, provides an effective tool which helps in understanding both the single poems and Kinsella’s lifelong aim in writing poetry. As we bridge the gap between one phase and another through a thematic approach, we are compelled to recognize, notwithstanding the idiosyncratic style of the post-1968 era, an inherent coherence and integrity in Kinsella’s poetic career.

Finally, Kinsella does not contradict himself. Whether through a web of images or through intellectual patterns—but always through a mastery of language—he is still trying to confront and acknowledge the “madness without” and the “madness within.”


  1. Question: “What is it you resent most about your early production?” Answer: “Pointless elegance. Let it earn its place as elegance, or beauty or whatever, but let the thing talk straight The poems that I’m most embarrassed by are the ones that have been most enjoyed, with rhyme and rhythm and beauty. … They are not necessary.” Conversation with the author, 14–15 August 1993 (Appendix, p. 195).

  2. The 1972 sequence was republished, with the addition of a few poems, as New Poems 1973 (Dublin: Dolmen, 1973) in Ireland, and as Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (New York: Knopf, 1973) in the United States. The Peppercanister chapbooks are collected in Fifteen Dead and One and Other Poems, covering between them Peppercanister pamphlets # 1–8. Peppercanister Poems, 1972–1978 (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 1979) contains a similar selection.

  3. Thomas Kinsella, “Omphalos of Scraps,” interview by Philip Fried, Manhattan Review 4 (Spring 1988), 15; hereafter cited in text.

  4. Thomas Kinsella, “The Irish Writer,” in W. B. Yeats and T. Kinsella, Davis Mangan Ferguson?: Tradition and the Irish Writer (Dublin: Dolmen, 1970), 215; hereafter cited in text as IW.

  5. Statement. Poetry Book Society Bulletin, no. 55 (December 1967).

  6. Thomas Kinsella, Selected Poems 1956–1968 (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973; London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 65. References to Kinsella’s early and mid-career poetry will be from this volume, when possible; hereafter cited in text as SP. References to poems not quoted in SP will be from the cumulative volume Poems and Translations (New York: Atheneum, 1961); here-after cited in text as PT.

  7. Donatella Abbate Badin, “‘Tissues of Order’: Image Patterns in the Poetry of Thomas Kinsella,” Annali di Ca’ Foscari 29 (1990), 5–26.

  8. Floyd Skloot, “The Song of Thomas Kinsella,” The New Criterion 8 (March 1990): 7.

  9. Tom Halpin, “Foundations for a Tower?” Poetry Ireland Review 35 (Summer 1992), 27–28.

  10. In James Vinson, ed., Contemporary Poets, 1975 (London: St. James; New York: St. Martin’s 1975), 834. Kinsella declared: “It is my aim to elicit order from significant experience, with a view to acceptance on the basis of some kind of understanding. Major themes are love, death and the artistic act.”

  11. “Soft to Your Places,” SP, 14.

  12. Peter Orr, The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1966), 106; hereafter cited in text.

  13. Thomas Kinsella, Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (New York: Knopf, 1973), 44; hereafter cited in text as NLD.

  14. EPI (phaino): show, manifest (V. Oxford English Dictionary).

  15. John Whitman, Allegory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)

  16. Thomas Kinsella, “Poetry since Yeats: An Exchange of Views” (Transcript of a Panel), Tri-quarterly 4 (Fall 1965).

  17. Dennis O’Driscoll, “Interview with Thomas Kinsella,” Poetry Ireland Review 25 (Spring 1988), 63.

  18. From unpublished conversation with the author.

  19. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Author’s Preface,” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th edition, W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1967), 49.

  20. Hugh Kenner, “Thomas Kinsella: An Anecdote and Some Reflections,” in The Genres of Irish Revival, Ronald Schleifer, ed. (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1980), 181.

  21. J. Hillis Miller notices this strategy in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, but certainly Kinsella has taken it to its extreme form. Cf., William Kerrigan and Joseph Smith, eds., Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 144–45.

  22. George Steiner, “Roncevaux,” in The Return of Thematic Criticism, Werner Sollors, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 299–300.

  23. Kinsella himself pointed out the link between Out of Ireland (1988) and Wormwood (1966). But the lifeline can be traced further back to “A Lady of Quality” (1956). Other strands of motifs can similarly be traced throughout his career, as the motif of the persona of the poem looking at himself in the mirror in several self-reflexive poems.

  24. Thomas Kinsella, From Centre City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 55; hereafter cited in text as CC.

Brian John (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4564

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 his present and ancient primordial history, and such investigations in turn bear closely upon the discipline of the artist and his literary inheritance. The search for structure to encompass meaning, whether within the self, the world of time and space, or the creative act itself, is compelling and necessary, even if, in the last resort, it must remain incomplete. Moreover, that search, while leading to understanding, also involves suffering and loss and demands sober self-scrutiny and unflinching integrity. In “At the Head Table” Kinsella offers through the familiar figure of the craftsman one more defense of his poetic purpose and strategy:

                                        I have devoted
my life, my entire career,
to the avoidance of affectation,
the way of entertainment
or the specialist response.
With always the same outcome.
Dislike. Misunderstanding.
But I will do what I can.

(FCC 54)

No other contemporary poet, it may be said, has submitted himself to a stricter regimen nor been subject to so much misreading: Kinsella’s comprehensive vision may be dark but it is not nihilistic; it may be grim but it is not negating. The poetry, while often making severe demands, requires a similar discipline on the part of the reader if the poet’s “reading [of] the ground” is to be followed. That is not to say that he has always succeeded: of the two longer poems in From Centre City, “One Fond Embrace” suffers from “spleen,” as the poet acknowledges in conclusion, despite his decision to delete the more personal references present in the 1988 version, while “Open Court” offers only disgust at and rejection of contemporary literary Dublin. It may be that Jonathan Swift, who brings Blood and Family to a close, is a major driving force in both poems; certainly Kinsella’s saeva indignatio is at its most excoriating in them. However, he is indebted, in addition to Swift, to another eighteenth-century satirical master, this time from the Gaelic half of the Irish dual tradition: Brian Merriman. The 1988 version of “One Fond Embrace” (OFE 1988, 13) specifically alludes to Merriman’s masterpiece, The Midnight Court; “Open Court” pursues the judicial analogue; and both longer poems in From Centre City seek to reproduce “the fierce individual energy” (TNOBIV xxvi) for which Kinsella has praised Merriman’s poem. In “One Fond Embrace” he draws upon an even earlier Gaelic model, of medieval curse poetry, to condemn the developer-destroyers (a suitably paradoxical title) of Dublin’s architectural heritage: “May their sewers blast under them!” (FCC 3). However, his own “modest proposal” to deal with Ireland’s continuing partition is especially worthy of his ancestral exemplar, Swift:

everything West of the Shannon,
women and children included,
to be declared fair game.
Helicopters, rifles and night-glasses permitted.
The natives to have explosive
and ambush and man-trap privileges.
Unparalleled sport
and in the tradition
—the contemporary manifestation
of an evolving reality.


Yet for all his mordant anatomizing of Irish hypocrisy and cant, his principled scourging of contemporary Ireland’s lack of principle, “One Fond Embrace,” like “Open Court,” does not show Kinsella at his most impressive: his strengths have always been more clearly evident when anatomizing the self, although in the last resort private and public evil are inseparable.

While John Montague criticized Kinsella’s early poetry for being insufficiently located in time and place, a criticism that I have argued is only partly valid, From Centre City illustrates how certainly Kinsella has made his Dublin neighborhood a fitting context for his continuing moral and aesthetic struggles to elicit order and meaning. Percy Lane, Haddington Road, and the Grand Canal serve to bring the poet’s story up to date, with the volume concluding in his latest home in Co. Wicklow. Kinsella, like Joyce, has managed to trace journeys through a Dublin both exact in its geography and convincing in its symbolism. In Kinsella’s case, the landscapes are also populated by the same collection of disparate anatomical parts which, from A Technical Supplement onward, the poetry has attended to—face, eyes, lips, mouth, throat, hands—as if the geographical might have its corresponding elements in human anatomy, with both needing some encompassing structure. Kinsella’s readers have learnt from previous volumes his need to pursue such anatomizing, and expect to find the poet’s scrupulous attention to what makes a thing work. By this time too such parts have acquired significance as the poet’s symbolism has gained in strength and resonance. Furthermore, From Centre City continues the poet’s practice of echo and allusion, whether in self-reflexive acts of intertextuality or in acknowledgment of past masters, so that his entire corpus might inform, clarify, and extend his present meaning and enable his distinctive drama to unfold in increasing complexity and comprehensiveness. Whether quoting from himself or from his ancestral literary mentors, Kinsella establishes important connections which, while sometimes broken or fragmented, nevertheless make possible an enabling structure. Such structures help to sustain and make sense of one’s identity, constitute one’s inheritance, and clarify one’s participation in an organic process that has its origins in the very beginnings of time and space but that bears irrevocably upon the individual life.

Hence, in “At the Head Table,” while addressing the woman-mother-muse figure—“the source of trouble,” as Kinsella ironically puts it—the after-dinner speaker describes “the lovely beaker / with the slim amphibian handles” that he has made. In the manner of other Kinsella artists, the speaker, in describing the beaker, also captures the nature of the creative process itself: the cup has caused him “the greatest trouble,” brought him “the craftsman’s stoop,” yet, reflecting perfection, amplitude, measure, precision, and plenitude, the artefact’s “vital decoration” is

 in fact a web of order
each mark accommodating
the shapes of all the others
with none at fault, or false;
a system of living images
making increased response
to each increased demand
in the eye of the beholder,
with a final full response
across the entire surface
—a total theme—presented
to a full intense regard:


The decoration reflects Kinsella’s purpose as a poet, his intent to weave “a web of order” and to construct “a system of living images” that require the reader’s “full intense regard.” With a sudden temporal shift, the poet brings his reader back once more to Amergin and the Sons of Mil, to the First People and the poet’s own origins, in part because The Book of Invasions has provided such a “web of order,” brought poet and reader “to a full intense regard,” but also because the occasion is Amergin’s famous first judgment in Ireland:

Nine waves out, a ship
lying low in the water,
battered from a journey,
the waves lapping around it
marked with the faint detail
of all the perils past.
The first firm footprints
emerging from the ocean …


Hence, with familiar self-deflation, Kinsella has the muse-mother hand down a more contemporary judgment—at best “A smile, dry and lipless”—when, with “stern features” and “lean arms,” she offers half-hearted acknowledgment of her poet-son’s limited achievement and his own contrary toast to “the Father” (Amergin). Equally characteristic also is the dance in which the limping poet—a further self-deflation—participates with “everyone in turn”: the phrase, as we have seen previously, denotes both inclusiveness and dynamic torsion or the “turn” in all things.

While Kinsella’s vision gains in inclusiveness, an essential feature of the process is nevertheless waste, a consumption that makes consummation possible. Consequently, in “One Fond Embrace,” those assembled around the protagonist’s Last Supper, another celebratory dinner, are advised:

Discern process. You know that,
mangled by it. We are all participants
in a process that requires waste.


The “waste” involves suffering and loss and accounts for Kinsella’s numerous wasted figures experiencing dispossession of identity or property or, more simply, having to enact rituals of departure. At times such waste seems simply negative—the hypocrisy, cant, deceit, begrudgery, selfishness, greed, conceit, common to public affairs and literary life. However, in “Night Conference, Wood Quay: 6 June 1979,” a poem written during the occupation of the Viking Wood Quay site in which the poet himself took part,2 the developers and the members of Dublin Corporation are described as “white-cuffed marauders” with “Visages of rapine,” intent on destroying a priceless archaeological site. The irony is manifold: the latter-day marauders uncover a Viking past characterized by similar rapine and violence; and those defying the site’s “development” possess only a “mental force” gained in part from their experience of evil, past and present, as they face the abyss revealed by the bulldozers: “The half-dug pits and night drains brimmed with matter” (25). At such times waste constitutes a considerable positive.

The dark abyss must be traversed and the waste confronted and endured as the individual self participates in or falls short of meaning and fulfillment. The recurrent mouths experience and share that appetite, just as the equally recurrent lips and throat enable the poet to articulate meaning. The woman-mother-wife figure continues her vital role as seductress, Terrible Mother, lover, and muse in everyday settings like the kitchen and the bedroom. Hence in “Madonna,” the several scenes describing the wife figure climax in the cutting open of an orange and the making of a pot of tea, actions which in Kinsella’s hands lead to epiphanies, illuminations into the nature of things made possible by the wife-muse:

Cut and fold it open,
the thick orange, honey-coarse.
First blood: a saturated essence
tasted between the teeth.
I held the kettle out high
and emptied it
with a shrivelled hiss
boiling into the scalded pot.
A stubborn memory:
her tender, deliberate incursions.


We are reminded not only of the boy’s consumption of a pomegranate in “A Hand of Solo” (NLD 15) and the persistence of appetite in Kinsella’s world, but of the conjunction of appetite, whether gustatory or sexual, and the muse-prowler with “her ‘sudden and / peremptory incursions’” (A Technical Supplement, Poem XV, One 45).

From Centre City offers many such resonances not because the poet, imagination exhausted, recycles old experiences and poems, but because such echoes embody the very process he seeks to define and capture. His readers have previously been made aware of how relevant the practice of his intertextuality is to embodying his view of process. Moreover, it is such intertextuality that establishes continuity with the poet’s past work, that serves to acknowledge past masters—Keats, Auden, Jung, Yeats, Ó Rathaille—and that in turn provides a defining and inclusive structure. In this respect the sensation of touch and the imagery of hands make possible in an explicitly physical way the connectedness of data. For “hands” indicate or signify; they touch, make contact, connect, confer, transfer, take in hand, and verify. Hands themselves embody intertextuality. In “The Back Lane,” for example, the poet-protagonist abandons his writing, leaves his work-room, and walks through the night “into the world of waste.” His distinctive prayer defines precisely the self’s quest for meaning:

Lord, grant us a local watchfulness.
                    Accept us into that minority
driven toward a totality of response,
and I will lower these arms and embrace what I find.
                    —Embarrassed. Encountering my brother figure.
Startled likewise, in that posture
of seeming shyness, then glaring,
                    lips set and dark, hands down and averted
that have dipped in the same dish with mine.


Hands and appetite come together in an act of near-sacramental relevance. Just as the prayer is quintessentially Kinsella, so too is the embarrassment, the undercutting with which the poem concludes as the “brother figure” (whom Yeats might more properly describe as his daimonic self) is both encountered and denied: “But it was no one I knew. …”

While he may seek through intertextual reference to structure his work into coherent wholes, Kinsella also recognizes past exemplars. Sometimes his recognition is oblique: in “Rituals of Departure” (18), Keats surfaces through Kinsella’s rearrangement of the “Ode on Melancholy,” in which Keats’s “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” becomes “Melancholy, retiring with her finger to our lips.” At other times, as in “Brothers in the Craft,” he returns to his beginnings as a poet in the 1950s, to the shadow of Yeats, and to the general principle of literary exemplars: “In the creative generations there is often / a conspiracy of the mature and the brilliant young, / a taking in hand, in hopes of a handing on.” Such inheritance is caught in imagery of the hand and, equally characteristically, the evolutionary process at work is of action and reaction, until “these settle in the medium in their turn.” The “medium”—meaning both “balance” and the “medium” of poetry itself—is attained through a synthesis or marriage of opposites. But it is a synthesis that maintains its own dynamic, as the ambivalent phrase “in their turn” suggests: the phrase refers to an order achieved or a circuit completed, but implicit also is a further “turning” in which the medium will be unsettled by its own perpetual torsion, and the whole business (or dance, as it is imaged elsewhere) once more set in motion. In the latter half of the poem the youthful Kinsella while prowling in Inchicore, pursuing his own dynamic, models himself more after Thomas Mann than Yeats—an acknowledgment of the German novelist’s early powerful influence—while the dead Irish poet’s presence or “animus” (an ironic conjunction of “soul” and “animosity”), pictured as perched Sweeney-like on a tree, is more keenly felt by Clarke in Templeogue than by Kinsella himself. Indeed, the “brothers in the craft” engage in conflict just as fratricidal, if less fatal, as that which Kinsella condemned earlier in “A Country Walk”:

Again and again, in the Fifties, “we” attended
Austin Clarke. He murmured in mild malice
and directed his knife-glance curiously amongst us.
Out in the dark, on a tree branch near the Bridge,
the animus of Yeats perched.
                                                            Another part of the City,
Tonio Kroeger, malodorous, prowled Inchicore.


Since the deaths of Yeats and Joyce (in 1939 and 1941, respectively), Irish poetry has had to come to terms with what Kinsella early identified as “the double shadow of Yeats and English verse.” We have seen Kinsella, like many of his contemporaries, turn to Joyce as the more liberating “Father of Authors,” finding Yeats’s major poetic achievement too dominating and his Anglo-Irishness inappropriate. What is especially striking about Kinsella’s latest work, however, is the reappearance of Yeats, now in the company of an exemplar whom Kinsella has long found more compatible: Aogán Ó Rathaille.

Kinsella had grouped the two poets together in a much earlier work, “The Irish Writer,” his 1966 MLA address in New York, in which he sought to define the particular nature of the Irish tradition and his own broken inheritance: “Yeats is isolated to begin with, like Aogán Ó Rathaille, at a turning point in history—there is a notable similarity in the way these poets regard their times: turning away from a miserable present and a terrible future to lament and celebrate an old nobility at the end of the line.”3 Moreover, as his recent statements indicate, Kinsella continues to reassess Yeats’s greatness as a poet and, as such, his place in and contribution to the dual Irish tradition.4 Indeed, rather than reacting against the older poet, Kinsella now appears to be engaged in assimilating him, with the late poems of Yeats taking on a more distinctly Kinsellan coloring. From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) onward, Kinsella argues, “there is an outbreak of understanding in the poetry of the place of violence and the random at the heart of vital processes”—an observation that might legitimately be applied to Kinsella’s own work. Furthermore, he criticizes the debate over Yeats’s rightwing, sometimes fascist, politics, not because he shares Yeats’s views, but because it is “a trivialisation of great intellectual and imaginative activity” and “the avoidance of great poetry in the pursuit of argument.” Rather, he sees in “Yeats’s last books … a man at the approach of death finding the place of violence and meaninglessness in man’s best efforts,” a paradox again fundamental to Kinsella’s own awareness of the real. As he has come to reevaluate Yeats’s achievement, so too Kinsella has increasingly acknowledged the older poet’s place in relation to his own work: his ancestry or inheritance, for all their essential differences, includes both Joyce and Yeats.

Kinsella praises the last poems of Yeats for, among other things, a “perspective of an Irish tradition, complete with murderous ‘strangers.’” In Yeats’s “The Curse of Cromwell,” for example, Kinsella notes the presence of

Cromwell in a line of murderous strangers; the levelling wind howling through the ruins of a tradition; and Aogán Ó Rathaille—the last major poet in Irish, a poet of the dispossessed, and a beggar in the time of Swift—vanishing with an echo out of his own last poem:

rachad ’na bhfasc le searc na
laoch don chill,
na flatha fá raibh mo shean roimh éag
do Chríost.
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride—
His fathers served their fathers before Christ
                    was crucified.(5)

Yeats and Ó Rathaille have come to constitute part of Kinsella’s poetic inheritance, an inheritance that has proved from the outset a matter of crucial significance. As we have seen, he has persistently striven to know “who he is and where he comes from”6—questions that, as a poet, touch upon his relationship with the Irish tradition and the several exemplars to whom he has turned for enablement and liberation.

Yeats appears most prominently in conjunction with Ó Rathaille in “At the Western Ocean’s Edge.” Distinct as the two men might be, they arrive at similar experiences from different sources, both coming to an understanding of the heroic nature. The poem may open by proclaiming one definition—“Hero as liberator”—in which the echo of Daniel O’Connell’s title suggests a public, political role, but it pursues a second, intrinsically tragic definition, of “the warrior marked by Fate,” whose struggle is internal, with his self. Certainly, Kinsella’s work has traced that same internal struggle to establish identity for himself and his people. One instance of such a hero is Cuchulain, who, Kinsella says in explicit reference to Yeats’s poem “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea,” “finding the foe inside his head, / … turned the struggle outward, against the sea.” In Cuchulain Yeats found an image of the conflict within himself and, in a battle Kinsella has himself continued in his own time, used the mythic hero “as a second shadow / in his own sour duel with the middle classes”:

Yeats discovered him through Lady Gregory
and found him helpful as a second shadow
in his own sour duel with the middle classes.
He grew to know him well in his own right
—mental strife, renewal in reverse,
emotional response, the revelation.


Yeats gives way once more, however, to another forebear, Aogán Ó Rathaille, a poet closer to Kinsella in both temperament and participation in the Irish tradition. Living in poverty in the Dingle Peninsula—“at the Western ocean’s edge”—in geographical, physical, economic, and cultural extremity, Ó Rathaille is brought to a similar revelation, taking on the sea in much the same way as Cuchulain. What Kinsella, like Yeats, finds praiseworthy is heroic endurance in the face of chaos combined with a persistent, contrary rage for order; he believes that this combination is at the heart of understanding and of the poetic or creative process. Ó Rathaille thus becomes an ancestral familiar, an exemplar whose work elicits the contemporary poet’s approval:

Aogán Ó Rathaille felt their forces meeting
at the Western ocean’s edge
—the energy of chaos and a shaping
counter-energy in throes of balance;
the gale wailing inland off the water
arousing a voice responding in his head,
storming back at the waves with their own force
in a posture of refusal, beggar rags
in tatters in a tempest of particulars.
A battered figure.
                              Any force remaining
held in waves of threat inside the mind.
As who can not confirm, that set his face
beyond the ninth shadow, into dead calm.
Dame Kindness, her bowels torn.
The stranger waiting on the steel horizon.


Ó Rathaille may be “A battered figure” (the Personal Places version read “wasted”): we know that in later years, dispossessed and living in internal exile, he suffered considerable poverty and hardship. At the same time we know, with Kinsella’s worker in mirror, that “The process is elaborate, and wasteful” and that “out of its waste matter, / it [the “work in hand”] should emerge light and solid” (NLD 56). We might question why Kinsella replaced the original adjective, “wasted”—so quintessentially a Kinsellan quality—with the more Yeatsian “battered.” It may be that the original, despite its precedents in Kinsella’s work, could too easily be misread as “squandered,” “spent,” “ineffectual”; “battered” certainly reinforces the Yeatsian analogue. In any case, Ó Rathaille, like Cuchulain or Lear, confronts chaos and, in suffering waste or battering, embodies the very process he seeks to understand. It may be that Kinsella has turned Ó Rathaille into an image of himself, much as Yeats did with his own personae. It may be also that the figures in the concluding lines—man as a beggar, Dame Kindness, and the ominous stranger—are a fusion of King Lear, Yeats’s tattered coat, and Auden’s Dame Kind and Stranger, with the last suggesting more a Cromwellian murderousness than the Stuart Pretender’s welcome return.7 But the argument is distinctively Kinsella’s. With all such exemplars, including Yeats, Kinsella has reached that degree of maturity in which he can assimilate without loss of identity.

Be that as it may, Joyce and others like Auden or Ó Rathaille remain more enabling voices, more compatible forebears than Yeats. It would be a misreading of Kinsella not to recognize that other exemplars have played a more explicitly positive and dominant role in his poetic development. At the same time, Kinsella’s own disclaimers at the outset of his career, his subsequent statements about Yeats and his isolation in the Irish tradition, and his most recent discussion of Yeats’s understanding of violence and the random, need to be put in the context of his own work, with its recurrent echoes of and parallels with the older poet. What is significant about these late poems, in addition to their intrinsic accomplishment, is that they show not only Kinsella’s continuing reference back to Yeats—references which in fact he never entirely renounced—but his gradual assimilation, even appropriation, of Yeats as a recognizable brother in the craft with whose inheritance he can now live comfortably, without fear of being swamped or overshadowed. That appropriation, I suggest, is itself a measure of Kinsella’s own poetic majority and achievement.

I have argued that Ó Rathaille comes to embody the very process he seeks to understand. Such embodiment is the heroic version of the aesthetic after which Kinsella as a poet strives. “I am looking,” Kinsella has declared, “for totality of imaginative response with the merely linguistic characteristics deleted so that one is brought closer and closer to the data.”8 His technical development—from the early lyrical poems, through the narrative and meditative poems of Downstream and Nightwalker, to the dense, intertextual, polyphonic later poems—has proved necessary in order more adequately to articulate the data. A poem thus becomes, like Ó Rathaille in “At the Western Ocean’s Edge,” an embodiment, in which the data’s “form and unity” and those of the poem itself most closely coincide. Samuel Beckett’s comment on Joyce’s Work in Progress—“His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”9—thus looks increasingly applicable to Kinsella. For much of his writing career, he has sought to exorcise the ghost of Yeats and, through the liberating example of Joyce, to evolve a style that accommodates the punishing integrity and inclusiveness of his vision. He has spoken out against “narrowness” of vision, whether that which “sees nothing beyond ‘Anglo-Irish’” or that which abjures “the English element in the Irish inheritance.”10 It is fitting, therefore, to see Kinsella writing at the height of his powers; embracing not just his long-standing exemplar, Joyce, but his shadow, Yeats; and, through the figure of Aogán Ó Rathaille, resolving, at least to his own satisfaction, the dual nature of the Irish tradition.

Such resolution, however, should not be misread as implying any continuity between the English and the Gaelic halves of the Irish tradition. “Nothing could be less likely. Ireland’s history discounts continuity of any kind,” he has pronounced flatly.11 Nevertheless, what Kinsella is drawn to and which he believed was exemplified in his edition, The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, is that “there is a poetic response to the complex of experience and it exists in two languages. The two bodies of response interact among themselves in some extraordinary ways.”12 The same interaction occurs in Kinsella’s bringing together of Yeats and Ó Rathaille, resulting in what he sought from the beginning: a poetry that can say and do anything, that responds in abundant, consummate, and convincing ways to modern experience. That in itself, I would suggest, is a major achievement and has made him an essential voice of our time.


  1. O’Driscoll, “Interview.” 65.

  2. An earlier version of the poem, entitled “Night Conference, 6 June 1979,” appeared in the ephemeral news-sheet, Wood Quay Occupation News, no. 2 (12 June 1979). For an account of the dispute and of Kinsella’s participation in it, see Viking Dublin Exposed: The Wood Quay Saga, ed. John Bradley (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1984).

  3. Kinsella, “The Irish Writer,” 62.

  4. “W.B. Yeats, the British Empire, James Joyce, and Mother Grogan,” Irish University Review 22 (Spring-Summer 1992): 69–79. Subsequent quotations are from this article.

  5. Ibid., 76.

  6. Kinsella, “The Irish Writer,” 57.

  7. King Lear, 3.4.28; W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”; W. H. Auden, “The Watershed” and “On This Island” (for “Stranger”) and “Sext,” “Dame Kind,” and elsewhere (for “Dame Kindness”), Collected Poems, ed. Mendelson, 41, 112–13, 478, 503–4.

  8. O’Driscoll, “Interview,” 65.

  9. “Dante … Bruno, Vico … Joyce,” in Samuel Beckett et al., Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Paris, 1929/London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 14.

  10. Kinsella, “Another Country. …” 178.

  11. O’Driscoll, “Interview,” 64.

  12. Ibid., 64–65.

Peter Sirr (review date 11 April 1997)

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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 recovery of spirit”.

This volume [Collected Poems, 1956–1994] collects work written over forty years, but it is typical of Kinsella’s fluid approach that he has substantially revised some of the earlier as well as the later work, continuing to engage with key poems like “Nightwalker”, “Downstream” or “From the Land of the Dead”. This seeing the whole project as a continuum to be re-entered and recast, according to what has been learned along the way, accords with Kinsella’s realization, in “Wormwood”, that “it is certain that maturity and peace are to be sought through ordeal after ordeal, and it seems that the process continues until we fail”. This is not as bleak as it sounds. The notion of persistence through ordeal also contains the enduring aesthetic of the search, of the process: “We reach out after each new beginning, penetrating our context to know ourselves.” This is a good description of Kinsella’s own method, and even if the knowledge which is reached out after only increases the knowledge of “our pain, indignity and triviality”, there is still a doubtful joy to be had in “the restored necessity to learn”.

In its preoccupation with its own articulation, Kinsella’s later poetry is a relentless search for order. The poems, in carefully orchestrated sequences, enact intensely private dramas, obsessively attentive to the footsteps of the self, yet they do so in structures so formal and in language so ornately stripped that it’s like looking at Keats’s urn: the artefact is public, minutely crafted, yet difficult: half its force and resonance lie in its encoded austerities. “At The Head Table” confronts this dichotomy. Its protagonist is a poet-craftsman, and the poem’s occasion is the offering of the finished vessel to a mother figure whose rejection of the gift is angrily anticipated from the start. His apologia pro vita sua can easily be transposed on to Kinsella’s own:

                              I have devoted
my life, my entire career,
to the avoidance of affectation,
the way of entertainment,
or the specialist response.
With always the same outcome:
dislike; misunderstanding.
But I will do what I can.

On this vessel is carved “a system of living images … / making increased response / to each increased demand / in the eye of the beholder”. This is what Kinsella’s poems are: oblique carvings, brief, stubborn, whose “full intense regard” requires a reciprocal commitment from the reader. Each image, each memory and rumination is subsumed into the governing impulse to find “a structure for [his] mess of angers”. If the poems are fragmentary, they are so within a definable narrative structure. They tell stories, each of which is minutely particularized, and the spaces in between, with their solitary and conclusive asterisks, are as much part of the stories as the texts. It is as if you’re being asked to bury yourself in that silence before proceeding to the next tiny moment which has grown out of it.

The sense of fragmentariness, of multiple voices jostling for attention, and the constant meshing of the intensely personal with legend and myth stem from Kinsella’s complex relationships with the surrounding culture. He is a public poet diverted into self-preoccupation and self-creation in part by his sense of a soured tradition, the lack of any meaningful continuity with the Gaelic heritage, and the balefully registered inadequacy of the social and political world he finds himself in. From the outset, Kinsella tried to find a way forward by actively repossessing the older, Gaelic tradition as translator, anthologizer and poet. The public anger of poets like Ó Bruadair or Ó Rathaille sits side by side with private and microscopic memory, issuing in the scathing satire of “Butcher’s Dozen”, his response to the Widgery Report, or in abrasive disdain of literary rivalries and pretensions, or the kind of political corruption that makes the poet want to throw pen and self down “and hang loose over some vault of peace”.

Denis Donoghue said of Wallace Stevens that “his category, his way of being in the world, is not knowledge but pleasure”. This assessment, reversed, might summarize the achievement of Thomas Kinsella. If the resulting work operates below the current pitch of our attention, we could do worse than adjust our antennae.

Willaim Pratt (review date Winter 1998)

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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 College on Dame Street, and Nassau Street as far as the Pen Shop, from which the book gets its title. At its best, it is evocative of Joyce’s Dublin, “when Mr. Bloom unclasped his hands in soft / acknowledgment. And clasped them. About here.” Indeed, so far as these few poems have any aura at all, it is the mixture of realism and fantasy that Joyce immortalized in his novel Ulysses. But here it is borrowed glory, not a new vision of Dublin, the most literary of all modern cities.

Given his earlier poetic achievement, why, one wonders, did Kinsella choose to put forth something as slight as The Pen Shop? Perhaps he wanted to dedicate a piece of his work “to the memory of M. L. Rosenthal,” as he does on the flyleaf, a sort of funeral wreath for an American poet-critic he admired, who had once done him a good turn by singling out his work for praise. Perhaps he thought a few more poems about Dublin, the subject of most of his earlier poetry, wouldn’t hurt his reputation. Perhaps. The reader familiar with his work, however, is bound to expect something more interesting from a poet capable of higher flights of imagination; thus Kinsella seems to be frittering away his talents in trivialities at this late point in his career, and neither Cuchulain nor Joyce would be amused.

Floyd Skloot (review date Spring 1998)

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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 modernity” by Heaney; “the most formidable presence in Irish poetry” by Seamus Deane; “perhaps the most seriously talented Irish poet since Yeats” by the critic M. L. Rosenthal; and “Ireland’s best living poet” by the critic Calvin Bedient. Clearly Kinsella has been widely respected, yet little has been written about him since the early 1980s and the work itself has been neglected. In a special issue of the Irish journal Krino devoted to the State of Poetry, Peter Fallon wrote that “the absence of Kinsella’s work from print leaves Irish poetry poorer.” Two years later, in an issue of Poetry devoted to the contemporary Irish, Dennis O’Driscoll wrote that Kinsella was “scandalously overlooked at present.”

Oxford University Press has now filled this void by publishing Kinsella’s Collected Poems 1956–1994. This ample volume at once reveals why this iconoclastic, rigorous poet had been shunted aside and why he belongs near the pinnacle of any list of major twentieth-century poets writing in English. It also enables weary readers to grasp for the first time the fullness of Kinsella’s lifelong project to “see how the whole thing works.”

At the outset, the very idea of a “collected poems” from Kinsella must be recognized as absurd. Something such as “Versions as of Today” would make more sense. Matters are always in flux with this poet, the work constantly being evaluated and rewritten. Kinsella habitually has revised poems between serial publication and inclusion in a book. Then numerous “finished” poems from the books were revised again for his selected poems in 1973. Thereafter, because of his distaste for seeing poetry used “as space filler,” Kinsella curtailed magazine publication and began issuing pamphlets periodically from his own press, Peppercanister; subsequently he revised these poems before they appeared in books from Oxford. Indeed, in an interview with John F. Deane in 1986, Kinsella said: “I have never seen why a poem need end absolutely with its final line. It can lie in wait, with the dynamics available.” True to this open-ended impulse, he has now rewritten and rearranged so many poems in Collected Poems 1956–1994, including many that already were revised several times, that the book feels oddly fresh for such a volume. A reader’s best approach is to abandon any sense of knowing what to expect, an effect that Kinsella would find delightfully appropriate, and to assume that the present book is subject to further change in the future.

Kinsella’s reputation was secured forty years ago on the basis of his early work as an elegant formalist, a traditional maker of shaped, concentrated verse of a deeply meditative sort. Structure and form were vital in his struggle to impose order on a world he saw as “blind turmoil.” In “Baggot Street Deserta,” when the poet at thirty speaks of his art as “a private masterpiece / Of doctored recollections” and declares that the act of writing “makes a virtuoso of the heart,” the emphasis is on the skill of the making. Influenced by Eliot, Auden, and Yeats, he then wrote poetry as High Art.

Typical of Kinsella’s virtuoso work is the anthology piece “Another September,” the title poem in his Guinness award-winning collection in 1958. A paradoxical meditation on love, it is haunted by the separation of natural from domestic life, and of feeling from thought. The poem opens with an exquisitely controlled six-line sentence that Kinsella will go on to exploit for its rich metaphorical possibilities:

Dreams fled away, this country bedroom, raw
With the touch of the dawn, wrapped in a minor peace,
Hears through an open window the garden draw
Long pitch black breaths, lay bare its apple trees,
Ripe pear trees, brambles, windfall-sweetened soil,
Exhale rough sweetness against the starry slates.

Assured of its traditional moves, extravagant in its lyric grace, “Another September” is poised and polished. Tightly rhymed, nicely balanced between abstractions and specifics, it is both rooted in place and utterly universal. “Another September” prefigured the classic of Kinsella’s early lyric period, “Mirror in February,” in which the freshly shaven poet turns from his mirror to see “the awakening trees, / Hacked clean for better bearing,” delivering their brute message of suffering. At his most powerful the young Kinsella saw mercilessly into his own heart and probed motives like a self-surgeon (“Pitiless, again I ply the knife”).

There was also a distance implicit in Kinsella’s craft, as there is in the craft of surgeons. In “Another September” that distance appropriately echoed the poem’s thematic concerns about the way consciousness “plants its grammar” and creates barriers to sensuous enjoyment. But in many early poems it was simply there, a compositional strategy rather than a coherent merging of structure with idea, a “heroic agenda” that the poet was aware of and sometimes mocked in himself.

Collected Poems 1956–1994 offers ample exposure to this early Kinsella, though many of the poems have now been stripped of their original gestural excesses. He gives us new versions pruned, “hacked clean for better bearing.” For example there is “Thinking of Mr. D,” about an angry old man at a bar, a tattered wreck but “still light of foot,” gossiping and sinking into his cautionary failure. A forty-line poem when it first appeared in the late 1950s, it was reduced for Selected Poems to 28 lines and is now a mere 15. Gone are the narrowing of Mr. D’s look “to the angry ember” or the “knot where hope’s perspective ends,” the elaboration of “what tangled woes fly open till his friends / And peers, the dead, kneel down and help,” all replaced by the simple “He sipped and swallowed with a scathing smile.” The poem “Night Songs” has shed an extraneous “Alas” that had escaped when he substantially revised the poem two decades ago; the four-stanza “O Rome” loses its second and its fourth stanzas entirely. Kinsella’s rejection of ornament and rhetoric, his urge to simplify, had made itself known long ago as his work evolved in new directions; now he is bringing everything into line.

This shedding of finish can be seen, as with time-lapse photography, in his poems of the 1960s. They get much longer, or begin to be presented in sequences especially as they focus on the subject of departures or changes, the surfaces loosen, and the grip eases. “The Shoals Returning,” which commemorates the death of a fisherman, speaks as well of what is happening with the poet’s art: “after fifteen years, / A new direction / Loosened the seed in the depths.” Though still readily accessible, these longer poems were moving toward a flexibility and inclusiveness that the earlier work never sought. “Nightwalker,” for example, incorporates not only Irish history and myth but economics, politics, literature, and journalism into its fabric, with a narrative flow propelled by association or intuition rather than story or pattern. Rhyme is gone, as are meter and syllable count. Here is the speaker, during his night-time Dublin stroll, encountering a newspaper headline and going off on a characteristic riff:

The soiled paper settles back in the gutter.
The New Ireland …
                              Awkward in the saddle
But able and willing for the foul ditch,
And sitting as well as any at the kill,
Whatever iron Faust opens the gate.
It is begun: curs mill and yelp at your heel,
Backsnapping and grinning. They eye your back.
Beware the smile of the dog.
                                                            But you know the breed,
And all it takes to turn them
To a pack of lickspittles running as one.

Kinsella was not alone at that time in turning away from his earlier practices. Many previously traditional poets (Wright, Merwin, Kinnell) metamorphosed into free-verse wizards, surrealists, or confessional poets, relaxing their diction, eschewing traditional prosody. But Kinsella may have been the only one to turn almost exclusively to the long poem, eventually viewing his work as one whole, evolving enterprise whose chief predecessor would be Pound’s Cantos.

Kinsella was then deciding to leave Ireland to move to America and was abandoning his career as a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance to be a writer-in-residence. These choices were chronicled in the climactic poem of his middle period, “Phoenix Park,” a poem of love and loss that, though rigidly organized into five-line stanzas of eleven syllables each, teems with external matters and figurative leaps. “The road divides and we can take either way” here resonates forward and backward through Kinsella’s life and work. He was embarking on an inward journey, one in which “the beginning / must be inward. Turn inward. Divide.” Instead of imposing order from outside, Kinsella wished to begin “eliciting order from actuality,” finding whatever was coherent in the material itself. Odd as poems like “Nightwalker” or “Phoenix Park” may have seemed, they were conventional in comparison with what was to come.

Kinsella in the 1970s, and steadily through the 90s, has produced work that has, as Seamus Heaney put it, “given up considerations of ‘the reader’s comfort.’” Intensely subjective, the poems emerged from a new aesthetic vision altogether, a Jungian exploration of inner depths, though their subject matter remained remarkably consistent with Kinsella’s earlier concerns about love, the poetic act, family and national history. “The Oldest Place” (1974), typical of his newer work, both enacts and is about the subject of psychic discovery. This is its opening section:

We approached the shore. Once more.
                                                  Repeated memory
shifted among the green-necked confused waves.
The sea wind and spray tugged and refreshed us,
but the stale reminder of our sin still clung.
We would need to dislodge
the flesh itself, to dislodge that
—shrivel back to the first drop
and be spat back shivering into
the dark beyond our first father.

The fragmentation being called for is also happening within the poem. Kinsella was seeking to allow nothing to come between the poet and his material, between things perceived and the perceiving self. Not only did he abandon meter and rhyme, but he abandoned narrative itself, explicit links between thoughts or feelings, finally even beginnings and endings. Drawing the reader into the communication loop, relying upon the reader’s immersion and involvement to complete the act, Kinsella became committed to changing the essence of how a poem worked. “Typically, there is a turning away,” he wrote in “The Messenger” (1978). “The Self is islanded in fog” and a sleep of sorts ensues. But then, in time, the dark matters of the psyche assert their claims, demanding to be faced, drawing the poet back into the world: “A dragon slashes its lizard wings / as it looks out, with halved head, / and bellows with incompleteness.”

There was unmistakable excitement generated in the work as Kinsella pursued his inward spiral. As he wrote in “A Technical Supplement,” a magnificent book-length sequence from 1976, “A few times in a lifetime, with luck, / the actual substance alters; fills with / expectation, beats with a molten glow / as change occurs; grows cool; resumes.” The poetry did seem to beat with a molten glow, emerging hot from the core. For example, the 1985 “Songs of the Psyche” opens with a touching backward look, rendered with crystalline clarity and intensity that the earlier Kinsella would never have attempted, preferring to distance himself by higher rhetoric and formal dexterity: “Why had I to wait until I am graceless, / unsightly, and a little nervous of stooping / until I could see // through those clear eyes I had once? / It is time. And I am / shivering as in stupid youth.”

For readers unprepared to meet Kinsella on his own terms the poems can be difficult to follow. Reading something like “Finistere,” with its “poolspirals opening on / closing poolspirals / and dances drilled in the rock / in coil zigzag angle and curl / river ripple earth ramp / suncircle moonloop” proved too much for some critics. They refused to go along with him, declaring, as Calvin Bedient had, that Kinsella had “brooded himself to pieces”—or objecting to what Edna Longley called his “dissonant experimentation.”

But dissonance, if that’s what it was, has a place—perhaps a central place—in the literature of our time. As does dislocation, dissolution, disease, and distrust, all those disses stemming from the Latin for “apart” or “asunder” that mark Kinsella’s cultural, historical and personal experience. This poet was following the modernist dictum of Making It New, with a vengeance, offering the entire body of his work as “a final full response / over the whole surface / —a total theme—presented / to a full intense regard.” Over time all the fragments began to come together again, fitting into “a web of order,” the poems building upon each other, like “poolspirals opening on closing poolspirals”; and the essence of Kinsella’s experiment revealed itself. The body of work is construed as an organic whole, everything connected, everything present. “I always remembered / who and what I am.”

With poems left open, their “dynamics available,” Kinsella was able to loop back and revisit earlier work—not just revising, as he did for Collected Poems 1956–1994, but commenting on or extending them in new poems which harken back in subject, reference, or mood to the love poems or family poems of his younger self. As he wrote in “Personal Place” in 1990, “there are established personal places / that receive our lives’ heat / and adapt in their mass, like stone.” These paradigmatic personal places were always the ultimate destination. Furthermore he finds patterns in contemporary experience that echo resoundingly with Ireland’s mythic past, or with its experience of colonialism, its fractured history in which “terrible things happened.” Finally the workings of the psyche, explored without barrier, yield coherences not only within the self, but between self and lover or parent and child, and among countrymen, and with the land itself.

In the poems of the 1990s, as though the hard work were done, the textual difficulties of the poetry begin to lessen and Kinsella seems to arrive at a place of relative peace and clarity, as in “One Fond Embrace”:

I leaned back and stretched
and embraced all
this hearth and home
echoing with the ghosts
of prides and joys,
bicycles and holy terrors,
our grown and scattered loves.

In 1973, in a poem entitled “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench,” Kinsella wrote: “I tinker with the things that dominate me / as they describe their random/persistent coherences.” When I first encountered this, I took the key issue to be what dominates this poet. The answer which appeared obvious then, was given clearly in 1991: desire to find “a structure for my mess of angers.” Kinsella’s lifework was about finding a structure for the essentially unstructurable. At first it was an imposed order that eventually was found lacking and replaced by a long process of uncovering the intrinsic structure of the thing itself. He found an apt image for his procedures in “The Furnace” (1987): “Intensifying, as iron / melts in the furnace / —intensified into flowing fire, // aching for a containing shape.” But now I believe an issue of equal importance concerns those random but persistent coherences, which perhaps forty years of his writing poetry have finally pinpointed. There are some things in this life that do cohere after all, however randomly. Identifying them—finding how self, family, nation, land, world, universe fit together, at least in the soul of Thomas Kinsella—has been an agonizing, sometimes isolating journey. Collected Poems 1965–1994 represents his findings to date. Read whole, it is a unique and indispensable contribution.

Kieran Quinlan (review date Summer 1998)

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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 esthetic excavation of a rural Ireland that was fast disappearing.

But Kinsella himself, by now an academic in the United States, was also becoming preoccupied with the Irish tradition and the fragmented inheritance that it represented. Like many of his predecessors, he began producing a series of translations from Irish Gaelic, the most famous of which was certainly The Táin, thus making the ancient sagas once more accessible and stimulating to a succession of Irish audiences. At the same time, however, his own poetry was increasingly difficult and obscure, taking a Jungian turn in its concern with obscure imagery and archetypes, and with fragmentation, and thereby losing him his original readership.

Then, suddenly, in the early 1970s, Kinsella reemerged briefly again with a style more naked and immediate than anything that had gone before. The shootings of apparently unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland by members of the British Army in 1972 brought forth “Butcher’s Dozen”: “I went with Anger at my heel / Through Bogside of the bitter zeal / Jesus pity!—on a day / Of cold and drizzle and decay.” The collection itself issued from Kinsella’s own Peppercanister Press, which he had founded in Dublin and from which he was to continue to produce several volumes that were esthetically pleasing but of limited circulation.

Kinsella remains, then, a somewhat enigmatic figure, driven by his own demons and always threatening withdrawal. Controversial in his perception of the Irish tradition and especially in his relationships with other Irish writers, he is nevertheless a major voice of the postwar years who now seems on the point of having his work reassessed and his proper status recognized. The present Collected Poems, which “contains virtually all his own poems written over the past forty years”—but not the translations—is to be welcomed as significantly assisting in that process.

Floyd Skloot (review date Summer 1998)

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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 moribund. Yeats had been dead since 1939. Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh, now recognized as poets of some accomplishment, spent the 1940’s and 1950’s virtually silent as poets, writing drama or journalism and withering with frustration or rage. There were no native presses; work published outside the country had little means of internal distribution and church censorship was the rule.

Poets beginning to write in the vacuum of 1950’s Ireland also came to their art from backgrounds vastly different from their contemporaries in America or England. They were neither scholars of literature nor apprentices hitched to literary mentors. There was no “scene.” Murphy spent most of his first decade in Sri Lanka, where his father was a British Mayor, and returned to live an island life, restoring fishing boats, on Ireland’s west coast for many years. Kinsella studied science, then left the university to work in the Irish Civil Service, ultimately completing a degree in public administration at night. Montague, widely traveled in America and Europe, came the closest to a typical literary education while doing brief stints at American universities, but was essentially a nomadic polymath stringing odd employment at embassies or newspapers or working on archaeological digs. They were all outsiders as well. Murphy is an “ascendancy Irishman,” a Protestant born in Ireland of English landowning stock; Montague, born in America, spent much of his early life away from Ireland; Kinsella, from a harsh working-class background, rose to become a figure of responsibility in the Irish Ministry of Finance, an administrator and economist rather than a literary insider.

The new Irish poets were an odd lot, then. But they brought a freshness and energy to the enterprise of writing poetry that produced something like a miracle. They helped found an Irish publishing house specializing in poetry—The Dolmen Press—not only to bring out their own work but to retrieve the work of the forgotten post-Yeats generation. They turned away from both the silence of Clarke and Kavanagh and from the great shadow of Yeats; theirs was a poetry of harsh engagement with contemporary reality and the savagery of Ireland’s past. It was also a poetry of international appeal. For the most part, it sounded new and rang true. From virtually nothing, these poets opened the way for their own accomplishment as well as for those who followed them: Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon. Now one can hardly subscribe to a literary journal without finding a special Irish poetry issue in the mailbox.

One of the most revealing documents of this renaissance, Thomas Kinsella’s Collected Poems 1956–1994, displays in full the author’s idiosyncratic sensibility. He comes across as addicted to change. This 337-page volume shows the restlessness of his style and his habit of constantly stirring up the same basic material. It exhibits his transformation from a formal poetry, driven toward full resolution of its materials, to work characterized by looseness of structure and open-endedness. It reveals his gradual movement away from the shorter lyric poem to longer narratives, then to sequences, then to book-length poems and finally to a unified whole that reaches back to its own beginnings.

The story line of Kinsella’s poetry is also one of change, about leaving his home, career, assumptions and the very goals of his writing. Yet the more he embraces change, the more he yearns to be free of its cycles and the inevitable failures of peace in the personal and the national realms, so that his search “continues till we fail.”

Kinsella has made a career of going his own way. His poetry, especially over the last thirty years, is quirky and innovative, unlike anything produced elsewhere in the last half century. It is less a series of discrete poems and books than a coherent entity, an “organic pot.” Poems refer to and comment on earlier poems, carrying forth the imagery and symbolism, altering meaning. Like Pound’s Cantos, Kinsella’s Collected Poems 1956–1994 is best read as “a poem of some length.” At the same time, it contains individual pieces of great accomplishment and power, though even these pieces benefit from the added resonance of their place in the whole.

In going his own way, Kinsella long ago ceased publishing his work in magazines, objecting to the idea of poems serving as filler between other things, but also recognizing that each new poem was essentially part of the overall project and more appropriately seen in that context. When he edited an anthology of Irish verse for Oxford University Press, he rejected all previous translations of poetry from the Irish and did the translating himself. He also assembled a collection of such eclectic choices that his anthology became a subject of loud controversy. He founded his own publishing house, Peppercanister Press, to bring out small collections prior to their inclusion in full-length books, allowing the chapbooks to function as installments of his ongoing work.

All this “going his own way” has cost Kinsella significantly in the politics of literary acclaim. An indication of this cost, as well as a resounding irony in light of his pathbreaking and genuine poetic achievement, is the fact that Collected Poems 1956–1994 was by-passed when the shortlist of candidates for the 1997 Irish Times literary prize in poetry was announced.

What engages Kinsella now, as he nears 70, is what engaged him at 40 and at 25: the eminence of waste, loss and decay, the certainty of bitterness and ordeal; the simultaneous drive toward and futility of human efforts for order. As he said in “Phoenix Park” (1968): “Life is hunger, hunger is for order, / And hunger satisfied brings on new hunger // Till there’s nothing to come.” Nevertheless, with his eyes wide open, alert to the facts, he has always managed to eke out hope somewhere—in love, despite its difficulty; in understanding, despite its darkness; in the continuity of personal or national history, despite the disruptions and horror at their cores; in the artistic act, despite its failure to provide answers. He is chieftain of “the human dark pierced by solitary fires.”

Here is Kinsella at mid-career and at his grimmest, in a kind of love poem of nine lines entitled “Remembering Old Wars” from the 1968 sequence Wormwood:

What clamped us together? When each night fell we
          lay down
In the smell of decay and slept, our bodies leaking,
Limp as the dead, breathing that smell all night.
Then light prodded us awake, and adversity
Flooded up from inside us as we laboured upright
Once more to face the hells of circumstance.
And so on, without hope of change or peace.
Each dawn, like lovers recollecting their purpose,
We would renew each other with a savage smile.

Dark as it is, and full of characteristic Kinsellian language, the poem is actually about endurance, about beginning again despite the certainty of failure. It is Kinsella in a nutshell, though the meat is not always quite this rancid.

New beginnings, “breaking and renewing energies,” are crucial to the Kinsella cosmos. Since everything—love, life, peace, order—inevitably end, the only source of hope is, as Kinsella says with characteristically mixed feelings in Songs of the Psyche (1985), “a series of beginnings / with feathery touches and brutal fumblings, / in stupefying waste, brooding and light.”

It is little wonder that a poet emerging at the time, place and under the circumstances in which Kinsella emerged would bring along certain baggage. Collected Poems 1956–1994 makes clear that for the first two decades of his artistic life, Kinsella seems to be an apostle for order in poetry. Perceiving the world as ruthlessly mutable, his every impulse is for structures to contain the chaos. Traditional techniques of rhyme, meter and stanzaic pattern dominate the early work; his poems are elegant structures, vessels of language and form. But with few exceptions, as Kinsella grew in assurance the early poems also act like unruly children in ill-fitting clothes. A reader senses Kinsella’s struggle against imposed ed order at the heart of these shapely poems and feels his urge to find a more intrinsic, truthful order in the material itself. He emerges as a rebellious formalist, mastering skills he would forsake. The gorgeously architectured “Another September” ends with a swipe at the intrusion of such artificial principles as justice and truth into matters of the heart; the carefully balanced “Mirror in February” turns upon the realization that trees need to be “hacked clean for better bearing” rather than kept symmetrical or neat, and that “brute necessities” do the same for man, rendering imposed structure and routine absurd.

An early gem in this mode is “Cover Her Face,” from the 1962 collection Downstream. A poem about the sudden death of a 29-year-old woman in Dublin whose family has come from the country to bring the body home, it opens with this stanza:

They dither softly at her bedroom door
In soaking overcoats, and words forsake
Even their comforters. The bass of prayer
Haunts the chilly landing while they take
Their places in a murmur of heartbreak.

Smooth stuff, but soon subverted. Though he works within the framework of poetic tradition, Kinsella is chafing against it, uneasy with the distance it creates, the way it falsifies emotion. His originality surfaces in the poem’s mixture of formal and colloquial diction and in its narrative line, where church ritual fails to contain the anguish that spills over in a stranger at the funeral “sunk now in love and horror to her knees.” This display of real grief mocks the speaker’s careful adherence to religious and poetic structure, forcing him to reveal that there is a photograph of him with the dead girl back in his home, “Her arm tucked tiredly into mine.” The genuine messiness of emotions causes him to confront what his strategies are designed to hide. The poem, like the black-clad clergyman “giving discipline / To shapeless sorrow,” fails to resolve the emotional matter of its subject until Kinsella kicks aside the constraints and comforts of elegy. Only then, savagely honest, admitting he “cannot deny her death, protest, nor grieve,” does truth emerge. Anti-formal, using the tools of structure to show the failure of structure, “Cover Her Face” is a complex adieu to false comfort. It signals the need for change.

Having reached an end to subverting the formalities of verse from within, Kinsella began writing himself free of imposed structures altogether. Reading the transitional poems of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s together and in context, one finds the poet undergoing a true rebirth. Some poems from this period, like “Nightwalker,” still seem fresh, its Joycean associative structure liberating to the poet and its discoveries about Ireland and the exiled self entirely convincing. Other poems, such as “Phoenix Park,” a poem about leaving Ireland, enact the change before our eyes. Here, the imposed structure of rigidly syllabic lines and even stanzas seems to crack under the internal pressure of its wild connections and all-inclusive references until it ends exactly where Kinsella’s new poetry will begin, in a new kind of writing:

The shadow tries to speak, but its tongue stumbles,
A snake out of the void moves in my mouth, sucks
At triple darkness. A few ancient faces
Detach and begin to circle. Deeper still,
Delicate distinct tissue begins to form,

“Phoenix Park” actually ends with a comma and these lines find their place subsequently as the start of Kinsella’s aptly titled New Poems five years later. For the next quarter century, readers will re-encounter shadows trying to speak, snakes out of the void sucking at triple darkness, free-floating ancient faces. The expression “deeper still” will become a repeated rallying cry as Kinsella forces himself ever inward, further into the darkness of the unconscious to pursue the bases of the human psyche at work. Rather than overlaying form or shape to his poetry, he will allow its “delicate distinct tissue” to form of its own. This will lead to some pretty strange work, to be sure. This is from “A Hand of Solo” (1973):

Lips and tongue
wrestle the delicious
          life out of you.
A last drop.
          A moment’s rest.
In the firelight glow
the flickering
          shadows softly
come and go up on the shelf:
red heart and black spade
          hid in the kitchen dark.
Woman throat song
help my head
          back to you sweet.

In these poems, Kinsella is capturing memories and characters that obsess him, in the free association that memories actually take. Characters such as the old woman ancestor in “A Hand of Solo” assume substance and meaning through her repeated appearances in poems, as she cooks, sits alone, storms past the young boy who watches her from a secret corner.

Over the course of nearly two dozen subsequent books, a horde of such figures make themselves known. Indeed, as Kinsella says in “Hen Woman” (1973), “there is no end to that which, not understood, / may yet be hoarded in the imagination.” Kinsella’s parents and ancestors, his wife, his artistic contemporaries, various citizens from the area of Dublin where he lives and wanders, characters out of Ireland’s troubled past or heroic mythology all play ongoing roles. Places, too, recur in the poems until Kinsella’s childhood neighborhoods grow familiar, as do streets of central Dublin and the landscape south toward Wicklow. Kinsella’s habits become familiar as well: his penchant for strolls through the streets as a way of working off his agitation, his coffee-drinking, his lifelong dialogue with fellow writers which were notorious for sometimes becoming acrimonious as his positions on Irish poetry and tradition hardened. More significantly, his habits of mind grow familiar, too. Kinsella, for example, is compelled to see the past alive and incorporated into present action, whether the historic past of Irish struggles for independence and its legacy of violence and betrayal, or the personal past with its relocations and exiles, its challenges to happiness, its losses. He speaks in several voices within individual poems, giving data, commenting on it, commenting on the comments, sometimes mocking himself in the process. A mosaic of influential moments forms. There are repeated hospital scenes—his wife’s many illnesses, his family sick, his own health breaking—clearly moments of grave stress that emblazon themselves in his memory to erupt time and again. Pub, woodland and boating scenes also surface regularly.

Kinsella’s method accumulates patterns of imagery that hold the body of work together. There are muck and gore and mire, slithery reptilian creatures and amphibious beings, maggots, the byproducts and waste products of human and industrial life. There is very little light. The reader recognizes the capital of Kinsella-land when, in The Messenger (1978), a long poem in memory of the poet’s father, “it is bare but dimly alive. / Such light as there is comes in overcast / through a grey lace curtain across the window.” Actually, this is far brighter than the customary swirling dark of the unconscious, where many of his poems take place. In “The Land of Loss,” for instance, “it grows dark and we stumble / in gathering ignorance / in a land of loss / and unfulfillable desire.”

The point of all this wallowing in murky matter is to explore the mysterious process of change. Kinsella sums it up quite directly in the prologue to Personal Places (1990):

There are established personal places
that receive our lives’ heat
and adapt in their mass, like stone.
These absorb in their changes
the radiance of change in us,
and give it back
to the darkness of our understanding

The interplay between our established personal places—touchstones of memory and experience—and passion achieves a kind of critical mass in the psyche; as memories change in the act of recollection, so the self changes. Kinsella celebrates the radiance of this nuclear reaction, though he dares not hope anything permanent will come of it.

Death, loss, waste—all those familiar ends gain meaning when they are seen to be a stage in an ongoing process of renewal. Kinsella said it hauntingly in the prose prologue to Wormwood: “Certainly the individual plight is hideous, each torturing each, but we are guilty, seeing this, to believe that our common plight is so: pigs in a slaughteryard that turn and savage each other in a common desperation and disorder.”

Of course, knowing that the failure to recognize something beyond our common plight is to turn ourselves into animals does not mean he will avoid writing about the “hideous” individual course. Just that one sentence from the prologue to Wormwood contains numerous elements which resurface in later work. The brilliant 1976 book-length sequence A Technical Supplement, for example, teems with scenes of butchery and images of savagery, dissection, innards. “At a certain point,” he observes, “it is all merely meat.” There are scalpels and cleavers, much of the action occurring in Swift’s slaughterhouse; “a blade licks out and acts / with one tongue. / Jets of blood respond / in diverse tongues.” Ireland’s ferocious history is as much a part of this poem as the realities of food production or the biology of human experience. Desperation and disorder are dominant themes of Kinsella’s work from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, as human beings “take one another / and eat.”

There is a sense, as the reader moves toward the later work in Collected Poems 1956–1994, of earned ease. The poetry becomes more accessible, the humor richer and more self-satirizing, the furies less harrowing. In “Morning Coffee,” from the 1991 collection Madonna and Other Poems, the speaker approaches a well and encounters his image in the water:

You, lifting your face
like a thirsty thing to mine,
I think I know you well:
of character retiring,
settled in your habits,
careful of your appearance;
with eyes open inward;
restless in disposition;
best left alone.

The speaker has mellowed and can ask his image, with a touch of mockery, “what matter if you seem / assured in your purpose / and animal commitment / but vague in direction / and effect on affairs?” It is a fair assessment and a fair question of this man for whom the purpose and the commitment have always been clear, if not the worldly outcome of his efforts. There is a humbleness in the recognition that both speaker and reflection “are only pilgrims. / Travelling the night.” Given the world Kinsella came into as a young poet, simply getting the poems written and finding an audience for them were virtually unimaginable; he now knows too much to think he can change what he has found.

Neville F. Newman (essay date Spring 1999)

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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 the British has passed into day-to-day language. The inquiry failed to prove that the deceased had used firearms, and the ghost’s observation that a life was lost for nothing more than “throwing stones” (22) at soldiers emphasizes the overreaction of the British to the incident.

One can identify many of the victims by comparing the incidents alluded to in the poem to the report’s details. The “blighters three” (27) are John Pius Young, Michael McDaid, and William Noel Nash. As ghosts, they, even more so than the first phantom, function to reveal the scale of the carnage that day. It is when the reader crosses the barricade, following in the steps of the soldiers who attacked it, that the other corpses emerge: “Then from left and right they came, / More mangled corpses, bleeding, lame, / Holding their wounds” (30–32). To breach the barricade as we do is to cross into the underworld where the corpses remain identified with the places where they fell, and from which they speak for a justice that the Widgery tribunal would deny them.

The “bomber” (35) introduces a particularly contentious issue. Gerald Donaghy was shot in the abdomen and was taken to a house in the vicinity for a medical examination. When he was examined, he was searched for means of identification, and no firearms were found on him. He was finally pronounced dead by a medical officer at the “Regimental Aid Post of 1st. Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment” (Widgery 32). The officer failed to notice anything on the body, but while Donaghy lay dead in the car, four nail bombs were “found” in his pockets. The irony surfaces when the ghost speaks of bombs that “seemed to vanish where I fell” (Kinsella, line 38). The accusation of “planting” the bombs is implicit, but not so the judgement with which he concludes the episode, explicitly identifying the soldier’s conduct as “treacherous” (48).

Much of the forensic evidence presented to the tribunal rested on the results of the so-called “paraffin test” which, having demonstrated the presence of lead particles on the skin, was considered proof of a person having fired, or having been close to someone who fired, a weapon.

Kinsella questions the forensic evidence’s accuracy when one of three other ghosts asserts that “our mingled blood defiled us” (52). Eyewitness accounts speak of James Wray, and William and Gerard McKinney being shot and “thrown into the [armored personnel carrier] like raw meat” (Mullan 127). It is these three to whose “mingled blood” Kinsella refers. Widgery ignored the probable cause of their testing positive despite his admission that “No weapon was found” (29).

Whereas the ghosts’ earlier commentary concentrates on the day’s events, subsequent ghosts disclose the hypocrisy of convening an inquiry whose purpose was to exonerate British military excess. One of them asks, “Does it need recourse to law / To tell ten thousand what they saw?” (67–68). From his point of view, the inquiry should have been directed at unearthing the reasons for the murder of civilians, but he recognizes that the outcome of the tribunal was determined in advance. The verdict will do no more than justify to the British public that military action was necessary. Moreover, the tribunal will put the blame for the deaths on the deceased themselves: “Impartial justice has to find / We’d be alive and well today / If we had let them have their way” (78–80). According to the Widgery report:

There would have been no deaths in Londonderry on 30 January if those who organized the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable. (Widgery 38)

There is, however, an element of hope in the ghost’s apparent despair. The very details whose significance the members of the tribunal would try to change would be revealed as part of the process of rewriting history. And this is the inherent weakness in the British propaganda that the ghost identifies. For the pictorial evidence exists alongside the words of the tribunal, and those on the mainland who consider the events will not be deceived by the tribunal’s report:

Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
—All that’s left; it’s turning sour.
.....Photographers who caught your stroke,
The priests that blessed our bodies, spoke
And wagged our blood in the world’s face.
The truth will out, to your disgrace.


Bloody Sunday and the Widgery report lie on a continuum created by the British policy of populating a Catholic country with Scottish Presbyterian settlers. The next ghost alludes to this, describing the legacy that arises from “A tangle of transplanted roots” (95) as “a bouillon of bitter Scotch” (105), punning again to describe the result of Britain’s interference as an “Irish stew” (107).

Following him, another phantom directly castigates the marchers of the Protestant Orange order whose politically sanctioned legitimacy defies the self-determination of “A people [that] rises from its past” (162). “Sashed and bowler-hatted, glum / Apprentices of fife and drum” (182–83), celebrating the victory of Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James II in 1690, their annual parades can do nothing to help the country move forward. Rather, they keep it rooted in sectarianism as they “join / in one more battle by the Boyne” (193–194).

The final ghost concludes with an observation that shows the illogicality of grounding a political position in an appeal to pure nationalism. “We all are what we are, and that / is mongrel pure” (220–221), he says, ironically criticizing Irish nationalism as much as British imperialism as he argues, “What nation’s not / Where any stranger hung his hat / And seized a lover where she sat” (221–222).

“Butcher’s Dozen” demands that both Bloody Sunday and the subsequent tribunal’s conduct be rigorously reexamined. A minute of a meeting between Widgery and then British Prime Minister Edward Heath is illuminating and chilling. “It had to be remembered,” the minute records, “that we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war” (Mullan 28).

Works Cited

Kinsella, Thomas. “Butcher’s Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery.” Dublin: Dolmen 1979.

Mullan, Don. Bloody Sunday: Massacre in Northern Ireland. Colorado: Roberts Rinehart, 1997.

Widgery, Lord Chief Justice. Inquiry into the Events on 30, January 1972 which led to Loss of Life in Connection with the Procession in Londonderry on that Day. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1972.




Kinsella, Thomas (Vol. 19)