Thomas Kinsella 1928-
Irish poet, translator, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Kinsella's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 19.
Initially recognized by critics for his technical virtuosity—and later for his challenging forays into personal consciousness and Irish identity—Kinsella is one of the most respected Irish poets of his generation. Kinsella established a unique position among young poets who, during the period following World War II, contributed toward bringing new life to the static world of Irish poetry at the time. Since the beginning of his career, Kinsella's poetry has been distinguished both by its technical strength and by subject matter. Although his technique has altered considerably over the years, moving from a preference for carefully ordered structures to a rejection of traditional forms, Kinsella's themes have remained constant: love, death, and the creative act. While other poets have been concerned with similar topics, critics argue that Kinsella's poems stand apart through the originality of their perspective; his work reveals a poet intent on depicting a world in which love, death, and art face eventual loss and destruction.
Kinsella was born in Dublin on May 4, 1928. His father, a brewery worker, was a socialist and member of the Labour party and the Left Book Club. Kinsella attended University College, Dublin, through a series of grants and scholarships. At first he studied physics and chemistry, later turning to a degree in public administration. Kinsella joined the Irish civil service in 1946. Following his time at the university, Kinsella formed relationships with Eleanor Walsh, whom he married in 1955, and with Sean Oriada, who became Ireland's leading musician and exerted a great influence on Kinsella's developing intellectual life. In 1952, after having written poetry for some years, Kinsella met Liam Miller, founder of the Dolmen Press. Over the next few years, Miller published several poems by Kinsella and the poet began working as a director of the press, which published Kinsella's first major collection, Another September in 1958. This volume and Moralities (1960), a sequence of short lyrics, garnered attention in the United States. Atheneum published Kinsella's Poems and Translations (1961) as part of a series of writings by younger British and Irish poets. While continuing to work for Ireland's finance department, Kinsella wrote enough verse to form another collection, Downstream (1962). A year after Downstream's publication, Kinsella was able to take an entire year's absence from his position as assistant principal officer to concentrate on poetry. In 1965 Kinsella accepted an invitation to serve as poet in residence at Southern Illinois University. By then considered Ireland's leading young poet, he became a professor of English at Southern Illinois. Kinsella later published Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968) and The Táin (1970), his translation of an Old Irish saga. In 1971 he accepted a position as professor of English at Temple University, where he taught for almost twenty years. Kinsella established the Peppercanister Press out of his Dublin home in 1972. The main purpose of the press was to publish limited printings of his works in progress. Butcher's Dozen (1972) was the press' first production; the following year it released Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973). In 1976 Kinsella founded Temple University's School of Irish Tradition in Dublin, enabling him to continue dividing his time between the United States and Ireland. Since then, Kinsella has released several other books, including Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978 (1979), The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), Personal Places (1990), and Poems from Centre City (1990).
Kinsella's interest in the themes of love, death, and art are made specific in his poetry by his attention to describing people, places, and objects. His first major collection, Another September, is varied in its range—not uncommon for a first collection. The book includes love poems, meditative works on various individuals, and considerations on life and death. Among the better-known works in the volume is “Baggot Street Deserta,” which, set in nocturnal Dublin (one of Kinsella's favorite backdrops) and concerned with the loss inherent in life, declares that one must “endure and let the present punish.” Kinsella's preoccupation with isolation and loss frequently results in efforts to establish order. The poet approaches order, particularly in his earlier writings, through both subject matter and poetic structure. In Another September, the quest for order against a background of loss is explored in the potential of love as well as in that of traditional institutions. However, Kinsella's strongest manner of seeking order involves poetic technique, whereby order is created through traditional structure. Downstream contains five poems previously published in Moralities. These short lyrics, dealing with love, death, faith, and song, are surrounded by poems that deal with phenomena and the choices made by different characters. “Old Harry,” the title of which perhaps refers to the devil, examines the morality of Harry Truman's decision to unleash atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book's title poem, among the earliest of Kinsella's so-called “journey poems,” further develops his interest in order, particularly the potential order found in nature. Involving violence and loss, “Downstream” tells of a seeker's quest to find “ancient Durrow,” a center of learning and devotion; the downstream direction of the journey indicates the certainty of death. The first group of poems in Nightwalker and Other Poems present a more concrete descriptive approach. Including “Office for the Dead” and “Museum,” these poems reflect the poet's continuing preoccupation with the certainty of loss. Nightwalker and Other Poems also contains two long meditative poems: the title poem and “Phoenix Park.” Resembling “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” by T. S. Eliot, “Nightwalker” employs a poet-wanderer who, with his mind under the influence of the moon, considers the modern profanation of art and religion as well as the dismal state of contemporary Irish politics. Named after Dublin's largest park, “Phoenix Park” involves a couple who, about to leave the city, pass various places that have held meaning for them, in the process creating a force to overcome loss. Two other works from the early 1970s confront loss in even more concrete terms: Butcher's Dozen is a response to the killings of thirteen Irish civil-rights marchers by British paratroopers in 1972, and A Selected Life (1972) considers the death of Kinsella's close friend, the Irish musician Sean Oriada. Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems explores the female principle as a creative component of the poet and also reflects Kinsella's interest in psychoanalyst C. G. Jung's ideas on destruction and creation. Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978, contains several poems concerned with the poet's relationship to Ireland. Included in the collection is One (1974), in which Kinsella uses the Jungian concept of a common memory to explore his Irish legacy. Personal Places and Poems from Centre City reveal Kinsella's views on the importance of personal experience and consider his life in Dublin.
Critics have interpreted Kinsella's poetry as seeking to confront a reality of isolation and loss, particularly in the context of Irish cultural history and the postwar Irish poet's struggle to forge a unique artistic identity in the long shadow of Irish luminaries W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Kinsella's interest in the literary history of Ireland, particularly the Gaelic verse which he translated in The Táin and An Duanaire (1981), has also earned him respect as a proponent for the recovery of a distinctly Irish—as opposed to Anglo-Irish—culture. As many commentators note, Kinsella's perpetually evolving poetry—marked by frequent revisions and divergent stylistic approaches—is best understood as a continuous lifework, often compared to Ezra Pound's Cantos. While his early volumes won acclaim for their well-crafted elegance, his later volumes are noted for their increasing complexity and interior explorations of the psyche. Downstream was noted for its development of new structural techniques to confront its concerns. Greeted enthusiastically by most reviewers, Nightwalker and Other Poems demonstrates important developments in Kinsella's approach to poetic structure, including a virtually complete abandonment of rhyme. In Notes from the Land of the Dead, the poet seemed to have broken away from his earlier, structurally ordered poems. In this volume, Kinsella traded syntax and complete phrases for fragments, a technique suited to the imagery of dreams and to poems displaying increased ambiguity of meaning. While some critics had earlier faulted Kinsella's technique, critical consternation concerning his style became even more apparent with Notes from the Land of the Dead. With this book, some reviewers were dismayed by the level of difficulty and obscurity of the writing. Such complaining, however, tended to be the minority opinion regarding Kinsella's poetry; the complexity of his verse is viewed as highly suited to the sophistication of his themes and imagery.