Thomas Kinsella Kinsella, Thomas (Vol. 135) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2029 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2624 words.)

Peggy F. Broder (essay date Spring 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5020 words.)

Dillon Johnston (essay date Winter 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)

Arthur E. McGuinness (essay date Winter 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7535 words.)

Peggy F. Broder (review date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

Daniel O'Hara (essay date Winter 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4594 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4647 words.)

Seamus Deane (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4248 words.)

John Lucas (review date 16 January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 26 February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2305 words.)

Ben Howard (review date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1386 words.)

Hilary Pyle (review date November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Floyd Skloot (essay date March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 4025 words.)

John Drexel (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3194 words.)

Steven Matthews (review date 17 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Floyd Skloot (review date 18 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3030 words.)

Thomas H. Jackson (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 5006 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 26 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

William Pratt (review date Autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

M. L. Rosenthal (review date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Donatella Abbate Badin (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6908 words.)

Brian John (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4564 words.)

Peter Sirr (review date 11 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 921 words.)

Willaim Pratt (review date Winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Floyd Skloot (review date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2766 words.)

Kieran Quinlan (review date Summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Floyd Skloot (review date Summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3288 words.)

Neville F. Newman (essay date Spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 399 words.)