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Kinsella, Thomas 1928–
Kinsella is an Irish poet who treats his major themes of love, death, and the artistic act with a discipline that reflects the order he seeks in life. His poetry has been influenced by the strife in Ireland, ancient folk ballads, and natural history. Kinsella now lives much of the time in the United States. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
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Thomas Kinsella has always been an eloquent poet, but one who seemed to find … that the "clenched emotions" fitted best into a tightly-controlled verse. In Nightwalker he has attempted something much looser and more discursive, a longish meditation taking its cues from whatever offers itself to view on the night walk of the title. At times the visual particularity and the quick cuts from scene to scene give it the effect of a scenario, and indeed one feels that some extraneous but necessary element is missing—whether of sight or sound. It reads very much like a transitional piece, and it will be interesting to see what Mr. Kinsella does next.
"Taking a Strong Line," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3423, October 5, 1967, p. 937.∗
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Thomas Kinsella [is] probably the most accomplished, fluent, and ambitious Irish poet of the younger generation. American readers have already been introduced to his work in "Poems and Translations" (… 1961) but it has achieved more humanity since. In the opening sequence [of "Nightwalker,"] for example, there are several remarkable poems, where the ordeal of physical suffering … is balanced against the meaning that can be drawn from it, in personal religious terms….
This new confessional mood in Kinsella's work was announced by a sequence about married love ["Wormwood"] first published separately a few years ago. I am much less happy with these [poems] because the extreme claim that the poet makes for his personal crisis ("a great star fell from heaven") often reduces his language to the clichés of hysteria, "peaks of stress," "hells of circumstance," etc. Even the central image in the title poem, "Wormwood," has that lack of focus which betrays literary rather than real observation; one rarely finds "a black tree" in the countryside, but in city parks, while "mossy floor, almost colourless … in depths of rain" is even less likely, as most colors are brightened by showers.
The number of revisions that Mr. Kinsella has made indicate that I am not alone in my uneasiness with the "Wormwood" sequence….
Without the self-confrontation of "Wormwood," [however,] Kinsella might not have achieved the magnificently romantic intimacies of the long poem, "Phoenix Park." This is a farewell to Ireland, in the shape of a drive with his wife along the Liffey, as well as an extension of the theme of married love.
The Gothic extravagances of his earlier style still intrude, but the poem is strong enough to carry them. I am not sure about "Nightwalker," a nocturnal reverie which like the earlier "Country Walk" chastizes the middle-class mediocrity of modern Ireland. The poetry of urban discontent is already a cliché, and Kinsella has not devised a new strategy; the poem begins with a glaring echo from Auden's "Nones" and the persona of intellectual noctambule is depressingly close to early Eliot. This weakness may be inherent in the subject; since independence, Irish politics have become internecine and provincial. But so did all the other revolutions: ideally, Kinsella's parable of the civil war should apply to Russia or Nigeria as well.
As it is, his attempt to blend local detail with cosmic significance makes for a rather clotted texture. But it is a formidable piece of writing and typical of Kinsella's view of himself as the conscience of his society. The more relaxed aspect of his talent reappears in lyrics like "Dick King" and "Chrysalides": the latter must be one of the most gracefully fluent modern poems. If there is no one thing that Kinsella does better than anyone else, there is very little that he cannot do.
John Montague, "And an Irishman," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 18, 1968, p. 5.
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People in Dublin have had something to talk about lately other than the North, the Common Market, or the deplorable state of the Irish theatre. A few weeks ago Thomas Kinsella, the country's finest contemporary poet, published a small pamphlet (8 pages, about 250 lines of verse) called "Butcher's Dozen" and subtitled "A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery." The cover of the pamphlet carries the outline of a black coffin with the figure 13 superimposed.
In pubs, at parties, wherever literary-minded folk are likely to gather, the talk is not about the contents of the pamphlet (the Derry tragedy of January 30 [, 1972, the "Bloody Sunday" when British soldiers in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry fired upon a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing 13)], but about its form and style. "In matters of grave importance," Oscar Wilde once remarked, "style, not sincerity, is the vital thing"—a sentiment which has always found wide and sincere acceptance among Wilde's countrymen….
In The Irish Times one commentator saw the poem as patterned on The Dunciad, an observation far wide of the mark, since nothing could be less like the elegant beroic couplets of Alexander Pope than these rattling octosyllabics in which a form of doggerel is made at times to parody itself. A much shrewder observation called attention to Mrs. Shelley's note to "The Mask of Anarchy" which affords a curious and close parallel: "When the news of the Manchester massacre reached us, it aroused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion." Kinsella's response to Derry is not unlike that of Shelley to Peterloo….
There are other parallels. In form and feeling, rhythm and tone, Kinsella recalls the Butler of Hudibras and Joyce of The Holy Office, but from line to line one is above all aware of the indignant spirit of Jonathan Swift informing the whole: saeva indignatio. At a time when poetry has become all but private, when the experience of poetry is like an act of eaves-dropping—a reader overhearing a poet speaking to himself, and not always sure that he is hearing aright—a public poem like "Butcher's Dozen" is a rare event. That may be why certain other poets around Dublin have already put it down as "vulgar." It is vulgar in the sense that it is public and popular, and vulgar too in its deliberate use of doggerel—almost by definition a poetic vulgarity. But in the hands of a satirist like Swift, as here in Kinsella's hands, sophisticated variations on the form convey, as few other forms can, the scorn and contempt of the poet for the object of his satire.
Contempt runs through the poem like an electric current, sparking off images and ironies that recharge the original satiric impulse. But toward the end a note of compassion is also sounded…. (p. 725)
Kinsella's poem gives voice to the anger, frustration and bitterness which had been inarticulate among the people during the height of the ["Bloody Sunday"] crisis and for long afterward. In doing so it has also provided an outlet for that communal passion still smoldering in many places and which early on had broken out in mindless, though for the most part minor, acts of vengeance and retaliation.
A public poem, "Butcher's Dozen" is also a political statement: Like the pamphlets in verse with which Swift heartened an earlier generation of Dubliners, Kinsella's pamphlet in verse, performing a similar function, brings their immediate experience into perspective. Indignation, bordering on desperation, is made tolerable by the imposition of form: the body politic is in part purged of individual grievances by the articulation of those grievances as shared experience: a common voice speaks for a common people and, appropriately, the voice is that of a poet. (p. 726)
Kevin Sullivan, "Thomas Kinsella's Public Poem," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 214, No. 23, June 5, 1972, pp. 725-26.
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The major part of Thomas Kinsella's New Poems 1973 is a collection … called Notes from the Land of the Dead, a corny confessionalist title for a puzzling work. Its theme is the spiritual journey from despair and desolation, "nightnothing", to a painful self-renewal, a progress that seems to be developed in both the overall sequence and individual pieces within it. One says "seems" because a great deal of this territory is very vague indeed. One of the troubles is that these are notes, not poems, as the rows of dots petering out lines, the asterisks between verse sections, and the blurb caveat that Mr Kinsella is "content to leave inessential connections unmade and miscellaneous doubts unresolved", suggest.
The other is that, as notes, they are not very informative; our man in the land of the dead has cabled back little hard news. This is not to deny that there is a variety of images of considerable pressure and delicacy deployed both in the "Notes" and in the brief section of "Other Poems", born of a resourceful metaphysical imagination. The objection is that in reaching beyond the world of tangible reality to reflect states of the acutest mental anguish, Mr Kinsella's images fail to construct a consistent and coherent para-reality that would give the book shape and point. Much the most successful pieces are those (such as the excellent "Tear" and "St. Pauls Rocks: 16 February 1832") rooted in concrete and specific situations.
"Back from the Dead," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3728, August 17, 1973, p. 946.
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Thomas Kinsella's Selected Poems appears simultaneously with his New Poems 1973; and although the earlier poems are on the whole less distraughtly introspective than the recent work, they display the same fine knack of delving deeply into self-communion while staying nervously responsive to an actual world. Dream and realism are cross-bred in strikingly effective combinations, not least in the excellent, ambitiously long "Phoenix Park", which roots personal relationship in a recognizable spot, tracing connecting threads between self and public history, but also exploiting that history to provide a space for complex private imaginings….
That ability to cope with elusively general feelings without losing intensity isn't so evident in some of the earlier poems. The danger there is that a way of seeing through the immediate to more "universal" issues becomes a way of talking round it, wrapping it with verbose abstractions…. There is also a difficulty with form: some of the earlier poems are too synthetically impersonal, too quick to leash back their richly metaphorical impulses within slightly cramping forms; but there is, on the other hand, a mastery of ballad and lyric which is disappointingly less evident in the new poems.
Most of Thomas Kinsella's new collection is taken up with his fragmented sequence Notes from the Land of the Dead …; and the way in which this poem stays tenaciously faithful to tactile experience, while boldly transmuting it into a bizarrely imaginative dream-world, reveals something of Mr Kinsella's talents at their best. An egg, for instance, is shifted dextrously towards effective symbolic meaning as it is closely observed in the act of being laid…. [A] combination of delicacy and power seems characteristic of the volume's really impressive stretches. Most of the descriptions, sharply focused and even hallucinatory as they are, are resonant with the constant suggestion of something more than themselves, but they are not thereby dissolved into more stage-settings for the self-exposure of a soul. On the one hand there is a nervous responsiveness to natural process, to a fluid, musky, viscous world cluttered with odds and ends of organic matter; on the other hand this subtle—even, occasionally, lyrical—detailing is intensified by a sense of turbulent negativity, of some voracious void down which the poet and his perceptions are sickeningly liable to be sucked. An underground cave thus becomes an important image of emptiness holding out against besieging material pressures…. Beset by this central blankness, several of the poems stagger to a halt, lapse into broken phrases or totter finally into silence; but there is no doubting the control with which these effects are brought off.
"Rooted Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3742, November 23, 1973, p. 1452.
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[Thomas Kinsella is a] restless soul who can do many things well. In Nightwalker he appeared to have found his stride, the event which ought to mark a happy origin, but, unfortunately, in his new collection [Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems] Mr. Kinsella is trying hard to sound ordinary. He does this perhaps in deference to those contemporary canons of taste which favor vividness at any cost: but the cost is at least worth measuring. "Dither in and out of a mother liquid", "forkfuls/of scrambled egg", "cooped up/with the junk of centuries", "blanched: appalled", "sweat stood out/at the roots of my hair!" all get into the first page of his book. No doubt Mr. Kinsella wishes to chronicle the detritus of the everyday as it flows in upon him, but the poor result for his diction makes him a casualty of expressive form. The lengthy title poem reaches its height in passages of straight description. Where it means to be ambitious it is loud and flat: "We are each other's knowledge. It is peace that counts,/and knowledge brings peace, even thrust crackling/into the skull and bursting with tongues of fire."
Elsewhere it laments "sad dullness and tedious pain/and lives bitter with hard bondage". Leaving aside the blankness of meaning produced by all the nouns and modifiers too familiarly paired, is there not something ugly in a summing-up quite so peremptory? Mr. Kinsella, however, can rework the same passage, and with marvelous restraint, on the very next page.
Old age can digest
anything: the commotion
at Heaven's gate—the struggle
in store for you all your life.
He is a good poet but also a facile one, and facility has its double edge. Poets of far less talent than Mr. Kinsella would have known well enough to consign many things in this volume to the flames. A Selected Life, his elegy for Seán O Riada, is probably the soundest item in the gathering, and it cries out for more distinguished company. (p. 232)
David Bromwich, "Rules and Recipes," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXV, No. 4, January, 1975, pp. 229-33.∗
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[In Ireland] most writers have become wearied by the attritional quality of their relationship to their society and its history. Given the example of W. B. Yeats, the political and economic depression, the society's fixed loyalties and fissile emotions, it was difficult for an Irish poet of the thirties and forties to see his function as anything less than redemptive. It was as though every poet was compelled by circumstances to see himself as a major poet if he was to become a poet at all. This stress on creativity had to be damaging. Much Irish poetry after Yeats would have been more memorable if it could have settled for being less ambitious. (pp. 199-200)
Thomas Kinsella inherited the disappointments of that era and subsumed them in his early work into a long contemplative exercise on the problem of evil. The climax to this phase of his work came with the publication in 1968 of Nightwalker and Other Poems. Since then, up to the publication of [Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems] and the more recent One …, the mood of Mr. Kinsella's poetry has sharpened into a surgical exploration by the imagination of the resources of the will—above all, of the basic will to go on, to survive, to remain aware. Mr. Kinsella has consistently grown away from his early highly-cadenced verse toward a poetry which is at times rhythmically cumbersome, lacking the finish and completeness which [Austin] Clarke, for instance, managed so well. Mr. Kinsella, it might be said, prefers to write poetry rather than to make poems. He seeks precision, but not at the cost of becoming a miniaturist. So he has increasingly turned from the formalities of lyric verse toward larger, more sculptural effects. This does not exclude subtlety or delicacy of feeling. The delicacy, rather than having the appearance (as it did in his earlier work) of being elegantly attenuated, lives in a more somber and more miscellaneous world, as a vein exists in a block of marble. The gravity of mood which characterized the earlier work has now itself become the object of the poet's scrutiny. We are faced with a genetic account of a consciousness coming to maturity, taking possession of recalcitrant experiences, learning to resist the resistance of the outer world.
The levels at which a Kinsella poem moves can switch and fracture dramatically. His continuous fascination with growth as a biological as well as an emotional process can create unexpected friction in the language of his verse. We meet this quickly in the first section of Notes from the Land of the Dead in phrases like "Dark nutrient waves" or "red protein eyes" or in a description of a beetle "clasping with small tarsi/a ball of dung bigger than its body." "Nutrient," "protein," and "tarsi" are the crucial imports from the language of natural history into the otherwise conventional phrasings. "Dark waves" is harmless, but the intervening epithet lends to it a sharper, more diagnostic quality. We see through the surface of the thing to the biological process of its activity. Here, as elsewhere, the roof of appearance is lifted off to enable us to see the movement of vast, purposive, and yet almost inchoate forces. The same exposure is practiced on human feeling and appearance. As a result we witness ongoing endless processes rather than specific events. The reader is always looking down into "the hells of circumstance" below the fact. The poetry brings him on a vertically downward journey from appearance to process, on a quest for the ever-elusive first principle from which everything else has drawn its life and force.
The poems in this volume invoke a drear landscape—so drear and terminal in fact that the imagination seems homeless within it. The recurrence of certain words—shell, ash, torsion, echo—indicates the survival of certain thematic bonds—birth, death, heredity, love, subjectivity quailing or refusing to quail at the prospect of its own extinction. The world of things is inert and given; but the world of feeling is inherited and, though heredity is a mysterious process, can be understood. Out of that understanding the imagination can gain renewed access to the world of objects. The poet seems to envisage a human world in which community, or at least the sense of it, is enhanced by a contemplation of what binds humans to one another—love, birth, death, the inheritance of physiological as well as psychological features, the capacity to endure suffering and even to treat it as the way to understanding. As against that there is the discrete world of object and moiling process. Sometimes, caught in the light of a myth or of a memory, an illusion or an image, that world casts an anthropomorphic shadow. But more often it does not. The charities of the human community are foreign to the indifferent nature of the universe in general. Nevertheless the imagination has a role to play and Mr. Kinsella assigns it one by acknowledging that although we may not be able to discover the meaning things have in themselves, we nevertheless can and must see to it that they have a meaning. Consciousness, after all, governs the world since consciousness (in Merleau-Ponty's words) is that "through which from the outset a world forms itself round me, and begins to exist for me."
Thomas Kinsella thus gets back to the primary data of existence—its slime, eggs, dung, sweat, accident—and makes the apparent lack of kinship between these phenomena and the consciousness the necessary precondition of a more profound communion. He accepts the possibility that the universe may be deaf to the cry of human longing and that this can render the consciousness dumb. But it need not. For in asserting its role in the world the imagination creates art or poetry, and poetry becomes then the discovery of a loudly-struck harmony existing between the mind and the world. In the end there is no difference between the will and the imagination. The will is the imagination in extremis. The determination to take responsibility de nouveau for the drear world in which it had seemed such a lost pilgrim makes the imagination triumphant, a creative force feeding on the world's given data and then seeking to reproduce itself in a new form…. Mr. Kinsella is fond of predatory animals in his poetry, but by far the most predatory is his own imagination and its favorite victim is himself…. The presence of this self-fueled strength has become more apparent in each volume since 1968. Notes from the Land of the Dead restores to the imagination the strength to take on the weight of the "whole job of culture." (pp. 200-02)
Seamus Deane, "The Appetites of Gravity: Contemporary Irish Poetry," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 199-208.∗
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Ours is more than ever a poetry of the recapture of lost worlds—a nation's or a region's deep history, the buried memories of families, the primal impressions of early childhood. A poet like the Irishman Thomas Kinsella, who engages these worlds ably and bravely, can reach past surface charm and nostalgia to discovery. He is coping with the intractable….
Mr. Kinsella is a true elegist with a bitter, grieving, melodious tongue. Now that he has assembled his poetry in two volumes ["Poems 1956–1973" and "Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978"], Americans will have ready access for the first time to the whole range of his work since 1956 (including his superb translation of the Cuchulain saga, "The Tain"). It is a great deal to try to absorb at once. The rich elegiac strain and the painful note of reminiscence involve extremes of tonality: subtle wit, easy humor, flat candor, bursts of visionary transport, burning anger, speculative openness—all deployed in a mature exploratory poetry.
Mr. Kinsella's most powerful poems tend to open quietly, perhaps humorously, in the midst of reverie or of a familiar situation, and then to unfold through "natural" modulations. The very recent "His Father's Hands" … begins with a close-up of the poet and his father drinking and arguing, their gestures comically intimate….
A quick association recalls the childhood memory of the poet's grandfather, a cobbler, pressing tobacco into his pipe and cutting new leather; the details culminate in a nostalgic, vivid repossession. Suddenly we are with the grandfather, now very old, playing the fiddle with "his bow hand scarcely moving" and "whispering with the tune." The poem breaks into song, combining the words of an old ballad with the poet's interpolations….
A sweet yet piercing rapport across the generations has been evoked, and next we hear the grandfather's voice telling the boy something about family history…. It is, as it were, the personal history of Ireland's common people—the battles, the escapes, the hangings, the migrations, the available occupations and trades. At the end of the poem an impersonal, terrified vision of a menancing landscape and an evil history gives a hard, dark gleam to the language, which casts an ironic and tragic mood over the final references to the grandfather's "blocked gentleness" and the child's memories.
"His Father's Hands" is only part of a complex sequence entitled "One," a nightmarish plunge into the "ghost companionship" of past worlds; but it does touch on most of Mr. Kinsella's preoccupations and may incidentally serve as an introduction to his work. Readers approaching this poet for the first time are advised to begin with "Ancestor," "A Hand of Solo" and "Tear," which fuse intense revulsion and love in a precise rendering of childhood; and "Traveller," "First Light," and the sixth and seventh poems of "A Technical Supplement" … for the emotional shocks they register. The demanding marriage-sequence, "Wormwood," embodies an agonized emotional struggle that is won by sheer moral and human endurance—intelligence in action.
No one could be more Irish than Thomas Kinsella…. Yet there is nothing parochial about his work. At 51, he is among the true poets, not only of Ireland but among all who write in English in our day.
M. L. Rosenthal, "Landscape with Figures," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1980, p. 28.
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A clear break in Kinsella's poetic development is embodied in two collections, Poems 1956–1973 and Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978….
The earlier poems were characterized by traditional, formal logic and structure, narrative drive, and rich description. Their language was packed and lush, rigidly controlled, and they dealt with "the swallowing and absorption of bitterness." The later poems, after 1972 but anticipated by some tendencies as far back as 1965 … are characterized by apparent formlessness, a charged, compressed, associative language—a language of trance or automatic writing—and a difficult density.
Poems 1956–1973 offers the poems that established Kinsella's reputation, the anthology pieces like "Mirror in February" or "Wormwood." It is the more accessible and polished work, traditional for its first two-thirds and [sure in its grasp]…. (p. 337)
Kinsella's Catholicism, his sense of Irish history and literature and his rigorous belief in the restorative power of love are important forces shaping the early poetry. So too are the lessons of his obvious masters, Auden and Eliot. But also important, and ultimately perhaps the strongest shaping force, was Kinsella's career in the Ministry of Finance. For nearly twenty years—day after day, all day—Kinsella worked with ever-increasing responsibility in the administration of his country's economy, seeing first-hand the complexity of important decisions, handling and sorting out multitudinous material. His long poem near mid-career, "Nightwalker," explores this world…. More than subject matter, this environment provided Kinsella with method and structure. The influence of his administrative career, and its particular form of hands-on involvement with his country, can be seen in his passion for arrangement ("the passion is in the putting together") and organization, his commitment to order and shape, the intellectual discipline and scope of material that characterize this phase of his material. It is also consistent with his concern for his country's living history, which found expression in significant translation activity.
Forced by his environment to be self-tutoring, moved by circumstance and inclination to identify the traditions that would support his endeavor, Kinsella found forms for his "will that gropes for/structure." Composed and well-assembled, such poems as "A Country Walk," "Downstream" and "Ballydavid Pier" are undeniably effective works of their kind. The pivotal poem, at once culmination and emblem of this vein of writing, is "Phoenix Park"—a poem of departure and new beginnings. It is the final large effort, with its rigid structure of eleven-syllable lines, narrative framework, formal logic and continuity. It enacts the process by which achieved order gains its quality through its very precariousness ("Fragility echoing fragilities"), acknowledges that being subject to momentary extinction does not diminish the intensity of our personal solutions to "the ordeal." It is a poem of such size and comprehensiveness in terms of the poet's vision that, especially taken together with "Nightwalker," it brings Kinsella to a halt, a point at which he can either repeat himself for the duration of his enterprise or strike off in new directions. (pp. 337-38)
[Thus, in Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978] he breaks dramatically from what supported his earlier writing. After "Phoenix Park," in his New Poems of 1973, Kinsella produced the sequence entitled "Notes from the Land of the Dead" that inhabits a different territory altogether…. The poems begin to deal with the emergence of … living things hoarded in the poet's imagination, emerging randomly, the impulse to write shaping itself rather than being shaped from outside. Kinsella intends to transfer the shaping energy back where it belongs, within the impulse rather than imposed. He deals in processes and in planes of consciousness where anticipated connections are not always possible and therefore not insisted upon…. Inward-turning, mythic, full of creatures like lizards, leopard sharks, morays, pigs and mean cats, these poems delve into lower orders of life or awareness and assume "the beginning/must be inward. Turn inward. Divide."
Few poets risk what Kinsella risks both in his new method and in his refusal to repeat the effort upon which his substantial reputation rested….
The first four Peppercanister poems are occasional pieces. Butcher's Dozen is a response to an inquiry into the 1972 shooting of thirteen civil rights demonstrators. A Selected Life and Vertical Man are in tribute to composer Sean O Riáda and The Good Fight is for the tenth anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. (p. 338)
The final four Peppercanisters return to the sequence begun after "Phoenix Park," extending the "Notes from the Land of the Dead" and arriving, finally, at a moving poem in memory of Kinsella's father—"The Messenger"—that understands the process of loss and grief…. [These poems] reveal the gains he has made through his new approach. Chief among these gains is a relaxation of his impulse to order—not an abandonment of order, but a yielding to implicit order within the material ("a nexus a nexus/wriggling with life not of our kind").
It is difficult to convey, second-hand, the feel of the connectedness of Kinsella's newer work, the unity of imagination and its muse, the effect of its recurring symbols and characters, or how acceptable and correct it seems to find the poet imagining himself prior to, at the point of, and in the phases just after conception…. The muck and matter, the elemental juice of origin, dithering "in and out of a mother liquid" and venturing down near "the heart of the pit" are the stuff of these poems. Egg and raw substance. The cumulative effect is one of great intimacy with poet and material, almost the opposite of the formal and distant character of the earlier work. Yet in its difficult surface, the new poetry is initially forbidding and quirky. (pp. 338-39)
[In] A Technical Supplement, Kinsella observes that, "the mind flexes./The heart encloses." It would not be unfair to extrapolate this formula to cover … the two phases of his career. Initially, Kinsella's poems were the product of a mind flexing—not that they lacked feeling or emotional force. They were first-rate examples of a learned and mastered traditional craftsmanship. The newer poems, though, seem the product of an enclosing heart. Form is dictated by the material at hand, the poems are made to enclose whatever seems to demand being present ("outlandish/the things that will come into your mind"), and there is a persistent belief that "Somehow it all matters ever after—very much—/though each little thing matters little/however painful that may be."…
[The] poetry, the range of pleasure and engagement a reader will discover in these volumes, is exceptional, an undertaking of enormous reach. (p. 339)
Floyd Skloot, "The Newer Poetry of Thomas Kinsella: Muck, Matter & an Enclosing Heart," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 11, June 6, 1980, pp. 337-39.
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In the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella … the sense of life as deprivation and the oral rage and horror bring up the pathology of narcissism; but unlike [Ted] Hughes, who would be wholly immersed in the instinctive, bodily, and natural, Kinsella surfaces into the human, individual, and moral. Hughes in his poems is hardly even an Englishman, but Kinsella is as much a Dubliner as Yeats was. Despite his own bestial allegories of the harsh Super-ego (a dragon, for instance, hungering "in filth and fire" though laying an "egg-seed" of goodness, or decency), his sphere is the world of men, Irishmen like his father…. (p. 481)
His reality-smiting or-smelting turn for quaint sick fantasy—poetic expressionism—has become more pronounced [in Peppercanister Poems 1972–1978]. But at times he still revisits what he has known or writes of his present world with a stiff manly head-back regard …, and then he compels…. His sensibility is so grim that the real if rationed delights of his ear and sense of form seem a necessary mercy. It is a mercy, however, that at other times he is less inclined to bestow. But the subtle uncongenial art of [Peppercanister Poems] develops like a negative with repeated immersions, and Kinsella is still the Irish poet most worth following. (p. 482)
Calvin Bedient, "New Confessions," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 474-88.∗
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For Poems 1956–1973 Kinsella selects items from his first six volumes and prints all of his New Poems (1973). The early pieces help prepare the reader for the seventeen poems, "Notes from the Land of the Dead," the central lyric works of his early career. These poems celebrate Dublin, Kinsella's home, and the pangs and anxieties attending his own development as man and writer. He is the cursed poet come back from the Irish night with a story. (p. 633)
[Kinsella] writes on the fine old subjects, and like a proper Irish poet, he has learned his trade. He writes of family, the appalling loneliness of moderns, the pain of death and separation. He calls birth "the count of zero." He is dazzled by and hopeful in modern isolation. (pp. 633-34)
Kinsella's poems are direct, immediate, colloquial as park-bench speech and, suddenly, moving. He is not quotable because Kinsella has to be understood by his whole poem. He describes, for example, a ritual sacrifice remembered (I would wager) from a travel book by Richard Halliburton in which a young woman's beating heart is cut out and offered as sacrifice to the sun. The tone suddenly shifts from the altar language to cocktail clichés; by the juxtaposition of the ancient world of grim sacrificial love and modern tenuous love, Kinsella infuses his climactic words, "My heart is in your hands," with a sudden, deepening light that the words themselves can hardly suggest. He is, clearly, the best poet speaking from the Republic of Ireland today….
[Peppercanister Poems] includes a poem on thirteen civil rights demonstrators shot by the British Army in Northern Ireland; elegies on John Kennedy, the Irish musician Sean O Riada and Kinsella's father; and three sequences of lyrics. "Butcher's Dozen" seeks to define the terrible beauty in the massacre. The victims speak in the poem, but the enormity of the crime takes over as so often in this century when ignorant armies clash by night. The poem awakens the reader once more to our familiar tragedy when officials become so deeply entangled in history and prejudice that justice seems impossible. All of these poems on the dead are more public than is typical of Kinsella's work. The Kennedy poem may well be the best poem on the assassination. Kinsella spent ten years thinking, writing and honing the work. It is a fine poem which deserves to settle slowly and deliberately into the reader's mind.
The lyrics speak to one another as they have before in his collections, but they seem to have a new urgency or excitement about them. Although born and bred in Ireland, Kinsella now lives much of the time in America. He joins that band of exiles—Russian, Spanish, anywhere—who give the exile's lament new force. It may be fancy, but the new poems seem to have some infusion from the American experience. He continues his old metaphors, but the new lyrics are more nightmarish, more deeply into the unconscious. One poem concludes, "My heart is a black fruit./It is a piece of black coal./When I laugh a black thing hovers." The heart of darkness is the heart of darkness. The American publication of these poems should confirm Kinsella's position not only as an Irish poet but as a major voice in the English language. (p. 634)
Richard Tobias, "English: 'Poems 1956–1973'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 633-34.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Richard Murphy—a disparate threesome—are generally considered to lead the pack of Irish poets who emerged during the 1950s…. The 1950s were a transitional period for both Irish society and Irish poetry…. Kinsella, though not so overtly concerned as his contemporaries with social phenomena, reacted the more intensely to the winds of change. In "A Country Walk" the poet encounters signs of the times, and re-writes "Easter 1916":
Around the corner, in an open square,
I came upon the sombre monuments
That bear their names: MacDonagh & McBride
Merchants; Connolly's Commercial Arms …
Revaluation commenced or devaluation mourned? At any rate, a disturbed sense of dead glories, and a present hollowness, as "The waters hurtle through the flooded night". Kinsella's oeuvre abounds in quest-poems, deriving their structure from walks or from journeys by river and sea, whose thrust is summed up in the last line of "Downstream": "Searching the darkness for a landing place"….
Kinsella's Romanticism overwhelmingly takes the traditional form of self-searching. (It is a deeper question whether the extreme isolation of his poetic persona owes more to culture than to idiosyncrasy.) Emotional and spiritual values are most successfully discovered in the early love poetry, whose fine linguistic ceremonial reveals Kinsella learning, and adapting certain tricks of the Yeatsian trade….
Perhaps inevitably, but I think unfortunately, the mellifluous cadences that grace Kinsella's first few collections have yielded, in the last twelve years, to dissonant experimentation, to long free-verse soliloquies or loosely linked sequences that demote the autonomous lyric. This trend away from the initial formal influence of Yeats and Auden may indeed be culturally determined. Kinsella, like other Irish poets, is very conscious that a primary, if wasting, quest is to locate and define a distinctively Irish poetic tradition. (Yeats in solving the problem for himself further complicated it for his successors.) With John Montague, he laments … the sundered thread of Gaelic Ireland: "A dying language echoes/Across a century's silence."
Such awareness has, on the one hand, borne fruit in an excellent translation of The Tain, and, on the other, possibly contributed to a crisis in Kinsella's use of English. Every "Anglo-Irish" poet negotiates, with varying degrees of skill, his independence of the British connection—Seamus Heaney's poetry being a splendid example of how to get the best of both worlds. But Kinsella's … marked compulsion to go it alone, strands him in a curious creative limbo that is at once the subject and the context of his poems. Thus his ever-darker intuition of a spiritual void—its subjective and objective origins as entangled as those of The Waste Land—finds expression in a fragmenting language. Notes from the Land of the Dead … presents Dantesque and Miltonic vistas of a soul in hell….
As an unkind reviewer of this sequence memorably observed: "Our man from 'the Land of the Dead' is sending back no hard news". But the mannerisms of the style are more culpable than the vagueness of the content. Horror-comic telegraphese continues to infect other exercises in this mode. "Survivor", for instance, belies its optimistic title by concluding: "Hair. Claws. Grey/Naked. Wretch. Wither". One of the rare jokes in Poems 1956–1973 portraying the artist as "Worker in Mirror", rightly replies to the question "What to call it?" with the phrase "Circular—Tending/Self—Reflecting Abstraction". (Presumably the title of a poem in the nightnothing group is another joke: "All Is Emptiness, and I Must Spin"). One and Other Poems too thoroughly lives up to its promise of developing "the themes of … Notes from the Land of the Dead". Night, "muscular nothingnesses", "a complex emptiness", nasty animals and complex "Vital spatterings" hint at some nameless neurosis or purgatory, but the various melodramatic dissections of the flesh fail to symbolize any "vital" spirit: "a dish of ripe eyes gaped up at the groaning iron press descending." The sequence reads like an attempt to outcrow Crow, in the absence of Hughes's redeeming technical and satirical inventiveness.
A poet so "possessed by death" should flower as an elegist—that is, if death is indeed the proper study of elegies. Kinsella's tribute in Fifteen Dead to the Irish composer Sean O Riada, harps again on predators … and offers a morally and aesthetically distasteful view of human existence as "animus/brewed in clay, uttered/in brief meat and brains". This is much too black to be really bleak. Obviously Kinsella's art, not his grief, is in question, and the accompanying prose memoir of O Riada brings him far more vividly to life than the poem.
In a prose gloss on Butcher's Dozen Kinsella defends the peom against those critics, not only literary, who have found it unbalanced in several respects. Kinsella points out that an attack written "with Anger at my heel", as the first line establishes, hardly pretends to a statesmanlike overview. And he makes clear the extent to which instantaneousness was all: "I couldn't write the same poem now. The pressures were special, the insult strongly felt, and the timing vital if the response was to matter, in all its kinetic impurity." Some impurities matter more than others. Broadsheet doggerel constitutes a suitably blunt instrument for exposing the [failure of The Widgery Tribunal to examine accurately the incidents of "Bloody Sunday"]…. However, the ghoulish way in which the dead speakers are introduced (reflecting Kinsella's usual practice) destroys their dignity: "He capered weakly, racked with pain,/His dead hair plastered in the rain."
Kinsella's later work is flawed and riven partly because of its feverish rhetoric (certain repeated words like "fumble" "stumble" and "shudder" over-stress stress), partly because of the apparent elusiveness of objective correlatives. His earlier poems harbour particulars—"My quarter-inch of cigarette/Goes flaring down to Baggot Street"—and etch some precise symbols for the suffering self. "Fear" contemporaneous with Notes from the Land of the Dead, has a real subject, the poet's dying grandmother, and within a single quatrain expresses more genuine angst than does the whole of the longer poem….
Kinsella cannot be ignored—he is a brooding, challenging presence on the poetic scene. But the harder the news the better the poem.
Edna Longley, "Spinning through the Void," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement (by permission), No. 4055, December 19, 1980, p. 1446.
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