Brendan Kennelly: Behind the Smile, by Sandrine Brisset
A curate’s egg of a book, mixing impressive scholarship and analysis with psychobabble and often grotesque biographical speculation
Brendan Kennelly: Behind the Smile
This is a curate’s egg of a book, purporting to explore “both the life and the work of Ireland’s best-loved poet”, but frequently misreading Brendan Kennelly’s poetry in literal, reductive ways to make it fit often grotesque biographical speculation.
On the one hand, Sandrine Brisset admires Kennelly almost possessively. She puts him on a pedestal, and then puts herself by his side as a “close friend” of many years’ standing, even being pictured with him in one of the book’s photographs, posed like father and daughter outside Trinity College.
On the other, she invents the notion of Kennelly’s public persona being a deliberately constructed act or self-serving “public mask”, only to become highly agitated when this mask “slips”, “cannot hold” or “becomes visible” – by which she actually means that Kennelly has been caught on camera not smiling like the passionate poet-seer beloved of the Late Late Show but looking anxious or sick because, yes, he was actually in poor health, or ageing, and yes, he did look unhappy in that picture from 1996 because he was about to undergo major heart surgery.
What is contrived here is not Kennelly’s persona – one aspect of this complex man’s many-faceted, authentic personality – but Brisset’s invention of this “public mask” central to her dotty thesis. Apparently we aren’t seeing the real Brendan Kennelly on television or at a reading but Kennelly playing the part of an archetypal Irish bard like an actor. His family and true friends know what nonsense this is.
It’s almost as if Brisset’s Behind the Smile takes its cue from Kennelly’s Book of Judas, where Judas declares: “The best way to serve the age is to betray it. / [ . . .]If betrayal is a service, learn to betray / With the kind of style that impresses men / Until they dream of being me.” Having benefited from Kennelly’s generosity in openly discussing his work with her in the course of many meetings, she wrecks what could have been the authoritative critical study Kennelly must have thought she was writing (if her footnotes on their conversations are any indication).
Like that proverbial curate’s egg, parts of Brisset’s book are indeed excellent. But after the impressive scholarship and perceptive analysis of her first chapter, “Poet and Visionary”, showing the seminal influence on his work of the Irish bardic tradition and of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry, she has Kennelly choosing “to serve the Savage Muse”, and perceiving “the correlation between schizophrenic voices and bardic voices”.
From this point in the book, literary judgment gives way to psychobabble as she begins to impose spurious interpretations derived from popular psychology on Kennelly’s poems as well as on his life. His past alcoholism, we learn, was a form of “self-harm used to pursue a mystical quest” to become a sacrificial scapegoat. It gets worse. Behind the Smile says more about the critic’s psychology than that of the poet she befriended.
Where Kennelly eschews egotism in his work, always seeking to write universal poetry by adopting conflicting voices or personae – who may be vilified figures such as Judas or Cromwell – Brisset sees this as “a dialogue between the self and the self, and not, as Kennelly claimed, between the self and otherness”. Where Kennelly’s awareness is acutely self-critical, Brisset sees “self-versions, self-portraits and self-interpretations”. Moreover, she seems to equate the poetic personae of Kennelly’s books – his “multiplicity of voices” – with the various roles he adopts, as anyone does, in his life.