Thomas Kinsella: ‘eliciting order from significant experience’
Despite Kinsella’s radical change in form, his thematic concerns have remained the search for meaning and self-knowledge, the power of love, artistic creativity and the artist’s role
Bardic tradition: Thomas Kinsella’s creative incorporation of Irish mythology and the early bardic poets is part of his poet’s ongoing project of repossessing an aesthetic Gaelic culture. Above, Kinsella with Eavan Boland and John F Deane during a tribute night to Kinsella at the Gate Theatre in Dublin Writers’ Week. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘A narrator of Dublin streets’: Along with artist Louis le Brocquy, above left, with whom he collaborated on The Tain, Thomas Kinsella was conferred with honorary freedom of the city of Dublin, in 2007, in recognition of his contribution to Irish literature. Kinsella’s Dublin-centred poems and sequences are often characterised by a Joycean attention to local detail. Photograph: David Sleator
Free verse: Thomas Kinsella’s poem ‘Nightwalker’ evokes the spectral figure of Joyce associated with the Martello tower in Sandycove. Above, the poet with his UCD Ulysses Medal. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘The river poured in dirty and disturbed’: Thomas Kinsella’s writing demonstrates how art can be created out of the corruption and disappointments of modern life. Above, the poet at the announcement of Dublin’s designation as a Unesco City of Literature. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The data of life: The early work of Thomas Kinsella, photographed here in 1971, was characterised by elegant formalism and a lyrical style, but he gradually became dissatisfied with conventional poetic forms. Photograph: Jack McManus
“We cannot renew the Gift
But we can drain it to the last drop.”
Born into the working-class neighbourhood of Inchicore, Dublin, in 1928, just six years after the founding of the Irish Free State, Thomas Kinsella is one of the most distinguished living Irish poets, with a body of work unlike that of any other Irish writer. Kinsella’s remarkable art is a reflection of his lifelong search for understanding and meaning amid the chaos of lived experience, and he has characterised his work as a process of “eliciting order from significant experience.” A prolific poet, he has published more than 30 collections, starting with Poems in 1956 and, most recently, Late Poems, in 2013. Kinsella continues to be a critical voice in Irish poetry, as evidenced in the latest edition of Poetry Ireland Review, published on September 12th, 2015. Edited by Vona Groarke, this special issue dedicated to WB Yeats includes detailed analysis by Kinsella of two important early Yeats poems, To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time and To Ireland in the Coming Times.
Kinsella did not start out as a writer, but instead spent many years working in the Irish Civil Service. He attended the Inchicore Model School and the O’Connell Christian Brothers’ Secondary School, where he won a scholarship to study science at University College Dublin. Realising that science was not the path he wished to pursue, he took the entrance exam for the Civil Service, and in 1946 he began working as a junior executive officer in the Land Commission, eventually rising up the ranks to the position of private secretary to TK Whitaker in the Department of Finance. While working as a civil servant by day, Kinsella was writing at night in his city-centre flat on Baggot Street, a location celebrated in one of his best-known early poems, Baggot Street Deserta. During this time he met the two people who were to have a formative influence on his life and career, Liam Miller, the publisher of the Dolmen Press, and Eleanor Walsh, his future wife. In 1955 Tom and Eleanor were married, and from their union emerge many poems on the theme of romantic love and its ability to survive the ordeals of life. Love poems commemorating their relationship are a large part of Kinsella’s first major collection, Another September (1958), which brought him to the attention of English as well as Irish readers. Subsequent early work garnered great critical acclaim in Ireland and England, and he received numerous awards including the Guinness Poetry Award in 1958 and the Denis Devlin Memorial Award in 1967.
In 1965 the poet abandoned a promising career in the Department of Finance and moved to the US, where he was writer-in-residence at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, for three years. After returning to Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship relating to his translation of the prose epic, the Táin Bó Cuailgne, the Kinsellas made the decision to settle in the US, and in 1970 he accepted an invitation from Temple University in Philadelphia to join the faculty as professor of English, a position he held for the next 20 years. This move to the US coincided with a radical change in Kinsella’s poetic style, which was facilitated to some degree by his immersion in the great Anglo-American modernists, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Kinsella drew inspiration from Williams’s “creative relaxation in the face of complex reality”, and the American poet’s colloquial idiom resonated with the Dublin poet. Exposure to Pound and Williams provided Kinsella with what he describes as “a sort of leverage out of a rather clamped tradition”, and encouraged his transition to free verse and experimentation with poetic form.
In addition to his work as a poet, Kinsella has devoted a considerable portion of his career to translating Irish literature, most notably with his 1969 translation of the Táin, the oldest narrative prose epic in European literature written in a native language. He is also known as the translator behind the bestselling anthology An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), which he co-authored with Seán Ó Tuama. In his essay on this work, Seamus Heaney characterized An Duanaire as “a re-education of our poetry,” and praised Kinsella’s translations because they were “not asking to be taken as alternatives to the originals” but instead were “offered as paths to lead our eyes left across the page, back to the Irish”, so we could “encounter works of art that belong to world literature.” Among his most influential critical interventions is his examination of the contemporary Irish writer’s relationship with the dual heritage of Gaelic and English literature, which he published as The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (1995), and also his role as the editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986). During his tenure at Temple, Kinsella established Temple University’s program of Irish Studies in Dublin. Beginning in 1975, he spent one semester each year in Ireland with Temple students, lecturing and touring around important historical and archaeological sites with Liam de Paor and other Irish scholars.
In recognition of his contribution to Irish literature, Kinsella was awarded the freedom of the city of Dublin in 2007. However, despite the numerous awards and accolades bestowed on him, and the high regard his work attracts from other poets, Kinsella remains an ambivalent figure in the world of poetry. As David Lynch points out in a new introduction to the poet’s work, Kinsella “is a writer regarded as central and at the same time marginal, his poetry is both canonical and existing on the fringe”. There are several reasons this major poet’s work is not more readily known, including a general reluctance by Kinsella to engage in public readings and actively promote his work. As discussed below, Kinsella’s work is of critical importance because it reflects the conflicts of the Irish experience and of humanity in general, with the unrelenting precision of a writer who has thought deeply about these issues for many generations.
Rejection of formal verse
Kinsella’s early work, which includes Another September (1958), and Downstream (1962), was characterised by elegant formalism, and a lyrical style deeply influenced by the English poet WH Auden. The poem A Lady of Quality, which memorialises the time Eleanor was hospitalised for two years while being treated for tuberculosis, exemplifies this early writing style:
In hospital where windows meet
With sunlight in a pleasing feat
Of airy architecture
My love has sweets and grapes to eat,
The air is like a laundered sheet,
The world’s a varnished picture.
Books and flowers at her head
Make living-quarters of her bed
And give a certain style
To our pillow-chat, the nonsense said
To bless the room from present dread
Just for a brittle while.
Despite strong critical and commercial reception to these early collections, which were both chosen by The Poetry Book Society in Britain, Kinsella gradually became dissatisfied with the ability of conventional poetic forms to aesthetically reflect his encounter with “the data of life” and the subsequent poetic impulse to record and communicate that encounter.
Alex Davis sees Pound’s presence in Kinsella’s poetry as “predating his exodus from WH Auden and the English lyric tradition”, and he cites the title poem in Downstream in support of this argument. Certainly, Kinsella was moving in this direction, and by 1968, when he published his groundbreaking work, Nightwalker and Other Poems, Kinsella had all but abandoned formal verse, a move consolidated in the subsequent collection, Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972). This abandonment of received forms and strict meter in favour of a more open and technically challenging free verse has resulted in a complex poetry of personal interrogation which is simultaneously traditional in theme and formally experimental. Paradoxically, this switch to looser forms is accompanied by a corresponding intellectual and syntactical rigour, with the poems pared down to their essence, devoid of all superfluous language and ornamentation. Heaney described Kinsella’s change in style in the following terms: “In his own work he has long since – and deliberately – given up consideration of ‘the reader’s comfort.’ He has strenuously punished the lyricist in himself who carried off such stylish performances in the early books.” Heaney astutely attributes Kinsella’s changed aesthetic to the influence of two disparate sources which Kinsella succeeds in interweaving: the Anglo-American modernism of Pound and the Irish bardic poetry of Aogán Ó Rathaille.
Revisiting earlier poems
A deliberately open-ended quality characterises much of Kinsella’s later work. Often the poems appear to begin in the middle of the event described, with no authorial presence or clear narrative. He intentionally repeats and echoes himself creatively, finding new aesthetic meaning in experiences and poems from decades earlier. Recurring imagery and motifs are a hallmark of his poetry, with entire sequences and individual poems frequently and deliberately incorporating situations and language from earlier work. One example of this approach can be seen in a late career sequence, The Familiar (1999), wherein Kinsella casts a retrospective glance over his relationship with Eleanor, and celebrates the hard-won balance that has been achieved between the competing demands of love and creativity. The title poem focuses on specific private moments within the lengthy span of their relationship. The early days of their courtship are recalled along with an acknowledgment of their disparate temperaments which were “mismatched, under a sign of sickness”. The moment when Eleanor moved into the flat in Baggot Street is remembered by the poet as the end of his isolation: “My last thoughts alone.” Another clear example is The Furnace, a poem from Out of Ireland (1987), which invites a re-reading of Phoenix Park, from a decade earlier, through the use of quotations from the earlier work and allusions to imagery employed in Phoenix Park. Fidelity to the raw data of experience from which the poet constructs an aesthetic response is a constant theme throughout Kinsella’s work and in Anatomy, from Love Joy Peace (2011), the poet again reminds himself – and his reader – that he still “presumes from inadequate data / to understand the whole”. Elsewhere in this collection Jungian motifs and archetypes recall the poet’s middle period, and the Kinsellas’ first neighbourhood is recalled yet again in the title poem Love Joy Peace.
This practice of referring to past work distinguishes Kinsella from his peers and, as Derval Tubridy astutely observed, Kinsella has developed “a set of references that serve as the circulatory system for his body of work”. The poet has admitted that he views his work as “a totality that is happening, with the individual poem a contribution to something accumulating,” which is in marked contrast to the isolated lyric poem of his early practice. For the first-time reader of Kinsella, or for those who are familiar only with his early poetry, these connections are not always obvious or clear; however, with careful reading one comes to appreciate the continuity running through Kinsella’s work. The poet himself views his art in holistic terms, characterising each poem as a first-time contribution to his accumulating body of work and his lifelong search for meaning.
Poems of psychic exploration
With the exception of WB Yeats’s interest in occultism and spiritualism, Kinsella’s creative interest in dreams and psychoanalysis has no other counterpart in Irish poetry. Some of his most critically acclaimed work is his mid-career poetry from the 1970s and 1980s, which is characterised by psychic exploration influenced by the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Gustave Jung (1875-1961). These sequences include Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972) (included in New Poems (1973)), One (1974), Song of the Night and Other Poems (1978) and Songs of the Psyche (1985). The imaginative and technical daring of the poems in these collections is one of Kinsella’s greatest achievements. Jung’s theory of mythic archetypes, along with his concepts of “the collective unconscious” and “individuation” are imaginatively interpreted by Kinsella in the form of a journey inward and a descent into unconsciousness wherein the poet encounters female ancestral and archetypal figures. For Kinsella, self-awareness is achieved only by confronting these women and the memories they trigger. The beginning of this period of reflection is signalled in the closing lines of Phoenix Park, the last poem in Nightwalker: “A snake out of the void moves in my mouth, sucks / At triple darkness/ A few ancient faces / Detach and begin to circle. / Deeper still, / Delicate distinct tissue begins to form,” Henceforth, we see in the poetry recurring imagery of snakes, circles and coils, darkness and a descent into the void which represents the beginning of knowledge, all accompanied by “a few ancient faces.”
Another key aspect of Kinsella’s Jungian-influenced poetry is the manner in which he often frames his personal journey into the Jungian Land of the Dead within the context of Irish history and mythology. Very often, the poet incorporates mythological figures that feature in the stories from Lebor Gabala Erenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland (The Book of Invasions), as a metaphor for the collective unconscious of his ancestors. These stories feature prominently in From the Land of the Dead and One. Kinsella also draws upon figures from the Irish bardic tradition, including Amergin, Ireland’s first poet, and, as noted by Heaney, Aogán Ó Rathaille, one of the last of the Irish-language poets. This creative incorporation of Irish mythology and the early bardic poets is part of the poet’s ongoing project of repossessing an aesthetic Gaelic culture which Kinsella views as lost after the death of the Irish language with the Famine in the 19th century.
A Dublin poet
When Kinsella began writing in the early 1950s he deliberately shied away from locating his work in a specifically Irish context, either in theme or in setting. With Nightwalker and Other Poems, we can see a change in the topography of his poetry, as the disillusioned nightwalker wanders through the streets of Dublin. The city continues to be an important setting for future Dublin-centred sequences that include St Catherine’s Clock (1987), where Kinsella explores national and family history at the site of Robert Emmet’s execution in Dublin, and much of his poetry in the 1990s takes Dublin as its setting. In Personal Places (1990), Kinsella makes clear the relationship between place and personal identity: “There are established personal places/ that receive our lives’ heat / and adapt in their mass, like stone.” Poems From Center City (1990), focuses on Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s, and Kinsella’s prayer for a local watchfulness sums up the driving force behind his work: “Lord, grant us a local watchfulness. / Accept us into that minority / driven toward a totality of response.” Open Court (1991), also set in central Dublin, takes the reader into the famous literary pub, McDaid’s, near closing time. Portraits of several poets active in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s are imaginatively rendered, as Kinsella employs this conceit to consider the place of poetry in modern Irish society.
The streets of Dublin’s city centre provide the scaffolding for The Pen Shop (1997), a journey poem in which Kinsella’s speaker explores the relationship between place and politics, the past and the present, in the context of the geographic confines of the city. Kinsella, like Joyce, is in Dennis O’ Driscoll’s estimation, “a narrator of Dublin’s streets”, and in The Pen Shop Kinsella’s walker revisits Joyce’s Dublin by reversing Leopold Bloom’s walk through the city centre. He recalls Bloom clasping and unclasping his hands in the vicinity of John Grey’s statute on O’Connell Street, and much of what Kinsella’s speaker observes on his walk through the city centre corresponds with what Joyce describes Bloom observing, such as O’Connell Bridge and the barge passing underneath. The River Liffey is the dividing line in the poem:
The river poured in dirty and disturbed.
. . .
From Islandbridge. Under Kingsbridge
with the black currents turning among each other
in among the black piles at the lower Brewery gates:
Although the journey is short, from O’Connell Street to Bewley’s Café in Westmorland Street, around College Green towards Nassau Street and the pen shop, the poem opens up beyond the geographic space described. The speaker’s thoughts drift toward Wexford, where Eleanor is from, and beyond, to the Atlantic and the home of the original people of Ireland that Kinsella writes about in At the Western Ocean’s Edge.
In the poem Phoenix Park referenced earlier, the poet and his wife drive around the Phoenix Park on the eve of their imminent departure from Ireland for the US. Kinsella’s Dublin-centred poems and sequences are often characterised by a Joycean attention to local detail, as evidenced in Model School, Inchicore, Phoenix Street and Bow Lane, which are set in Kinsella’s childhood environment. Numerous poems take as their starting point Tom and Eleanor’s family home in Percy Place. Further evidence that Kinsella’s career-long poetic identity is located in Dublin can be found in his 2006 prose memoir, A Dublin Documentary, in which the poet revisited the Dublin neighbourhoods of his youth through prose, poems and photographs, and tells the story of how the two sides of his family, the Casserlys and the Kinsellas, arrived in Dublin.
Representations of women
Women are of central importance to Kinsella’s poetry, and one of the unique components of his poetic corpus is the variety of ways in which he represents female figures. Whether it be poems featuring the Beloved, the Jungian archetypal Great Mother, Kinsella’s grandmothers (who are often conflated with the Irish Hag or Cailleach), or the figure of the Muse, women are an integral part of Kinsella’s career long investigation of the creative process and ideas of self. Whatever insights the poet derives from his continual search is typically achieved with the enabling assistance of these female figures, be they real or archetypal.
Notwithstanding his scepticism in conventional belief systems, Kinsella’s belief in love’s ability to survive and triumph over the bitterness of life is a hallmark of his poetry, and the relationship between the poet and his wife, Eleanor, is central to his aesthetic exploration of this belief. As Maurice Harmon notes, “Eleanor’s role varies from the beloved in Poems to the dramatic partner in Wormwood (1966), to the Muse figure in Phoenix Park, to the goddess of Madonna and Other Poems (1991). In effect, she becomes a multiple woman whose importance as an enduring and reliable partner – wife, companion, Muse – is successfully affirmed.” The trajectory of Kinsella’s imaginative representations of his relationship with Eleanor can be traced from the early marriage sequence Wormwood (1966), where marital strife and discord are laid bare, to the late career sequence, The Familiar (1999), in which Kinsella reaffirms Eleanor’s importance to his life and work. Similarly, Kinsella’s evolving conception of the Muse figure as impulse, inspiration and expression, is most fully explored in Late Poems, specifically the Peppercanister publications Fat Master and Love Joy Peace.
Kinsella is a private poet and a private individual; however, there have been a few occasions where he has felt compelled to write about public figures or issues. Night Conference, Wood Quay: 6 June 1979, reflects the Kinsellas’ involvement in the efforts to save the Dublin Viking settlement at Wood Quay from destruction by Dublin Corporation in the 1970s. Lynch points out that in many of his Dublin-themed poems, Kinsella “rigorously interrogates the development of contemporary Ireland”, revealing how shortsighted political decisions compromise the ideals and cultural values of the nation. Sadly, the efforts of the Wood Quay committee of which the Kinsellas were part came to naught, and “The white-cuffed marauders” won the day after the settlement was cemented over for a car park.
Despite Ireland’s neutrality during the second World War, Kinsella was deeply affected by events in Europe, and the war confirmed his sense of man’s capacity for destruction. The discovery of evil is the central preoccupation of an early collection, Downstream (1962), with the terrifying reality of violence a central motif in the title poem. This volume also includes Old Harry, about president Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan. In Nightwalker, public and private experience is merged in an impassioned denunciation of the political corruption and the eclipsed idealism of the independent Free State. The nocturnal rambler, who knows that “things seem and are not good”, wanders his home neighbourhood, toward the sea front, reflecting on the controversial political figure of Charles Haughey, “Our new young minister”, the “Sonhusband”, who married the daughter of the Fianna Fáil minister and future taoiseach Sean Lemass, and is sarcastically imagined as mounting to glory “On his big white harse!”. The nightwalker appeals to a very different kind of Irishman, the spectral figure of Joyce associated with the Martello tower in Sandycove: “Watcher in the tower, / Be with me now.” Eventually the nightwalker’s meditations under the moon lead him to a desolate psychological place, “the Sea of Disappointment”.
The first poem published by Kinsella under his own imprint, The Peppercanister Press, was Butcher’s Dozen, which arose out of the a desire by Kinsella to respond immediately to a monumental injustice. On January 30th 1972, 13 unarmed civil-rights demonstrators were killed in Derry by British paratroopers. A commission was formed, headed by Lord Widgery, to investigate the matter; however, much crucial evidence and medical testimony was ignored and the army officers were exonerated. Within a week of the publication of the committee’s findings, Kinsella had written and published Butcher’s Dozen, an angry, impassioned indictment of the Widgery Report written in ballad form. Although Kinsella’s position was subsequently vindicated when the British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised publicly in the House of Commons to the victims and their families in June 2010, the damage was done, and his reputation in Britain never recovered. Kinsella’s only other overtly public poem is The Good Fight, a long poem published to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. The poem works backwards from the time of Kennedy’s assassination to his swearing in, and includes excerpts from Kennedy’s speeches and interviews, along with a dramatised first-person portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald drawn from interviews and books. Harmon notes that in complex ways the poem “creates a dramatic and subtle contrast between the two men.” Harmon also draws attention to how Kinsella takes Kennedy’s optimistic final speech, with “its definitions of national and human possibilities, positive and optimistic, based on the idea that ‘All reasonable things are possible’,” and contrasts it with Plato’s observations on the dangers and pitfalls of leadership.
The Peppercanister Press
With the establishment of the Peppercanister Press in 1972 Kinsella further distinguished himself from his peers in that he now had the unprecedented ability to control how he published his work. The disadvantage of the Peppercanister method of publication is that it has restricted Kinsella’s audience as it removes his work from mainstream publication channels. To the extent that Kinsella’s audience has diminished as his career has progressed, I would argue that this is due to low visibility, as opposed to the content of the work causing readers to shy away from engagement with it. Typically, Peppercanister issues two chapbooks at a time in limited deluxe editions and trade editions, and republishes them subsequently in groups of five issued by Oxford University Press or Carcanet Press in Britain. Notwithstanding the drawbacks mentioned above, this method of draft publication has allowed Kinsella considerable freedom with regard to revising and editing his work. When sequences are issued in discrete groups as part of a larger edition, the text has often been revised and a prologue or epilogue has been added. It was not until the publication of the Collected Poems by Oxford University Press in 1996 that the full trajectory of Kinsella’s career became accessible for the first time. Since then, Kinsella has published five additional sequences through Peppercanister, which were collected and published by Carcanet in 2013 under the title Late Poems. As the Peppercanisters have increased in number (there are now 29), critics such as Tubridy are recognising that they are in fact “a series of distinctive and interconnected poetic sequences that build together to form a loosely structured whole”.
Another distinctive facet of the Peppercanister books and pamphlets is the extraordinary attention given to the cover art for each publication, so that the visual images complement and reinforce the thematic concerns of the poems. This attention to the visual aspect of the work was evident from the onset of Kinsella’s career in his Dolmen Press publications. The Death Of A Queen (1956) includes line drawings of the unnamed queen by Bridget Swinton within the pamphlet. Finistere (1972), also published by Dolmen in a limited edition, includes a number of designs by Hugh Kearns and Liam Miller that derive from carvings at the stone passage tombs in Newgrange and Knowth, Co Meath, and also from Carndonagh in Co Donegal. Perhaps the most striking example of Kinsella’s cover art aesthetics is The Messenger (1978), an elegy for his father, John Kinsella, a political activist and union organiser at Guinness Brewery. On a blood-red cover Jarlath Hayes has redrawn the emblems and motifs of the devotional magazine, The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart, to reflect various aspects of John Kinsella’s life. In addition to cover art, several Peppercanisters include additional art work inside the text, the most notable examples being One (1972), with line drawings by Anne Yeats reflecting the Celtic myths that inform the poems, and A Technical Supplement (1976),which includes illustrations selected from volumes of plates issued with Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Most readers of Kinsella’s translation of the Táin will recall the striking brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy, which added to the vigour and the immediacy of Kinsella’s powerful translation.
The question of ‘difficulty’
It is an unfortunate commonplace in Kinsella criticism to talk about the poet’s mature work in terms of the demands it places on the reader. Throughout his work, the accessible poetry continues; for example, in the poems about Kinsella’s grandparents and neighbours, Hen Woman, The High Road, A Hand of Solo, and Ancestor, from New Poems (1973). Many of Kinsella’s apparently ‘difficult’ poems are not as difficult as they seem on the first encounter. As with the poetic corpus of other significant modern poets, what is required is that readers pay close attention to the text. Kinsella has often stated that he regards the act of writing poetry as an act of communication, wherein the poet initiates the act of communication by virtue of writing the poem and which the reader then completes through careful and attentive reading. Numerous examples abound also in the Peppercanister sequences. In One (1974), a collection focused on the poet’s search for origins and meaning, 38 Phoenix Street, Minstrel and His Father’s Hands, consider the theme of origin from the perspective of Kinsella’s own family.
In another Peppercanister sequence that focuses on psychic exploration, Song of the Night and Other Poems (1978), a gentle tone persists in the poem Artists’ Letters, where once again love and the artistic act are linked. Here, the speaker discovers packets of old love letters, “old immediacies in elastic bands”, and reflects on his courtship of Eleanor and also his development as a poet, with “the spirit shaken into strength / by shock after shock of understanding”. Also in this volume, Tao and Unfitness at Inistiogue on the River Nore, arguably one of Kinsella’s most memorable historical poems, is set around a family visit to the town of Inistiogue. In Shop Shut, a poem from Littlebody (2000), Kinsella describes in plain and unambiguous language the simple act of locking up the poet’s “den of images” on a summer night in Percy Place: “I pulled the heavy door over / and leaned my head against it, / the long key coarse in my face.”
The overall clarity of Kinsella’s poetry is also evident throughout Late Poems, where the poet interrogates “the waste and the excess” of the living process, along with the corrosive effects of warfare on the human spirit. Countering these moral and ethical vacuums are the creatively redeeming impulses that inform the search for understanding and meaning, and the affirmation of the pervasive effects of Love Joy Peace.
Despite Kinsella’s radical change in form, his thematic concerns have been fairly consistent throughout his work, namely, the search for meaning and self-knowledge in the modern world, the power of love and its ability to survive the ordeals of life, the psychic explorations of the self, the questions of artistic creativity and the moral role of the artist in society. Throughout his work, Kinsella endeavours to formulate an aesthetic structure that will provide order, while simultaneously recognising that an understanding or order will be at best, provisional. Yet evidence of a more detailed understanding can be read in Kinsella’s most recent collection, Late Poems, wherein the poet continues his effort to craft a positive aesthetic response to the waste and bitterness that he considers an inevitable facet of human history.
Like Robert Lowell, Kinsella has mined the details of his own life to produce poems of acute personal reminiscence, and like Joyce, his writing demonstrates how art can be created out of the corruption and disappointments of modern life. Although some admirers of the early work may have been disappointed about the direction of Kinsella’s mature work, there has never been any doubt about the integrity and passion with which he pursued his artistic ambition. His decisive shift to open forms in the 1960s expanded the frontiers of Irish poetry. To the extent that Kinsella’s corpus can be viewed as one continuous creative endeavor, it is arguably similar in scope and ambition to Pound’s Cantos. Given the organic unity of Kinsella’s work, he is best approached not in terms of individual collections or poems, but rather as if his entire output constitutes a single work of art.
This article was first published in Reading Ireland: The Little Magazine, which is edited by Adrienne Leavy. The representation of women in the poetry of Thomas Kinsella was the subject of her doctoral dissertation at Arizona State University
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