A true note on a dead slack string


POETRY : Love Joy PeaceBy Thomas Kinsella Peppercanister Books, 18pp. €7.50 and Fat MasterBy Thomas Kinsella Peppercanister Books, 19pp. €7.50

GREAT POEMS of old age, as we know, are often written in middle age, when the energy for a full-blown statement is still there, not to mention a belief in technique and its sophistications, something that can dwindle in later years. Poems such as Yeats’s The Tower,Larkin’s The Old Foolsor Hughes’s October Salmonwere written by men in their 40s and 50s, projecting themselves forward into states and moods yet to be lived through. More typically, though, as in late Kavanagh, Auden, Lowell or MacNeice, we find a flattening out of the poetic line, a casualness that can be construed either way, as new refinement or disintegration of the psyche.

With Thomas Kinsella, who has been refining his poetic line for more than 60 years, the whole thing has been stripped to an essence, a kind of dry, careful annotating of the deepest physical and metaphysical intuitions. The only assumed listeners are God, addressed in these pages with a kind of ironised prayerfulness, and the human other of Into Thy Hands,the recipient of the poem:

The parts self-selected

Tried along the senses,

Founded on hard practice.

The whole shaped and corrected

To stand unsupported

All offered to an intimate

Wayward in acceptance,

Self-chosen and unknown.

Structure has always been a key word in the Kinsella lexicon. Few since the American poet Wallace Stevens have toyed so obsessively with “ideas of order”, constructs that offer, for the time being anyway, “the finding of a satisfaction”. Not surprisingly, music and song have always been important elements for Kinsella, at times heavily Romantic, as in Mahler or Sibelius, but here replaced by Bach, in whose name a humble utilitarian aesthetic is invoked, poetry no longer as ecstasy but as day labour:

I rest my faith

In the orders of earthly genius

The day labourer . . .

Ben Jonson’s mortal Beloved

. . . that must sweat to write a living line.

Bach working to the occasional requirement

– the lordly need – daily, methodical,

Into the heart of matter.

Speaking of music, the later work of Kinsella is in fact a carrying through of Patrick Kavanagh’s prescription for “a true note on a dead slack string”, except that the apparent flatness of line in poems such as these is the achievement of a personal tone, one of the few instantly recognisable tones in the English-language poetry of the past 50 years, minimal now, limned with impending darkness, but never incomprehensible:

We cleared away the debris from an

inner gate

And found a number of ancient dried


Fallen partly asunder beneath the stale

shelves . . .

Peace. We are the guardians.

Chosen from among the many

Because we were without immediate value.

That sense of something regarded from very far off, yet embodying a contemporary crux of value, is part of the phantasmagoria of things seen and imagined in these pages, where the disinterring of ancient bones, a table in a nightclub or the apparition of a disembodied arm out of nowhere all have the same validity, are rendered with the same precision, and play their part in the dance of opposites, the carnal or the spiritual, the blood and guts of a boxing match –

They were separated

The arm of one was elevated.

And the two bruised faces

Stared away from each other at the dark

– or the mathematics of divine grace in a Bach organ recital, by the Fat Master, possibly

Bach himself, in his double image as body

and spirit

Your fingers busy at the banked keys,

Your boots on the pedals with power

And the delicate weight of the dance,

The first flights of the new fugue

Ascend to fill the holy spaces.

Neither Philadelphia, where the poet lives, nor Dublin, where he was born, appears to be the locus for any of this, which could be anywhere or nowhere, a sifting and reconfiguring of a few archetypal elements. The integrity is in the awareness of limitation, the refusal to shift into a fake, major register, instead preferring, with a few almost toneless words on the edge of the ineffable, a note of self-deprecation:

A part, passive in process

And studying its own condition,

Presumes from inadequate data

To understand the whole.

“Let your last thinks be thanks”, as a mentor of Kinsella’s, WH Auden, once wrote in old age. The worker in mirror is still at his bench, as he was decades ago, his bits and pieces, little intimations of immortality, still refracting inwards, the spirit of the work ever more modest, the gratitude ever greater.

Harry Clifton is Ireland Professor of Poetry. His new collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass,is due from Wake Forest and Bloodaxe