In praise of that elegant wordsmith, Thomas Kinsella

A poet who caught the elusive mood and atmosphere of dirty old Dublin in the 1970s

Thomas Kinsella “will always be Dublin in the early 1970s, that desolation and personal loneliness”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Thomas Kinsella “will always be Dublin in the early 1970s, that desolation and personal loneliness”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

Thomas Kinsella, who turns 90 this month, was my first poetic mentor.

I remember the excitement in the early 1970s, as a university student, of discovering the work of someone who seemed to come out of the same blank space that most of us inhabited on the Irish poetry map – the space of suburban, commuter and inner city life, at a time when Irish poetry meant Rural Irish poetry and was about to mean Northern Irish poetry.

Fifty years later, after decades of brilliant regionalism, that first glimpse Kinsella and his 1970s and 1980s texts represented, of a wider field of vision, is an opportunity still to be taken.

Two Kinsella poems of those years, Butchers Dozen and The Good Fight still might stand for the mental crux of Irish poetry, not to say Ireland itself, at a time, the end of the 1960s, between opening up to the wider world or reversion to the dark, introverted past.

The first, Kinsella’s verse indictment of the Widgery tribunal after Bloody Sunday, though lauded and savaged equally, at least was part of Ireland’s conversation with itself. The second, 10 years after the death of the iconic (in Irish eyes) John Kennedy, a dark meditation on power and anonymity in an America that could have been anywhere, was barely noticed. It was not part of Ireland’s conversation with itself. Yet it stands still as an example of a world-historical poetry Kinsella could have gone on writing had he been encouraged to, and that others, the young like myself, in the sectarian dead end of Irish imagination at the time, might have followed him into, given a green light.

A lonely room.
An electric fire
Glowing in one corner. He is lying on his side.
It is late. He is at the centre of a city,
Awake.
Above and below him
There are other rooms, with others in them.
He knows nobody as yet, and has
No wish to. Outside the window
The street noises ascend.
His cell hangs in the night.
He could give up.
But there is something he must do.

The figure of this man, a composite of Kennedy’s supposed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and of Kinsella himself, both trapped in “the silence of reality” (John Clellan Holmes), both endowed, through gun or alternately pen, with a way out, has haunted me all my life.

The more so in those years when the white noise of Irish history deafened the mind to anything else, and the need to get away, to break out of “the silence of reality” into any and every activism, led to a string of such rooms across the hemisphere. How much wiser, I now think, to have sat still and compared oneself, Thomas Kinsella, to Oswald the prowling outsider.

I have stood out
In the black rain and waited
And concentrated among
Those over-lit ruins
Irritable and hungry
And not known what city.

The rain is city rain, out of Joyce not Yeats. And dare one say it, intellectual not lyrical rain – loped through, in the Collected Poems, by the night doppelgangers of a highly achieved civil service and literary career. The ruined pub goer Mister D, under Liffey wharf lights on his way home; the helpless Dick King, unequal to the city.

Clearly now I remember rain on the cobbles,
Ripples in the iron trough, and the horses’ dipped
Faces under the Fountain in James’s Street,
When I sheltered my nine years against your buttons
And your own dread years were to come;

Not to mention the noctambular civil servant of Nightwalker, the apparitions out of the small hours in the Liberties, the shadowy figures of addict and prostitute at Huband bridge on the Grand Canal. All the Oswalds of the soul, each trapped, like the poet himself, in “the silence of reality”.

Dublin in the 1970s, though seedy and run down, was still a physical experience – porter smell, cigarette fug, cattle and horse dung at the North Wall, pigeons pecking at drifts of grain on the cobbled wharves of the Liffey, the assorted metal textures of gantries, cranes and transit sheds, the blue and yellow lights of the deepwater quays after dark, and the constant engine thrum. To a dock-wandering student with the city poems of Hart Crane in his back pocket, the only local model to work from was Thomas Kinsella, whose poems were lessons in seeing Dublin, the city I actually lived in.

Through New Poems 1973 and the books that followed, I learned to believe in my own reality and work from its rudiments.

Look.
I was lifted up
Past rotten bricks weeds
To look over the wall.
A mammy lifted up a baby on the other side.
Dusty smells. Cat. Flower bells
Hanging down purple red.

My luck as a young poet was to meet Kinsella at his moment of self-transformation in middle age, from the Audenesque and Larkinesque maker of the solidly wrought poems of his earlier volumes to the Poundian open sequences and self-notatings of his later mode, after his move to America in 1965, leaving behind him Irish lyric charm and its British approbation – PBS awards, Guinness Prizes – for a colder more objective probing of depths at once personal and universal, but always aware, sometimes hilariously, of its own limitations.

Nine are the enabling elements
In the higher crafts
And of these the greatest is Luck.
I lift my baton and my Trousers fall.

Thomas Kinsella, once again resident in his native Dublin, will be many things to many people. For some, he is a force of cultural retrieval who has brought back The Táin and Poems of the Dispossessed to contemporary understanding. For many more, he is the love poet of a single lifelong muse, his recently deceased wife Eleanor, through whose presence we have had since the 1950s, a continual meditation on that state, from the delicate grace of Another September and Crysalides, to the darker vicissitudes of marriage in the Wormwood sequence, and ever more nakedly in the late style, to the pained acceptances of old age.

Male and Female
In punishment for Man’s will
And reminded of our Fall.
In token of which
I plant this dry kiss
In your rain-wet hair.

For me, Kinsella will always be Dublin in the early 1970s, that desolation and personal loneliness. Though it is said, of course, one always finds what one really needs. I see myself, 50 years ago, foraging, like Oswald, Dick King, Mister D or Kinsella himself, like that beetle from his poem Hen Woman, for “specks of staleness and freshness” – the rudiments, the first stages of a language that will take me out of imprisonment in the silence of my own reality.

  • Harry Clifton’s new collection of poems, Herod’s Dispensations, is due from Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books next spring. He was Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010-2013 and teaches at Trinity College.
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