Thomas Kinsella: ‘Reading a poem requires the kind of care needed to cross the street’

One of the last interviews given by the late poet, in conversation with Adrienne Leavy

Thomas Kinsella in 2017. Photograph: John Minihan

Thomas Kinsella in 2017. Photograph: John Minihan


Thomas Kinsella’s interview, with email questions from Adrienne Leavy in Phoenix, Arizona, and replies from Dublin, covers a broad array of issues, including his memories of growing up in working-class Dublin; his time as an Irish civil servant and in US universities; and many general comments, in particular on publishing and politics, poetry and the poetic process.

You grew up in the Inchicore-Kilmainham area of Dublin. In your book, A Dublin Documentary (2006), which is part memoir, part poetry book, you refer to this place as “the Ranch”. Could you describe what it was like growing up in Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s?
Inchicore is a district on the western outskirts of Dublin. The Ranch is a settlement of six small streets westward from Inchicore. In the 1930s and 1940s if you went one step further westward from the Ranch you were heading into the country toward Ballyfermot and picking blackberries.

I believe The Ranch was designed for workers on the Great Southern Railway, though I have never checked this. It is connected with the railway works by a pathway people called “the Khyber Pass”, which suggests a date around the time of the Boer War.

The Ranch was a perfect place to grow up. The streets safe, free of all traffic. One boundary was the Liffey Hill. From there, downhill and across a wide field, and you were on the bank of the river Liffey. The other boundary a high blank wall – the wall of the old landlord Inchicore Estate: in walking distance from the Model School.

Poems such as Hen Woman, Ancestor, The High Road, A Hand of Solo and Tear evoke the world of your childhood and the people and places of your early life. The aforementioned poems were first published in Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973), after you had started reading Jung. Do you think that Jungian philosophy facilitated this imaginative exploration?
Awareness of Jung came after the event. I had been wondering at the insistence of certain subjects: detailed memories of random places and happenings, gestures and voices, distinct as though they were there. A phrase heard only once, a glimpse through a doorway, that would never go away, always part of my daily thoughts. With these insistent memories it was not enough to leave them as recorded memories. There was a need to put them in intense words – words that would try to remake the memory and my response so as to make it possible always to re-experience the exact memory and the response.

Reading Jung’s psychology of the unconscious, I recognised and understood. Art as a means to resist, in Jung’s own words, “the relentless flight of time…the poison of the stealthily creeping serpent of time…”

On April 10th, 2019, you attended the opening of a sculpture garden with President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina Higgins at the Inchicore Model School which you attended as a child. Your poem, Model School, Inchicore from Songs of the Psyche (1985), celebrates the school – can you describe the school’s significance for you?
The Model School was small and a place of discovery. I learned there, for the first time, that there was a world outside The Ranch with enormous activities and things to understand. Our classes were small. We had two teachers, friendly and willing to answer all questions.

There was a growing awareness of the troubles in Europe. I remember being uneasy at talk of General Franco and the voice of Hitler on the radio, full of hate. Our time in The Ranch ended with the beginning of the war, and a brief move to relatives in Manchester “to make bombs”. After the failure of this move and the return to real poverty in Dublin, again in reach of the Model School, I finished my primary education there.

Mr Brown, one of the teachers, had an understanding with the Christian Brothers to send them any promising boys for secondary education and I was passed on to the O’Connell Schools. My father was interested but my mother was annoyed: she assumed I would leave school at 14 like everyone else and “get a job”, but she accepted. The Christian Brothers was very different from the Model School; seedy and strict, pressured totally towards success in the exams. History was a succession of wars. Studying a poem meant memorising stanzas and phrases for quotation.

I left the Christian Brothers into a changed world. After a false start in university, to the beginning of a career in the civil service.

Both your grandfather and your father worked in Guinness Brewery. Your grandfather ran one of the barges from the brewery to the sea-going vessels in Dublin harbor and your father worked in the cooperage and was also a union organiser in the factory. How influential were these men in shaping your world view?
My father’s presence was strong. I tried to show this in The Messenger (Peppercanister Press, 1978). Born in a hard time and place, with an impulse toward literature and music when books and music were hard to find. With left-wing leanings in a closed Catholic world. He ended as a helper, a labourer, on a Guinness delivery lorry.

His father was an old dark presence, never an influence. It was the heel of his thumb and his plug tobacco that I couldn’t forget. Or his shadow presence at night, in the kitchen, playing the fiddle to himself.

Your late wife, Eleanor Kinsella, is an important presence in your poetry. Can you describe how you and Eleanor met and talk a little about the early days of your relationship?
We had known each other in a friendly way in UCD. Once when she was in hospital I paid her a friendly visit. The stirring of interest during that first meeting was a surprise to both of us; it continued without interruption. For some years after our marriage poetry wasn’t the dominant presence that it became. It fitted into my time as a civil servant; that seemed sufficient. But with the poetry and the translation growing more demanding there was a conflict, especially with the translation of The Táin.

I would probably have abandoned The Táin but, at the crucial time, I was offered a position in the US by a university in the Midwest that I had never heard of. I was offered three years to focus on my own work, required to meet informally with a few students interested in poetry. It was a major decision, resigning from the Department of Finance, but it was the beginning of the right career. I feel uneasy still when I think about it but it was the proper move. Eleanor was generous in agreeing to the change and it gave the right shape to our lives.

One of your early sequences, Wormwood (1966), is a series of seven marriage poems which address the ordeals of life with unflinching honesty. Maurice Harmon in Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs ( Irish Academic Press, 2008), has argued that these poems match “images and vignettes of suffering and endurance against those of love and mutual support”. Did you and Eleanor discuss this volume before you published it?
The poems in Wormwood are love poems. The couple are sharing a joyless interval in their lives. There is no rational justification for their staying together. Application of reason would advise separation, but each continues in the hope of a return of happiness. The poems were not discussed. They emerged from the shared decision to stay together.

Before emigrating to the United States in 1965 you spent nearly 20 years as a civil servant, first as a junior officer in the Irish Land Commission, moving up the ranks to become an assistant principal officer in the Department of Finance where you worked under the influential economist TK Whitaker. Do you think your experience in drafting and reviewing government papers, where precision of language is critical, prepared you for the rigours of poetry?
The time in the Civil Service – a great detour as it seems now – was valuable. In the Land Commission, in the Congested Districts Board section, I was dealing as I know now with living history: the breaking up of the Cromwellian estates and dividing them back among the tenant farmers, in some cases descendants of the original dispossessed owners.

Later, in the Department of Finance, I was aware of financial operations on a large scale, dealing with international institutions like the International Monetary Fund. I could see the coming together of administration and politics with the preparation of the annual budget. My time as private secretary to TK Whitaker, the head of the department, was important, observing the management of vital material at the highest level. Also important were our unofficial talks. He was interested in poetry, especially in Irish. The idea for An Duanaire: The Poems of the Dispossessed (1981) came out of one of these talks.

It was into this, in mid-career, that the offer was made by the University of Southern Illinois and the shape of our lives changed.

In the title poem from Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), the nocturnal rambler appeals to Joyce rather than Yeats for support: “Watcher in the tower, / Be with me now. Turn your milky spectacles / On the sea, unblinking.” The urban sensibility of Joyce is evident in many of your Dublin-themed sequences and poems. Could you speak to his influence on your development as a writer?
Reading Joyce confirmed for me the validity of my own efforts. Working free from the effects of the educational system had been a slow process. Discovering that literature was not a structure fixed in the past, but that it might deal with familiar and immediate life. The poems of WH Auden had been liberating: poetry can deal with living matters. I said some things that were important to me, using his voice. Joyce confirmed that the voice could be my own and the observed matters also my own.

The first Peppercanister publication was Butcher’s Dozen (1972), which was written in response to the Widgery report on the killing of 13 civil rights demonstrators in Derry on Bloody Sunday. The poem is full of outrage over the blatant falsehoods in the report, and it cost you dearly in terms of your audience in England where you had enjoyed considerable success. With the publication of the Saville report in 2010, which essentially confirmed your charges, and David Cameron’s formal apology in the House of Commons to the victims and their families, do you feel any sense of retrospective vindication?
The first Peppercanister was a self-contained and a very vulnerable idea. It emerged out of nowhere with the instant reaction to the Widgery Tribunal’s findings about the Derry massacre. Time mattered, and the poem was written and published in a week. I abandoned all my usual carefulness and chose the doggerel method for speed and effect. I borrowed Liam Miller’s expertise in getting the poem into print and out onto the streets at a few pence a copy. I debated whether to leave it anonymous or with an invented name, but decided to sign and take the consequences. You can be too careful dealing with the truth. Also I did not want to implicate Miller and the Dolmen Press. Looking around for a publishing name I saw outside across the canal our friendly neighbourhood Peppercanister Church.

It could have rested there, with Butcher’s Dozen. But there were two poems on Seán Ó Riada’s recent death. These had something of the occasional about them and Peppercanister was there and waiting. I had no idea of the business aspects – sales, advertising, pricing, accounts; this ignorance continued until the end. My interest was only in the contents and in the presentation of the books. When I look back on it the Peppercanister Press might have lasted longer than it should. But there are some very handsome books surviving.

Regarding the official apology by the English government for the Bloody Sunday massacre and the Widgery Report, I would of course appreciate this as a vindication of the poem. But the apology really doesn’t count. In England the Widgery version is still preferred. In an interview in May of 2019, the voice of one of the paratroopers: “A job well done. I’d do it again”; the grim voice of their leader: “We were fired on.”

As you mentioned above, you followed Butcher’s Dozen with two sequences dedicated to the late Seán Ó Riada, A Selected Life (1972) and Vertical Man (1973). Ó Riada’s score for Mise Éire was a tremendous success in the 1960s and his general contributions to the world of traditional Irish music is substantial. He died tragically at the age of 40. How well did you know Ó Riada?
I knew him well for a while as we were both beginning, and in the early years of our two families. We had the same sort of mind: rigorous as to fact and precision but wide open. He was totally capable in the world of music. I was with him in the west Kerry Gaeltacht when he rediscovered traditional Irish music, forgotten since his childhood. He was excited hearing a solitary sean-nós voice one night in a pub in Dunquin. Later, he brought great creativity and influence to bear setting up a group of great solo players and getting them to play as a group without losing their individual excellence. The public effect of this group, Ceoltóirí Chualann, was very great and amounted to the reawakening of Irish music from its long coarse obscurity.

Our two families grew apart with our different careers. I heard reports of his public activities such as the successful concerts with Ceoltóirí Chualann, and also some of his continual excesses. He died too young. I visited him in hospital at the end, for a cheerful farewell.

In The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (1995), you discuss the two traditions of Irish literature and the challenges the contemporary Irish writer faces when confronting their dual heritage of Gaelic literature and Irish literature in English. You write poetry in English yet you have also spent a considerable part of your career in a process of reclamation, translating Gaelic literature and poetry for a contemporary English-speaking audience. Do you think you have successfully resolved the tensions inherent in making the decision to write in one language or the other?
I think so. I began writing in Irish: I was fluent in Irish when I left secondary school, and I was enthusiastic about the possible revival of Irish as the national language. But as poetry grew more serious the responses came always in English. It was not really a decision.

You spent many years working on a translation of the Irish vernacular epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is the central tale in the Ulster heroic cycle. Your finished work, The Táin (1969), is widely regarded by scholars and critics as the definitive translation of this epic. I understand that the Harvard scholar Gene Haley worked with you on the topographical aspects of the story. Was it helpful to physically recreate the route of the Táin when you were working on your translation?
The translation was almost finished when this matter became important. In conversation with the Irish scholar John Kelleher he asked how I was handling the place names. My response was blank. How does one handle place names? He was insistent. The place names in The Táin are important. He introduced me to Gene Haley and it became clear that the place names are crucial. Many episodes end with the naming of the place. The climax is a long narrative, with the mortally wounded bull moving about the country, the place names recorded as he goes. Once this element was understood it added significantly to the work, both to the tone of the prose narrative, with the maps, and to the physical presentation of the book.

Your collaboration with the artist Louis le Brocquy on The Táin resulted in a series of 133 black and white lithographic brush drawings which appear throughout the text. How did that partnership come about? Did you know le Brocquy personally or did Liam Miller at the Dolmen Press suggest him for the project?
I hadn’t known le Brocquy. It was Liam Miller’s inspiration to have him produce those marvelous drawings.

In an 1993 interview you distanced yourself from your early work, faulting if for its “pointless elegance”. In your remarks to Donatella Abbate Badin you stated as follows: “The poems of my own that I am most embarrassed by are the ones that have been most enjoyed for their rhyme and rhythm and beauty.” The work you are referring to are the early formal lyric poems which could be characterised as Audenesque in form. Over 25 years later, do you still consider your early work, which was very well received, to be unsatisfactory?
I was putting it far too strongly. I am no longer embarrassed. The voice and the forms of the early poetry were borrowed for a while until I found my own, but I don’t think that is unusual, and the poems do say completely what I wanted.

Like Robert Lowell, you have consistently mined the details of family history in your poetry. In our previous interview you spoke of Lowell’s “commitment to the demands of poetry, including [his] necessary precision of the medium.” Did his poetry, and I am thinking specifically of Life Studies (1959), provide an enabling example for you when you began exploring personal history, or was it rather his aesthetic seriousness?
I admire Lowell’s poetry but my own poems of family emerged of their own accord – out of those intense memories.

During your tenure at Temple University you taught many classes on the work of Ezra Pound, concentrating particularly on close readings of the Cantos. Many critics consider your poetic corpus, with its deliberately open-ended sequences and recurring preoccupations and themes, akin to Pound’s Cantos both in scope and ambition. How much of an influence was Pound on your development as a poet?
In the understanding of the poetic medium the enabling example was Ezra Pound. Allowing the content and the expression their freedom to take their own shape. There was no question of imitation as with Auden; of following Pound’s unique excesses. The Cantos permit everything; they are a complete personal world with a strong fundamental sanity and must be taken with all their peculiarities. In Canto XXXVI, for instance, there is a borrowed voice, the voice of Eriugena, describing the poetic process in terms that would satisfy Jung.

There is a belief that all Pound’s poetry is difficult – that he is impossible as well as unhinged. One can open Personae, the collected shorter poems, at random, and there is a poem of clarity and wit, of verbal and rhythmic perfection, speaking to a reader who is prepared to respond to the poem, as to any poem, on its own terms. There is sometimes a special subject matter. If the reader investigates this the experience of the poem will increase; if not, it remains a valuable poetic experience.

Your move to the United States coincided with your rejection of received forms and rhyme in favour of a looser line and free verse. With the exception of The Good Fight (1973), which was published on the 10th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and the poem Wyncote, Pennsylvania: a gloss (with its nod to Pound’s childhood hometown), you have not written directly about the United States. On the contrary, your work has concentrated in large part on your journey of psychic exploration, the city of Dublin, your immediate family and early Irish history and mythology. Do you think the time you spent living and working in the US sharpened your focus when you gazed back at Ireland? Was the geographic distance beneficial artistically?
The move to the US gave me my own time at my proper concerns. Southern Illinois is a world to itself; on the border – but out of reach – of the deep South, in driving distance of St Louis. The first result in the university was the finishing of The Táin. And I got a much clearer view of what I had left behind. The poems in Nightwalker were written in Carterville, Illinois.

I would leave occasionally on a poetry reading tour. These reading tours were mainly in universities, there were invitations in one or two of these to join the staff. It was assumed I would give courses in creative writing. I rejected this, not believing it is possible to teach what is really a psychic need that must find its own means.

We left Southern Illinois after five years. It had been a good place to get work done; I made up all my arrears. The move to Philadelphia was more businesslike. In Temple University I was given my freedom and let design my own courses - the assessment of individual poems; seminars forming part of the students’ academic career. I stayed with Temple University until my retirement.

I don’t know what my writing career would have been without the move to America. Certainly there would have been less.

During your tenure as Professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia you created what was arguably the first Irish study abroad programme, when students from Temple would travel to Dublin with you for a few weeks during the spring semester and attend lectures in class and also at various sites of historical importance around Ireland. I believe you arranged for scholars from different disciplines such as history, folklore, literature and archaeology to lecture to your students. Can you describe this programme in more detail?
The Irish Tradition programme in Dublin was for a small number of students. The meetings were held in Trinity College and the lectures given by specialists in their fields: in archaeology and early Irish literature, continuing with folklore and a survey of history and the literature in both languages. Late in the progra.mem there was a field trip, visiting important sites around the country. This was led by Liam de Paor, an expert in many fields. His lectures on site, with my own, brought the programme together. In the final phase the students were fully informed of modern Ireland against the complete background. Eleanor was a unique help during it all. Her ease and extraordinary warmth were important to the students.

Your poetry has sometimes been unfairly characterised as “difficult”. While some of your sequences of psychic exploration may appear daunting to a first-time reader, the reality is that much of your poetry is very clear. All serious poetry is demanding and one could point to certain works by other Irish poets such as Jonathan Swift, WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon where the label “difficult” could be attached. Why do you think this particular moniker had dogged your work?
As to being labelled as a “difficult poet”, when I read a poem of mine, early or late, the language seems to me exact. The language is clear, as clear as it needs to be. As you say, much of the poetry is quite clear. There are difficult things that I would like to understand, or to understand better, and the poem records these in their difficulty along with the effort to understand. The poem is difficult because of the subject matter.

Can you give me an example of the poems that address such difficult subject matter?
I would suggest Songs of the Psyche (1985). These songs are set in the psyche, the darkness of the mind where experience is absorbed and dealt with. The psyche is a natural darkness and the poems are situated there. They are exploratory. The three introductory poems are clear. They describe the settings, the places and sources of the important experience. They are followed by an invocation to that companion, somewhere, who accompanies us in our creative endeavours, asking for her help with the songs. The two short final lines asking for judgment; kindly, not too rigorous: “Judge not” – but as rigorous as it needs to be: “But judge.”

Your poetry invites the reader to enter into communication with the poem with the same intensity that you brought to bear on creating the work. As you have described it, you “require a reader to complete the act of communication”. It seems to me that all good poetry demands such close attention to the particulars by the reader. Would you agree?
The right reading of a poem, as you say, is demanding, but it is not an ordeal. It requires the kind of care needed to cross the street. Clearing the mind of irrelevant matter, paying attention to the words and what they say, and how they sound and how they move. Irrelevant matter would include fixed ideas as to form or language. The one essential is in the relationship between language and content.

In unsuccessful poetry the language might be flat, not embodying the content, or too rich, asking to be admired. Or the poem shaped to satisfy a fixed idea as to proper form, or “accessibility”. Modern poetry is free. It is also an important medium for the accurate recording and understanding of the human experience; communicating with the reader who is ready to meet a poem’s necessary demands – completing the act of communication.

There are readers interested in poetry who are content with a superficial reading, regarding a poem as a form of entertainment with special kinds of language and subject matter. Labelling a poet as “difficult” means that this poetry can be left on the shelf. With Shelley or Keats, the label “romantic” means that their poetry can be appreciated with no expectation of difficulty. The reader’s response is ready for passionate matter melodiously expressed, rich in language, the intellectual content is secondary. Labelling Pound as “difficult” means that his poetry can be ignored despite the passionate clarity of language and thought.

Very few of your poems involve your children. This is not uncommon. Both Yeats and Heaney published relatively few poems about their children. In his book Stepping Stones, Dennis O’ Driscoll asked Heaney about this and Heaney responded that “when the child is born, the child is more than enough. Poetry’s just not up to it.” Would you agree?
Not quite. Poetry is up to anything. I can see Seamus’s little smile . . . But yes: for a little while baby and busy parents are one and it takes a while for the new arrival to be more than a little dote. What can one say? Isn’t it gorgeous? They are all the same. I’m sure Hitler was a little dote. Another while and the child is showing signs of personality, and beginning to have significant experience. It is then that poetry might start taking serious note – and really, for a while more for the experience than for the little child. Something like an early poem, Girl on a Swing, from Downstream (1962):

My touch has little force:
Her infant body falls.
Her lips lightly purse
With panic and delight
And fly up to kiss
The year’s brimming glass;
To drink; to sag sweetly
When I drop from sight.

In your book Readings in Poetry (2006), you offer close readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets 29 and 30. I understand that you are currently engaged in a close reading of several more of the sonnets. What drew you to working on Shakespeare’s sonnets in particular?
Accident; a good friend gave me a copy of the Palgrave paperback edition. Leafing through it I found myself starting to pay close attention and take notes, reading sonnet sequences here and there. Sonnets emphasising the rivalry among his contemporaries, jealous for fame. Poems of high personal emotion and poems completely empty of emotion, exercises. Then starting at the beginning – from the beginning to sonnet 21. Finding behind the imagery of the lovely boy a strong element of shame, private and public: homosexuality – even, theatrically – of incest. I am still absorbed.

Your interest in TS Eliot is also evident from the inclusion of your analysis of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock in Readings in Poetry. More recently, you completed a reading of The Waste Land. Could you speak a little about Eliot’s importance to you?
You had asked me earlier about Pound and it is hard to speak of Pound without speaking of TS Eliot and his own quiet revolution. The opening lines of Prufrock, redefining the poetic for the modern world – the inherited norms no longer required, though still available for use. Both Pound and Eliot have written perfect poems in the conventional forms.

Man of War (2007) explores another fundamental theme of your poetry which is that humanity is both prone to violence and has at its core an instinct for self-destruction. Your most recent volume, Love Joy Peace (2011), strikes a more optimistic tone. Is the more hopeful approach a necessary correlative to the inevitable waste and decay that is part of life?
Hopefully. We are self-destructive. There is a strong negative in the human. There is also a slightly stronger positive. In periods of peace when valuable things get done, I let myself believe that the negative – the evil – always loses. There is always some mentally misshapen individual who emerges, embodying all the negative, and letting it out in destruction. The cost in suffering and destruction is high before peace is restored. Even now, with jovial new-style maniacs smiling at each other across the globe, I am trying to hold onto this belief.

I am not sure we have covered everything. What do you think?
We have certainly covered a great deal. My thanks for the experience: reliving so much of a miscellaneous career.

This interview was previously published in Reading Ireland and New Hibernia Review

* The Saville Report was a 5,000-page document that investigated the shooting by British paratroopers of unarmed protesters in Derry on January 30th, 1972. The 2010 report, which took 12 years to compile, dismissed the hastily written Widgery Report of 1972 as a whitewash. (The full title of Kinsella’s Peppercanister pamphlet is Butcher’s Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery, and was composed and published within a week of the release of the Widgery report). After the release of the Saville Report prime minister David Cameron offered a formal apology in the House of Commons to the victims and their families.

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