Thomas Kinsella, Tahrir Square and the nature of heroism
‘The idea of writing a general introduction to the poetry of arguably Ireland’s greatest living poet was forged in Cairo days full of tear gas, resistance and deadlines’
Thomas Kinsella: “Despite its length and the critical acclaim it has received it is often remarked that his work is more praised then read. The waning of his central influence in Irish poetry has been credited to a number of factors including his ‘turn’ in style from the structured lyrical early work to poetry of a more modernist form with increasingly ‘difficult’ themes.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Tahrir Square, Cairo in February 2011: “The divergent steps taken by the young revolutionaries fighting for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ in Tahrir and the morning routine of the old man pushing his large cart while delivering bread along my street was intriguing. They shared a city in tumult, but their daily steps seemed to fall along very different routes. In those evenings I found myself repeatedly drawn towards Thomas Kinsella’s poetry, particularly his long 1978 elegy for his father, The Messenger, and an earlier poem from the 1960s, Dick King, with its focus on a neighbour from his Inchicore childhood.” Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Poetry is most powerful when it resonates, even when that connection is not obvious at first.
Between 2011 and 2012 I lived a 15-minute walk from what then felt like the centre of the international political universe. On my regular strolls into Tahrir Square, I was consistently struck by the contrast between the cauldron of heroism, activism and action within the square and the continuity of ordinary business I witnessed in the rest of the city.
The divergent steps taken by the young revolutionaries fighting for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ in Tahrir and the morning routine of the old man pushing his large cart while delivering bread along my street was intriguing. They shared a city in tumult, but their daily steps seemed to fall along very different routes.
In those evenings I found myself repeatedly drawn towards Thomas Kinsella’s poetry, particularly his long 1978 elegy for his father, The Messenger, and an earlier poem from the 1960s, Dick King, with its focus on a neighbour from his Inchicore childhood. Although having a long interest in his work, this sudden intense engagement seemed inexplicable to me at first.
But with repeated reading the poems’ thematic concerns with the nature of heroism brought context and contemplation to Cairo days full of tear gas, resistance and deadlines. It was there that the idea of writing a general introduction to the poetry of arguably Ireland’s greatest living poet was forged.
The Messenger is emblematic of the poet’s wider body of work. It is episodic yet tight in subject. Thematically there is the delicate dance between the historical and personal, the careful rendering of specific national and familial moments and the strange delving into the internal psyche of poet and father. There is the sense of family tradition, the restrictions of organised religion, an imaginary explanation of the central themes of Jungian philosophy, a cast of figures of public heroism like James Connolly and Larkin, and private working-class valour like Kinsella’s father and grandfather.
But it was the poem’s atmosphere of thwarted heroism shadowed by ultimate futility that uncomfortably reminded me of some of my experiences reporting in Tahrir.
Through the long poem Kinsella charts his deceased father’s life (John Paul Kinsella died in 1976) in reverse, beginning with the image of his ailing father in his dressing gown at home, and then slowly tracing backward to the Dublin urchin all excited in his new job as a postal messenger boy. The father later worked in the Guinness brewery and had been active in attempts to found a union. His passion for activism, literature and ideas energises the poem.
Whether it is on a Labour election lorry in Inchicore where “He is goodlooking and dark”, and “He is shouting about the Blueshirts/ but his voice is hoarse/ His arm keeps pointing upward” or rather more dangerously walking high above his fellow workers’ where he “traversed a steel beam in the Racking Shed/ and dared with outstretched arms/what might befall”.
This is a man of dashing action, of progress, passionately shouting as he points to the sky’s limit.
But an early section also reflects on an obscure pension dispute the then retired father had with brewery management. He organises his fellow eldery workers in one final battle and they march “against the far off boardroom door/ All about him, open mouthed/ they expired in ones and twos”.
This final demonstration against perceived injustice becomes grimmer as it slowly but inevitably morphs into a death march. This is classic Kinsella. He prevents the reader from becoming utterly consumed by admiration for the active resistance of the father. The reader must also confront the shadowy side of the story – that death and time are our ultimate masters, and no revolt, however well organised, can defeat them.
In contrast the 1962 poem Dick King is a contemplation on the quieter aspects of heroism. One that seemed to me evoked the more mundane morning steps of the Cairenne bread man on my street.
In contrast to the activist, politically engaged example of working-class life featured in The Messenger, Dick King unfussily gets on with his daily routine in the railway company he worked in “And season in, season out/He made his wintry bed/He took the path to the turnstile/ Morning and night till he was dead”.
This life seems obviously unheroic – yet the poem tells us “Dick King was an upright man”.
Elsewhere in the poem we see Dick King holding the hand of the poet as a child on St James’s Street and gently teaching him about aspects of life to come. The tonal atmosphere is one of intergenerational awe with the offering of loving safety from the elder. The young narrator feels protected by the older King: “When I sheltered my nine years against your buttons/ And your own dread years were to come”.
These poems explore two differing aspects of heroism: the fighter and the mentor. Dick King is a celebration of ‘ordinary’ wisdom and reminds us that even in the midst of banal routine, people live out heroic roles in the minds of those who love them most.
These poems are just two highlights from Thomas Kinsella’s six-decade-long poetic career. Despite its length and the critical acclaim it has received it is often remarked that his work is more praised then read. The waning of his central influence in Irish poetry has been credited to a number of factors including his ‘turn’ in style from the structured lyrical early work to poetry of a more modernist form with increasingly ‘difficult’ themes.
While his absence from the recent A Poem For Ireland shortlist may well reflect a lack of consistent lyrical beauty in his work, the charge that his poetry is too difficult is simply not true. It is challenging to be sure, but not overly obscure.
The traditional critical emphasis there has been on this ‘turn’ in Kinsella’s work is arguably misplaced. It is somewhat like zeroing in on the moment that Bob Dylan ‘went electric’ as the single most crucial event in that singer-songwriter’s career at the expense of all else. In truth the poet’s departure from formal verse was signalled early in his career and even in thematic terms, the core interests of the poetry have been relatively consistent since then.
These core themes have been the evolution of resistance strategies to the difficulties of life. The poet told a 2002 interview that he was most interested in the “encounter ... between the individual and the significant ordeal”. While the impact of the ordeal through illness, strife, oppression and death shadow the poetry, the strategies on how best to confront them also pulsate through the lines.
These acts of resistance through love, activism against injustice, appreciating nature and creating art, are limited but important, but it is here where heroism is to be located in Kinsella’s immense body of work.