Thomas Kinsella: ‘the most notable career performance since William Butler Yeats’

With Late Poems, Thomas Kinsella joins WB Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as the last in the Capital of Letters’ Big Four

As Thomas Kinsella reached the age of 88 on May 4th, Ireland receives its longest running poetic career to date. Kinsella may be said to represent the last in the Big Four authors from Dublin, following Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.

The Irish Capital of Letters has supplied numerous other great writers, from Swift and Wilde to Mangan and Clarke. But these four twentieth-century voices represent a distinct quartet who transformed Dublinia into rich metaphors of contemporary existence. Often their programs were attended by specific local projects in the capital – from the Abbey Theatre and the Volta cinema to the Cuala Press and Kinsella’s own Peppercanister imprint.

Beckett’s Waste Land transfigures the border paths and lanes between Dublin and Wicklow onto a global post-apocalyptic plane. Joyce transforms the Phoenix Park and the Mullingar House in Chapelizod into the Garden of Eden and the great public house in the sky. For Yeats, revolutionary Dublin and its concomitant disappointments forms the backdrop to his Byzantine visions of urban apotheosis.

Thomas Kinsella has inhabited intimate Dublin locales for almost 70 years, starting with Phoenix Street in Inchicore and moving on to Baggot Street lodgings, Sandycove domesticity, Grand Canal residence and rural Laragh retreat. His imagination works centrifugally and centripetally inwards and outwards around this central locus, transfiguring modern Dublin and its glaring dichotomies into a palimpsest of world civilisation.


That this masterwork in epic poesis has taken place largely outside the glare of lyric popularity speaks as much to our superficial measures of media status as it does to Kinsella’s Beckettian vocation.

Late Poems, as recently published by Carcanet, represents the apex of that architectural work, a sonic cathedral known colloquially as the Peppercanister poem ever since its first private edition instalments started appearing in 1972. Like Yeats’ own Last Poems, and The Cantos by Ezra Pound – particularly The Pisan Cantos published in the late 1940s when Kinsella began writing – these poems form a cohesive whole which not only echoes across a wide body of personal opus but an even wider spread of literary and artistic creation.

Landmark collections such as Downstream, Nightwalker and most particularly Notes from the Land of the Dead (released through the revived Yeatsian Cuala Press in 1972) prepared us for the initial Anabasis into Jungian archetypes signalled by the early pamphlets centred round Bloody Sunday, Kinsella’s friend Seán Ó Riada and John F Kennedy.

By the time the Northern conflict came to dominate discussion of the Irish poetic, Kinsella was well underway to designing a new kind of epic poetry, epic not in the simplistic sense of lengthy or ambition but in its original classical sense – the making and breaking of nations. With Late Poems, that modern epic reaches a supreme climax, with the strong implication if not the explicit statement of finality.

Gathering together five Peppercanister sections first published between 2006 and 2013, this late movement in Kinsella’s masterpiece functions as an elegiac sonata – touching on cosmic human experiences of love and war, art and history while weaving in and out of intimate Dublin settings. Marginal Economy, its first sequence, is distinguished by the award-winning Marcus Aurelius, acting as alter ego for a stoical author, casting a cold eye on a crumbling society eerily akin to pre-crash Tiger Ireland:

Affairs were troubled in those days,
with over-confidence and ignorance everywhere.
A citizen, absent a while on an undertaking
would find only increased coarseness on his return.

Against the waste and excess of human civilization, Kinsella pitches the purpose of understanding and creativity: “Accepting out of the past / the Gift of the offered good / add all of thine own best / and offer the Gift onward.” (Songs of Understanding).

Man of War, a second sequence devoted to the human instinct for self-destruction, moves with inspired authority from Homeric and Biblical scenes to insect analogies and the First Crusade:

– the taste of vengeance. Drunk on Jewish blood,
they wiped their swords, and crossed the Rhine, renewed,
raping onward toward Jerusalem.

Not since Yeats in his late years compressed world history into a personalised mythology in poems such as The Second Coming and Meru has an Irish poet been able to command such scope and depth in single lyrics, expanding the individual experience to tribal relevance. Retrospect, a narrative overview opening with a fine sonnet paragraph, moves the reader through the history of warfare with a multifaceted, Cubist eye worthy of Picasso:

With cavalry involved, the cavalcade
-– while adding extra colour to the chaos –
would have no meaning for the animals
lost in the bedlam: legs in disarray,
blood and entrails, heads flung up, jaws open,
whinnying and staring like mad fruit.

Instances from the Greek starts with a passage from book XIII of The Iliad before evolving into an extended nautical battle as depicted in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. Mark Edmunson lamented the tame ambitions of contemporary poetry in a recent Atlantic Monthly article. Here is Poetry with a capital P, reclaiming the full scope and coverage of the art form before it surrendered incrementally to the drama, to fiction, to screen- and songwriting. Retrospect concludes, for instance, with a vision of aerial bombardment such as Eliot might have included in Little Gidding:

Man gained in power and knowledge:
from great heights marauding fleets, selecting points of light,
leave behind them as they turn for home
each other's homes consumed.

Matter and Man
melt in climax: satisfied, from on high,
a raping angel with a playful name,
wipes his wings above a bowl of flame.

Belief and Unbelief, the third sequence in Late Poems, blends personal incident and mythological scenario, widening out the panoptic glance to take in whole movements of cultures, as in Genesis:

Their stories, too, were of exile and dispossession,
family division, fatal women, honour and shame,
rivalry, wrath, alien kings, births foretold or exchanged.
And Fate took shape among them as a great queen,
ravenous and with black wings.

The two final sections – Fat Master and Love Joy Peace – were published first in 2011 and balance the chaos and disorder of human experience with iconic examples of grace in art, epitomised by artists such as Bach and Michelangelo. Elderly Craftsman at his Bench pictures the poet interrupting his creative process to calm the spirits of past artists disappointed in their visions, in a moving expression of mutual vulnerability.

Summer Evening: City Centre is set near the Grand Canal, dramatising a cloud of midges as the creative spirits, guided as always by the feminine: “ ‘Trusting there will be / an easing of the disorder at a time to come. / But content...’ She turned away, her voice tired / ‘...if there is not.’ “ The poetry of Yeats, schooled by Ezra Pound in Stone Cottage, moves up a gear with the publication of the volume Responsibilities in 1914 and remains at a consistent world-class level – comparable with anything in Rilke, Valéry or Pasternak – for another 25 years. Kinsella’s late period, commencing in the late Eighties with collections such as Blood and Family and From Centre City, reaches its apogee with Love Joy Peace, the title remembered from a repeated Dublin graffito of the 1930s.

Against the self-congratulation of organised religion, the poet transforms these limpid messages into profound expressions of the human as demonstrated in art.

I rest my faith in the orders of earthly genius,
the day labourer: Michelangelo
manipulating immensities of mind and matter
into great shapes of monumental might;
Ben Jonson's mortal Beloved
...that must sweat to write a living line;
Bach working to the lordly need
- the occasional requirement – daily, methodical,
into the heart of matter.

The final note struck in the volume – “Peace and nothingness of the last end.” – has all the pathos and spaciousness of Milton’ great last note “And calm of mind, all passion spent.” Marcus Aurelius, Retrospect and Love Joy Peace will live as long as The Circus Animals’ Desertion, Under Ben Bulben or Cuchulain Comforted.

Kinsella’s poetry, like Beckett’s prose, may be an acquired taste but it is one designed to withstand the whims of time.

Single pieces strike antiphonal chimes within the vast dome of the corpus (for a perfect example of this, in the earlier From Centre City, look out for how his McDaid’s satire Open Court riffs ironically with the subsequent primordial scene in Dream).

Combined with giant acts of translation such as An Duanaire and The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Kinsella’s original oeuvre restores what Yeats termed Unity of Being to the Irish poetic, long shattered since Kinsale. In a marginal gloss penned only last year, Kinsella comments ironically on that rupture from a pre-Christian perspective:

The God Lugh Observes the Battle of Kinsale

I have played no part in these excesses,
but I know I am involved somehow in their heads.

Thank Man for His true flesh.
It gives Me occasional substance.

Energy and excess, waste and process, the terms of Kinsella’s aesthetics. His prosody spans the complete gamut of Caedmon and Amergin, from Celtic syllabics to Augustan couplets and modernist fragmentation.

In his poetics or writing strategy itself, Thomas Kinsella has now delivered the most notable career performance since William Butler Yeats.

Thomas Kinsella: Late Poems (Carcanet, £9.95)

James McCabe’s poems are collected as The White Battlefield of Silence (Dedalus Press, 1999). He has also published the schools anthology, Inklings (Dublin, CJ Fallon, 1999). He was shortlisted for the Hennessy Prize, and won the Scottish International Poetry Prize along with two Hawthornden Awards. He was awarded the Anglo-Irish scholarship for his Masters research on James Clarence Mangan, and at Oxford, he was awarded the British Council Millennium Scholarship for his doctorate on Irish poetry