THE BRENDAN VOYAGE

 

BRENDAN Kennelly has often cited Odysseus as his favourite character from Homer. Certainly, the poet and Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College has, in common with his hero, demonstrated an awesome capacity for survival. Many compared his flair for self destruction to that of Dylan Thomas or Behan, but Kennelly has defied his own demons.

Acknowledged as an inspired teacher capable of driving even the most cynical of undergraduates to the library shelves, the man who has during the past 10 years become famous as a robust, benign, smiling presence in Dublin's streets (usually clutching a plastic bagful of books), has also produced a large body of work: poetry, plays, two novels, criticism.

As a poet, he has his admirers as well as many critics unimpressed with his exuberance, but no one could say he has ever been cautious. He has repeatedly taken immensely daring technical and thematic risks with form and content; satire and polemic.

As for his persona - playful, engaging, disheveled and slightly outrageous - some academics are irritated by Kennelly's determined demystifying of art and literature. He thinks there is too much self seriousness in the world; some observers feel he displays insufficient gravitas for either a poet or a professor.

Readers of his poetry, however, will have discovered his darker, more brooding self. He says, though: "At this time of my life I think I'm a comic writer."

Next Wednesday, he will be 60 - a fact few, least of all himself, can believe.

Meanwhile, his afternoon is dominated by the two lectures he is to give after the interview, "Ibsen, then Shelley. Lord help us, back to back. Trying to reconcile talking about a romantic Englishman and a rather gloomy Norwegian both of whom were great lovers of justice." As for his own life he says: "What life? I need to be invented. Or better still, re invented." He laughs uproariously, but there is a great's deal of truth in his comment. Kennelly is well aware that although a professor, he has never been part of the literary establishment.

"I work really hard at what I do, both at the writing and the teaching. I'm beginning to get good criticism in Ireland whereas previously it was coming from America and England and some here.

"The quality which has stood most by me is determination, a determination to begin again." He quotes from one of his poems: Though we live in a world that dreams of ending/That always seems about to give in/Something that will not acknowledge conclusion/Insists that we forever begin. (Begin from Good Souls to Survive.)

"I've learned to survive both blame and praise. My own attitude towards teaching is that critical praise gets the best out of students. It's not to impose a critical language, a set of theories, or a way of thinking. It is to discern what is unique in each student and to cultivate that in a collective atmosphere."

Literature is an entity he celebrates rather than criticises and as a reviewer he has often been accused of being overly generous. Particularly strong on Kavanagh and O'Flaherty, his criticism, collected in Journey Into Joy: Selected Prose (1993) is humane in tone: he focuses on the humanity of Joyce as revealed in Dubliner.

As a boy growing up in the village of Ballylongford, in Kerry, Kennelly was a good footballer and played on the Kerry junior and minor teams and also featured on the senior team during a winter league season. He attended a local school at Tarbert, about five miles from his home. St Ita's was run by a Limerick woman, Jane Anges McKenna, an enlightened educator, herself inspired by Patrick Pearse's system of teaching: "She was a single woman with a passion for education."

Ms McKenna's unusual approach, which focused on European literature, helped prepare the 16 year old Kennelly for a Trinity scholarship, the Reid Sizarship, a bursary set aside by a Kerry landlord for students from poorer families. Kennelly triumphed, had a pleasant conversation with the then Bishop of Kerry, Dr Moynihan, a scholarly man, who asked him to read a Shakespeare sonnet aloud. The bishop listened and, Kennelly recalls, "he wished me well, and said that he hoped I enjoyed my time there."

Only later did he discover that he should have applied for the formal dispensation from the then Archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Kennelly refers to the archbishop's legendary medieval severity, though points out that he was kind to Patrick Kavanagh.

Even for the well read Kennelly, schooled in Irish, Latin, French and English, and coming from an established north Kerry tradition of going to that university, Trinity in 1953 proved an intimidating place. "There were so many voices; the voices of the Anglo Irish, the English, Americans, Europeans." All foreign and, to, his ears, sophisticated.

"I was absolutely alone. I think I was the only rural Irishman in the place at that time. The rooms were so cold and dark and high ... a kind of 19th century prevailed." The young Kennelly ran away - well, not quite. Although he had also won a scholarship to St Patrick's Teachers Training College, he joined the ESB, and stayed there for three years before going to London to work as a bus conductor. He grew up and was ready to return to Trinity.

KENNELLY was born in 1936, the third of eight children. There were already two sons and his arrival put so much pressure on his mother that at the age of two Kennelly was sent to his aunt, Josie Keogh in Sligo. He spent 18 months there. "I've never had any problems with my family but I do think an experience like that leaves you feeling a bit of an outsider, with an innate sympathy for outsiders."

At first, his father owned the local garage, known locally as Timmy's Old Tin Shed. "He mended punctures, sold petrol, and he looked after the ailing Morris Minors, and the coughing Prefects of the local farmers." But in 1949, Timmy Kennelly bought a disused pub from his cousin, Mrs Boland, and restored it. Kennelly's Pub became a centre for talkers, drinkers, fishermen, bog workers, footballers and people home from England "and people just about to go to England". Then 13, Kennelly was initiated into a world of discussion, stories and songs. Drinking was to become central in his life and almost destroyed him.

By the late 1950s he was back at Trinity and in 1959, still a student, had his first collection published, Cast A Cold Eye (1959). More quickly followed: The Rain, The Moon (1961); The Dark About Our, Loves (1962); The Green Town lands (1963); My Dark Fathers, (1964); Getting Up Early (1966); Good Souls To Survive (1967); Dream Of A Black Fox (1968); Love Cry (1971); The Voices (1973); A Kind Of Trust (1975); Islandman (1977); A Small Light (1979) and The Boats Are Home (1980). In 1983 Cromwell, his first epic work structured as a dramatic dialogue about history, proved a breakthrough, stylistically and thematically. By then, Kennelly had also done extensive translations of Irish poetry into English and was confident in the epic form. "All my stuff is an attempt to write one poem to do with the outsider consciousness. The consciousness of a Cromwell; the consciousness of a Judas who was not only an outsider, but unforgivable."

During these years, Kennelly the poet was at the mercy of Kennelly the hard drinker. At first he is funny about his alcoholism, announcing with a mock heroic flourish: "I still dream about the green (Jameson) bottle. At night it floats above my head, the bottle shaped girl." But then his tone changes and he becomes serious: "I began drinking heavily when I was about 27, always needing that high and needing it more."

"I was able to drink, I was young and healthy. Drinking is very physical, thrillingly physical. It changes the mind as well as the body. I think that drugs and drink are deep down a search for changing the self.

"It's 10 years in July since I stopped drinking. I miss it. I miss the kick, the company and the changes at twilight and in the darkness. I've tried to keep a really lively, intense mind in a sober, non drinking person. If you drink, in my case you go to pieces. I can't do it if I want to do my work; my writing, my teaching, my communicating. I can't do it the way that I drink. I go off into another world."

Friends such as Dublin footballer Tony Hanahoe and Kennelly's Trinity colleague and friend, Prof Terence Brown, told him he was killing himself. When Kennelly finally accepted that his liver was four times its normal size, he began listening to Brown and arrived at St Patrick's in the summer of 1986 for treatment.

Does he feel very exposed after those years, in a city like Dublin? "Yes, I am impulsive, I've often made an eejit of myself and tended to act without thinking. Things like the car ad - I loved doing it, but it does put doubts on you."

Of the drink he says: "Of course I'm not cured, I'm a retired alcoholic. But I don't drink at all." The bad years included the breakup of his marriage to American academic Dr Peggy O'Brien. Their daughter, Kristen, is now expecting her second child. Her daughter, Meg, will be five in July.

Kennelly has a huge natural advantage in common with Seamus Heaney - both possess beguiling, rhythmic speaking voices and are superb readers of their own work. Kennelly the teacher is revered by many of his former students. He points out: "I've also had the ones who come up to me and say `You taught me nothing'."

When critic and UCD academic Dr Declan Kiberd was asked in an interview last year why he decided to become a teacher, he recalled hearing Kennelly lecture: "It was very exciting. He sent an almost physical charge through the bodies in the room. In an age which prided itself on being cool - and Trinity in the 1960s was cool - he was hot, passionate and engaged. Suddenly I was very taken with the idea of being a teacher."

Kennelly sees teaching as away of connecting. "I guess I'm a bit of an old loner. I try to connect with what is unique in each student."

Of his three versions of Greek classics - Sophocles's Antigone (1986), Euripides's Medea (1988), and his best stage work to date, also a version of an Euripides's play, The Trojan Women (1993) - he says he was drawn to them as portraits of powerful women confronting organised male power. His forthcoming play, a version of Lorca's classic rural tragedy Blood Wedding (1933), will be staged by Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne in September. The text will be published in June. "It's the world of The Crooked Cross, small town gossip, passionate family feuds." He also speaks about his interest in the idea of family throughout Lorca's plays. "Every man wants a family and the failure to have one is very difficult to deal with." A dramatised version of his Cromwell poem was staged in London in 1991.

Kennelly admits: "I would love to write truly comic poetry - that is, serious poetry that knows how to laugh. How could I write it in a world that is so threatened, so ravaged, so corrupt? Poetry can not ignore this."

The Book Of Judas (1991) is probably the most deliberate of Kennelly's attempts to confront his society. Darkly satirical and eight years in the writing, Judas is more freewheeling in structure than Cromwell and centres on stereotypes rather than specific individuals as Cromwell does. It is also far more uneven and frequently tussles with its own ambitious scope.

His latest book, Poetry My Arse (1995) is a long series of interconnected poems lacking a chronological narrative structure and based more on moments of juxtaposed and the two previous epics. Of a scalding review he says: "The reviewer said it was full of shit, sex and violence. He was right. My intention was his perception. But it is also about the connection between the poet and his society. It explores the nature of poetry, my blind Dublin Homer who sees more clearly as he becomes more blind."

Polemical intent came early to him. Aware from his youth of emigration and its impact on Ballylongford, Kennelly waited for the disintegration of his native village. In 1963 he wrote an angry, prophetic and allegorical novel about Ballylongford. The Crooked Cross describes the vicious gossip underpinning the small lives lived there. Most of all, though, it takes an almost menacing look at a place threatened by emigration in the form of a strange drought.

EMIGRATION as a social phenomenon Kennelly has always viewed as tragic. "I was right. My village is dead. I believe in the grandeur of the EU's aspirations, but I also think it will assist in the extermination of small villages across Europe, not just Ireland. I am saddened by the destruction of small communities. I also see the irony of city people going to the countryside and causing something a rebirth, but it's not the same."

One of the reasons Kennelly picked Trinity and has spent so much of his life, there has been its sense of community. "That sense of community still exists, but it will be eroded if we go on taking in thousands of students. I think there are now about 11,000. The place is simply too small. A community is threatened when it is deprived of people and also when it is choked. Deprivation killed my own village; I don't want to see excessive numbers strangle this university."

Always wary of labels, tags used to minimise the complexities of personalities, he at first disputes being described as a romantic. "He's a Kerry man. He's a Catholic. He's a poet. He's a retired alcoholic. He's a romantic. Still . . . if romanticism means a determination to begin again; to survive bad reviews, good reviews, depression, self doubt - why then, I'm a romantic and glad to be one.

As for the lasting legacy: "I've written many poems, all through trying to write one poem. If that lasts, as Kavanagh said, `Time will take care of it all'."

"Time is the best critic. It's gentle and ruthless and truthful."

He refers to Ibsen's last words, "On the contrary" - a challenging statement given the playwright's pre mortem circumstances. "It's amusing, it's puzzling, even to my Kerry cunning. I like his sceptical, bemused tone on his death bed. It's attractive. It makes me think of Blake's notion that true progress is possible only between, opposites.