The Irish Times view on Thomas Kinsella: a forensic mind

Kinsella’s oeuvre includes some of the finest longer meditative sequences by any contemporary Irish poet

The work of poet Thomas Kinsella, who celebrated his 90th birthday this week, includes some of the finest longer meditative sequences by any contemporary Irish poet. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The work of poet Thomas Kinsella, who celebrated his 90th birthday this week, includes some of the finest longer meditative sequences by any contemporary Irish poet. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

When the poet Eavan Boland described Thomas Kinsella as “a glowing, powerful source in Irish poetry” she was declaring a view shared by Kinsella’s many admirers. This year marks the 60th anniversary of his first major publication, Another September, and this week he turned 90.

His early poems – some of which will be familiar to generations of Leaving Cert students – won him much acclaim and revealed a master craftsman who, as he stated in this newspaper in 1974, has always been aware of the “complicated cultural inheritance” of two languages.

Kinsella’s oeuvre includes some of the finest longer meditative sequences by any contemporary Irish poet: The Messenger, The Pen Shop, St Catherine’s Clock and The Good Fight, his profound opus on the outsider in society and the Kennedy era in America, where he taught for many years. His early career as a civil servant in the Department of Finance provided a vantage point that allowed him to look into the heart of the changing Ireland of the 1960s and activated his canonical narrative poem, Nightwalker. In that and other poems he has aimed his scorn at those he regards as having turned their backs on the original patriotic ideals of the Republic. The anger expressed in Butcher’s Dozen, his response to the Widgery report on the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, and perhaps written to his cost at the time, has long since been vindicated.

As a translator he has rescued and revitalised poetry from the Gaelic tradition, most notably the Táin. His work stretches from intimate explorations of family and marriage to considerations of nationhood and identity. But his forensic mind has paid closest attention to the struggle of the individual with the ordeals of the human predicament. Above all he is a poet whose closest affinities are with his native city, Dublin; many of his evocative poems pay Joycean attention to its people and landmarks. He once remarked that his purpose in writing poetry was “ to preserve what I can and give it a longer hold in life”. A life of dedication to his art has achieved that objective.

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