AN ART OF BRILLIANT FRAGMENTS
THOMAS KINSELLA, who died yesterday, 22 December 2021, aged 93, was among the most significant voices in contemporary Irish writing, celebrated as a translator and editor, a political commentator in a way that was almost uniquely his own, and above all else as the author of a body of distinctive, intense and often challenging lyric poetry.
Older Irish readers will know him best as, for decades, the only living poet on Ireland’s Leaving Certificate English Poetry syllabus. But where Kinsella’s early poems had a kind of Audenesque classical poise, what became his typical mode was a more organic form, perhaps more indebted to the modernist influences of TS Eliot (whose Prufrock and The Wasteland were among his abiding fascinations). In seeking to make something more approximate to the complexities of our times, Kinsella opted not for summary or overview, not for the fine-tuned linear narrative or the self-contained lyric, but for the poetic sequence, what might be called the art of brilliant fragments. Like mosaic pieces, his often downbeat, unflashy, even clipped free verse poems might sometimes puzzle on their own but, seen together, could have an uncanny power to challenge, provoke, suggest and engage the reader intellectually as well as emotionally. This intellectual rigour may be one of the reasons he is often seen as a poet’s poet.
It should also be said that Kinsella had little interest in poetry as entertainment or performance. Though his subject was often the individual and the world – and the complex relationship between the two – it would be hard to think of an Irish poet further removed from the general caricature – beguiling, inspiring or even leading the masses. Where Kinsella felt called to engage at a political level (and much of his work has a significant political dimension), he is there as witness, attentive to the inner as to the external drama.
His near-legendary Peppercanister series of pamphlets was unique for a major Irish poet of his generation, a private line of enquiry, as it were, where others might seem to conduct more public engagements. Even there, however, the standout moments brought the private and public worlds together, at times dramatically. Famously, the series was born with the publication in 1972 of his famous Butcher’s Dozen, a long poem that attacked the Widgery report on the infamous Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in January of that year, a move that almost certainly lost him readers in a time of polar extremes in Irish and UK politics. But the poem’s power, its Swiftian ire spun out in tetrameter rhyming couplets, was undeniable for its apparent artlessness, and the rage and disillusion it records were vindicated by subsequent political investigations, culminating in the official apology of British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.
Other Peppercanister volumes responded to the death of noted Irish composer and friend Seán Ó Riada, re-visited the JFK era through the person of Lee Harvey Oswald, and, more recently, extended Kinsella’s ongoing consideration of the role of the citizen, as well as that of the artist, with considerations of JS Bach, Marcus Aurelius and others. The series culminated in Love Joy Peace, a poem that begins with a recollection of a three-word graffito from ‘Many years ago, our first neighbourhood’ and goes on to a consideration of religion, St Augustine and Martin Luther, in a way that seems both free association and, at the same time, the continuation of a lifetime’s artistic logic.
Kinsella’s tendency to look back is, of course, an essential feature of his poetry, which regularly sees him return to key scenes in his Dublin boyhood (often mapped to specific locations in the city), as if poetry was, among other things, a stopping and rewinding of time, an opportunity to see and feel again, to dwell and perhaps better to understand. Not surprisingly this also made him a tender love poet, tracing, never in a showy way, the arc of love and marriage with his beloved wife, Eleanor, who pre-deceased him in 2017.
If Dublin takes on an almost mythic power in the work, and philosophical inquiry is often a motivation, Kinsella never descends into what we might term hermetic choreographies. Indeed, it is as if he balances his inward explorations with a great scholarly dedication to the world around him, including to his inheritance as an Irish writer.
In this respect, undoubtedly among his great gifts to world poetry are two much-admired translations: first is his version of Ireland’s 8th century epic The Táin (Táin Bó Cualinge, or The Cattle-Raid of Cooley), first published in 1969 with illustrations by the late Louis le Brocquy; second is the ground-breaking anthology An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), in which Kinsella’s verse translations excavated and breathed new life into the work of the 17th–19th Irish bardic poets, increasingly islanded, one might say, by the rising tide of vernacular English.
For a poet whose work in print might seem challenging if not to say difficult, Kinsella had a wonderful speaking voice and great acuity as an extempore thinker and speaker (factors which made him greatly admired as a teacher, perhaps especially in the United States where he lived much of his life before returning in recent years to Dublin).
Those wishing to find a point of access into his diverse but hugely rewarding body of work would do well to seek out one of the many fine recordings that exist (including Poems 1956–2006 from Claddagh Records) and, centred by the undeniable authority and integrity, the clarity of both vision and expression, proceed from there.
— Pat Boran, 23 December 2021