Thomas Kinsella: Commentary & Quotations


Maurice Harmon
John Montague
Hugh Kenner
Seamus Heaney
W. J. McCormack
Robert F. Garratt
Joep Th. Leerssen
Denis Donoghue
Seamus Deane
Patricia Craig
Jeffrey Meyers
Gerald Dawe
Jim McCabe
Gearóid Denvir
Edna Longley
Patricia Craig
Brian Lynch
Michael Smith
Bernard O’Donoghue
Ailbhe Ní Bhriain
John Greening
Hugh McFadden
Harry Clifton
Colm Tóibín

Robert Welch, ‘Irish Writing in English’, in Introduction English Studies, ed. Richard Bradford (London: Pearson Educ. 1996): ‘Kinsella’s intensely meditated and scrupulously despairing Downstream (1962) and Wormwood (1966) gave him the sonorous command of language and tough solemnity of mood required to translate the eighth-century saga, Táin Bó Cuailnge (1969)’. (p.668.)

Maurice Harmon, The Celtic Master: Contributions to the first James Joyce Symposium held in Dublin 1967 […] (Dublin: Dolmen Press 1969), Introduction: ‘[…] recently Thomas Kinsella has argued, on lines similar to those expressed in these pages by Niall Montgomery, that Joyce is central to modern Irish life because, acepting the here and the now, he immersed himself in the filthy modern tide that Yeats had turned away from. Significantly, Kinsella’s “Nightwalker” is a fluid narrative in the manner of parts of Ulysses, and has a [marginal] design of violence which is composed mainly from explicit allusions to recent events in Irish political, economic and social life.’ (p.[7].)

Maurice Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1974): ‘Thomas Kinsella does not write the complete poem in the traditional sense. The unity he seeks is larger, even larger than the unity of a particular sequence. As these sequences appear it is clear that a total work is accumulating. There is an accomodating openness at work, a precise sureness of touch in specific detail a stylistic flexibility, an ability to contol the rhythms of line, structure and form, an ability to keep going, and a trust in the availability of creative readers to complete the act of communication.’ (p.86.)

Maurice Harmon, reviewing of Thomas H. Jackson, The Whole Matter, Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella, in Books Ireland (Nov. 1995, p.282), deems it flatfooted and a disgrace; Harmon notes in particular the absence of references to essays of Brian John, one of Kinsella’s most important critics, and also his own book and reviews. Cf. Brian Lynch's panning review of same in The Irish Times (20 Jan. 1996), Weekend, p.8.

John Montague, ‘The Impact of International Modern Poetry on Irish Writing’, in Irish Poets in English: The Thomas Davis Lectures on Anglo-Irish Poetry, ed. Sean Lucy, Cork: Mercier Press 1972): ‘[… T]hen, in the late Fifties, Irish poets began to write, without strain, a poetry that was indisputably Irish (in the sense that it was influenced by the country they came from, its [154] climate, history and language) but also modern. If I say that Auden was the liberating example I may seem to be contradicting myself, but by then he was no longer a contemporary, but an established phenomenon, looming over the English scene like a latter-day Dryden. Besides, the subject matter was so different: when Thomas Kinsella adapted one of the master’s most typical stanza forms for his love poems, “A Lady of Quality”, it became both a homage and a comparison: “‘Ended and done with’ never ceases, / Constantly the heart releases / Wild geese to the past. / Look, how they circle poignant places, / Falling to sorrow’s fowling-pieces, / With soft plumage aghast.” / Kinsella’s success encouraged others, and by the middle of the following decade, Irish poets had begun to filter into most modern anthologies; particularly those edited by American critics, like Untermeyer and Rosenthal: the latter devoted a whole section to Irish poetry in his study, The Poets.’ (p.152; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Critical Classics”, infra.)

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Hugh Kenner, ‘Thomas Kinsella: An Anecdote and Some Reflections’, in Ronald Schleifer, ed., The Genres of Irish Literary Revival (Oklahoma: Pilgrim; Dublin: Wolfhound 1980), pp.179-87. ‘Nightmare, glowing, fading, glowing, amid the equable pace of metered discourse, that is the effect to which the reader of Kinsella must accustom himself. Ghosts throng in these poems, shapes half-seen, our personal past, Ireland’s past, less assignable portents. [… ; p.180.] ‘One needs to read enough of these poems to see how normal is this irruption of unsettling vision into recognisable experience.’ (p.181.) Kenner quotes Kinsella on Yeats in “Death in Ilium: in Yeats’s Centenary Year” [‘They eat, but cannot eat. / Dog-faces in his bowels. / Bitches at his face, / he grows whole and remote’], with the remark: ‘One can’t ignore such a predecessor, neither does one want to be listed among his supernumeraries. By good luck, Yeats lent himself to the ministrations of the learned “shadow-eaters”, who in dismembering and [181] reconstructing him according to his own instructions turn him into an instance of his own System, the wholeness systematic, the remoteness algebraic. For this we may thank his central limitation: he had no knowledge whatever of Catholic Ireland, and was forced to substitute for its traditions, its theology and its night-sweats the famous apparatus of spooks and gyres, to lend the visions some accreditation: “Where got I that truth? One of a medium’s mouth …”. But a people who wake their dead and pray for them (see Kinsella’s “Office of the Dead”) have no need of mediums. / Knowing these people, Kinsella has discovered the freedom to derive from Yeats without being derivative, and to invoke Joyce like a tutelary spirit [&c.]’ (p.182.) Further: ‘the poetry of a haunted literature that has learned to rehearse and ironise the nightmare from which it cannot awake’ (p.182).

Hugh Kenner, ‘Thomas Kinsella […; &c.] - cont.: Kenner recounts how [his essay] was rejected by publisher for whom it was intended as a preface to the reissued poems; Kenner reflects on the ‘current literary situation’: ‘the nervousness, the silly paranoia, the fear of not being liked, the constant shuffling for position in an undefined game. All this is endemic among the bards, and infects their sponsors.’; quotes Dr. Johnson on the Irish: ‘They never speak well of one another’, and comments that they do not know when they are well spoken of, further borrowing Yeats’s phrase: ‘Great hatred, little room” - that is not a milieu in which to assemble a Movement.’ (p.183.) ‘A proper treatment [of Kinsella] would note how the purified diction, the found voice, is accompanied by a withdrawal into intense, intensely private speech’ (p.184); referring to ‘In the Ringwood’: ‘So early as that we have the Kinsella Effect: an irruption of darkness and of violent enigmatic language […] as in a Piranesi dungeon, where surfaces are illusory’ p.184.) ‘Speech alternating with narration’ but neither will serve as reliable ground from which to gauge the other. So vertigo afflicts the whole poem, and the reader goes into free fall along with everything else…. nothing we might expect will be provided’ (p.184.) [Cont.]

Hugh Kenner, ‘Thomas Kinsella […; &c.] - cont.: ‘Rejecting any more communality than that [“the moist matter of lust … the agonies of death”], rejecting even the license to tell private nightmares, these poems take the important risk of rejecting the grounds of poetry itself: poetry as it was defined for Ireland by Yeats [“learn your trade”]; ‘Kinsella’s poetry is definable as that which he does. Therein lies the seed of much anxiety of his well-wishers … what do you think of Tom?’ (p.185); ‘it is by such indirections that the modern poet supplies the lack of a single emblem backed by a whole literature and culture.’ (p.186); ‘what Yeats had made available was unusable; and what Yeats did not do for the speech of Republican Ireland still remains to be done.’ (p.187; End.)

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Seamus Heaney, ‘Unhappy and at Home’, interview with Seamus Deane, in The Crane Bag, 1, 1 (1977), pp.66-67: ‘[…] Kinsella has found a language which is both at ease with exemplars like Joyce and Eliot, and also capable of speaking very much out of his own world and intellect and with his own voice. […] I don’t think that the poet can keep living in the hand to mouth manner. I do think there is such a thing as an Irish literary tradition, using tradition here in Eliot’s sense. We need only look to Kinsella’s translation of the Táin sagas and myths which Yeats and, to some extent, Ferguson used before him, not as a picturesque manifestation of the otherness of this culture, but as an ordering structure for his own psychic materials and energies. In “The Land of the Dead”, for example, he brings the ancient mythic shapes into conjunction with his disjointed, alienated and essentially artistic consciousness. In his actual writing Kinsella affirms the root and his own theorizing about tradition merely serves to nourish and clarify it. […; &c.]’

(For full text of this interview, see under Ricorso Library, “Literary Criticism”, infra.) Note that the phrases, ‘[a] language which is both at ease with exemplars alike Joyce and Eliot, and also capable of speaking very much out of his own world and intellect’, are quoted in the Lilliput Press Cat. 1995).

Seamus Heaney, ‘A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on The Irish Literary Revival’, in P. J. Drury, ed., Irish Studies, I (Cambridge UP 1980), pp.1-20: ‘[A] whole spiritual world for which the revival writers could never have found the proper language begins to emerge into Irish poetry and continues to find its deepened, darkened expression in the work of Thomas Kinsella, the major voice of the generation following Clarke and Kavanagh.’ (p.14.) See further remarks comparing him with Joyce, and commenting on the poem “The Messenger” (ibid., 18ff.).

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W. J. McCormack, review of Songs of the Psyche [46pp.]; Her Vertical Smile (both Peppercanister) [25pp], with works by Paul Muldoon and Paula Meehan, in Books Ireland (October 1985), writes: ‘Since the beginning of the 1970s, poetry in Ireland has endured two kinds of external pressure - the pressure of events in the purest, crudest sense (the Troubles, &c.), and the not-unrelated scouting of certain publishers for tribal songsters to put the [las] on ‘the Irish thing’. One manifestation of resistance has been the widespread interest in translation as a means of clearing a poetic space in the midst of babble; another (far more particular) has been the strategic elusiveness of Thomas Kinsella.’ McCormack remarks: ‘Kinsella’s achievement here is to create the language as it is; that is, to carry through the necessary [imposition] of the language (English, of course) on himself, to master it and possess it, and then finally to release it without those purple bruises and melodrama screams on it which all to often mark the poetic medium. At a more local level, one of his techniques is a species of post-Joycean micro-interpretation of single words with the space of a few short lines’ - quoting: ‘What a thing it is / to know a thing / full fifty years / with kindness as of one thing / for another / of only its kind. / A monster bore me / and I bear a monster with me.’ MacCormack gives this account of the works: ‘Song of Psyche consists of “settings’” [Phoenix St., Bow Lane, &c.], so central and yet so tangibly remote in Kinsella’s poetic; an ‘Invocation’, then the thirteen ‘Songs of the Psyche’, and eight further poems headed ‘Notes’, the last being‘Self-Renewal’ … in its concern with mirrors it recalls both the concluding lucid lines of a much earlier poem, “Mirror in February” and difficult experiments of “A Technical Supplement” [~]. Her Vertical Smile, epigraph from Kinsella’s own memoir of Seán Ó Riada (full text available only in American edn. of Peppercanister Poems 1972-1978); title apparently form fifteenth-century Irish language diagram of an eclipse - shown on title page; structure ostensibly musical with Overture, Intermezzo and Coda; materials from mytho-astronomical and old Vienna (as in ‘I heard Mahler then for the first time …’); photography as a source. In conclusion: ‘All in all, these two semi-fugitive publications are to be warmly welcomed for their rich and herd-earned complexity, their sureness of language, and not least for their uncanny transmission of Kinsella’s speaking voice.’ (BI, p.153).

W. J. McCormack, ‘Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations’, in The Battle of the Books: Two Decades of Irish Cultural Debate (Dublin: Lilliput 1986): […] ‘Of course, communal life in the poetry looms large, and the temptation exists to identify this preoccupation with politics per se. This would be a mistake. Community and politics are present in Irish literature as mutually exclusive opposites, Kinsella being perhaps the finest example of the writer who chooses the political option. There are undoubtedly moments in Kinsella’s poetry where the communal and the domestic are evoked, but never in terms of longing, more often in the mode of that which absolutely has ceased to be, even though the light of that extinguished star (cf. Wordsworth’s “Michael”) is still travelling towards us. Kinsella’s dark searches in Gaelic proto-history, his readings of Jung and evocations of Mahler seem at first the very antithesis of the political option. However, the re-orientation of his oeuvre which commenced with “Nightwalker” (1968) is essentially a political concern with the unprecedented de-politicisation of a society increasingly given over to the tribal categories of Dr. O’Brien and the ritual practices of Mr. Heaney. The profoundly anti-revolutionary metaphysics of Heaney’s poems stands in marked contrast to the implications of Kinsella’s. That metaphysic comes very close at times to conceding a total hegemony to language, acknowledging its imperium, and to this extent the poet mimics the Sein-language of his admirers among the Crane Bag ideologues. We have yet to see what it is in the historical and social determinants of the Heaney canon which rescues him from that position.’ (pp.31-39.)

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Robert F. Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry … &c (1986), p.291 [n.9], Kinsella delivered the paper ‘The Irish Writer’ at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in New York in 1966. The paper was revised and published in Davis, Mangan, Ferguson?, Tradition and the Irish Writer (Dublin: Dolmen 1970), pp.57-66. A further revision with additions appeared as ‘The Divided Mind’ in Irish Poets in English, ed. Sean Lucy (Cork: Mercier 1973), pp.208-18. Carlyn Rosenberg lists another version, ‘The Irish Writer’, E-1, 1, no. 2 (1967), 8-15, in her unpublished dissertation, Let Our Gaze Blaze, The Recent Poetry of Thomas Kinsella (Kent State U., 1980), p.653.

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Joep Th. Leerssen, ‘Táin and Táin: The Mythical Past and the Anglo-Irish’, in Joris Duytschaever & Geert Lernout, eds., History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature [Conference of 9 April 1986; Costerus Ser. Vol. 71] (Amsterdam: Rodopi 1988), pp.19-45: Leerssen compares the translations by Lady Gregory and Kinsella, finding that the latter’s ‘image of Gaelic Ireland is materially circumscribed by his image of the Victorian image of Gaelic Ireland’ in the former (as he sees it), inclining him to overstate the textual emphasis on cold brutality and matter-of-fact sexuality (p.42). He quotes several prefatory passages, incl.: ‘Probably the greatest achievement of the Táin and the Ulster cycle is the series of women, some in full scale and some in miniature, on whose strong and diverse personalities the action occasionally turns: Medb, Derdriu, Macha, Nes, Aife. It may be as goddess-figures, ultimately, that these women have their power; it is certainly they, under all the violence, who remain most real in the memory’ (pp.xiv-xv). Leerssen also instances the parting words of the Leinster redactor of the Ulster cycle, enjoining others to add nothing to it (‘A blessing on every one who shall faithfully memorise and shall not add any other form to it’), and confessing his incredulity (‘But I who written this story … give no credence …’), and points out that in the 9th century it was already historiographically problematic; he also notes Kinsella’s cavalier way with the rémscéla of Senchan Torpéist’s collation of the fragments of the story. [45f.]

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Denis Donoghue, We Irish: Essays in Irish Literature and Society (California UP 1986): ‘Among the poets who have engaged in division, Thomas Kinsella is the one who has turned the experience into the most formidable poetry. At the beginning of his career he tried to circumvent Yeats’s high-horse rhetoric by recourse to Auden. More recently he has taken possession of virtually the whole available range of Irish literary, religious and historical experience and, in his translation of the Táin, found for himself an unYeatsian resonance. There are more accessible poets; Kinsella has set his chisel to some very heard stone. But he has become an Irish poet by taking full responsibility for everything that phrase entails. The Messenger (1978) is only one - but that one superb - of many consequences.’ (p.16.)

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Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (Hutchinson 1986) [‘Contemporary Literature, 1940-80’], pp.234-37: ‘[…] No Irish poet has been more alert to this sense of incompletion than Thomas Kinsella, nor more determined to come to terms with it. […; p.235]; His earlier volumes … show a readiness to break out of the smug peripherality of Irish experience and face up to the violent heritage of the Post-war world … Time and time again he challenges himself to sup on horrors: “when that story thrust / Pungent horror and an actual mess / Into my very face, and taste I must.” The “mess” must be consumed and absorbed so that it can be reproduced as structure. This is the basic image of his work.’ [p.236]; ‘Kinsella has sacrificed the elegance and orotundities of his early verse for a much more experimental and apparently haphazard mode of writing, in which he attempts to transmit the process of consciousness on the way to that point at which it will become its own object…. [H]e has implicitly appealed to a fit audience, though few, and repudiated the larger audience which wants its poets to be as charmingly accessible as possible - or, if not accessible, at least charming. Yet, for all that, Kinsella is by now the most formidable presence in Irish poetry […; p.237].’

Seamus Deane, ‘Silence and Eloquence’ [on Irish identity], in Guardian Review (12 Dec. 1991): collates quotations expressing the linguistic predicaments of Irish writers, notably Montague [‘To grow / a second tongue, as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born’] and Kinsella [‘A dying language echoes / Across a century’s silence. / It is time / Lost soul, I turned for home.’] Of Kinsella, he says that he was ‘the first of the contemporary poets to explore the empty cavity between a language lost and a language gained, a space that has an obvious fascination for a writer.’ He continues, ‘but when that emptiness contains within it the death of a civilisation, the reconstruction of another, with one refusing to die completely and the other failing to be rebuilt, then the poetry becomes a great deal more than an exercise in linguistic anxiety … But has he a home to go to? Kinsella’s unique attempt to go back to an original foundational moment, to reconstruct his own language from initial hesitation to final mastery is a miniaturised form of the problem that Irish writers have faced for at least four hundred years’.

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Jeffrey Meyers, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle (London; Macmillan 1987): ‘Roethke was naturally considered the leading poet in his home territory. After Thomas Kinsella’s reading at the University of Washington in July 1963, with Roethke seated prominently in the front row, someone provocatively asked the Irish poet: “who do you consider the greatest living American poet?” and Kinsella immediately replied: “Robert Lowell.” Roethke, despite his boasts about beating Lowell, was still quite insecure. During the party for Kinsella, he became furious and shouted: “That bastard, damn him. Did you hear what he said?”.’ (Quoted in Seager, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1986, pp.284-85.)

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Gerald Dawe, review of Collected Poems, in Fortnight Review (March 1997), pp.36-37: quotes Thomas Kilroy, ‘[Kinsella’s poems] enact the difficulty in making poetry out of intractable material. The great torque of the style winds-up with shuddering power and then unwinds into relief at the achievements of the poem against such odds. Add to that the sensibility of an artist of exceptional range who has put his own psyche, time and again, to extraordinary test and you have a poetry which, in its treatment of race and self, is epical’; Dawe adds his comment, ‘His vision of Irish, the language as much as the cultural identity, has provoked a younger generation of writers to acknowledge the modernity in Kinsella while distancing themselves from the doom-laden sense of inevitable loss with which he registers the history of Irish life and culture’; Dawe makes much of the impact on Kinsella of ‘Brother Burke’, who appears in Kinsella’s ‘mighty’ poem Nightwalker (1968), and whose teaching has apparently left scars: ‘Bread of certainty. Soup of memories / In a disk of scalding tears. The food of dragons / And my own dragon half’; he goes on to summarise ingredients in Kinsella’s sensibility: ‘the ghostliness of eigtheenth-century Dublin, the devastation of the famine, the meshed and inchoate struggle to be free of that past, but also to record it, the logging of a close-knit working-class community growing up in a new state and wide open spaces of an ancient culture associated with south and western seaboards - all become locked into the central perspective of Kinsella’s imagination which is to find some kind of order in the ordeal; to hook up the variousness of Irish experience with the wider world and to furnish the self with the important details of the past, as history and as biography. Kinsella’s poetry is haunted, spectral, fiercely calm and utterly unique’; quotes “Tear”: “I found myself disturbing / dead ashes for any trace / of warmth, when far off / in the vaults a single drop // splashed. And I found / what I was looking for / - not heat nor fire, / not any comfort, // but her voice, soft, talking to someone / about my father.’ [END]

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Jim McCabe, interview with Thomas Kinsella, in Books Ireland (Feb. 1997), ‘State patronage: “A first-rate idea spoilt by second-rate thinking”’: pays tribute to influence of Liam Miller, Dolmen publisher, of whom (in a literary sense), ‘we grew up together’; speaks of teaching and the demands it made on his as a disciplined reader as ‘probably the best experience of all’; further remarks incl., ‘There’s a primary language and, speaking personally, for me that’s English. I’m interested, and actively interested, in the work in Irish, but I know I couldn’t handle it adequately as a sole choice, no matter what feelings I might have. We have a dual tradition. It’s a very mixed experience and it shows itself differently all the way back as far as the seventeenth century. I believe that in itself is enriching, but it doesn’t make for ease of reference and so on. The demands of full appreciation are very severe, but to be able to handle this dual tradition, both to appreciate it and then handle it creatively, is a privilege.’ (pp.5-6.)

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Gearóid Denvir, ‘Decolonizing the Mind: Language and Literature in Ireland’, in New Hibernia Review, 1, 1 (Spring 1997), pp.44-68, includes remarks on Kinsella’s consignment of Irish to the past: ‘A simular flawed analysis lies at the heart of Thomas Kinsella’s The Dual Tradition (Manchester 1995). Kinsella’s basic aim is to argue for the recognition of Irish literature as a “dual identity”, as a tradition of the two native languages of the island. However, Kinsella too speaks of Irish as a dead language.’; remarks on Kinsella’s borrowings from Séamus Ó Grianna, [52] ‘a man certainly not known as the most objective commentator writing in Irish in this century’; quotes Kinsella, ‘capacity for all the requirements of a modern poet might be open to question’ (Dual Trad., p.2); further remarks on Patrick Pearse; ‘His analysis of the nineteenth century proves equally reductive. [… &c.]’ (pp.52-53.)

Edna Longley, review of Padraic Fallon, Poems [1974], in The Honest Ulsterman, Nos. 46-47 (Nov. 1974-Feb. 1975), pp.65-67, strictures on Kinsella: ‘Although he was a generation older than Kinsella, Fallon’s writing suffers from the same curious lack of focus, disorientation of form and diction. I suspect that both found it difficult either to absorb or ignore Yeats.’ (p.67.)

Patricia Craig, review of The Dual Tradition (1995), citing the opening of Kinsella’s introduction to New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1966): ‘The Irish tradition is a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction’; berates Kinsella for underestimating the distinctive conditions prevailing in N. Ireland, and particularly for foisting a ‘colonial’ background on Louis MacNeice, and for reading John Hewitt in such a way that his ‘dissenter integrity and egalitarian drive are somehow twisted into a kind of colonial stiffness’ (Craig).

Brian Lynch, review of Brian John, Reading the Ground: The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella (1996), cites Seamus Deane’s comment: ‘This is the most sustained, careful and sympathetic reading we have of Kinsella’s poetry. Brian John has the necessary patience and scruple that Kinsella demands; he also has the gift of bringing to us the rich reward that Kinsella finally yields.’ (Irish Times, 29.3.1997)

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Michael Smith, reviewing Derval Tubridy, Thomas Kinsella, The Peppercannister Poems (UCD Press), 273pp., in The Irish Times (27 Jan. 2001), notes that James Simmons, inter alia, resented Kinsella ‘interfering’ in a Northern ‘situation’ with Butcher’s Dozen; remarks that the poet’s nationalism was (is?) out of keeping with the prevailing Establishment revisionism; Kinsella’s reputation then began its gradual decline; considers his anger to stem from ‘deeply rooted commitment to a complex and morally informed view of Irish society and culture’; wishes that Tubridy had made more of the Pound and William influence and the sly ambivalence with which the work of this very great Irish poetry is often received’.

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Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Thomas Kinsella, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press) [with Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, writes, ‘The emergence of the Peppercannister series was a highly significant, constituting a marked shift from what the poet himself has come to feel, with some justification, was the somewhat overwritten formal eloquence of the early verses toward a much more self-focused kind of poetry, while also implying that for the personal viewpoint to be represented in poetry, you have to publish your own.’ O’Donoghue commends as ‘brilliant’ Dennis O’Driscoll’s piece on Kinsella in the Irish University Review special issue edited by Catriona Clutterbuck in which he attaches the term ‘brooding’ to the poet’s work. He adds jocosely that ‘O’Brooder’ might be a ‘good summary sobriquet’ [after Ó Bruadair]. (See full text, infra.)

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Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, ‘Le Livre d’Artiste: Louis le Brocquy and The Tain (1969)’, in New Hibernia Review/Irish Éireannach Nua, 5, 1 (Spring 2001), pp.68-82: ‘In Kinsella’s Táin, the wise warrior Scathach instructs her daughter, on their first meeting with Cúchulainn: “Take him to bed with you tonight and sleep with him, if that is what you want.” To that Uathach replies, “It would be no hardship” (T30). According to Lady Gregory, however, Scathach tamely remarks, “I can see this man has pleased you,” and Uathach nobly admits, “There would be great grief on me indeed if he were not to return alive to his own people.” Similarly, Gregory’s Deirdre behaves like a damsel in distress in this version, crying “Naoise … are you going to leave me?” In contrast, Kinsella’s Derdriu demands, “Are you rejecting me?” before “rushing at him and [catching] the two ears of his head” (T12). Kinsella’s language creates characters stronger than the meek creatures created by Lady Gregory. / Brutality is expressed with honesty in Kinsella’s translation of the Táin, a raid started “for the sake of a whore’s backside” (T221). We are told of heads smashed together so that “each was stained grey with the other’s brains” (T249), of “limbs leaping from their sockets” (T83), of eyes burst, livers split, and of the “blood of men in multitudes” (T161). While both Gregory and Kinsella use the Táin mythlogy to represent Ireland, Kinsella belongs to a school of poets who abandoned the romanticism of the “Celtic Twilight”, believing, as Austin Clarke suggests, that “before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal.”’ (Note that Clarke takes the last sentence from J. M. Synge.) [See further under le Brocquy, infra.]

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John Greening, review of Collected Poems (Carcanet), in Times Literary Supplement (6 Sept. 2002), p.24: ‘There are few more puzzling cases in contemporary poetry than that of Thomas Kinsella. Thirty years ago was considered the most important living Irish poet, and he had a considerable popular following. But then he changed direction, abandoning the formal style he had mastered in Downstream (1962) and Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), to produce much tougher work in a more obviously modernist style. The shift is marked in this updating of the 1996 Collected Poems by the transitional “ Phoenix Park” which begins “One stays or leaves. The one who returns is not / The one, etc etc. And we are leaving”, and leads into New Poems (1973), lower-case, midsentence “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again” - and a whole new aesthetic.” / The determination to “make it new”, with a consequent bleak, willed quality in the writing, is reminiscent of the fate of certain twentieth century composers who converted to serialism (Aaron Copland, for instance). It is hard not to regret the loss of lyricism, richness and ease, although in fact Kinsella never quite forgets this quality, particularly when he is evoking his childhood, or patrolling the streets of Dublin. [...] The Pen Shop is just one of the many “Peppercanister” pamphlets, Kinsella’s chosen form of publication in his later years - a characteristically anti-establishment enterprise. The most notorious was Butcher’s Dozen of April 1972, his rapid response to the Widgery Tribunal on “Bloody Sunday”, with its Shelleyan opening: “I went with Anger at my heel / Through Bog side of the bitter zeal […]”. In retrospect, public reaction to this poem, and his own horror at events in Ulster, must have contributed to the changes in Kinsella’s style: the violence, the shattering of forms, the religious uncertainty and psychic blackness. The author of “The Dual Tradition” can have been only too aware of what was going on. Butcher’s Dozen still has power to shock, but although Kinsella is a master satirist, this is not enough for his deeply religious and complex sexual instincts. His ars poetica is perhaps best expressed in “Worker Mirror, at his Bench”, which describes a craftsman creating masks out of mirrors and confronting an interested crowd of visitors: “The process is elaborate / and wasteful - a dangerous litter / of lacerating pieces collects”, before an “Awkward silence / as they make their way out”.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Hugh McFadden, review of A Dublin Documentary, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2007), pp.14-15: ‘Kinsella’s work has a reputation of being rather dense and complex, especially for verse readers who like their poetry to be “accessible”. The tone of much of his verse is predominantly pensive, self-reflexive and often melancholic: it is expressive of that existentialist angst which emanated from much European writing in the decades immediately after the second world war. His poetry reads now as an exploration of a soul’s personal journey through a world where traditional certainties have been shattered by the cataclysms of the twentieth century. He eschews the notion of any easy entertainment in his writing. / His early influences were the later verse of W. B. Yeats and old Gaelic poetry and mythology. As he began to get poems published in the 1950s and early 1960s the modernism of W H. Auden could be detected also. His early poems, which were carefully formal both in style and form, were often oblique even to the point occasionally of obscurity; and they were later seen by Kinsella as the product of “a compulsion to arrange rather than to communicate”. / Themes such as birth and creativity, sex and love, and decay and death were prominent. There was a resistance to closure or to transcendence in this work. As his writing career progressed, he began to use mythology and history as a background environment that allowed imagery from the past to have a contemporary presence. From the time of the publication of Notes from the Land of the Dead (1973) onwards, a significant change can be detected in his poetry, which seemed to become even more reflexive and, as he said, turned downward and inward into the psyche “towards some kind of individuation”. The influence of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and of American poets such as William Carlos Williams became apparent. / The Peppercanister series of chapbooks, which began in [14] 1972 with Butcher’s Dozen and continues up to the present (Marginal Economy was published in the spring Of 200), is an extraordinary chronicle of a poetic consciousness in search of the significance of a life’s journey, much of which has the streets of inner-city Dublin as the locale of the imagery and of the events portrayed. Kinsella spent a good deal of his time since the 1970s teaching in America but, rather like the more peripatetic James Joyce, his mental geography remains centred in Dublin - although most definitely one could not reconstruct the streetscapes even of the inner city (were they to disappear) from a reading of Kinsella’s poems. / One does not read Kinseila to find lyrical passion or intensity of emotion. If there is any sense of celebration in his work (and it is not readily apparent), it is muted and circumspect. There is an element, perhaps, of memorialising, not of the city itself, but of his personal journey through parts of it. His mood tends towards mordant introspection, towards the careful, even obsessive, examination of detail - a kind of stock-taking of images that are personally significant. / He is more a poet of the urban twilight than of the lyrical dawn; one whose mise en scène has a dusky, tenebrous atmosphere. To some his verse can seem enigmatic, but it is more recondite than enigmatic. / As for the claims made about him being a poet of place (i.e. Dublin), his naming of places comprises a personal mindscape that correlates to the recalled physical world more as a coded map, such as that of an underground Metro diagram, than as a pictorial record of streetscapes. […; &c.]’

Hugh McFadden, review of Maurice Harmon, Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs, in Books Ireland (Dec. 2008): ‘[…] Kinsella has long been concerned with the presence of evil in the world, seen in man's capacity for cruelty and his propensity for violence and war. He believes that the individual must engage with evil, absorb it and transmute it. His poems explore this engagement with increasing depth in sequences and works such as “Nightwalker”, “Notes from the Land of the Dead”, the “Wormwood” poems, and in “Her Vertical Smile”. His poems for Sean Ó Riada exemplify his attitude to life and creation, which is often bleak and profoundly pessimistic. His philosophy is stoical, and its expression in his verse's imagery is much influenced by his reading of Carl Jung and his own Darwinian theories. / Kinsella seems to credit the Incarnation and the historic reality of the crucified Christ, but denies the Resurrection, unable to believe in a transcendent afterlife, or choosing not to do so. Hence his growing concern with mortality, and his grim staring into what he perceives as the abyss of death.’ (p.287.) Further: ‘For Kinsella there is, finally, no answer to death’s silence, except frail and finite human memory.’ (p.288.)

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Harry Clifton, ‘Finding a late excellence’, review of Thomas Kinsella, Selected Poems, et al., in The Irish Times (11 Aug. 2007), Weekend: Thomas Kinsella once remarked of Austin Clarke that “the selected poems would be the great book”. The same is not quite true of his own Selected - looking through it, a number of crucial omissions spring to mind - but this, nonetheless, is one of the best-balanced of all his books. It begins as it ends, with short meditations in free form, but the end is better than the beginning. / Kinsella, like Adrienne Rich or Robert Lowell in the United States, is one of those poets who have very visibly broken away, on the page, from their earlier, more formalised selves.[…] But it is not really until his move to the United States, the loosening of formal structures and the adoption of a new, ironising voice that the larger issues of power, anonymity and the fate of the planet, addressed in such poems as “The Good Fight” and “Crab Orchard Sanctuary”, find their proper place alongside the Irish concerns. It was this side of Kinsella, the willingness to apply his large poetic intelligence to wider issues at a time - the early 1970s - of national introversion on both sides of the Border, that first excited me as a student. To come back, now, to the work, and find a late meditation such as Marcus Aurelius is to feel that first intuition wonderfully confirmed. […] Nobody since Ted Hughes, and perhaps the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, has so demythologised nature, breaking it down to a state of mutual devourings, in which the human too is complicit. But the true evil, against which various attempts at prayer and transcendence are set in this second sequence, is, as in “Man of War”, the instinct for power. […] Irish poets of a certain age, tormented by the unrepeatable example of the later Yeats, are jockeying a little too obviously for the mantle of prophet, trying too hard for the world-historical note. Thomas Kinsella, by dint of a dry, compassionate irony, perfected over half a lifetime, seems to have slipped quietly past that myth to a late excellence all his own, containing, every so often, the only thing that matters, the moment of moral knowledge: “A turning away / From regard beyond proper merit, / Or reward beyond real need, / Toward the essence and the source.”’

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Colm Tóibín, ‘The Poetry of an Empty Space’ [on Thomas Kinsella], in The Irish Times (25 June 2011), Weekend, p.12 [rep. of “The Dark 16th Century”, in Dublin Review, 43, Summer 2011]: ‘[...] In 1966 Kinsella had written an essay called “The Irish Writer”, in which he teased out what it was like to work with a language that was almost not your language. Lamenting the death of a language and a tradition, the death that had begun in Ireland with the arrival of Spenser and Bryskett, Kinsella had asked himself a difficult and a liberating question, a question that haunts anyone who lives in this landscape now, or writes about it. / “Is there,” he asked, “any virtue, for literature, for poetry, in the simple continuity of a tradition? I believe there is not. A relatively steady tradition, like English or French, accumulates a distinctive quality and tends to impose this on each new member. Does this give him a deeper feeling for the experience gathered up in the tradition, or a better understanding of it? I doubt it ... For the present – especially in this present – it seems that every writer has to make the imaginative grasp at identity for himself; and if he can find no means in his inheritance to suit him, he will have to start from scratch.” / In the poems he wrote after this essay, Kinsella sought a poetic language to match this idea that a broken tradition might nourish poems, that the legacy of Grey and Spenser, Wallop and Bryskett did not haunt or disable the Irish imagination but left something bare, an empty space that could be filled. It took me years to work out what a poem such as “Ancestor” does, how every single sound it makes and image it offers seems to come hard-won out of silence rather than out of any accepted way of rendering experience in poetry. I cannot hear the sound of Gaelic poetry in these lines, or the sweet sounds that Spenser sent down the centuries in English poetry. I hear a broken poetry of the self, something starting from scratch in the full knowledge of how hard it is to say anything that is true. If it is part of any tradition, it is a tradition of fragments, such as The Mutabilitie Cantos, which come at the unfinished end of The Faerie Queene and were published after Spenser’s death.’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Critics”, via index, or direct.)

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Nightwalker (1968): ‘Robed in spattered iron / At the harbour she stands, Productive Investment, / And beckons the nations through our gold half-door: / Lend me your wealth, your cunning and your drive. Your arrogant refuse; / Let my people serve them / Bottled fury in our new hotels, / While native businessmen and managers / Drift with them, chatting, over to the window / To show them our growing city, give them a feeling / Ot what is possible; our labour pool, / The tax concessions to foreign capital.’ (From Selected Poems; quoted in part in Maurice Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella, Wolfhound 1974, p.79, also in Eoin Bourke, ‘Poetic Outrage: Aspects of Social Criticism in Modern Irish Poetry’, in Donald E. Morse, et al., eds., A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993, p.98.)

Another September

Dreams fled away, this country bedroom, raw
With the touch of the dawn, wrapped in a minor peace,
Hears through an open window the garden draw
Long pitch black breaths, lay bare its apple trees,
Ripe pear trees, brambles, windfall-sweetened soil,
Exhale rough sweetness against the starry slates.
Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s, all toil
Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates.

—Posted on Facebook by Eunice Yeates (28.09.2017).

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Politics?: ‘A hard unnatural union grown / In a bed of blood and bone / Tongue of a serpent, gut of hog/Spiced with spleen of underdog.’

Via negativa: ‘I have devoted / my life, my entire career, / to the avoidance of affectation, / the way of entertainment, /or the specialist response. /With always the same outcome: dislike; misunderstanding. / But I will do what I can.’ (At the Head of the Table’; quoted in Peter Sirr, review of Collected Poems, in Times Literary Supplement, 11 April 1997.)

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Argument” (in Man of War): ‘A brutal basis in the human species, / native to man as beast, we must accept; / indifferent cruelty - a lack of pity - / in dealing with the lesser forms of life: / enjoyment in the hunt; the same enacted / in certain sports; an oral satisfaction / in chewing and savouring and swallowing / the slaughtered flesh. / And there are forms of violence / sanctioned, or required, within the group / among aggressive males - in ordered strife / for mate, terrain, or power; the choice established, / peace established while the victor rules.’ (Quoted in Hugh McFadden, review, in Books Ireland, Dec. 2007, p.284.)

“[Addendum]” (in Belief and Unbelief): ‘Dear God, let the minds and hearts of the main body heal and fulfil and we will watch forthe first sign of redemption. a turning away from regard beyond proper merit, or reward beyond real need, toward the essence and the source.’ (Quoted in Hugh McFadden, op. cit., Dec. 2007, ibid.)

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Butcher’s Dozen - A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys-over all-
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
“Once there lived a hooligan.
A “pig” came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones.

More voices rose. I turned and saw
Three corpses forming, red and raw,
From dirt and stone. Each upturned face
Stared unseeing from its place:
“Behind this barrier, blighters three,
We scrambled back and made to flee.
The guns cried Stop, and here lie we.”
Then from left and right they came,
More mangled corpses, bleeding, lame,
Holding their wounds. They chose their ground,
Ghost by ghost, without a sound,
And one stepped forward, soiled and white:
“A bomber I. I travelled light
- Four pounds of nails and gelignite
About my person, hid so well
They seemed to vanish where I fell.
When the bullet stopped my breath
A doctor sought the cause of death.
He upped my shirt, undid my fly,
Twice he moved my limbs awry,
And noticed nothing. By and by
A soldier, with his sharper eye,
Beheld the four elusive rockets
Stuffed in my coat and trouser pockets.
Yes, they must be strict with us,
Even in death so treacherous!”
He faded, and another said:
“We three met close when we were dead.
Into an armoured car they piled us
Where our mingled blood defiled us,
Certain, if not dead before,
To suffocate upon the floor.

Careful bullets in the back
Stopped our terrorist attack,
And so three dangerous lives are done
- Judged, condemned and shamed in one.”
That spectre faded in his turn.
A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
“The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where's the law that can't be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We'd be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that's left; it's turning sour.
Friend and stranger, bride and brother,
Son and sister, father, mother,

All not blinded by your smoke,
Photographers who caught your stroke,
The priests that blessed our bodies, spoke
And wagged our blood in the world's face.
The truth will out, to your disgrace.”
He flushed and faded. Pale and grim,
A joking spectre followed him:
“Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone,
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty,
Sectarian supremacy,
And heat, to make a proper botch,
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew,
Boil it over, make a mess.




A most imperial success!”
He capered weakly, racked with pain,
His dead hair plastered in the rain;
The group was silent once again.
It seemed the moment to explain
That sympathetic politicians
Say our violent traditions,
Backward looks and bitterness
Keep us in this dire distress.
We must forget, and look ahead,

Nurse the living, not the dead.
My words died out. A phantom said:
“Here lies one who breathed his last
Firmly reminded of the past.
A trooper did it, on one knee,
In tones of brute authority.”
That harsher spirit, who before
Had flushed with anger, spoke once more:
“Simple lessons cut most deep.
This lesson in our hearts we keep:
Persuasion, protest, arguments,
The milder forms of violence,
Earn nothing but polite neglect.
England, the way to your respect
Is via murderous force, it seems;
You push us to your own extremes.
You condescend to hear us speak
Only when we slap your cheek.
And yet we lack the last technique:
We rap for order with a gun,
The issues simplify to one
- Then your Democracy insists
You mustn't talk with terrorists!
White and yellow, black and blue,
Have learnt their history from you:
Divide and ruin, muddle through,
Not principled, but politic.
- In strength, perfidious; weak, a trick
To make good men a trifle sick.
We speak in wounds. Behold this mess.
My curse upon your politesse.”

Another ghost stood forth, and wet
Dead lips that had not spoken yet:
“My curse on the cunning and the bland,
On gentlemen who loot a land
They do not care to understand;
Who keep the natives on their paws
With ready lash and rotten laws;
Then if the beasts erupt in rage
Give them a slightly larger cage
And, in scorn and fear combined,
Turn them against their own kind.
The game runs out of room at last,
A people rises from its past,
The going gets unduly tough
And you have (surely ... ?) had enough.
The time has come to yield your place
With condescending show of grace
- An Empire-builder handing on.
We reap the ruin when you've gone,
All your errors heaped behind you:

Promises that do not bind you,
Hopes in conflict, cramped commissions,
Faiths exploited, and traditions.”
Bloody sputum filled his throat.
He stopped and coughed to clear it out,
And finished, with his eyes a-glow:
“You came, you saw, you conquered ... So.
You gorged - and it was time to go.
Good riddance. We'd forget - released -
But for the rubbish of your feast,
The slops and scraps that fell to earth
And sprang to arms in dragon birth.
Sashed and bowler-hatted, glum
Apprentices of fife and drum,
High and dry, abandoned guards
Of dismal streets and empty yards,
Drilled at the codeword 'True Religion'
To strut and mutter like a pigeon
'Not An Inch - Up The Queen';
Who use their walls like a latrine
For scribbled magic-at their call,
Straight from the nearest music-hall,
Pope and Devil intertwine,
Two cardboard kings appear, and join
In one more battle by the Boyne!
Who could love them? God above...”
“Yet pity is akin to love,”
The thirteenth corpse beside him said,
Smiling in its bloody head,
“And though there's reason for alarm
In dourness and a lack of charm
Their cursed plight calls out for patience.
They, even they, with other nations
Have a place, if we can find it.
Love our changeling! Guard and mind it.
Doomed from birth, a cursed heir,
Theirs is the hardest lot to bear,
Yet not impossible, I swear,
If England would but clear the air
And brood at home on her disgrace
- Everything to its own place.
Face their walls of dole and fear
And be of reasonable cheer.

Good men every day inherit
Father's foulness with the spirit,
Purge the filth and do not stir it.
Let them out! At least let in
A breath or two of oxygen,
So they may settle down for good
And mix themselves in the common blood.
We are what we are, and that
Is mongrel pure. What nation's not
Where any stranger hung his hat
And seized a lover where she sat?”
He ceased and faded. Zephyr blew
And all the others faded too.
I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed
Along the fatal barricade.
The gentle rainfall drifting down
Over Colmcille's town
Could not refresh, only distil
In silent grief from hill to hill.


—26 April 1972.

Bibl. note: Printed at date by the Elo Press Ltd., Dublin for PEPPERCANISTER; sold by Dolmen Press Ltd. and the booksellers. Text given on the CAIN Website (University of Ulster) - online; accessed 23.03.2017.

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The Tain, translated from the Irish Epic […] (Dolmen Press 1969; OUP 1970), “Translator’s Note and Acknowledgements”: ‘The making of this translation has been very much an aside to other things. It is fifteen years since I was first tempted to do it. I had just found the oldest version of the Deirdre story and been struck by its superiority over the usual one, and I thought I would look closer at the rest of the Ulster stories. I was unprepared for the difficulties in the way of this mild curiosity. There were plenty of ‘retellings’ in the bookshops, but actual translations were scarce, and those I could find were generally dull. I emerged with the conviction that Lady Gregory’s “Cuchulain of Muirthemne”, though only a paraphrase, gave the best idea of the Ulster stories. This merely emphasised the dearth, for her book, even as a paraphrase, seemed lacking in some important ways, refining away the coarse elements and rationalising the monstrous and gigantesque; as well as this, the Táin Bó Cuailnge, the prose epic which is the centre-piece of the Ulster cycle-and the oldest vernacular epic in Western literature - seemed inadequately represented. / The Táin, or Cattle Raid, is the nearest approach to a great epic that Ireland has produced. For parts of the narrative, and for some of the ancillary stories, achievements at the highest level of saga literature may fairly be claimed. It seemed extraordinary that, for all the romanticised, fairy tale, versified, dramatised and bowdlerised versions of the Ulster cycle, there had never been a readable translation of the older version of the Táin, tidied a little and completed from other sources - nothing in English to give an idea of the story as we first have it. So I undertook the present translation, and completed it as time offered. It is not intended as a scholarly work (for which I had neither motive nor equipment) but as a living version of the story, leaving as few obstacles as possible between the original and the reader.’ [p.vii; sundry acknowledgements follow.]

The Tain (1970) - Introduction [on sense of place]: ‘Place names and their frequently fanciful meanings and origins occupy a remarkable place by modern standards. It is often enough justification for the inclusion of an incident that it ends in the naming of a some physical feature; cetain incidents, indeed, seem to have been invented merely to account for a place-name … This phenomenon isnot confined to the Táin, or the Ulster cycle; it is a continuing preoccupation of early and medieval Irish Literature, which contains a whole class of topographcial works.’ (Kinsella, The Táin, p.xiii-xiv; quoted in Michael Parker, ‘Irish and American Influences on Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out, 1972’, in New Hibernia Review, 2, 3, Autumn 1998, pp.16-35; p.24.) [For full text of Translator’s Note [vii-viii], and Introduction [ix-xvi], see infra.]

The Tain (1970), “Introduction” - cont.: ‘As far as possible the story has been freed of inconsistencies and repetitions. Obscurities have been cleared up and missing parts supplied from other sources, generally the Book of Leinster text, but this has been done as economically as possible, sometimes with only a word or phrase. The passages introduced by the compiler or interpolator, where they are not involved in this tidying process, have been left undisturbed; they will be readily recognised by the changes in style. Such matters are noted (it is hoped adequately) as they occur, together with any changes in sentence order or other similar amendments. A reader who is anxious to know how the text actually runs should be able to restore the original disarray.’ (Táin, xi; quoted in Michael Sundermeier, ‘On Reading Ancient Literature: The Text and Context’, 1995, online at Creighton University [online; accessed 1 Oct. 2007.) [Cont.]

The Tain (1970), “Introduction” - cont.: ‘Nothing has been added in the translation beyond a very occasional word or phrase designed to keep the narrative clear; these additions are noted. But there are two aspects of the translation not fully “covered by guarantee.” The first has to do with the main purpose of the work, which is to give a readable and living version of the story: it is that no attempt has been made to preserve the actual texture of the Irish narrative. Sentence structure and tense, for example, have been changed without hesitation; elements are occasionally shifted from one sentence to another; proper names have been substituted for pronouns, and vice versa; a different range of verbs has been used; and so on. This is not, therefore, a literal translation. But it is a close compromise with one, and tries not to deviate significantly at any point from the original. / The second exception has to do with the verse passages: greater freedom has been taken with the verse than with the prose, though the sense and structural effects are followed with reasonable faithfulness. For one category of verse, however, the guarantee has to be withdrawn completely - the passages of rosc or retoiric which occur in “stepped” form throughout the translation. In the original these are extremely obscure. This is partly because, as is generally believed, they are more archaic, but it seems likely that in some instances, where the utterance is “deep” or prophetic, the obscurity is also deliberate. Scholars have preferred on the whole to leave these verses unattempted, but it seemed worthwhile to try to make some sense out of them, especially where something central to the action is going on, as in the long sequence in chapter VI. The aim has been to produce passages of verse which more or less match the original for length, ambiguity and obscurity, and which carry the phrases and motifs and occasional short runs that are decipherable in the Irish. It is stressed that they are highly speculative and may reproduce little if anything of the original effect. It would have been impossible to attempt these rosc passages without expert help, and for most of those in the Táin itself this was given with much tolerance, patience and generosity by Dr. Proinsias Mac Cana of University College, Dublin. His suggestions were offered as starting points for the imagination and they have undergone much violence in the process that followed, for which the translator is solely responsible. No attempt has been made to follow the Irish verse forms.’ (pp.xi-xii.)

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How Cuchulainn Was Begotten’ (Táin Bó Cuailgne [trans.] - Text): ‘Conchobor and the nobles of Ulster were at Emain. A flock of birds came to Emain Plain and ate all the plants and grasses out of the ground, and the very roots. The men of Ulster grew angry seeing their land ruined, and got nine chariots reading the same day to chase them away - they were practised hunters with birds. Conchobor mounted the chariot with ihs sister, the woman Deichtine; she drove the chariot for her brother. The Ulster warriors, Conall and Laegaire and the others, came in chariots, and Briciu with them. / The birds flew at will before them across Sliab Fuait, and across Edmonn and Breg Plain - there were no dikes or fences or stone walls in Ireland at that time, only the [22] open plain. Pleasant and lovely was the flight of the birds, and thier song. There were nine scores of birds with a silver chain between each couple. Each score went in its own flight, nine flights altogether, and two birds out of each flight with a yoe of silver between them. Toward nightfall three birds separated out from the rest […]’ (The Táin, p.21-22; rep. as facs. page [with ill. “The Birds” [being at the chapter head] by Louis le Brocquy, in Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, ‘Le Livre d’Artiste: Louis le Brocquy and The Tain (1969)’, in New Hibernia Review/Irish Éireannach Nua, 5, 1, Spring 2001, pp.68-82; p.74.)

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Davis, Mangan, Ferguson? (1970) - rep. as ‘The Divided Mind’ in Mark Storey, Poetry in Ireland Since 1900:

‘The trouble is that […] the term imposes a restriction on our view of Irish poetry. It tends to stop us thinking of poetry in the Irish language. It suggests that poetry written in English in Ireland has nothing to do with our poetry in Irish; that it is instead an adjunct to English poetry - important, perhaps, but provincial or colonial. […] ‘A modern English poet can reasonably feel at home in the long tradition of English poetry. No matter what his preoccupations may be, he will find his forebears there […] An Irish poet has access to all of this through his use of the English language, but he is unlikely to feel at home in it. Or so I find in my case. If he looks back over his own heritage the line must begin, again, with Yeats. But then, for more than a hundred years, there is almost total poetic silence.
I believe that silence, on the whole, is the real condition of Irish literature in the nineteenth century - certainly of poetry; there is nothing that approaches the ordinary literary achievement of an age. Beyond the nineteenth century there is a great cultural blur, I must exchange one language for another, my native English for eighteenth-century Irish. Yet to come on eighteenth-century Irish poetry after the dullness of the nineteenth century is to find a world suddenly full of life and voices, the voices of poets who expect to be heard and understood and memorised. Beyond them is … the course of Irish poetry stretching back for more than a thousand years, full of riches and variety. [… almost the doggerel end of Gaelic literature … they are at home in their tradition …]
In all of this I recognise a great inheritance and, simultaneously, a great loss. The inheritance is certainly mine but only at two enormous removes - across a century’s silence and through an exchange of worlds. The greatness of the loss is measured not only by the substance of Irish literature itself, but also by the intensity with which we know it is shared; it has an air of continuity and shared history which is precisely what is missing from Irish literature, in English or Irish, in the nineteenth century and today. I recognise that I stand on one side of a great rift, and can feel the discontinuity in myself. It is a matter of people and places as well as writing - of coming from a broken and uprooted family, of being drawn to those who share my origins and finding that we cannot share our lives’. After discussion Yeats’s ‘wounded’ relation to the two traditions, and the strength he uniquely derives from it, he attempts a survey of our poetry in English since 1800, ‘a huge supply of bad verse … a few tentative achievements by Moore, Ferguson, Mangan and (I am sometimes tempted to feel) Allingham. [212; see individual poets for Kinsella’s remarks on each].
‘[…] waste is the distinguishing mark in all of these careers … but they are heroic figures, what they are doing is what Yeats said of Ferguson - providing the ‘morning’ of the truly great and national literature that might come. They and all the Irish poets of the nineteenth century are in the first wave, where casualties are heaviest, and they are the ruined survivors.’ [213]
Kinsella calls Anglo-Irish poetry ‘a limiting phrase’, but suggests that ‘Anglo-Irish poetry’ is in a way a useful model of the whole of modern poetry’, evoking Yeats’s expression as ‘the falling apart of things’. He talks about his generation’s experience of the fulfilment of Yeats’s prophecy, ‘to have breathed in the stench and felt the dread as the rough beast emerged out of massed human wills.’ ‘The repeated checks to reasonable hope which the world has suffered have destroyed the cohesion of the modern social organism. The organism continues to function but the most sensitive individuals have long ago shaken loose into disorder, conscious of a numbness and dullness in themselves, a pain of dislocation and loss … basic things are worked out repeatedly as though for the first time.’ [215]
‘Again, as with the special mutilations which are a part of the Irish experience, there is nothing ruinous for poetry in all of this … the ordeal of each man.’ [215]
He questions whether a continuous tradition is necessarily an advantage. Returning to the Irish topic, ‘the traumatic exchange of one vernacular for another’. He speaks of a generation of Irish poets ‘entranced … by the phenomenon of Yeats among them, and themselves mainly going down in a welter of emulation and misunderstanding of his work.’ Kinsella issues a call for an anthology of good poems, not merely representative and historically important. On the future prospects: ‘We must discriminate where we can - where our best writers have shown - or we may find themselves, again, able to discriminate at all.’ He ends: ‘[we must] remain open at all costs to the teaching that life inflicts upon us all.’ [218]

(First publ. as W. B. Yeats & Thomas Kinsella, Davis, Mangan, Ferguson?: Tradition and the Irish Writer, Dublin: Dolmen 1970 [pamph.]; afterwards as ‘The Divided Mind’ in Seán Lucy, Irish Poets in English, 1973]; quoted at some length in Declan Kiberd, ‘Writers in Quarantine?: The Case for Irish Studies’, in Crane Bag, III, 1, 1979, pp.9-21, rep. in Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, Dublin: Blackwater Press 1982, [espec. pp.341-42].)

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The Dual Tradition (1993): ‘Irish literature exists as a dual entity. It was composed in two languages; the changing emphases between one language and the other reflect changing circumstances through the centuries. The Irish language is a difficult language to learn, and has little contemporary relevance, so that it is convenient to confine one’s attention to “Anglo-Irish” literature - defining this, roughly, as Irish literature composed in the English language since the seventeenth century, and having certain relationships with English literature. But this is not an accurate or a sufficient view. Separate anthologies of Gaelic poetry and of Anglo-Irish poetry exist, some of them very good. And there are commentaries on the two bodies of poetry, some of them of great usefulness. But anthologies and commentaries that attempt to deal with the total literary response, handling the various changing relationships and emphases, are rare. And they are likely to be ’amateur’, due to the specialist demands of the two separate areas, particularly of Gaelic literature. A dual approach is nonetheless essential if the literature of the Irish tradition is to be fully understood. Or if some features of its dual character are to be appreciated at all: the responses in the two languages as English settled into an Irish environment; the parts played by translation - from a first coming to terms in the sixteenth century to its central role with [32] Lady Gregory and Yeats; the changes for the last bardic poets - form their full integration in a stable society to a lonely questioning of their own relevance by isolated individuals; or the situation of the early eighteenth century, with Aoghán Ó Rathaille and Jonathan Swift - major writers, contemporaries and dealing with the same forces - neither aware of the other’s existence.’

(‘The Dual Tradition’; extract in “The State of Poetry”, Krino [Special Issue], ed. Gerald Dawe & Jonathan Williams, Winter 1993, pp.30-33; pp.32-33; also printed as The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, Manchester: Carcanet 1995, p.116, and quoted in [in small part] Aaron Kelly, Twentieth-Century Literature in Ireland: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism, Palgrave Macmillan 2008, p.3 [note stop for semi-colon after first sentence.)

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The Dual Tradition (1995), ‘The aristocratic audience for formal Irish poetry, and its whole basis, had disappeared. In the following century a professional art of privilege was turned into a popular art of conscious defeat. For the defeated, a new set of associations developed: of national loyalty and defeat with the native language, of disloyalty with the use of English. These associations can operate partly still, after three hundred years, so that in certain circumstances the choice of a language can still be seen as a nationalist or political matter; with an interest in both, the acceptance of a dual heritage, hard to justify from either “side”. [Characterises Anglo-Irish poetry as] ‘a poetry in English, set in an Irish milieu presented distinctly, against a geographical and historical background presented indistinctly; employing recognizable Irish references and occasional devices; directed with an explanatory air toward a primarily English audience, but attaching otherwise as closely as possible to ‘mainstream’ English writing; and published in England’. Further, ‘“Northern poetry” is a journalistic entity rather than a literary one, and with features of propaganda more than of journalism. It adds a literary argument to the arguments of an “Ulster” naturally separate within Ireland. But it is an Ulster of six counties, with the three non-Unionist counties edited out.’ (Quoted by Marilynn Richtarik, review of The Dual Tradition, in Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, Spring 1997, pp.10-09.)

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