Confronting Shadows: An Introduction to the Poetry of Thomas Kinsella, by David Lynch, New Island, 306 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-1-84840-287-4
In his poem “A Technical Supplement” Thomas Kinsella states:
But for pleasure there is nothing to equal
sitting down to a serious read.
Kinsella’s poetry, his outlook on life, have always been of the most serious kind; and so too is this superb exploration of his work by David Lynch – as indeed it should be in the instance of a poet whose uncompromising dedication to his art has been exemplary, always refusing to make his work presentable to trends, and often against the current, as Lynch reminds us.
Lynch contends that this stance has been to Kinsella’s cost and presents him as a writer with a declining readership who seems to stand in isolation. It is a point he hammers home perhaps just a bit too much: Kinsella is “a writer regarded as central and at the same time marginal”, one whose “central influence in Irish poetry” has waned. That this has happened – though I believe not quite to the extent that Lynch asserts – says more about the audience for poetry and their wants than it does about Kinsella and his work.
Setting out the purpose of his study, Lynch declares that he is not an academic or a poet, or any kind of specialist in critical writing, but that his book emanates from a reading of the poet. That reading is indeed a close and penetrating one that takes in Kinsella’s broad range of concerns: family origin, history and its consequences, politics, love, marriage, the natural world, the abuse of political and bureaucratic power, the act of artistic creation and the larger issues such as Hisroshima (“Old Harry”) and the false promise of the Kennedy era (“The Good Fight”), as well as the “established personal places” of this Dubliner’s Dublin where so many of his poems are set and of course the exploration of self that is the most abiding theme throughout his work.
In delving into the Kinsella cauldron, Lynch’s intensity of focus is a match for the poet’s own intensity. He sifts his way through the material of the poems and the poet’s imaginative and schematic processes to present the reader with a vivid understanding of how, from early to late poems, a single fabric has been formed. Lynch’s insightful commentary weaves its way from poem to poem with careful cross-reference between various poems, periods and shifts in the Kinsella oeuvre. What Lynch clearly establishes is the unified authority overarching all of the work; the sense of a poetic mission from start to finish. He is especially engaging in his thinking on the role of the loner – Lee Harvey Oswald, Marcus Aurelius – in Kinsella’s cast of characters.
Kinsella emerged as one of the generation who faced the post-Yeatsian challenge of finding new means of expression – making it new. His reaction against the legacy of Yeats did not keep him from a close engagement with matters of national and cultural identity; his excoriations of the failures and disappointments of the new Republic and the betrayal of the ideals of its revolutionary founders, made him a voice of indictment (Lynch identifies one poem as a “stuffed charge sheet against the southern state”).
The author sets this aspect of his work against the background of Kinsella’s early career as a public servant in the Department of Finance – a vantage point that allowed close observation of the forces of power at work in the new Ireland of the 1960s and where he began his “critique of the commercialised Ireland from within its ideological base”.
The poet James Liddy once neatly summed up certain defining qualities: “If Kinsella appears in some ways as not a compulsively readable poet he is an introspective challenger of depth, an anxious recorder of interior space, an inhabitant of native Catholic tensions laced with the appropriate fears”. To which you could add that the temper of his imagination is a severe one.
I have devoted
my life, my entire career,
to the avoidance of affectation,
the way of entertainment.
At the core of all his poetry is the ordeal and struggle that confronts the human spirit: a poet of “stoic introspection” who likes to settle for the facts. In his interrogation of that theme, Lynch begins in the Kinsella household of the poet’s childhood and positions the magnificent elegy for his father, “The Messenger”, as a key poem out of the poet’s memory of a “Dublin urban experience”, citing it as an “excellent place for a reader to commence their engagement (with Kinsella)”.
Lynch puts forward and justifies the argument that this poem draws together Kinsella’s “most significant themes and consistent forms” and is “a delicate dance between the personal and historical”. The poet’s introduction to the daily ordeal, the beginning of what he once called “the continuing encounter with reality” took place in his father’s shadow. John Paul Kinsella, to whose memory “The Messenger” is dedicated, was a Guinness worker and left-wing activist involved in the first attempts to form a union in the brewery. The father’s trials – including conflict with the Guinness establishment on matters of principle – as well as other “hammerblows” that life delivered would appear to be pivotal in the character-forming of the poet, who as a child witnessed his father “on an election lorry … shouting about the Blueshirts” and making a protest exit from Mass in a local church. Biographical and personal material, and the home ground of his younger years, have provided the poet with much of his most memorable and powerful work.
Lynch sees the transition that took place in mid-twentieth century Ireland, from a predominantly rural society to one with a burgeoning urban labour force, as an important backdrop to the moulding of Kinsella the poet and places his origins and experiences growing up in a working class environment as central to the development of his poetic identity. His social background has been the instigator of many of his thematic preoccupations.
The shift from country to town is particularly personified in the character of Dick King, the childhood neighbour to whom Kinsella pays homage in his poem of the same name. It is a crucial early Kinsella poem, and one that alerted me to local resonance in his work. King, a man of the Gaelic-speaking west and one of those victims of the decline of the rural economy, is transported to the city where his “second soul / was born in the clangour of the iron sheds”; the grind of his new proletarian life in Dublin may, as Lynch points out, be “grimly painted” in the poem but it is magnificently dramatised in the way that Kinsella brings together two distinctly different and originally separate poems into a composite work, demonstrating the poet’s intuitive gifts. (In another Kinsella study, Andrew Fitsimons’s “The Sea of Disappointment”, invaluable for its unearthing of source notes and unpublished poems, there is a reference to an earlier draft of the King poem that suggests the neighbourly bond between King and the poet’s father.)
Lynch pays particular attention to the period of his poetic style that “dismayed” the critics: the more opaque and deeper and darker introspective poems of idiosyncratic detail that began with New Poems 1973. These poems – allusive, allegorical, of high voltage – were a turning point; the poet enters a different aesthetic zone, the ground of the poet’s most testing confrontations.
In a discourse on the writings of the psychologist Carl Jung as an important influence, Lynch brilliantly examine the poet’s “intense personal assessment” in these poems and subsequent Peppercanister volumes, such as Songs of the Psyche and Fat Master, with their symbolic vitality. While Kinsella departed from his earlier formal idioms, his meticulous approach to the making of a poem remained; the quest for exactitude became more rigorous.
These poems certainly did not appease the perception that he can be a “difficult poet”. Lynch points out that Kinsella himself is cognisant of his relationship with his readers, that “mingling of lives” that occurs in the reading moment, that he refers to in “A Technical Supplement”. He was never a poet to ingratiate himself, but one who demands “the maximum from the audience”. As Eamon Grennan has asserted, “Reading Kinsella, among other of its virtues and values, is a sort of discipline.” The disciplined poet, it would seem, requires disciplined readers.
As well as being his walking terrain, Dublin has been central to his imagination, as he noted when presented with his Freedom of the City: “Dublin gave many important things their first shape and content for me”. From early to later work he has contemplated and reconstructed the city. No other writer since Joyce has so fervently mapped the city in the way Kinsella has, and few writers have known it as intimately. In his poems of perambulation he possesses the same qualities as those ascribed to the Parisian flâneur poet Jacques Reda, an “equipoise between internal and external awareness”.
His journeys are not just through a particular physical landscape – down Baggot Street or back to Phoenix Street or into the city centre and towards the GPO or the Pen Shop, but deep into the human psyche: the onward path always leading inwards. These are “metaphysical journeys”, as Lynch tells us, with the poet “reading the ground”. Whether it is the solitary stroll of “A Country Walk”, in which the poet enters the “gombeen jungle” of an Ireland turning its back on patriotic ideals or the epic suburban trek of Joycean moments with its inevitable arrival at “the Sea of Disappointment” in “Nightwalker”, these journeys, says Lynch, have had “an enabling impact” on the poet’s imagination and “act as a consolation of sorts for Kinsella … that brings a semblance of structure and meaning to life”. Both poems are seen by Lynch as embodying Kinsella’s rejection of the “the priorities of the orthodox capitalist dream” of the new Republic. The poet has continued that solitary prowl through “personal and political history” in later work such as “St Catherine’s Clock” and “The Pen Shop”.
“Nightwalker” is not the only poem in which the poet’s indignation erupts. In “Night Conference, Wood Quay” (another of his indictments, this time against destructive development sanctioned by Dublin’s city fathers ) his stern and scornful gaze is directed at the “white-cuffed marauders”. That scorn is aimed not only at a political elite: the literary and journalistic coteries of the day are not exempted; he takes no hostages in “Open Court”, a literary bar scene evoked with a Clarkesque satiric edge: “the overcrowded sty”, where
three poets sprawl,
silent, minor, by the wall.
In the overcrowded hall of poetry, Kinsella holds a singular position and this study, scrupulous in its attention to the individual poems and guided by the author’s passion for his subject, will deepen an understanding of that position. My own suspicion is that the “dethroned god” (as David Wheatley has described Kinsella) is being reinstated. The poems will certainly endure, with studies such as Confronting Shadows amplifying their presence in the canon.
Gerard Smyth’s latest collection of poems is A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press).