Thomas Kinsella is a poet of great restraint and intensity. Much of his poetry is forged by an intelligence and a philosophical exactness, never avoiding the long arc of history nor the anabasis of the self, that epic journey from the coast to the interior of the human experience begun with Nightwalker and continuing, with a late renewal of vigour and intensity which has not abated.
Even in his early traditional verses, formal and elegant, there is no forcing. The rhymes move with an ease and grace that has been described more than once as Audenesque. His break with strict form was made well after he had mastered the craft.
It is hard not to compare the body of his work to that of a composer – his beloved Bach comes easily to mind. He has a composer’s reach and the individual poems seem to me to be part of a greater whole, individual songs and movements in a symphony that is both aural and written. He has perfect pitch and a purity of tone that is almost unique among his Irish contemporaries.
Thomas Kinsella spent 15 years, off and on, working on his translation, gathering, choosing, shaping; he restored what had often been prettified in translation to its original vigour
His immersion in the bardic forms, the very different sounds and constraints of Gaelic verse, has served him, and his readers, well and must have added to his surefootedness in the vertical regions he traversed in the Peppercanister Poems such as Notes From the Land of The Dead, published in 1969, the same year as the Dolmen edition of The Táin, Song of the Night and Song of the Psyche, and continuing through to his great raft of Later Poems.
Many of the poems are concerned with mapping: Dublin’s lanes and streets and canals, and the deeper, psychic cartography of that city. Crucial to this latter is the many ways in which a culture represents itself to itself, of which language is one of the most crucial.
A man with a firm grasp of the dual tradition that Irish poets inherit, no poet was more aware than Kinsella of the cultural and psychological implications for a people of the loss of their language. He was in a position to view the sitauation both before and after the ending of the bardic era, to know that to a greater or lesser degree, Ireland lost its ability to accurately read its own epics and engage with its own culture when the language was lost and gaelic culture declined and broke up. Kinsella dates this at the famine, and certainly that was the last and worst of several deep rifts, chronicled in verse by Daithi Ó Bruadair and Aogán Ó Rathaile. Whenever we date the end of Gaelic culture, his translations of Aogán Ó Rathaile brought to a wide audience the last of the bardic poets in a version worthy of the original and faithful to its strengths. An Duanaire is one of the great literary works of reposession, scholarly, businesslike and an invaluable reference for poet and non-poet alike. It gives us a way back to ourselves in our own language, a code whereby we might find a route alongside and underneath the beauty and mistiness of the Celtic Twilight.
The Táin was published 12 years before Poems of the Disposessed. It was magisterial, rigorous, a work of repossession and composition, rather than re-invention. The task was daunting, archaeological in its reconstruction, a great dig. Before Kinsella there were translations, in part, of parts, of conflicting and incomplete primary texts. Not as sparse as Sappho’s fragments, but fragmented nonetheless – the manuscripts annotated, scrubbed out and overwritten, revised and incomplete. In other words, they had all the flaws of any great oral poem written down, reconstructed, perhaps by committee and in a world still Gaelic and culturally healthy, but one which nevertheless had accommodated Christianity and must pay it some lip service in collating the great manuscripts.
There had, of course, been translations and recensions before. Kinsella deals with those fairly in his introduction: he refers the reader to the introduction to Cecile O’Rahilly’s version published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1967 “for a great deal of detailed information on the Táin and its background”.
Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne spares the people of Kiltartan, and Yeats, ‘”a good deal I thought you would not care about…”. She meant urination, sex and slaughter, all told in workaday detail in the original Irish. Victorian sensibility has little use in a reading of Chaucer, much less in a reading of the “earthy” treatment of all natural bodily functions, and of birth and killing and mutilation, that is a feature of early and middle Irish.
Then there was the 1904 translation by Winifred Farady, which the poet tells us “is incomplete and difficult to read with any pleasure, partly because it transmits the flaws of the text (The Book of Leinster) so accurately”.
The Táin survived in Irish in a 12th- century manuscript, The Book of the Dun Cow, compiled at Clonmacnoise, and in The Yellow Book of Lecan from the 14th century. Those are the two main manuscripts used by Kinsella, but the origins of the Ulster cycle, it is agreed by most Celtic scholars, are in an oral tradition from at least four centuries earlier, and the “poetic” or “prophetic” speech of the indented pasages may date from two centuries earlier again. Such considerations based on linguistic evidence is the meat and drink of scholarly debate, but of mainly academic interest to the translator, except when they are backed up by useful information about form and custom.
It is in those indented passages that at the poetry happens, in the heightened or prophetic speech, oracular, mysterious and brilliant. Kinsella made no attempt to reconstruct in those passages, and the resulting poems are the powerful links that give the narrative an internal drive. I have valued them since I first read them as ayoung girl, and did not yet know the power of incantation.
Kinsella went for the first chapter of TheTáin to TheBook of Leinster, since that section serves as a starting point for the movement of armies across the country along the route of the cattle drive, and provides a strong motive for the main action, and Maeve’s desire not to be bested by her husband in riches and status. So The Táin starts with a man and a woman in bed, boasting. The story is unlikely to end well.
Thomas Kinsella spent 15 years, off and on, working on his translation, gathering, choosing, shaping, excising for clarity; he rendered the stories with precision and restored what had often been prettified in translation to its original vigour.
In doing so, he provided us with a necessary and clarifying counterpoint to the Celtic Twilight use of the myth cycles in treating with cultural identity. Before Kinsella, there were fragments of the cycle, succesful in places, full of inaccuracies, accrustations and obfuscations.
Kinsella’s ear for Irish is as pitch perfect as it is in English, his panoptic vision takes in the whole available manuscript, its various recensions, and makes his choices decisively and with unerring accuracy. He explains clearly in his introduction why he has chosen to begin with the pillow talk section and even without this information, there is an internal structural logic to that beginning, a locating of the start of the action, that is psychically as well as physically accurate. In other words, it is right. There is a beautiful rigour in the finished work, one that reflects the temperature and tone of the Irish language – this rendering is perhaps Kinsella’s greatest achievement in The Táin as it works on the level of deep linguistic memory and therefore on the imagination.
I am not qualified to comment on the old Irish texts but I am acquainted enough to know the dangers and some pitfalls: the stylistic accrustations, the riddles rendered entirely meaningless by the passing of time, the linguistic changes and the mishearings and imaginings in writing them down in the first place. And that is before we even begin to consider the rosc and reitoric wars, the scholarly disputes deserving of their own little digressions and recensions.
Thomas Kinsella took an unruly and repetitive bundle of textual scraps and forged it into a clean whole, complete with digressions but never so many as to confuse the reader or to obfuscate the internal sharpness of the story.
It is as if he took in the assembled materials and arranged the narrative into a pattern discerned by his ear and eye, and sculpted the whole into a map of Ireland, the armies moving to and fro across the plains, focusing on individuals who would move the story along and in so doing, give names to the places where great deeds were done:
“I have lived in important places...” Epic by Patrick Kavanagh
Along with the mapping that was central to the epic’s dinnseanchas and placenaming, the topography of The Táin still recognisable today, Kinsella provided us with a psychic cartography of a broken world and gave us, in restoring the epic with such literary precision, a map with which we might find our way to the rigour and darkness of the original, a link to the sounds and symbols of our culture in the language that sang its praise and told its stories.
Kinsella’s Táin transmits something of the austerity of the Irish, prickly and black as the contorted balckthorn bush, with its sudden explosions of bright blossom. It was in this language the bards expressed what we were, and in rendering it into English Kinsella has bent the language to his purpose and kept it, somehow, in the vernacular.
His Táin is a far cry from the mist and twilight of Yeats’ genius visions, closer in tone to the earned truth of his late, great flowering.
He has, as Heaney recognised, given a gift to world literature but he has given those poets who worked in the light of the dual tradition of Irish and English, a way back. And this, for a people as well as a writer, is crucial to the way forward.
Louis le Brocquy’s drawings accompanying the text capture the almost Japanese impersonality of the text. I see that my copy was a gift, in 1981, signed “On leaving home again”. I have carried it with me on my various journeyings since.
Mary O’ Malley’s essay on Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin was commissioned for the spring 2017 issue of Reading Ireland
From the outset of his career, Thomas Kinsella has shown an unremitting preoccupation with large themes. Love, death, time, and various ancillary imponderables are persistently at the forefront of Kinsella’s poetic activity. Such concerns beset all poets, no doubt, as well as all thinking beings. More often than not, Kinsella grapples with these overwhelming subjects without the alleviating disguise of metaphor, and he confronts them without the consolations of philosophy. Their reality consists of the profundity of the poet’s human—and hence, frequently baffled and outraged—experience of them.
Even in Kinsella’s early love lyrics, it is impossible for the poet merely to celebrate the emotion. He cannot view his subject without being aware of its problematical character—its temporariness and changeability. Thus, to identify Kinsella’s themes, while initially informative, may ultimately be misleading. It seems more illuminating to consider his preoccupations, which a reader may label time or death, as zones of the poet’s psychic experience, and to recognize that a Kinsella poem is, typically, an anatomy of psychic experience, a rhetorical reexperiencing, rather than a particularly conclusive recounting. Such a view would seem to be borne out by the forms that his poems typically assume. Their fractured look and inconsistent verse patterns (unavoidably but not imitatively reproducing the prosody of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) suggest an idea still developing. As Kinsella writes in “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench”: “No, it has no practical application./ I am simply trying to understand something/ —states of peace nursed out of wreckage./ The peace of fullness, not emptiness.”
An immediate implication of this approach to poetry is that it owes little or nothing to the poet’s Irish heritage. His concerns are common to all humanity, and while the conspicuous modernism of his technique has, in point of historical fact, some Irish avatars (the unjustly neglected Denis Devlin comes to mind), these are of less significance for a sense of Kinsella’s achievement and development than the manner in which he has availed himself of the whole canon of Anglo-American poetry. In fact, an interesting case could be made for Kinsella’s poetry being an adventitious, promiscuous coalescence of the preoccupations of poets since the dawn of Romanticism. Such a case might well produce the judgment that one of the bases for Kinsella’s general importance to the history of poetry in the postwar period is that his verse is a sustained attempt to inaugurate a post-Romantic poetic that would neither merely debunk its predecessor’s fatal charms (as perhaps Eliot desired to do) nor provide them with a new repertoire of gestures and disguises (which seems to have been Pound’s project). The effect of this judgment would be to place Kinsella in the company of another great Irish anti-Romantic of twentieth century literature, Samuel Beckett.
A more far-reaching implication of Kinsella’s technique is that it provides direct access to the metaphysical core of those preoccupations. Often the access is brutally direct. Throughout, Kinsella repeats the refrain articulated in the opening section of “Nightwalker” (from Nightwalker, and Other Poems): “I only know things seem and are not good.” This line strikes a number of characteristic Kinsella notes. Its unrelieved, declarative immediacy is a feature that becomes increasingly pronounced as his verse matures. There is a sense of the unfitness of things, of evil, of times being out of joint. The speaker is strikingly committed to his subjective view. The line contains a representative Kinsella ambiguity, depending on whether the reader pauses heavily after “seem.” Is “are not good” entailed by, or opposed to, “seem”? Readers familiar with Kinsella will hear the line announce a telltale air of threat and of brooding introspection. There is also, perhaps, a faint suggestion of meditative quest in “Nightwalker,” which occurs in other important Kinsella poems from the 1960’s (such as “Baggot Street Deserta” from Another September, and “A Country Walk” and “Downstream” from Downstream). Such an undertaking, however, is hardly conceived in hope and does not seem to be a quest for which the persona freely and gladly volunteers. Rather, it seems a condition into which he has been haplessly born.
It is not difficult to understand Kinsella’s confession that his vision of human existence is that of “an ordeal.” In fact, given the prevalence in his verse of ignorance, darkness, death, and the unnervingly unpredictable tidal movements of the unconscious—all frequently presented by means of apocalyptic imagery—there is a strong indication that the poet is doing little more than indulging his idea of “ordeal,” despite the prosodic virtuosity and furious verbal tension that make the indulgence seem an authentic act of soul baring. Such an evaluation, however, would be incomplete. Also evident is the poet’s desire to believe in what he has called “the eliciting of order from experience.” Kinsella’s verse is a continuing experiment in the viability of the desire to retain such a belief and a commitment to negotiate the leap of artistic faith that alone is capable of overcoming the abyss of unjustifiable unknowing that is the mortal lot. The possibility of achieving that act of composed and graceful suspension is what keeps Kinsella’s poetry alive and within the realm of the human enterprise.
Although Kinsella’s oeuvre exemplifies, to a dauntingly impressive degree, persistence and commitment in the face of the virtually unspeakable abyss, it has gone through a number of adjustments and modifications. Taken as a whole, therefore, Kinsella’s output may be considered an enlarged version of some of its most outstanding moments, a sophisticated system of themes and variations. In the words of the preface to Wormwood, “It is certain that maturity and peace are to be sought through ordeal after ordeal, and it seems that the search continues until we fail.”
One of the most important adjustments to have occurred in the development of Kinsella’s poetic career is his emergence from largely private, personal experience, primarily of love. His early poems, particularly those collected in Another September and Downstream, seem too often to conceive of experience as the struggle of the will against the force of immutable abstractions. While these poems respect the necessarily tense and tentative character of experience, they seem also to regard mere experience as a pretext for thought. These poems share with Kinsella’s later work the desire to achieve distinctiveness through allegories of possibility. However, their generally tight, conventional forms have the effect of limiting their range of possibilities. In addition, the typical persona of these poems seems himself an abstraction, a man with only a nominal context and without a culture.
By Downstream, such isolation was being questioned. The concluding line of this collection’s title poem—“Searching the darkness for a landing place”—may be taken (although somewhat glibly) as a statement emblematic of much of Kinsella’s early work. However, the collection also contains poems that, while painfully acknowledging the darkness, consider it as an archaeological redoubt. One of the effects of this adjustment is that the poet’s personal past begins to offer redemptive possibilities. In addition, and with more obvious if not necessarily more far-reaching effects, a generalized past, in the form of Irish history, becomes an area of exploration. It is not the case that Kinsella never examined the past prior to Downstream (“King John’s Castle” in Another September is proof to the contrary). Now, however, to the powerful sense of the past’s otherness that “King John’s Castle” conveys is added a sense of personal identification.
The poem in Downstream that demonstrates this development in Kinsella’s range is “A Country Walk.” Here, the persona, typically tense and restless, finds himself alone, explicitly undomesticated, with nothing between him and the legacy of the past discernible in the landscape through which he walks. The poem does not merely testify to the influential gap between present and past (a crucial preoccupation in all modern Irish writing) but also enters into the past with a brisk openness and nonjudgmental tolerance. “A Country Walk” reads like a journey of discovery, all the more so since what is discovered is not subjected to facile glorification. The fact that the past is so securely embedded in the landscape of the poem suggests that history is in the nature of things and that there is as much point in attempting to deny its enduring presence as there is in trying to divert the river which is, throughout the course of the poem, never out of the poet’s sight. The poem ends, appropriately, on a note of continuity: “The inert stirred. Heart and tongue were loosed:/ ’The waters hurtle through the flooded night. . . .’”
If anything, the present is circumvented in “A Country Walk.” To ensure that the reader is aware of this, Kinsella daringly uses echoes of William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to show how antiheroic is contemporary Ireland and to emphasize that the country is still, to paraphrase a line from Yeats’s “September 1913,” fumbling in the greasy till. This moment in “A Country Walk” prefaces the understandable admission “I turned away.” The interlude, however, draws attention to a noteworthy feature of Kinsella’s verse: its satire. From the outset, Kinsella’s work was capable of excoriation. The addition of local, often contemporary, Irish subject matter has created the opportunity for some scalding satirical excursions.
Nightwalker, and Other Poems
Perhaps the most notorious of these sallies is to be found in the long title poem of Nightwalker, and Other Poems, a poem that, in many ways, is an illuminating counterpart to “A Country Walk.” Here, the setting is urban, contemporary Dublin, and the speaker, lacking the briskness of his opposite number in “A Country Walk,” refers to himself as “a vagabond/ Tethered.” The demoralizing spectacle of modern life is the poem’s subject. Nothing is spared. In particular, Kinsella’s years in the civil service are the basis for a damning portrait of national ideals stultified and betrayed. This portrait goes so far as to include figures from Irish public and political life who, although distorted by the poet’s satirical fury, remain eminently recognizable and still occupy the highest positions in the...
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