Feature Articles

‘THE ROUGH COURSE’: CELEBRATING THOMAS KINSELLA by John F Deane 

(Poetry Ireland News, July/ August 2007)

In his first collection, Poems (1956), Thomas Kinsella wrote: ‘The random is at work / Between us’; yet the same poem states: ‘I communicate again / Recovered order to Thomas Kinsellamy pen.’ Over fifty years later, on Sunday, 17 June 2007, a unique event in the history of Irish literature took place in the Gate Theatre, when fellow poets, critics and writers offered homage to Kinsella by reading a selection of his work in the presence of the poet and his family. In truth we were celebrating such ‘recovered order’. The event was hosted by Poetry Ireland, introduced by Joe Woods in association with the Dublin Writers’ Festival; in other words, the powerhouses of Irish writing coming together to honour a poet whose work has, down the decades, commanded great respect, some controversy and a growing number of avid devotees.

From Colm Tóibín’s reading of the early poem ‘Another September’, through Eavan Boland, Gerard Smyth, Maurice Harmon, Michael Schmidt, Harry Clifton, Gerald Dawe, Derval Tubridy, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Dennis O’Driscoll, to Catriona Clutterbuck’s reading of ‘The Familiar’ of 1999, the range, depth and excitement of theme and form in Kinsella’s work became obvious. Kinsella has worked with integrity, determination and intelligence and for too long has been ignored in the wider climate of praise for Irish literature. This has been unfortunate: the influence of his modernist approach, the precision of his language and attention to detail, the ongoing exploration of self and society figured in the work, ought to have had a more powerful effect on his peers. For all these years he has quietly accepted the surface indifference of his own country and the wider, particularly British, neglect of his work and has continued the great ‘Peppercanister’ project, booklet after booklet adding to the depth, range and success of his approach. So it is not before time that an event such as this should have taken place, in the context of celebrations offering Kinsella the rare honour of Freeman of the City of Dublin.

The voice of this generous, intelligent and querulous man has grown firmer as each ‘Peppercanister’ appeared, the occasional satirical piece following the explosion of Butcher’s Dozen, the first Peppercanister, in 1972. Alongside this analysis, clear-eyed and pitiless, of the ills of society, has gone a series of ‘Peppercanister publications’ exploring the self, again with a pitiless, clear-eyed honesty, and it is perhaps these latter works that appeal most powerfully to the individual reader. It was I who asked Kinsella to write a poem on the hope of the total abolition of war; his response was negative, at first, his awareness of human foibles, and of the human propensity towards greed and violence, making him doubtful of the value of such an exercise. However, an earlier poem, ‘Hen Woman’, describes minutely how an idea left to germinate, perhaps over years, in the imagination, can divide, expand and find the form in which it may manifest itself. To my delight, Sunday evening saw the launch of just such a response, an entire booklet, Peppercanister 26, devoted to the subject, Man of War. It is, perhaps, Kinsella’s fullest response to society’s current urges towards wars and self-indulgent immorality.

Alongside that comes one of his deepest probings of the self, now that he is aware of age and growing weakness: Peppercanister 27, also launched on that Sunday evening, speaks of the Source of being, and offers ‘prayers’ to an unnamed but guiding force behind nature and human living. This book, Belief and Unbelief, echoes earlier work, proving again how unified and harmonious the whole oeuvre of this magnificent poet is; he speaks still of ‘the raw random that walks at the side of Man’. When Kinsella himself appeared on the stage of the Gate he received a standing ovation; it had become clear, I believe, that the work has been, and still is, an effort to draw order out of the chaos of this randomness, a work that does not impose an order but extracts it from a hard visioning of actual experience. For this work the world must be grateful and the event in the theatre began the task of expressing that gratitude. Kinsella read, and we must agree, from ‘Belief and Unbelief ’, his prayer ‘That the rough course / of the way forward / may keep us alert / for the while remaining’.

John F Deane is the founder of Poetry Ireland and Poetry Ireland Review. He was elected Secretary-General of the European Academy of Poetry in 1996 and is a member of Aosdána. His latest poetry collection, A Little Book of Hours, is forthcoming from Carcanet.

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