The Freedom of the City
At first glance, the steeple on the cover of Thomas Kinsella’s new Selected Poems, luminescent against an azure sky, might be native to Rome. On closer inspection, the architecture’s stately simplicity suggests Georgian Neo-Classical, perhaps a relic of Colonial America. An observer with a taste for analogy might comment on the steeple’s striking resemblance to a kitchen table pepper canister. And with that, we are in Upper Mount Street, Dublin, looking at St Stephen’s church. Kinsella had a view of this church, nicknamed the “Peppercanister”, from his Percy Place home, and the Dublin press he founded in 1972 was christened after it.
That the Dublin cover image, by Stephen Raw, can take us on such a diverse, international journey appropriately illustrates the rewards of Kinsella’s poetry. Kinsella was one of the first Irish poets after Yeats to display a stubbornly internationalist scope, while remaining steadfastly loyal to a locality. His environs have been consistent, both in situation and imagination. Born in Inichore in 1928 and educated at University College Dublin, Kinsella left his city and his civil service job in 1965 to take up the post of Writer in Residence at Southern Illinois University. Yet, unlike Dublin’s infamous literary exiles, Kinsella spent the next two decades dividing his time between Dublin and the US, a transatlantic commuter, before re-settling in Dublin, and later County Wexford. The imprint of a single city on a life of poetry has been realized, again by Raw, in the iconic image of a Victorian Dublin street-map on the cover of Kinsella’s Collected Poems (2001).
Selected Poems, together with two new Peppercanister publications, Man Of War and Belief and Unbelief,published in June, usefully remind us of the continued industriousness of this important twenty-first century poet. With a career that has spanned half a century, Kinsella’s bibliography is now comparable with figures in modern poetry such as Yeats, Williams and Pound. In acknowledgment of his vast literary achievement, the Mayor of Dublin conferred upon the poet an Honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin this year. Thus honoured, Kinsella is in eclectic and esteemed company, with previous recipients including Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, rock band U2, and Mother Teresa.
Recognition from his native city is a fitting reward for the long, intimate homage to Dublinthat has marked Kinsella’s poetic career. The Selected Poems stylishly and a-chronologically demonstrates the poet’s urban devotion. Baggot Street of the 1950s, a hothouse of creativity where Kinsella met the renowned composer Seán Ó Riada, and his first publisher at the Dolmen Press, Liam Miller, is evoked throughout the collection. As Kinsella renders it in “Baggot Street Deserta”, “Dreamers heads / Lie mesmerised in Dublin’s beds”. A contemplative daylight walk through the city is the setting for the exquisite love poem “Phoenix Park”. “Nightwalker” is built around a nocturnal city peregrination, reminiscent of the oft-retraced path of Bloom and Dedalus. The spirit of the author of the original Dublin night-walk, a looming and palpable predecessor to Kinsella, is fittingly summoned “In silk hats…stern jodhpurs…On his big white harse”.
The Dublin of Kinsella’s childhood is recalled minutely and intimately in his poetry of the 1970s, most notably in New Poems (1973), and the fifth Peppercanister publication, One (1974), in which his home at “38 Phoenix Street”, in the Ballyfermot district, is granted specific testament. Place-name poetry is an established trope of Irish verse, with its roots in the Gaelic dinnseanchas tradition. Establishing senses of place is important to this poet, as attested by the 1990 volume of lyric reminiscences, Personal Places; urban street-name poetry is a decidedly Kinsellan breed.
Kinsella creates close and suffocating household environments in “A Hand of Solo”, “Ancestor” and “Tear”, particularly as he remembers his grandmother. Generational distance and miscomprehension are compounded by perfunctory intimacies, as the young protagonist is drawn into a greeting embrace:
My eyes were squeezed shut against the key
In the pocket of her apron. Her stale abyss…
‘…You’d think I had three heads!’
In “Tear”, the young Kinsella is sent into the “chambery dusk” of his grandmother’s deathbed. As with so many of the poems in this sequence, which opens with a reverie on the moment of a falling egg (“Hen Woman”), time is subtly and sensitively suspended. The juvenile deliberation over deathbed etiquette (“Was I to kiss her?”) is drawn out, and reluctantly resolved: “Snuff and musk: the folds against my eyelids, / carried me into a derelict place / smelling of ash”.
Yet this intricate, localised aesthetic coexists with a sense of staggering worldliness. Kinsella’s poetic scope extends to the national and international, and he does not withhold criticism of the modern world, with which his city becomes increasingly integrated. We are reminded in “Nightwalker” that for the early years of his productivity, Kinsella was a poet with a day-job, synchronising with the human masses as he is physically compelled to “lie down with them all soon and sleep, / And rise with them again when the new day / Has roused us”. The pedestrian protagonist is a postmodern Prufrock, disconcertingly nameless, faceless and humourless. He is “a brain in the dark and bones out exercising / Shadowy flesh.” Desperately seeking self-affirmation, gazing into the sea, he hears the whisper of a bird: “I have seen the sun go down at the end of the world. / Now I fly across the face of the moon”, in an echo of Prufrock’s oceanic vision. The one certainty with which he exists is an intangible anxiety: “I only know things seem and are not good”. In scathing satire of a complicated, endemically Irish blend of myth, devotion and commercialism, the iron statue in Dublin Harbour to whom the protagonist directs his most virulent apostrophes has the faces of the Virgin Mary, Kathleen Ni Houlihan (a version of Mother Ireland, immortalised in poetry, song and a play by W. B. Yeats), and “Productive Investment”. The poem ends with an allusion to a recurrent Finnegans Wake acronym, in a triad worthy of a Beckett stage direction: “hesitating, cogitating, exit…”.
Nightwalker and other Poems (1968), the first collection after Kinsella’s move to the United States, marks a formal departure in his work. From here onwards, the influence of American modernism is evident. Earlier dabbling in Elizabethan love poetry (see “Soft to your Places”), and the Audenesque lyric (see “Mirror in February” with its memorable close “I fold my towel with what grace I can, / Not young and not renewable, but man”), feel far removed, as Kinsella follows Williams, Pound and Roethke, in looking to the long sequence as a vehicle for formal experimentation. Visually, his poetry becomes more interesting, and the page a more pliant canvas. The elegant, sonorous voice of the early poetry is submerged, and we hear a range of surprising interjections, such as the Taoist aphorisms in the magnificent “Tao and Unfitness at Instiogue on the River Nore”:
Move, if you move, like water.
Respond. Do not interfere. Echo.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a conscious retreat from public eloquence into internal, Jungian exploration, in Peppercanister sequences such as “Songs of the Psyche”, in some way accounted for his reputation of being unreadable. Selected Poems is judicious in its modest but representative coverage of this period, which is characterised by a troubling and relentless preoccupation with earthly decay and human mortality. In “Artist’s Letter”, such a preoccupation turns an innocent revisiting of papers into a baffling vision of artistic cannibalism:
And when we have
been nicely eaten and our parts
spat out whole and have became
‘one’, then we can settle our cuffs
and our Germanic collar…
In Selected Poems, the digestion (to be consistent with Kinsella’s theme of consumption) of A Technical Supplement (1976)is made more palatable, with the removal of early, explicit, fragments depicting slaughter and dissection.
A clarifying distinction is worth making: to be unread is a less culpable predicament for the contemporary poet than to be unreadable. Kinsella’s status as the former is in a large part explained by his method of publication since the founding of the Peppercanister Press. Intricately designed pamphlets with limited print runs were issued in pairs, to mark occasions, such as the death of his close friend, Seán Ó Riada, in A Selected Life (1972). With this personal project, literally homegrown, Kinsella showed himself to be unconcerned with commercial trends and maintaining a wide, casual readership. “It is as though Clarke courted obscurity”, Kinsella wrote in the introduction to the Selected Poems of Austin Clarke, his predecessor in upholding a private press, as if in ironic anticipation of similar accusations against himself. The Peppercanister Press continued to issue “draft publications”, with a maximum print run of 500, distributed in conjunction with the Dedalus Press in Dublin. Difficult to locate, most readers would first encounter them in small combined volumes such as One and Other Poems (1979), and From Centre City (1994), distributed in the UK by Oxford University Press. A result of this idiosyncratic printing history is that there are few poets writing today whose Selected and Collected editions, which bring the Peppercanister pamphlets together, are more necessary, or more eagerly anticipated.
Any selected edition of Kinsella’s poetry will necessarily interfere with the increasing governance of long sequences, unity and oneness in his work. Selected Poems shows discretion in largely avoiding the wrath of practised Kinsella readers. It is difficult to dispute the primacy and importance of the sequential collections Nightwalker and New Poems, which receive 60 pages – a third of the volume – between them. Of the Peppercanisters, some of the pickings are so slim as to render the poems meaningless; one wonders if it would have been astute to forego the isolated fragments from The Familiar (1999) and Godhead (1999) in favour of a cohesive sequence such as “One Fond Embrace” (1981), or The Pen Shop (1997), in its modest entirety. Butcher’s Dozen (1972), the first Peppercanister, is unsurprisingly omitted. A bold and heavily criticised response to the Widgery Tribunal of Inquiry into the British Army shooting of thirteen civil rights demonstrators, this poem unravels in pulsating rhyming couplets (“A month has passed. Yet there remained / A murder smell that stung and stained.”) Unrestrained in its vitriol, and the most overtly partisan of all Kinsella’s works, Butcher’s Dozen undeniably makes for uncomfortable reading. However, the satire occasionally penetrates to an exhilarating level, and the work is a significant landmark in Kinsella’s career; its absence is felt in Selected Poems.
This collection demonstrates a subtle shift from the personal and psychological focus of his middle period, to a more civic sensibility in Kinsella’s later poetry, from the officiously entitled “Administator” and “Social Work”, to the selections from last year’s Marginal Economy. Three offerings from that understated volume provide this Selected Poems with an elegant close. “Marcus Aurelius” is a well-poised and unromantic political allegory, in which the central figure is a familiar twenty-first century contradiction, “a baffled humane…in his Imperial predicament”. He is nonetheless subject to the torments of passion, and in the third fragment, the narrator relates with dry distance how, on hearing of his wife’s affair, Marcus “had the gladiator killed / and his wife bathed in the blood.” The standard of Marginal Economy, and the simultaneous publication of two new pamphlets, leave the reader willing the onset of the next collected edition. It seems 2007 has been a fruitful year for Kinsella, honoured bard of Dublin city, and, as the title to one Peppercanister reminds us, Citizen of the World (2000).
Sarah Bennett is a DPhil student in English Literature at Hertford College, Oxford. Her thesis is on Irish and American poetic exchanges in the late twentieth century.