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This item is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

D’aithle na bhfileadh n-uasal,
   truaghsan timheal an tsaoghail;
clann na n-ollamhgo n-eagna
   folamh gan freagra faobhair…

The high poets are gone
   and I mourn for the world’s waning,
the sons of those learned masters
   emptied of sharp response.

In April 2020 we lost Eavan Boland and in December 2021 Thomas Kinsella. I say ‘we’ selfishly, because PN Review is in part their construction and became their magazine for decades. Eavan was first reviewed in PNR 2 and contributed major poems, essays, reviews and interviews from 1985 (‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ was the first). Tom was first mentioned in Poetry Nation II by Donald Davie in his famous essay ‘The Varsity Match’, and started contributing in person in 1993. In 2015 and 2016 we published his ‘personal readings’ of Dickinson, Yeats, Beckett and Wordsworth.

Observing these great Irish poets through the lens of the magazine, over a long period when they were in uncertain motion in time and in the world, finding their divergent ways, they are tentative, alive, working their ways towards the completion of their books and projects but not yet, not quite there, as in those wonderfully re-defining interviews they give, candid and generous. For them what begins as a ‘dual tradition’ develops in complexity, more strands add themselves; as time passes the always problematic and often vexing fact of Great Britain dwindles in importance. To PN Review this was an enabling process, too: based in Manchester, it too found centres beyond the main English publishing centre in which earlier Anglophone writers – Irish, American, Caribbean, Indian – had come for validation.

Thomas Kinsella became a resister of the literary energies that emanated from Oxbridge and the commercial interests of London publishing. When I first came to Britain in 1965, he was the main up-and-coming Irish poet of the day, his collections published by Oxford University Press, a familiar of the Movement poets and closely associated with Donald Davie in Dublin. Eavan Boland remembered how, ‘By the time I went to Trinity in the early 1960s I could feel the change. Irish poetry was beginning to report something new. It came down to simple things. The inclusion of the city was one of them -- the sights and sounds and streets. Looking at Kinsella’s “Another September” and “Downstream” you can see where those city images are going: into a harsh, interesting dialogue with the Yeatsian pastoral. And it was worked through those urban images. Poems like “Baggot Street Deserta” were fresh and jagged.’ (PNR 133, in the year 2000: the issue includes three poems by Kinsella.)

The city was not a generic city, it was Dublin; its jaggedness was evidence of a specific history. Writing a note to accompany the poems we published in the 100th issue of PNR, A Calendar of Modern Poetry, in 1994, Kinsella said,
My first poems were written partly in curiosity, with my discovery of modern poetry. And in some excitement, with the discovery of my own personal world – in detail – in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

It was a while before my poems could say exactly what I wanted them to say. As I began to manage this, I wrote a number of poems out of a strong local sense, with an awareness of things against their routine backgrounds. ‘Chrysalides’ and ‘Westland Row’ are two of these. Later, I found reality and the past expressing themselves in a sense of family, in memories of my growing up in Dublin. In my attempts at generalisation, and making sense of experience that mattered, I wrote mainly longer poems; but ‘Artists’ Letters’ and ‘Talent and Friendship’ are shorter poems of this kind.

When I try to write about these ideas, I find that I am more at ease in poetry. ‘At the Head Table’ is a recent long poem; the first part has to do with possible attitudes of the artist toward his work and toward his audience.

His resistance to the conventional centre cost him the central reputation he had when I first encountered his work. Davie remembers (Poetry Nation II, 1974) how when Larkin was trying to find a publisher for The Less Deceived he looked to Ireland: ‘it is worth putting it on record that a version of that collection had earlier been rejected, by the Dolmen Press in Dublin. (The Irishmen who turned it down, Liam Miller, Sean White, Tom Kinsella, rejected Larkin for the same reason presumably as the Scotsman Tom Scott rejects him now... Larkin’s English admirers do not recognise how non-exportable he is, even within the British Isles.)’ Eloquent parentheses. It is not that Kinsella recoiled from Larkin’s work – he could speak of it with appreciation. But in publishing terms it did not belong in Ireland.

At first, Kinsella was identified with the Movement poets, but soon – despite his remarkable formal resources and his ironies – his differences became apparent. In particular, his kinds of irony, fraught with anger, were different from his English contemporaries’. In PN Review 1 the American critic Calvin Bedient wrote an essay on what he dubbed ‘Absentist poetry’ and placed the Irish poet in the formal and thematic company of W.S. Graham, Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes.

In the introduction to his New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1987) he puts more distance between himself and the British fashions of the day. He resisted the idea of an Ulster Renaissance, omitting Michael Longley, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon and others from the book. Further, he insisted on the specifically Irish strand: ‘the Irish tradition is a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction, of two major bodies of poetry asking to be understood together as functions of a shared and painful history’ – Irish providing ‘the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe’. The relationship between these two strands at different periods in Irish history illuminates the cultural dynamic. Kinsella’s work as a translator is part of the magnificence of his achievement. He attended an Irish-language school and the language was deeply rooted in him.

Even in the early 1970s, some English critics began to say that Kinsella had taken a ‘wrong turn’, i.e., he had turned away, in his critical writing and in poems like ‘Nightwalker’, ‘Phoenix Park’, ‘Downstream’ and in his controversial, immediate response to Bloody Sunday in 1972, Butcher’s Dozen, re-published by Carcanet as Peppercanister 30 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the events. His hectic revision of his poems was part of this struggle away, freeing himself from association with his British contemporaries. Other more amenable Irish poets were soon taken up. He retained his American and Irish readers, and became an increasingly radical poetic and therefore political presence. His Peppercanister Press was a route to independence – an independence which almost courted neglect.  Reviewing his Selected Poems in these pages in 2008 my co-editor John McAuliffe wrote, ‘Other contributing factors to his low profile reflect a literary culture increasingly focused on festivals and prize shortlists for single collections,’ trends amply chronicled in our pages.

His irreplaceable translation of The Táin is a permanent addition to the Irish canon, through which elements of the dual tradition will survive. The creative and linguistic work on The Táin complicated his English poetry and led into his challenging, mature work, in particular New Poems 1973. In McAuliffe’s words, ‘readers will get a good sense of the poems’ plumbing of idiomatic “spoken” English, and their astonishing, perspective-switching movement between the myths of early Irish settlement and Kinsella’s own childhood and adult life, and, framing all this effort, a Beckett-like vision which might be summed up by Pozzo’s “giving birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant then it’s night once more”.’ And McAuliffe quotes, as I shall to close, lines from ‘At the Head Table’ (1991), ‘whose speaker is modelled on Swift and Aogán Ó Rathaille’:
The air grew dark with anger
toward the close of the celebration.
But remembering his purpose
he kept an even temper

thinking: 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.

This item is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

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