There are established personal places
that receive our lives’ heat
and adapt in their mass, like stone.
(Thomas Kinsella, from ‘Personal Places’)
It’s a critical commonplace that Irish writers are wedded to place, that their imaginations are awakened by the lure of specific territories: think of Joyce’s Dublin or Patrick MacCabe’s small town Ireland. Or think how Seamus Heaney’s recent District and Circle circles and remaps terrain familiar from forty years of previous work. Or again, how Roy Fisher’s poems grow out of Birmingham. ‘Birmingham’s what I think with,’ he once said, and it’s true of many poets that their places are part of their thinking apparatus, their essential imaginative equipment. It would be impossible to even think of Kavanagh without thinking of the places that were his subject. Sligo, Iniskeen, Barrytown, Raglan Road are planted squarely on the Irish literary map along with Eccles St and the Martello tower in Sandycove, yet not every writer uses place this overtly or identifiably – for some place is an underground stream pulsing deeply but mysteriously and only occasionally breaking the surface to course across the social, political and civic. For poets place is always as much a mindscape as it is a landscape.
Thomas Kinsella, whose own work is itself like an underground stream running out of sight of contemporary poetry, is like this. There are few bus tours to the area from Bow Lane to Basin Lane where he grew up and where so much of his work is set. Even if it is within sight of the Brewery, his Dublin will sell few beers, and doesn’t enter the Ireland that gets onto tea-towels or aeroplane headrests. And indeed, from the outset of his career he was seen as a poet who somehow transcended place, as if he were too magisterial for the mortar of the real. For me part of the thrill of the closing lines of ‘Baggot Street Deserta’, ‘My quarter-inch of cigarette/Goes flaring down to Baggot Street’ may have come from the fact that I could picture that trajectory, that I had been in Baggot Street and stubbed out cigarettes on the pavement, but for John Jordan in an early review there was ‘little or nothing in his verse (‘Baggot Street Deserta’ could as well be ‘King’s Road Deserta’ ) to suggest involvement with the city.’ This is both true and not true; it’s true in the sense that there is no overt memorialising of the city in the work, no comforting topographical identification, no sense of the city as city in the epic sense of Joyce’s Dublin, but it misses the poet’s intense and multi-faceted relationship with several Dublins: the city of his childhood with its narrow streets and dark yards; the Georgian city of his young adulthood, and the mangled boom-town with its ‘Invisible speculators, urinal architects,/and the Corporation flourishing their documents/in potent compliant dance...’
Had Kinsella been a different kind of poet and written more directly about his Dublins, he might have mapped them onto our consciousness. But by the time he turned his imagination on his city in earnest, his style had shifted from the crystalline clarities of his earlier work to a suggestive indirection, as he began to explore his own origins; many of the poems in the volume which marks a turning point in his career, New Poems 1973, are extraordinarily detailed recollections of his childhood, with a deliberate troubled intensity of focus that slows time down and creates a series of friezes as in ‘A Hand of Solo’, ‘Ancestor’, ‘Tear’ or ‘Hen Woman’
There was a tiny movement at my feet,
tiny and mechanical; I looked down.
A beetle like a bronze leaf
was inching across the cement...
there is no end to that which,
not understood, may yet be noted
and hoarded in the imagination. . .
These and later poems of dawning consciousness and ‘blood and family’ and were both preternaturally clear in their sharply focused attention on details of places and people and at the same time slightly blurred, their back stories withheld, their architectonics complicated. To read them is to be plunged without preamble or introduction into their immediate, urgent world. ‘I was going to say something/and stopped.’ (‘Ancestor’)
I was sent in to see her.
A fringe of jet drops
chattered at my ear
as I went in through the hangings.
I was swallowed in chambery dusk...
They’re also strangely self-sufficient – they confound the usual expectation of resolution and closure and are open-ended, the dynamic intensely personal. What stops them from sinking into unmediated privacy is the force of their realisation as verbal objects. The paradox of Kinsella’s work is that it often uses very personal material with the flinty objectivity of a Tribunal report. It is part of the process to which the poet subjects his material in order to extract the essentials. The challenge for readers as they follow the poet on his journey to the interior is to learn how to read a poet who resists the usual comforts. Eamon Grennan has said his poems must be experienced rather than understood, and Dennis O’Driscoll once likened reading him to adjusting to the dark in a cinema: ‘you do gradually become accustomed to the kind of atmosphere and the kind of light that you’re working in.’
Our sense of Kinsella, and Kinsella’s Dublin, is greatly amplified by a new book, Thomas Kinsella: A Dublin Documentary, published by O’Brien Press, which presents twenty key Kinsella poems alongside comments, family photographs, prints and other material. The book places Kinsella solidly in his Dublin context and charts the growth of his self-awareness as man and poet. Much of what would have been inferred about the life is now explicit. It fills in gaps, names names: the Kinsellas and the Casserlys and their lives in Inchicore and Kilmainham, a brief spell in Manchester and the family’s return to a Dublin ‘of displacement and unemployment, and short stays in strange houses’. It fleshes out the gallery of strong, definite characters that people the poems: the ‘Boss’ Casserly, Grandfather Kinsella the repairer of shoes and their formidable wives, both of whom ran small shops in their houses:
It was in a world dominated by these people that I remember many things of importance happening to me for the first time. And it is in their world that I came to terms with these things as best I could, and later set my attempts at understanding.
A great deal of Kinsella’s poetic energy still streams from these places and people and that growing self-awareness. Many familiar poems now appear accompanied by family photographs or laconic comments, such as the following after ‘Hen Woman’ : ‘A scene ridiculous in its content, but of early awareness of self and process: of details insisting on their survival, regardless of any immediate significance’. ‘All of these poems,’ he reminds us after ‘38 Phoenix Street’, ‘whatever their differences, have a feature in common: a tendency to look inward for material – into family or self.’
Kinsella’s work in the Land Commission and later the Department of Finance at a time of rapid economic expansion gave another dimension to his work but also further reinforced his steely methodology as a poet. His days began with a walk into Government Buildings and a view of the vista that would give his own Peppercanister Press its name when he began issuing his work in carefully worked sequences, applying the same thoroughgoing control to the process of publication as he applied to the material itself. The Department helped him, he says here, ‘towards viewing things directly. Staying with the relevant data, and transmitting them complete.’
The relevant data, for Kinsella, include the full span of human experience and the huge variety of response the human spirit and psyche has evolved to process it. This means that you can never separate the public from the private Kinsella, you can’t say here is the Dublin of personal memory and here is the public entity, or here is the public and here the private voice. The nature of his pursuit is to find a way of writing which incorporates all of these and moves, often disconcertingly, from one to the other, from Robert Emmet on the scaffold to a Malton print of Thomas St in 1792 and on to the murmur of personal recollection.
The bus tours may not be about to start, but Thomas Kinsella here gives us a valuable key to understanding some of the ‘established personal places’ that continue to absorb and radiate his imagination’s heat.
With acknowledgements to The Irish Times, where this piece first appeared