Colm Tóibín, ‘The Poetry of an Empty Space’, in The Irish Times (25 June 2011)

An Essay on Thomas Kinsella

Source: “The Dark 16th Century”, in Dublin Review, 43 (Summer 2011) [online] - being a revised version of Tóibín’s Leslie Stephen Lecture at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Reprinted in The Irish Times (25 June 2011), Weekend, p.12 - available online; accessed 30.06.2011.

Sub-heading: As a teenager in 1972 Colm Tóibín was with Thomas Kinsella in Enniscorthy as the poet listened to a recording of his famous poem about Bloody Sunday. Here, Tóibín assesses Kinsella’s attempts to write into the void left by a broken artistic tradition

On Saturday, August 12th, 1972, when I was 17, I was standing in Market Square in Enniscorthy, around the corner from the castle, when I saw the poet Thomas Kinsella walking up Slaney Street with his nephew Paul Walsh. That morning’s Irish Timeshad a review by the poet Michael Hartnett of Kinsella’s new book of poems, a book called Notes from the Land of the Dead. A photograph of the poet had been printed beside the review. One of the sentences of the review read: “Notes from the Land of the Dead is the most important book to come out of Ireland or its neighbour island since Yeats’s Responsibilities.” One of the earlier names for Co Wexford was Hy Kinsella, and the name was common in the county still; although Kinsella had been born in Dublin, his roots were here, among the native population. His wife was from outside Enniscorthy. I knew his nephew and so we stopped for a moment to talk. When I mentioned the review, I noticed that the poet did not have anything much to say about it.

Later that day, Paul Walsh came to our house and asked if we had a cassette player. His uncle wanted to borrow it, he said. So I got the cassette player and went out with him to Lucas Park, where Paul’s grandmother, the poet’s mother-in-law, lived.

That Saturday we sat in the dwindling early-evening light in the porch of Mrs Walsh’s house. Mrs Walsh, Thomas Kinsella’s mother-in-law, was there, and the poet himself, and Paul and myself. Later, I would realise that we were in the house of Kinsella’s poem “Another September”, beside the orchard mentioned in the poem. “Another September” is a poem that seems now, more than half a century after it was composed, a hymn written in muted music to the strange stability and ease that had descended on this part of Ireland in the years after independence. The poet has come with his wife to her house close to the Slaney, outside the town of Enniscorthy, at a place called Lucas Park, near St John’s Manor, and the poem describes the dawn in a territory “wrapped in a minor peace”, a place of plenty, “windfall-sweetened soil”, houses roofed with slate, holdings enclosed with iron gates not to lock marauders out but as another aspect of order. This is a place where mysterious images can appear, not from history, or from loss, but from the part of the imagination most open to symbolic suggestion.

... It is as though
The black breathing that billows her sleep, her name,
Drugged under judgment, waned and – bearing daggers
And balances – down the lampless darkness they came,
Moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures.

We sat in the porch and faced the river. A decade and a half had passed since “Another September”. Thomas Kinsella had a cassette he wanted to play; an actress had made a recording of his poem “Butcher’s Dozen”. He had written the poem in response to the report published by Lord Widgery, the chief justice of England and Wales, in April of that year on the killing by the British army of 13 people in Derry in January. Widgery had exonerated the army. Many believed that what had happened in Derry had been a massacre, that the 13 were not armed and that the Widgery report was a whitewash. (Thirty-eight years later, this was confirmed by an inquiry headed by Lord Saville.) Kinsella’s poem, in rhyming couplets, was a public poem filled with rage. Now, we sat and listened to the recording. The voice was clearly that of an actress, and it was dramatic. The accent was English. It might have been called a consummate performance.

We listened to the poem being read, the account of a massacre. We were close to the river, which Edmund Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, called the “sandy Slane”. Spenser, as an aide to Lord Grey, had been present at the notorious massacre, in 1580, of hundreds of papal soldiers at Smerwick, on the Dingle peninsula, and he had briefly held a lease of 360 acres in Enniscorthy before settling on a large estate in Co Cork. To the north lay the town, where Sir Henry Wallop, a former lord justice of Ireland, had his headquarters from 1586, when he took up the lease once held by Spenser. Had it been 400 years earlier we could have walked down to the riverbank and seen the felled oak trees going down the river.

We were also close to a manor house built on the ruins of St John’s, the house of another 16th-century poet adventurer, Lodowick Bryskett; its gates were just across the road from where we were. The “St John’s” that is “near the river” in Kinsella’s Another Septemberis Bryskett’s house, the place where the elegy to Philip Sidney may have been written, the place Bryskett was burned out of in the last years of the dark 16th century, as Spenser was burned out of his castle in Co Cork. Between us and the town lay the small forest known as the Ringwood. Kinsella had invoked that too in his poem “In the Ringwood”:

The wind that swept the Ringwood
Grew dark with ancient slaughter.

In this site of ancient slaughter, the cassette player that had been telling of more recent slaughter clicked off. Kinsella, who did not like the way the poem had been read, removed the cassette and I went back into the town with the cassette player.

I struggled with the poems in “Notes from the Land of the Dead” when I got the book. They were filled with mystery, magic, strangeness and obscurity. There was in them a sour music that pushed through the apparent towards some shimmering and unearthly clarity, as though every phrase had been cut into stone, or was all that was left, all that was sayable, in the short time before sound faded and elemental silence began.

In 1966 Kinsella had written an essay called “The Irish Writer”, in which he teased out what it was like to work with a language that was almost not your language. Lamenting the death of a language and a tradition, the death that had begun in Ireland with the arrival of Spenser and Bryskett, Kinsella had asked himself a difficult and a liberating question, a question that haunts anyone who lives in this landscape now, or writes about it.

“Is there,” he asked, “any virtue, for literature, for poetry, in the simple continuity of a tradition? I believe there is not. A relatively steady tradition, like English or French, accumulates a distinctive quality and tends to impose this on each new member. Does this give him a deeper feeling for the experience gathered up in the tradition, or a better understanding of it? I doubt it ... For the present – especially in this present – it seems that every writer has to make the imaginative grasp at identity for himself; and if he can find no means in his inheritance to suit him, he will have to start from scratch.”

In the poems he wrote after this essay, Kinsella sought a poetic language to match this idea that a broken tradition might nourish poems, that the legacy of Grey and Spenser, Wallop and Bryskett did not haunt or disable the Irish imagination but left something bare, an empty space that could be filled. It took me years to work out what a poem such as “Ancestor” does, how every single sound it makes and image it offers seems to come hard-won out of silence rather than out of any accepted way of rendering experience in poetry. I cannot hear the sound of Gaelic poetry in these lines, or the sweet sounds that Spenser sent down the centuries in English poetry. I hear a broken poetry of the self, something starting from scratch in the full knowledge of how hard it is to say anything that is true. If it is part of any tradition, it is a tradition of fragments, such as The Mutabilitie Cantos, which come at the unfinished end of The Faerie Queene and were published after Spenser’s death.

What was the first September that made way for Kinsella’s “Another September”? It was Spenser’s. In one of the last poems Spenser wrote, he devoted a stanza to each month of the year; his September is “enricht with bounty of the soyle”:

In his one hand, as fit for haruests toyle,
He held a knife-hook; and in th’ other hand
A Paire of Waights, with which he did assoyle
Both more and lesse, where it in doubt did stand,
And equall gaue to each as Iustice duly scann”d.

Thus the poet came from the dark 16th century offering images to the poet in Enniscorthy in the late 1950s, as he came to Ireland, “bearing daggers and balances”, and “down the lampless darkness” of the centuries he appeared, mutability moving towards stability, mysterious, ghostly, ambiguous, influential.

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