Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘Major Poets Made and Born’, review of Thomas Kinsella, Collected Poems, and Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, in The Irish Times (3 Nov. 2001), “Weekend” [q.pp.]


Thomas Kinsella has been a powerful and controversial figure in Irish poetry for half a century: controversial partly for his view, stated in the introduction to his New Oxford Book of Irish Verse and developed in The Dual Tradition, that Irish literature is a continuum that survived its change of vernacular, from Irish to English. By a similar principle, Michael Hartnett bade “Farewell to English” in 1975 in order to write in the Gaelic tradition represented by his great 17th-century Limerick neighbour, Daibhí Ó Bruadair, before returning to write in the vernacular English of the locality. So the coinciding of these two major “Collecteds” assembles the weightiest evidence for seeing a unitary tradition in Irish poetry in English and Irish.

Kinsella is controversial, of course, for another reason: in 1972, he published “Butcher’s Dozen”, his incensed (and sectarianly overbalanced) broadside on the events of Bloody Sunday prompted by the publication of the lamentable Widgery Report, as the first of his self-published Peppercanister series of poems. The emergence of the Peppercanister series was highly significant, constituting a marked shift from what the poet himself has come to feel, with some justification, was the somewhat overwritten formal eloquence of the early verse towards a much more self-focused kind of poetry, while also implying that for the personal viewpoint to be represented in poetry, you have to publish your own. Part of the importance of this new "Collected", which supersedes the 1994 Oxford edition, is that it updates the incorporation of the Peppercanister series within the whole corpus.

Outside of the Peppercanisters, Kinsella was published over the years by Dolmen before its demise and by Oxford University Press before its abdication of responsibility for modern poetry. Given that “Collecteds” of a prolific living poet can never be wholly up to date, this one does well, containing the two 2000 Peppercanisters, and lacking only the two short new poems published in Catriona Clutterbuck’s invaluable recent Kinsella-devoted issue of the Irish University Review.

It is notoriously difficult to give an overview of Kinsella’s formidable corpus, as he moves (in the standard account) from being the Irish virtuoso Auden to the Irish modernist Pound, with the accent always on the Irish. And, of course, we must never forget the third element in Kinsella’s poetry production, his magnificent translation of Irish poetry, in An Duanaire and especially the Táin, an unequalled monument of Irish poetry translation.

A good place to start an overview is Dennis O’Driscoll’s brilliant account in Clutterbuck’s IUR, which notes that the commonest term to describe Kinsella has been “brooding”. O’Driscoll suggests accordingly that a good summary soubriquet for Kinsella would be “O’Brooder”, since the dazzling and acerbic Limerick satirist was the most temperamentally akin to Kinsella of the Irish poets he translated. Perhaps Kinsella’s best mode is the construction of unforgettable, placed images in the Peppercanister poems, evoking the imagist Pound rather than the Pound of the Cantos:

At the other end of the darkened
market place
a man’s figure crossed over
out of Francis Street
reading the ground,
all dressed in black
like a madwoman.

But it will take time for the full significance of this various, allusive, mysterious corpus to be fully weighed.

The role of Ó Bruadair revivalist was already taken anyway, by the poet of the second “Collected”; here, Michael Hartnett, whose work is complete, after his sadly early death in 1999. The handsome Gallery “Collected” is to be complemented with a volume of translations and A Book of Strays next year.

Kinsella and Hartnett are pretty incontestably the two major Gaelic-linked poets in English from the South of Ireland since Austin Clarke, but they could hardly be more different. To apply Ben Jonson’s observation about Shakespeare, that “a great poet’s born as well as made”: the learned, allusive, self-aware Kinsella is a classic made poet, but if ever a poet was born to the art it is Hartnett. Completely prodigal of his talent, he swings into his lyrical voice with speed and style and precision:

Like a knife cutting a knife,
his last plea for life
echoes joyfully in Camas.

Locally rooted though he is, Hartnett is the least parochial of writers. Reading him now at length, what is most astonishing is his versatility. He evokes Clarke in the brilliant and compassionate parody-aisling, “Death of an Irishwoman”:

I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.

His Inchicore haikus have the odd exactness to which Muldoon aspires in the form:

Women in the street
faces the colour of fear.
I turn away my eyes.

And, of course, some of the best of Hartnett is still to come in the translations: “On the Death of Tadhg Ó Cróinín’s Three Children” and the rest. Through all the hardships of his life and poetic subjects, what survives of Hartnett is an extraordinary optimism: life as worth living just for itself.

Their self-location in relation to the Irish tradition is not what will finally place these two major poets. For the time being, what they most have in common is that they are under-recognised. Harry Clifton has reminded us that in the early 1970s Kinsella was saluted as “one of half-a-dozen significant poets at work in the language.” Surely his status has not diminished since then? As for Hartnett, his “Collected” adds to Gallery’s remarkable record of conferring canonical weight on the major Irish current practitioners, following Montague, Mahon and Murphy, establishing him too among the leading few. The full weight of the Scottish 20th-century canon only came to be felt with the deaths of MacLean, MacCaig, Mackay Brown and Crichton Smith. The argument used to be that Irish poets were well recognised in poetry of that era. But it may be that their distinction too still waits to be fully grasped and articulated.


[Bernard O’Donoghue is the current director of the Yeats Summer School in Sligo. His most recent volume of poems was Here Nor There (1999).]

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