Thomas Kinsella, evocative Irish poet, dies at 93

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Thomas Kinsella, evocative Irish poet, dies at 93
His work — difficult and often contentious — was likened to the prose of James Joyce for its sense of place. He was also a translator of ancient texts, including the Tain Bo Cuailnge.

by Alan Cowell

NEW YORK, NY.- Thomas Kinsella, an Irish poet and translator whose quest for coherence and meaning in a dark and precarious world engendered a body of work likened to the prose of James Joyce for its sense of place, died Wednesday in Dublin. He was 93.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by the Rom Massey & Sons funeral home.

In his early days, Kinsella was feted as what one critic called “probably the most accomplished, fluent and ambitious poet” of his generation. Later, though, Kinsella came to occupy “an ambivalent position in the Irish canon: central but somehow marginalized, honored but insecure, like a dethroned god,” said David Wheatley, a fellow Irish poet.

Kinsella’s work was frequently described as difficult, inviting — or forcing — the reader to complete what Kinsella regarded as a central process of his poetry. “A poem, whatever else it is, is an act of communication, involving an audience,” he said in 2004. “Communication is central — an audience completing an act of communication.”

Scholar Arthur McGuinness complained in an article in 1987, “A poem by Kinsella seems almost deliberately inaccessible, almost as if the poet wanted to keep the nonserious reader out.”

Shying from conventional self-promotion, Kinsella preferred to publish his work initially in limited editions or in expensive pamphlets and rarely gave interviews or poetry readings. Some critics said his potential audience and appeal were also limited by his spending many years as an academic in the United States, chiefly at Temple University in Philadelphia; they saw it as a retreat from the Irish literary milieu.

At the same time, Kinsella seemed doomed to comparisons with Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who was a decade his junior and had a wider reach.

Kinsella could be fiercely polemical and contentious in his work, as he was in “Butcher’s Dozen” (1972), a scathing response to an official British inquiry that year into the Bloody Sunday killings of 13 protesters in the Bogside area of Derry in Northern Ireland — “that brutal place / Of rage and terror and disgrace,” he wrote.

The poem, he said in a rare television interview in 2009, cost him “90% of my British audience, and it has stayed that way ever since.”

He also had a scholarly side; he translated ancient texts, including, in 1969, "Tain Bo Cuailnge," usually known in English as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” based on manuscripts in Old Irish dating to the late 11th century and chronicling war between Connacht and Ulster.

Scholar Adrienne Leavy, writing in The Irish Times, saw Kinsella’s poetic career as falling into two clear segments: first an embrace of “elegant formalism and a lyrical style” beginning in the early 1960s, influenced by W.H. Auden, Patrick Kavanagh and others; and then a more experimental phase in which formal verse was abandoned, reflecting his exposure to the writings of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and his study of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.

His themes, though, endured.

In “Downstream” (1962), the reader follows the poet on a journey by “frail skiff” on a “seam / Of calm and current” ending at a barrier of rock, where “We glided — blotting heaven as it towered / Searching the darkness for a landing place.”

Six years later, in another of Kinsella’s best-known poems, “Nightwalker,” a journey on foot leads to a place where the dust “has a human taste”: “I believe / I have heard of this place. I think / This is the Sea of Disappointment.”

By the time he published “Notes from the Land of the Dead” in 1972, the move away from lyricism and formality was complete. One passage in the collection says simply, “Hair. Claws. Gray. / Naked. Wretch. Wither.”

The break coincided with upheaval in his own life. Until 1965, Kinsella had worked in the Department of Finance in Dublin, pursuing a civil service career that started in 1946. He had written poetry in his spare time. His first major collection, “Another September,” was published in 1958.

But by 1965, his poetry had attracted attention beyond Ireland, and he accepted a three-year position as writer-in-residence at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After his translation of “The Tain” was published, he and his wife, Eleanor — often described as his muse — decided to settle in the United States. He was appointed a professor of English at Temple in 1970 and held the position for 20 years.

Thomas Kinsella was born May 4, 1928, in the blue-collar Inchicore suburb of Dublin. A brother, John, born in 1932, became a composer. A sister, Agnes, died in infancy. His father, John Paul Kinsella, had worked at the Guinness brewery and had a reputation as a labor union organizer, a life his son Thomas eulogized in “The Messenger” (1978), a poem, published two years after his father’s death, that charted the elder Kinsella’s transition from robust bravado to frailty.

Kinsella’s mother, Agnes (Casserly) Kinsella, “receives little specific attention at any time” in the poet’s work, said Maurice Harmon, a professor at University College Dublin and author of “Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs,” an authoritative study published in 2008 to coincide with the poet’s 80th birthday.

Kinsella grew up in unsettled times, in a land tormented by what Harmon called a “profound national despondency,” from which 4 out of every 5 children born in the 1930s emigrated in search of better lives. Around the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to Manchester, England, for three years, during which they were exposed to German air raids.

After his return to Ireland, Kinsella studied at University College and secured qualifications to work as a civil servant. Around this time, he met three people who influenced much of his life: Eleanor Walsh, a radiology student, whom he married in 1955; Liam Miller, a publisher; and composer Sean O Riada.

Although much of his early work revolved around his love for Eleanor, with whom he had three children, some of his poetry from that period, notably the Wormwood series (1968), cast a dark shadow.

“What clamped us together?” he wrote, “When each night fell we lay down / In the smell of decay and slept, our bodies leaking, / Limp as the dead, breathing that smell all night.”

His wife was offended. “I was terribly hurt at Wormwood,” she recalled in 2009. “I was a private person, and I did not want to be exposed.”

His wife died in 2017. Kinsella is survived by their three children, Sara O’Malley, John and Mary; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1972, Kinsella founded a small publishing enterprise that he called Peppercanister, after the name local residents gave to a church near his home in Dublin, St. Stephen’s, because of the shape of its spire. Peppercanister was created, Kinsella said, with the purpose “of issuing occasional special items from our home in Dublin,” including “Butcher’s Dozen: A Selected Life” (1972), in memory of O Riada, and “The Good Fight” (1973), on the 10th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy.

Kinsella’s use of often ornately decorated pamphlets drew some criticism, but it remained a feature of his work. In 2013, the collection “Late Poems” drew together more work published in the Peppercanister series, including “Free Fall” (2011), and reprised the dreamlike, enigmatic quality of earlier writings:

I was falling helpless in a shower of wastereaching my arms out toward the othersfalling in disorder everywhere around me.At the last instant,approaching the surface,the fall slowed suddenly,and we were allunconcerned,regarding one another in approval.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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