Thomas Kinsella - World Literature

World Literature

Thomas Kinsella


BORN: 1928, Dublin, Ireland


GENRE: Poetry


Another September (1958)

Downstream (1962)

Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968)

Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973)

Peppercanister Poems 1972-1978 (1979)



One of a number of young Irishmen who began to write in the years following World War II, Thomas Kinsella has played a major role in invigorating the world of contemporary Irish verse. His technical skill and the originality of his subject matter set him apart from his contemporaries.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Son of a Dublin Socialist, a Civil Servant Turns to Poetry. Born in Dublin to John Paul and Agnes Casserley Kinsella, Thomas Kinsella is the son of what he considered a typical Dublin family. His father, a Dublin man, was a lifelong socialist, a member of the Labour party and the Left Book Club. A series of grants and scholarships enabled Thomas to attend University College, Dublin. In 1946 he joined the civil service of Ireland. Two important relationships were formed during his post-university years—his friendship with Sean Oriada, who became Ireland’s leading musician and composer and was a much-loved participant in the poet’s growing intellectual life, and his relationship with Eleanor Walsh, whom Kinsella married on December 28, 1955. Kinsella had been writing in private for some time when in 1952 he met Liam Miller, founder of the Dolmen Press; between 1952 and 1956 Miller published several pieces of Kinsella’s work, and Kinsella became a director of the press.

Early Success and Residence in America. In 1958 Dolmen Press published Another September, Kinsella’s first major collection, which in addition to being awarded the Guinness Poetry Prize for the year was made a Poetry Book Society selection. For the next few years, Kinsella pursued his duties in the finance department of the Irish civil service and had his verse published in periodicals in Ireland and abroad. By 1962, though, he had already produced enough significant new work for another collection, Downstream.

The year after Downstream appeared, Kinsella was able to take a leave of absence from the finance department, where he was by then assistant principal officer. Though he had not initially planned on staying away permanently, in 1965 the poet—by then a member of the Irish Academy of Letters—made a major change in his life, accepting an invitation from Southern Illinois University to join its faculty as poet in residence. Being Ireland’s leading young poet was no longer a part-time job.

He was awarded the Denis Devlin Memorial for his 1966 volume Wormwood and became professor of English at Southern Illinois shortly thereafter, subsequently publishing another new volume, Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968).

Reaction to “Bloody Sunday’’. Nightwalker and Other Poems was published while the poet was on a Guggenheim Fellowship, granted for the pursuit of his translation of Tain Bo Cualinghe, the Old Irish saga, on which he had been working more or less casually for some time. He continued his own writing as well, and the years following Nightwalker and Other Poems, Kinsella produced a steady stream of significant poems. The Tain was published in 1969; several major poems appeared in periodicals that year and the next, and in 1971 the Kinsellas left Carbondale, Illinois, to take up residence near Philadelphia, where the poet was named professor of English at Temple University. He had by now won the Devlin Award for the second time (1971). The following year saw the completion of several key poems: One of these, ‘‘Butcher’s Dozen,’’ was written

in the white heat of rage after the shooting of thirteen Irish civil rights marchers by British paratroopers in 1972—a moment in Northern Ireland’s struggle for liberation from British colonialism known as ‘‘Bloody Sunday.’’ Bloody Sunday was a particularly significant day in the troubles in Northern Ireland, where the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged an armed struggle against British control of the region. To many Irish the prospect of British soldiers firing on and killing unarmed youths motivated them to support and even join in the efforts of the IRA. In this same year, Kinsella set up the Peppercanister Press, a small publishing program operating out of his home in Dublin, where he lived when not teaching at Temple University. Its main function was to provide for limited printings of his works in progress. The first fruit along these lines was the collection Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems, published in 1973.

Thematic Evolution. Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems is markedly different from Kinsella’s earlier books. The poems are a species of mythmaking wherein the poet reaches back into his psychic and familial past to find his fuller self. Kinsella’s preoccupation with Ireland and its past had been growing for some time, and would culminate in his 1976 founding of Temple University’s School of Irish Tradition in Dublin. In this, Kinsella was part of a movement within Ireland to protect and cherish a heritage that had been systematically neglected and even to an extent considered destroyed by the British. Taking the directorship of the program also enabled Kinsella to continue dividing the academic year between Philadelphia and his native city, and the succeeding years have seen no decrease in his interest in the affairs of Ireland. In addition to publishing numerous collections of poems, Kinsella had the honor of receiving the keys to the city of Dublin in 2007.



Kinsella's famous contemporaries include:

Ian Paisley (1926—): Religious and political leader in Northern Ireland, Paisley was a staunch Unionist, a defender of the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He served as first minister of Northern Ireland from May 2007 to May 2008.

Seamus Heaney (1939—): Irish poet and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Edward Heath (1916-2005): Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974, a period of escalation of violence between political factions in Northern Ireland.

Nuala O'Faolain (1940-2008): Irish writer renowned for her memoirs Are You Somebody? (1996) and Almost There (2003).



Kinsella's poetry often touches on themes of loss. Other works in a similar vein include:

Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), a collection of poetry by Tess Gallagher. Gallagher wrote the poems in this collection after the death of her husband, writer Raymond Carver, both celebrating their life together and offering a profound reflection on his passing and the feelings of loss and emptiness with which she was left.

''Annabel Lee'' (1849), a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. One of Poe's best-known poems—second only perhaps to ''The Raven,'' which deals with similar themes—this work focuses on one of Poe's favorite subjects: the death of a beautiful young woman and the emptiness and despair felt by her lover afterward. Unlike in ''The Raven,'' however, the poem sounds a hopeful—if also macabre—note: One day, the narrator will be reunited with his lost love.

''Funeral Blues'' (1936), a poem by W. H. Auden. Auden had a tremendous influence on Kinsella's early poetry. This poem, with its famous first line (''Stop all the clocks''), is a meditation on death and loss, often read during times of mourning.

Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair (1924), a collection of poems by Pablo Neruda. The collection that made Neruda famous at the young age of 19, it contains his heartrending reflections on the passing of love, ''Tonight I Can Write.''


Works in Literary Context

According to Thomas H. Jackson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Kinsella ‘‘has explored Irish themes more and more in his later verse, but primarily in terms of exploring his own consciousness and consciousness in general.’’ His poems since 1956, Jackson writes, have been ‘‘almost entirely lyrical—have dealt with love, death and the artistic act; with persons and relationships, places and objects, seen against the world’s processes of growth, maturing and extinction.’’ That is, Kinsella’s career has traced an arc that moves from the personal, through the political, and back to the personal in its deepest sense—the personal as an expression of and engagement with universal themes and difficulties. Fittingly, the major influences on his work moved from W. H. Auden to William Carlos Williams, before—in later years—he began developing something visibly his own.

Death and Loss. Kinsella is a poet of absences. Death and other departures are central to his bleak vision. In the fractured lyrics of his earlier books, doomed love looms large, creating a persona in the poetry that is appalled but passive. As Kinsella’s work develops, however, the persona becomes more active, enabling the losses to be presented more dramatically, creating tension. The isolated figure in poems such as ‘‘Baggot Street Deserta,’’ ‘‘Dick King,’’ and ‘‘A Country Walk’’ becomes progressively more involved with loss and its consequences. And the losses themselves are embodied in a more far-reaching model of human attachment, namely death. In addition to personal losses through death, the death of culture and the death of the past also become more insistent motifs as Kinsella’s output broadens and deepens. In particular, the death of the past has been a matter of special emphasis for Kinsella, as is confirmed by his sustained attempt to recover and make available through translation the tradition of poetry in the Irish language.

Order from Ordeal. Alongside Kinsella’s confession that his vision of human existence is that it is ‘‘an ordeal.’’ stands the poet’s equally honest desire to believe in what he has called ‘‘the eliciting of order from experience.’’ Kinsella’s verse is a continuing appeal to the strength and justification of such a belief. His poetry is a commitment to make the leap of artistic faith that alone can overcome the abyss of unknowing that is mortality and death. The human potential to achieve that act of composed and graceful suspension is what gives Kinsella’s poetry its vitality. His antiromantic conception of poetry, which entails darkness rather than fire, identifies Kinsella as a crucial reviser of the Irish poetic tradition.


Works in Critical Context

Calvin Bedient maintains in the New York Times Book Review that Thomas Kinsella ‘‘can hardly write a worthless poem.’’ And he is ‘‘probably the most accomplished, fluent, and ambitious Irish poet of the younger generation,’’ according to New York Times Book Review critic John Montague. Kinsella, writes M. L. Rosenthal in The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II, ‘‘seems to me to have the most distinctive voice of his generation in Ireland, though it is also the most versatile and the most sensitive to ‘outside’ influences.’’

Nightwalker and Other Poems. Upon its publication in 1968, Nightwalker and Other Poems was most enthusiastically received. Ralph Mills observes in Poetry, ‘‘By tremendous strength of word and image [Kinsella] has succeeded magnificently in transmuting personal bitterness and despair into durable poems.’’ Martin Dods- worth, for the Listener, was equally approving: ‘‘All through Nightwalker the qualifications one might make melt away before the superior force with which the poems are shaped as a whole. The faults arise from excess of talent, not from the opposite.’’ If this comment faintly echoes earlier critics’ concerns about Kinsella’s facility of expression, Marius Bewley’s praise in Hudson Review for one of the poems in the Wormwood group clearly does not. ‘‘I cannot think of a short passage of poetry,’’ Bewley writes, ‘‘in which so many complex and tangled emotions find such concentrated expression ... all resolved at last through an acceptance in love.’’ Montague was one of the few critics unimpressed with the collection, feeling that Kinsella had not developed any new strategy for dealing with the ‘‘cliche’’ of ‘‘urban discontent,’’ and complaining that the persona of ‘‘Nightwalker’’ was ‘‘depressingly close to early [T. S.] Eliot.’’

Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems. With the release of Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems, critical reception was almost as complicated as the poetry; the book called forth some of the most laudatory and most scathing criticism Kinsella had so far attracted. The difficulty of the verse left some critics nonplussed or unhappy. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Christopher Wright complained of the poems’ opacity, charging that Kinsella’s ‘‘images fail to construct a consistent and coherent para-reality.’’ One academic critic, writing in Poetry, dismissed the whole book out of hand, irritated by what he felt to be its unfinished obscurity.

Conversely, an anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement offered the thought that ‘‘beset by this central blankness, several of the poems stagger to a halt, lapse into broken phrases or totter finally into silence; but there is no doubting the control with which these effects are brought off.’’ The book also called forth one of the best pieces of Kinsella criticism to date, a long review by Vernon Young in Parnassus that is perhaps still the fullest and most knowing individual treatment of Kinsella’s work.


Responses to Literature

1. Kinsella was influenced by the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, particularly what he had to say about universal archetypes. Research Jungian archetypes and explore their role in Kinsella’s poetry. How is Kinsella relying on this concept? In what ways might his poetry challenge the idea? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of segments from the poems themselves.

2. Both Kinsella’s poem ‘‘Butcher’s Dozen’’ and the Irish band U2’s song ‘‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’’ discuss the 1972 shooting of Irish marchers by British soldiers. How do the two works differ in their discussion of the event? How are they similar? Research the actual historical event and then discuss how the lyric descriptions reflect and/or distort the differing accounts of it.

3. Kinsella’s translation of the Tain remains the standard today. Select a passage from Kinsella’s translation and compare it to the same passages in other translations of the Tain. How do the translations differ? Which do you prefer and why?

4. It has been said that Kinsella was not able to write about Ireland until he left it. This phenomenon has been observed in other Irish writers as well. Research some of these other Irish expatriates and their experiences. Why do you think so many Irish artists require distance from their homeland before they can describe it? Is there something specifically Irish about this, or is it reflective of a phenomenon that would be true for many cultures?




Badin, Donatella Abbate. Thomas Kinsella. Woodbridge, Conn.: Twayne, 1996.

Harmon, Maurice. The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella: “With Darkness for a Nest.’’ Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1974.

Jackson, Thomas H. The Whole Matter: The Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

John, Brian. Reading the Ground: The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Sherry, Jr., Vincent B. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 27: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 1945-1960. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1984.