A contemporary poet fit to stand beside Yeats

Confronting Shadows: An Introduction to the Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

by David Lynch

(New Island, €24.99)

Desmond Egan

In this era of the sham in both literature and life, poet Thomas Kinsella is the real thing:

“Thou shalt not entertain,

charm, or impress;

consider the response

or the work of others;

confirm viewpoints,

satisfy expectations,

leave crucial issues confused,

or impose order.”

How many contemporary writers could live with that manifesto?

So David Lynch’s careful, informed and insightful study is welcome. His analysis of some of the poems is often revealing, and he has researched this demanding poet’s work responsibly. Mr Lynch offers the different perspective of someone who has been a reporter on the Middle East and Egypt and his critique comes across as fresh, not dependent on received opinion (such as dogs much of the writing on Heaney) and honestly personal.

He brings out Kinsella’s interest in the Chinese ideas of Tao, based on the 6th Century writings of Lao Tzu, and in Jungian psychology – both news to me – though Lynch might be accused of overdoing such intellectual enthusiasms: any poem being more than a play of ideas.

Lynch also draws our attention to the fact that “Kinsella has helped broaden the scope of Irish identity to include the city and its labourers” — taking as examples such poems as “Dick King” and “The Messenger”. What Kavanagh has done for rural life, Kinsella has for the urban: revelations of the city itself and of such of its representatives as Dick King.

Kinsella’s range is wider than that of any poet since Yeats. David Lynch duly acknowledges Kinsella’s political poetry (including, for me, the marvellous spontaneity of “Butcher’s Dozen”), his poetry of ideas, his critique of religions and of their representatives (he admires Luther), his celebrations of the city which does not preclude “a growing affinity towards the natural”, his numerology (mercifully abandoned) – and above all, his philosophical engagement with the ‘ordeal’ of life.


“The most sustainable form of resistance to life’s ordeal in Kinsella’s work,” he observes, “is persistence and endurance, particularly when it comes to the artistic act”. Lynch’s summary is that Kinsella, “is the realistic poet of resistance as endurance”.

Like Hopkins, Kinsella does not gild the pill. There are no easy, imposed, answers; no attempt to moralise; and no making easily accessible the complexities of his vision. He has been accused of a pessimistic outlook – so why, like Beckett, does he go on? And we remember Nietzsche’s statement that there is no such thing as pessimistic art, all art being an affirmation.

I found the first part of Mr Lynch’s study fresher and livelier than the second, where it became a little repetitive and at time slightly off-focus; as if Mr Lynch had lost energy a bit — something which regularly occurs, in my experience, in biographies — as if the writer were tiring of their subject, leading to too much about the early years and less than one would have hoped for about the later mature life.

My main criticism of Confronting Shadows, however, is a tendency towards too-close an identification of the writer with the protagonist of the poem – as if a poem were not radically different from journalism.

Take Pissarro’s paintings of Paris (some of which I have come-across recently). At first sight, these cityscapes can seem a kind of reportage – but a closer look shows an awareness of and search for an integrated vision transcending the individual moment or scene. Similarly with poetry. It is never true that the ‘I’ in a poem is no different than the author. What?! Is there no distinction between this confused, longing, hoping human and the metaphorical dramatic ‘I’ making its entrance in a few lines of language (however exquisite)?

Even Berryman, king of confessional poetry, feels compelled to say of the protagonist of his Dream Songs, that Henry is “an imaginary character (not the poet, not me)”.

It is important to realise that though there will generally be something of an author in the writing, still one must always recognise the ‘I’ as a dramatising metaphor in an essentially artificial construct. In life Kafka was good fun; Fr Hopkins had a sense of humour.

Thomas Kinsella, who has been publishing for some 60 years, is a major poet, worthy to stand with Yeats and Kavanagh.

One feels in reading the poems that there is something important at stake. His mastery of tone conveys as much, and carries us along — as a similar intensity does in even the most abstruse and puzzling of Pound’s Cantos.

I welcome David Lynch’s introduction for reminding us of this important aspect of  Kinsella’s work, and of the lasting nature of his poetic achievement.

Poet Desmond Egan is the academic director of the Gerald Manley Hopkins Festival in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, which is being held this weekend.