“Is there any virtue, for literature, for poetry, in the simple continuity of a tradition? I believe there is not.” — Irish poet Thomas Kinsella

The Dolmen Press, operated out of Dublin, was founded in 1951 by Liam Miller, and played a crucial part in the development of Irish poetry in the mid-20th century. It was a strictly nationalist operation; before The Dolmen Press, poets (and other writers) had looked to London, mainly, as the center of the publishing world, London was where there was hope for their work being seen.

That changed with Dolmen. Many of the great Irish poets of the mid to late 20th century were published first in Dolmen. Questions of nationalism and ancestry are, of course, potentially explosive affairs in Ireland, and having to depend on England – England! – to confer validity to their work as artists was intolerable.

Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, born on this day in 1928, who died in 2021, was a huge part of the development of the Dolmen Press, one of its main voices, and he, in many ways, set the tone.


Yeats is the Irish god of letters. He was the one who tried to teach by example, showing younger Irish poets, “Here is the way we should be going.” He spoke of the Celtic history, the myths and legends, trying to bring them into the current-day, as a way of retrieving that lost history. Kinsella, although his verse doesn’t read like Yeats’, is in the Yeats-ian tradition. He did a lot of translating of verse from the original Irish, and the Dolmen Press published his translation of Táin Bó Cúailnge, an epic poem based on a legendary tale in Irish history, the surviving manuscripts of said epic dating from the 12th century. It’s part of the famed Ulster Cycle, and describes a pre-Christian time in Irish history, when the Irish had their own gods and myths and legends. The eradication of the Irish language by the British was so complete that much of this work was totally lost to future generations. As Sinéad O’Connor said in her song Famine:

And then the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting me

It hurt Kinsella as well.

He was angry, very angry, and while he did not seclude himself in Ireland (he lived in the United States for many years, teaching at Temple University), most of his poems come from his vast grief of what had been lost, the severing of the connection with the past. It was a tricky balance Kinsella walked: he looked to the past, but the past flows forward into the present and the future. His publication of Táin Bó Cúailnge was a high watermark in Irish literary history, and it was in 1969, a terrible year for Ireland. Clinging to the epic Irish in the awful days of the late 1960s. This can be a tiresome stance. Beware any culture or religion that wants to go backwards, that thinks the 12th century is really where it’s at. Kinsella was not one of those. Kinsella was a Dublin boy, born and raised, his sensibility was urban. This impacts his work and his outlook.

Austin Clarke, another Irish poet with a reputation for being difficult (my post about him here), just before Kinsella’s time, was Kinsella’s guiding star. Kinsella said of Clarke:

The diction of his last poems is a vivid, particular voice, rich and supple; nothing is unsayable. But it is no natural voice.

Ezra Pound (my post about him here) held huge sway in Kinsella’s literary imagination. Kinsella’s later poems, long narratives of continuing stories, similar to Pound’s Cantos, owe much to Pound.

I love Heaney’s observations about the poem “Interlude”, published in a collection in 1960. In “Interlude” comes the following lines:

Love’s doubts enrich my words; I stroke them out.
To each felicity, once. He must progress
Who fabricates a path, though all about
Death, Woman, Spring, repeat their first success.

Heaney writes:

So does he stroke out the words or does he stroke out the doubts? If he strokes out the doubts and keeps the enriched words, there is no honesty either in the words or in the love. If he strokes out the words, there is no honest acknowledgement that love’s doubts are the corollary of love’s enrichments. It is a bind from which he would not be released because of an imposed discipline of understanding. The voice of that discipline is the true voice of Kinsella’s muse; in the contexts of sexual and domestic love, biological and spiritual survival physical and psychological exhaustions and renewals – all of which Kinsella takes for granted as what he calls simply “the ordeal” – this muse speaks the same command over and over again throughout Kinsella’s poetry. Deeper, she says. Further. Don’t repose in the first resolution of your predicament. That resolution too is a predicament. What more? ‘Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.’ Forge on. Fabricate the path.

Now that’s how to read a poem.

Kinsella gave Irish culture a shot of confidence/memory/ownership in the arm.

It is nearly impossible for an Irish writer to be a-political. Even being a-political is a political stance, particularly in the 60s and 70s. Much of Kinsella’s work was personal, though. There are poems about standing around his father’s death-bed, or about looking at portraits of ancestors, a poem about a hen laying an egg. Details, lovingly carefully preserved.

In the poem below pay close attention to the images (the fist in the lap, the bottle under the apron). They are so human, almost photographic: you can SEE this woman. It’s a great example of the personal being political. The gap between generations writ large. The abyss between memory and knowledge. Bridging the gap seems impossible. I love the first sentence. A poet, a writer, a man with a voice, stopping it in his throat, in the face of the enormous past.


I was going to say something,
and stopped. Her profile against the curtains
was old, and dark like a hunting bird’s.

It was the way she perched on the high stool,
staring into herself, with one fist
gripping the side of the barrier around her desk
— or her head held by something, from inside.
And not caring for anything around her
or anyone there by the shelves.
I caught a faint smell, musky and queer.

I may have made some sound – she stopped rocking
and pressed her fist in her lap; then she stood up
and shut down the lid of the desk, and turned the key.
She shoved a small bottle under her apron
and came toward me, darkening the passageway.

Ancestor … among sweet- and fruit-boxes.
Her black heart …
Was that a sigh?
— brushing by me in the shadows,
with her heaped aprons, through the red hangings
to the scullery, and down to the back room.

And here’s the poem he wrote about Bloody Sunday.

Butcher’s Dozen

I went with anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
Jesus pity! On a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys-over all-
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
“Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones
Who lost his life for throwing stones.”

More voices rose. I turned and saw
Three corpses forming, red and raw
From dirt and stone. Each upturned face
Stared unseeing from its place:
“Behind this barrier, blighters three
We scrambled back and made to flee.
The guns cried Stop, and here lie we.
Then from left and right they came,
More mangled corpses, bleeding, lame,
Holding their wounds. They chose their ground,
Ghost by ghost, without a sound,
And one stepped forward, soiled and white:
“A bomber I. I travelled light
Four pounds of nails and gelignite
About my person, hid so well
They seemed to vanish where I fell.
When the bullet stopped my breath
A doctor sought the cause of death.
He upped my shirt, undid my fly,
Twice he moved my limbs awry,
And noticed nothing. By and by
A soldier, with his sharper eye
Beheld the four elusive rockets
Stuffed in my coat and trouser pockets.
Yes, they must be strict with us
Even in death so treacherous!”
He faded, and another said:
“We three met close when we were dead.
Into an armoured car they piled us
Where our mingled blood defiled us
Certain, if not dead before
To suffocate upon the floor.

Careful bullets in the back
Stopped our terrorist attack,
And so three dangerous lives are done
– Judged, condemned and shamed in one.”
That spectre faded in his turn.
A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
“The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury – then
Officers and gentlemen
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed
Halt the game and leave it stranded
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where’s the law that can’t be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We’d be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
– All that’s left; it’s turning sour.
Friend and stranger, bride and brother
Son and sister, father, mother.

All not blinded by your smoke
Photographers who caught your stroke
The priests that blessed our bodies spoke
And wagged our blood in the world’s face.
The truth will out, to your disgrace.”
He flushed and faded. Pale and grim
A joking spectre followed him:
“Take a bunch of stunted shoots
A tangle of transplanted roots
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests
Some dried colonial interests
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty
Sectarian supremacy
And heat, to make a proper botch
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew
Boil it over, make a mess.
A most imperial success!”
He capered weakly, racked with pain
His dead hair plastered in the rain;
The group was silent once again.
It seemed the moment to explain
That sympathetic politicians
Say our violent traditions
Backward looks and bitterness
Keep us in this dire distress.
We must forget, and look ahead.”


Seamus Deane:

Kinsella’s unique attempt to go back to an original foundational moment, to reconstruct his own language from initial hesitation to final mastery is a miniaturised form of the problem that Irish writers have faced for at least four hundred years.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

His translations from the Irish tradition are celebrated as our chief access to an enormous, and for many years suppressed, resource. Ireland for him implies Swift and Goldsmith, Mangan, Davis and Fergusson, and preeminently Yeats… Kinsella swims naturally against tides of fashion. He does not go in fear of abstractions, he gives them body and valency. He is also alive to place, to character and voice, to direct and oblique narrative. Like early Auden, but in quite a different world, and like Yeats in an equally separate realm, he is alive to politics. It is not strange that he is less read than John Montague, perhaps than Richard Murphy and others of his contemporaries; he makes large demands of himself and consequently of his reader, in ways similar to Austin Clarke.

Thomas Kinsella, “The Irish Writer”:

Is there 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.

Harry Clifton, The Irish Times, 2007:

Nobody since Ted Hughes, and perhaps the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, has so demythologised nature, breaking it down to a state of mutual devourings, in which the human too is complicit. But the true evil, against which various attempts at prayer and transcendence are set in this second sequence, is, as in “Man of War”, the instinct for power.

Robert Welch, Introduction English Studies:

Kinsella’s intensely meditated and scrupulously despairing Downstream (1962) and Wormwood (1966) gave him the sonorous command of language and tough solemnity of mood required to translate the eighth-century saga, Táin Bó Cuailnge (1969).

A proper treatment [of Kinsella] would note how the purified diction, the found voice, is accompanied by a withdrawal into intense, intensely private speech…‘In the Ringwood’: So early as that we have the Kinsella Effect: an irruption of darkness and of violent enigmatic language […] as in a Piranesi dungeon, where surfaces are illusory…Speech alternating with narration’ but neither will serve as reliable ground from which to gauge the other. So vertigo afflicts the whole poem, and the reader goes into free fall along with everything else…. nothing we might expect will be provided.

Hugh McFadden, Books Ireland, 2007:

The influence of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and of American poets such as William Carlos Williams became apparent…The Peppercanister series of chapbooks, which began in 1972 with Butcher’s Dozen and continues up to the present…, is an extraordinary chronicle of a poetic consciousness in search of the significance of a life’s journey, much of which has the streets of inner-city Dublin as the locale of the imagery and of the events portrayed. Kinsella spent a good deal of his time since the 1970s teaching in America but, rather like the more peripatetic James Joyce, his mental geography remains centred in Dublin.

Seamus Heaney:

Since the late 1960s, this deeply responsible poet has been absorbed in a slowly purposeful, heroically undeflected work of personal and national inquisition. From his early, formal and syntactically compact poems of the 1950s, when he defined his purpose as the quest for honesty in love and art, to his more recent open-weave, semi-expressionist explorations of the roots of consciousness, the muscle tone of Kinsella’s poetry has always been in perfect order.

Maurice Harmon, The Celtic Master: Contributions to the first James Joyce Symposium:

Recently Thomas Kinsella has argued, on lines similar to those expressed in these pages by Niall Montgomery, that Joyce is central to modern Irish life because, accepting the here and the now, he immersed himself in the filthy modern tide that Yeats had turned away from. Significantly, Kinsella’s “Nightwalker” is a fluid narrative in the manner of parts of Ulysses, and has a [marginal] design of violence which is composed mainly from explicit allusions to recent events in Irish political, economic and social life.

Thomas Kinsella:

There is an excess of performance in the earliest poems of William Butler Yeats, a special narrative tone, with a dominant verbal melody. He quickly found a more direct poetic speech; always retaining the special tone, but giving sensual access to the facts and matching ‘music’ organically to content.

Colm Tóibín, The Irish Times, 2011:

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.

W. J. McCormack, The Battle of the Books: Two Decades of Irish Cultural Debate:

Community and politics are present in Irish literature as mutually exclusive opposites, Kinsella being perhaps the finest example of the writer who chooses the political option. There are undoubtedly moments in Kinsella’s poetry where the communal and the domestic are evoked, but never in terms of longing, more often in the mode of that which absolutely has ceased to be, even though the light of that extinguished star (cf. Wordsworth’s “Michael”) is still travelling towards us. Kinsella’s dark searches in Gaelic proto-history, his readings of Jung and evocations of Mahler seem at first the very antithesis of the political option. However, the re-orientation of his oeuvre which commenced with “Nightwalker” (1968) is essentially a political concern with the unprecedented de-politicisation of a society increasingly given over to the tribal categories of Dr. O’Brien and the ritual practices of Mr. Heaney. The profoundly anti-revolutionary metaphysics of Heaney’s poems stands in marked contrast to the implications of Kinsella’s.

Denis Donoghue, We Irish: Essays in Irish Literature and Society:

Among the poets who have engaged in division, Thomas Kinsella is the one who has turned the experience into the most formidable poetry. At the beginning of his career he tried to circumvent Yeats’s high-horse rhetoric by recourse to Auden. More recently he has taken possession of virtually the whole available range of Irish literary, religious and historical experience and, in his translation of the Táin, found for himself an unYeatsian resonance. There are more accessible poets; Kinsella has set his chisel to some very hard stone. But he has become an Irish poet by taking full responsibility for everything that phrase entails.

Seamus Heaney, interview with Seamus Deane:

Kinsella has found a language which is both at ease with exemplars like Joyce and Eliot, and also capable of speaking very much out of his own world and intellect and with his own voice. […] I don’t think that the poet can keep living in the hand to mouth manner. I do think there is such a thing as an Irish literary tradition, using tradition here in Eliot’s sense. We need only look to Kinsella’s translation of the Táin sagas and myths which Yeats and, to some extent, Ferguson used before him, not as a picturesque manifestation of the otherness of this culture, but as an ordering structure for his own psychic materials and energies. In “The Land of the Dead”, for example, he brings the ancient mythic shapes into conjunction with his disjointed, alienated and essentially artistic consciousness. In his actual writing Kinsella affirms the root and his own theorizing about tradition merely serves to nourish and clarify it.

Hugh McFadden, Books Ireland, 2007:

He is more a poet of the urban twilight than of the lyrical dawn; one whose mise en scène has a dusky, tenebrous atmosphere. To some his verse can seem enigmatic, but it is more recondite than enigmatic…As for the claims made about him being a poet of place (i.e. Dublin), his naming of places comprises a personal mindscape that correlates to the recalled physical world more as a coded map, such as that of an underground Metro diagram, than as a pictorial record of streetscapes.

John Montague, ‘The Impact of International Modern Poetry on Irish Writing’, in Irish Poets in English: The Thomas Davis Lectures on Anglo-Irish Poetry:

Then, in the late Fifties, Irish poets began to write, without strain, a poetry that was indisputably Irish (in the sense that it was influenced by the country they came from, its climate, history and language) but also modern. If I say that Auden was the liberating example I may seem to be contradicting myself, but by then he was no longer a contemporary, but an established phenomenon, looming over the English scene like a latter-day Dryden. Besides, the subject matter was so different: when Thomas Kinsella adapted one of the master’s most typical stanza forms for his love poems, “A Lady of Quality”, it became both a homage and a comparison: “‘Ended and done with’ never ceases, / Constantly the heart releases / Wild geese to the past. / Look, how they circle poignant places, / Falling to sorrow’s fowling-pieces, / With soft plumage aghast.” / Kinsella’s success encouraged others, and by the middle of the following decade, Irish poets had begun to filter into most modern anthologies; particularly those edited by American critics, like Untermeyer and Rosenthal: the latter devoted a whole section to Irish poetry in his study, The Poets.

Michael Schmidt:

Kinsella describes a Dual Tradition in Irish literature, attempting to bring back fully into play the Irish linguistic tradition and the poets of Ireland neglected during the centuries of English rule. Austin Clarke is a linchpin in his argument. It is not a nationalist argument but something more fundamental, about recoveries of voice and resource that will speak more deeply to Irish writers than the off-the-peg forms and strategies of international modernism, postmodernism and anti-modernism. The liberating resources are not only Irish. Pound teaches us to discern our own voice through the static of convention, just as Proust helps us to uncover the lineaments of our own biographies as he traces the miasmic ebb and flow of Marcel’s. The task is to recover rather than invent a language, to live rather than exist a life.

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, New Hibernia Review/Irish Éireannach (Spring 2001):

In Kinsella’s Táin, the wise warrior Scathach instructs her daughter, on their first meeting with Cúchulainn: “Take him to bed with you tonight and sleep with him, if that is what you want.” To that Uathach replies, “It would be no hardship”. According to Lady Gregory, however, Scathach tamely remarks, “I can see this man has pleased you,” and Uathach nobly admits, “There would be great grief on me indeed if he were not to return alive to his own people.” Similarly, Gregory’s Deirdre behaves like a damsel in distress in this version, crying “Naoise…are you going to leave me?” In contrast, Kinsella’s Derdriu demands, “Are you rejecting me?” before “rushing at him and [catching] the two ears of his head”. Kinsella’s language creates characters stronger than the meek creatures created by Lady Gregory…Brutality is expressed with honesty in Kinsella’s translation of the Táin, a raid started “for the sake of a whore’s backside”. We are told of heads smashed together so that “each was stained grey with the other’s brains”, of “limbs leaping from their sockets”, of eyes burst, livers split, and of the “blood of men in multitudes”. While both Gregory and Kinsella use the Táin mythlogy to represent Ireland, Kinsella belongs to a school of poets who abandoned the romanticism of the “Celtic Twilight”, believing, as Austin Clarke suggests, that “before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal.”

Hugh Kenner, ‘Thomas Kinsella: An Anecdote and Some Reflections’, The Genres of Irish Literary Revival:

Nightmare, glowing, fading, glowing, amid the equable pace of metered discourse, that is the effect to which the reader of Kinsella must accustom himself. Ghosts throng in these poems, shapes half-seen, our personal past, Ireland’s past, less assignable portents…One needs to read enough of these poems to see how normal is this irruption of unsettling vision into recognisable experience…One can’t ignore such a predecessor [as Yeats], neither does one want to be listed among his supernumeraries. By good luck, Yeats lent himself to the ministrations of the learned “shadow-eaters”, who in dismembering and reconstructing him according to his own instructions turn him into an instance of his own System, the wholeness systematic, the remoteness algebraic. For this we may thank his central limitation: he had no knowledge whatever of Catholic Ireland, and was forced to substitute for its traditions, its theology and its night-sweats the famous apparatus of spooks and gyres, to lend the visions some accreditation: “Where got I that truth? One of a medium’s mouth …”. But a people who wake their dead and pray for them (see Kinsella’s “Office of the Dead”) have no need of mediums…Knowing these people, Kinsella has discovered the freedom to derive from Yeats without being derivative, and to invoke Joyce like a tutelary spirit…The poetry of a haunted literature that has learned to rehearse and ironise the nightmare from which it cannot awake.

Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature:

No Irish poet has been more alert to this sense of incompletion than Thomas Kinsella, nor more determined to come to terms with it…His earlier volumes show a readiness to break out of the smug peripherality of Irish experience and face up to the violent heritage of the Post-war world…Time and time again he challenges himself to sup on horrors: “when that story thrust / Pungent horror and an actual mess / Into my very face, and taste I must.” The “mess” must be consumed and absorbed so that it can be reproduced as structure. This is the basic image of his work…Kinsella has sacrificed the elegance and orotundities of his early verse for a much more experimental and apparently haphazard mode of writing, in which he attempts to transmit the process of consciousness on the way to that point at which it will become its own object…. [H]e has implicitly appealed to a fit audience, though few, and repudiated the larger audience which wants its poets to be as charmingly accessible as possible – or, if not accessible, at least charming. Yet, for all that, Kinsella is by now the most formidable presence in Irish poetry.

Harry Clifton, The Irish Times, 2007:

Irish poets of a certain age, tormented by the unrepeatable example of the later Yeats, are jockeying a little too obviously for the mantle of prophet, trying too hard for the world-historical note. Thomas Kinsella, by dint of a dry, compassionate irony, perfected over half a lifetime, seems to have slipped quietly past that myth to a late excellence all his own, containing, every so often, the only thing that matters, the moment of moral knowledge: “A turning away / From regard beyond proper merit, / Or reward beyond real need, / Toward the essence and the source.”

Seamus Heaney:

[Kinsella] has ingested loss – of a literature in the Irish language, of a political vision in post-independence Ireland, of all that time robs from the original resources of the individual psyche – and has remembered it in an art that has the effect of restitution. The place of waste, the place of renewal and the place of writing have become coterminous within his poetry … Kinsella is, in fact, the representative Irish poet in that his career manifests the oath-bound unrewarded plight of the comitatus in Yeats’s black tower. In his work, we can watch the ancient correspondence between the nation’s possibilities and the imaginations of its poet – represented originally by the Milesian bard Amergin – discover itself again in a modern drama of self-knowledge and self-testing.

Thomas Kinsella, interview with Jim McCabe:

There’s a primary language and, speaking personally, for me that’s English. I’m interested, and actively interested, in the work in Irish, but I know I couldn’t handle it adequately as a sole choice, no matter what feelings I might have. We have a dual tradition. It’s a very mixed experience and it shows itself differently all the way back as far as the seventeenth century. I believe that in itself is enriching, but it doesn’t make for ease of reference and so on. The demands of full appreciation are very severe, but to be able to handle this dual tradition, both to appreciate it and then handle it creatively, is a privilege.

John Greening, Times Literary Supplement, 2002:

There are few more puzzling cases in contemporary poetry than that of Thomas Kinsella. Thirty years ago he was considered the most important living Irish poet, and he had a considerable popular following. But then he changed direction, abandoning the formal style he had mastered in Downstream (1962) and Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), to produce much tougher work in a more obviously modernist style…It is hard not to regret the loss of lyricism, richness and ease, although in fact Kinsella never quite forgets this quality, particularly when he is evoking his childhood, or patrolling the streets of Dublin…In retrospect, public reaction to this poem [Butcher’s Dozen, 1972], and his own horror at events in Ulster, must have contributed to the changes in Kinsella’s style: the violence, the shattering of forms, the religious uncertainty and psychic blackness…Butcher’s Dozen still has power to shock, but although Kinsella is a master satirist, this is not enough for his deeply religious and complex sexual instincts.

Hugh McFadden, Books Ireland, 2007:

[Kinsella] eschews the notion of any easy entertainment in his writing…His early influences were the later verse of W. B. Yeats and old Gaelic poetry and mythology. As he began to get poems published in the 1950s and early 1960s the modernism of W H. Auden could be detected also. His early poems, which were carefully formal both in style and form, were often oblique even to the point occasionally of obscurity…Themes such as birth and creativity, sex and love, and decay and death were prominent. There was a resistance to closure or to transcendence in this work. As his writing career progressed, he began to use mythology and history as a background environment that allowed imagery from the past to have a contemporary presence.

Harry Clifton, The Irish Times, 2007:

Kinsella, like Adrienne Rich or Robert Lowell in the United States, is one of those poets who have very visibly broken away, on the page, from their earlier, more formalised selves…But it is not really until his move to the United States, the loosening of formal structures and the adoption of a new, ironising voice that the larger issues of power, anonymity and the fate of the planet, addressed in such poems as “The Good Fight” and “Crab Orchard Sanctuary”, find their proper place alongside the Irish concerns. It was this side of Kinsella, the willingness to apply his large poetic intelligence to wider issues at a time – the early 1970s – of national introversion on both sides of the Border, that first excited me as a student. To come back, now, to the work, and find a late meditation such as Marcus Aurelius is to feel that first intuition wonderfully confirmed.

Colm Tóibín, The Irish Times, 2011:

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.

Thomas Kinsella, “The Divided Mind”:

The trouble is that the term [“the divided mind”] imposes a restriction on our view of Irish poetry. It tends to stop us thinking of poetry in the Irish language. It suggests that poetry written in English in Ireland has nothing to do with our poetry in Irish; that it is instead an adjunct to English poetry – important, perhaps, but provincial or colonial…A modern English poet can reasonably feel at home in the long tradition of English poetry. No matter what his preoccupations may be, he will find his forebears there …An Irish poet has access to all of this through his use of the English language, but he is unlikely to feel at home in it. Or so I find in my case. If he looks back over his own heritage the line must begin, again, with Yeats. But then, for more than a hundred years, there is almost total poetic silence. I believe that silence, on the whole, is the real condition of Irish literature in the nineteenth century.

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