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THOMAS KINSELLA: THE POET AND THE BOOK Exhibition

SPECIAL COLLECTIONS READING ROOM


There are established personal places that receive our lives’ heat and adapt in their mass, like stone. These absorb in their changes the radiance of change in us, and give it back to the darkness of our understanding, directionless into the returning cold. from Personal Places (1990)


THOMAS KINSELLA: THE POET AND THE BOOK BEGINNINGS Thomas Kinsella is a unique figure among twentieth-century Irish poets. As writer, translator and anthologist he has influenced the course of modern Irish writing, and illuminated the relationship between English and Irish language traditions. The complete collection of his publications sheds light on the important links between the writing and publishing of poetry in twentieth-century Ireland. Kinsella first came to UCD in 1946 to study science, and though this subject did not prove to be his vocation, a fascination with how things work would be an enduring dimension of his poetry. He left UCD to take up a position in the Civil Service, returning to join the evening degree programme in Arts. By this time he was becoming involved in Dublin’s literary scene – his earliest writing, both creative and critical, appeared in the National Student magazine. This work shows the breadth of Kinsella’s intellectual curiosity at the time, and reveals glimpses of his developing talent for poetic form. Soon he was introduced to Liam Miller, who had recently founded the Dolmen Press; the two men would go on to form an important collaborative relationship. Kinsella’s work was prominent among Dolmen’s early publications. The Starlit Eye, which appeared early in 1952, was the fourth item to emerge from the Dolmen Press, and it was handset by Kinsella himself in Bodoni type. This type – and the press on which the work was printed – had been given to Miller by Cecil ffrench Salkeld who, together with his mother Blanaid Salkeld, had run the Gayfield Press. Later in 1952 Miller published another gathering by Kinsella, Three Legendary Sonnets, in a similar design. Within two years of these early printings, The Breastplate of Saint Patrick appeared. This was Kinsella’s first translation of an early Irish text and it was reset twice in the ensuing seven years. This pattern indicated both Miller’s commitment to the young poet, and his willingness to rethink elements of book design, even after the work had been published. It also signalled the important combination of original and translated poetry, both as formative of Kinsella’s creative sensibility and as a hallmark of Dolmen’s identity as a press.

EARLY DOLMEN BOOKS The collaboration with Dolmen Press was formative for Kinsella, offering an important space for aesthetic development and creative collaboration. Working with

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a Dublin-based publisher was important to him, though at this stage in his career the subject matter of his poems was not especially Irish. His chief influence during these early years was W. H. Auden: ‘Reading Auden, it occurred to me that there was a similar need in myself, and that I could write poetry’. Kinsella’s first substantial collection was simply titled Poems and appeared in 1956 with illustrations by Elizabeth Rivers. It typifies the handsome design of Dolmen volumes and was an important precursor to Another September (1958), which Liam Miller regarded as Dolmen’s first fully professional book. In that volume, most of the poems from the 1956 book were reprinted, and the twenty-eight poems that were gathered represented the striking technical accomplishment of Kinsella’s early work, less than ten years after his first student publications. Self-awareness is evident, both in theme and craft – these are poems that are mindful of tradition but, as Kinsella himself remarked, are ‘influenced by literature more than by fact’. The Poetry Book Society selected Another September as their Spring Choice, which was an important achievement both for poet and publisher. This success did not alter Miller’s pattern of publishing short works by Kinsella however. He followed Another September two years later with Moralities, a chapbook of seventeen poems with designs after Dürer. As the first sustained sequence that Kinsella had published, this volume was formally important in his development. It was also significant in combining classical form with social awareness. The 1960s marked a deepening of Kinsella’s enquiry into human suffering, and a certain restlessness in both life and art. Downstream (1962) meditates on transformation, and its title poem was one that Kinsella would continue to revise for more than thirty years. The publication of Wormwood (1966) and Nightwalker (1967) – a volume that appeared with both Oxford University Press and New York publisher Knopf in 1968 – marked the development of Kinsella’s mature style.

THE ART OF TRANSLATION: THE TÁIN During these years, Kinsella was also engaged in a translation project that would result in the most beautiful Irish-made book of the twentieth century, The Táin. The starting point of this Dolmen project was Kinsella’s remarkable 1954 translation of The Sons of Usnech which appeared in two editions: the first with illustrations by Mia Cranwill in the Celtic style; the second in a larger print run reset with Bridget Swinton’s free line drawings. Liam Miller was eager for the poet to extend his translation skills to the Táin Bó Cuailnge – The Cattle Raid of Cooley – the centrepiece of the Ulster Cycle. This was a text that combined verse and prose,

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but the challenges it presented served to confirm Kinsella’s dedication to the craft of translation. He immersed himself in the study of early Irish texts and worked painstakingly to create a satisfactory response to what he described as the ‘very disorderly world’ of the original work. The project brought Kinsella and Louis le Brocquy into close collaboration. Le Brocquy produced hundreds of drawings and over 130 of these were included in the volume, together with maps and reproductions from the original Irish manuscript sources. The firm elegance of the Pilgrim font enhanced the concentrated force of le Brocquy’s brushwork, bringing text and image into artistic unity. The Táin took more than 15 years to complete, during which time Kinsella left his position in the Department of Finance, taking up a post as poet-in-residence at the University of Southern Illinois. As the Táin project illustrated, Kinsella’s commitment to the translation of Irish language texts became central to his contribution to Irish letters and was to have an important influence on his role as anthologist. An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981) was a collaboration with Seán Ó Tuama, reprinting a range of original Irish texts with Kinsella’s translations. Five years later Kinsella was commissioned to edit the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse and again he placed considerable emphasis on poetry in the Irish language, addressing the customary prominence of work in English from the Revival period onward. His critical work from 1995, The Dual Tradition, directly explored the important relationship between the two languages.

PEPPERCANISTER POEMS In 1972, Kinsella wrote and published Butcher’s Dozen, describing it as a ‘necessary response’ to the Widgery Tribunal of that year which exonerated the soldiers involved in the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry. It was ‘finished, printed and published within a week’ and Kinsella chose a cheap, disposable format – its buff paper covers and crude design in keeping with the poem’s rhetorical purpose. This radical poetic intervention required a different mode of publishing from Kinsella’s previous work, and the manner of the poem’s appearance would also prompt a sustained alteration in Kinsella’s publishing practice. Butcher’s Dozen thus became the first volume in the Peppercanister series. This venture, devised by Kinsella as a means of publishing single long poems or short sequences of poems at irregular intervals, owed much to Liam Miller’s Dolmen chapbooks. The early Peppercanister pamphlets are likewise characterised by a flexible approach to design: in contrast to Butcher’s Dozen, the second volume – A Selected Life – was presented in a large elegant format. This was the first of

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two publications (the other being Vertical Man) to concern the life and work of musician and composer Sean Ó Riada; their attention to design is in keeping with the artistic subject matter. The fourth volume, by contrast, marked a return to the cheap printing format, being another occasional poem – this time published in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. The Peppercanister project continues to offer Kinsella an opportunity for concentrated reflection on particular preoccupations, from the testing of self within a mythological framework in One (1974) to the nature of the creative act itself, explored in Fat Master (2011). Mutability is paradoxically among Kinsella’s most enduring themes, and it is also present in this creative mode: many of these poems have been substantially – and repeatedly – revised for inclusion in later publications. The Peppercanister series helps us to see Kinsella’s writing as provisional rather than monumental, making each poem open to new discoveries by poet and reader alike. Dr Lucy Collins UCD School of English, Drama and Film I would like to acknowledge the help and support of the following in the James Joyce Library, University College Dublin: Evelyn Flanagan, Eugene Roche and Vanessa Buckley in Special Collections, Ursula Byrne and University Librarian Dr. John B. Howard. Thanks also to designer Ger Garland. I’m especially grateful to Thomas and Eleanor Kinsella who made this exhibition possible.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Haffenden, John. ‘Thomas Kinsella.’ Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. 100-13 Harmon, Maurice. Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008. Kinsella, Thomas. Collected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 2001. Miller, Liam. Dolmen XXV: An Illustrated Bibliography of the Dolmen Press 19511976. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1976. Skloot, Floyd. ‘The Evolving Poetry of Thomas Kinsella.’ New England Review 18.4 (1997): 174-87. Tubridy, Derval. Thomas Kinsella: The Peppercanister Poems. Dublin: UCD Press, 2001. IMAGE CREDITS Front cover: Liam Miller illustration from The Starlit Eye (detail). Inside front cover: St Stephen’s Church, nicknamed the Peppercanister, on Mount Street Crescent Dublin (David Soanes). Inside back cover: Covers of Out of Ireland, Another September, The Táin and National Student Oct-Nov 1952. Back cover: A Technical Supplement.

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SPECIAL COLLECTIONS READING ROOM

ISBN 978-1-905254-79-8

James Joyce Library University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4 Phone: +353 (0)1 716 7583 Email: library@ucd.ie

© 2013

Thomas Kinsella: The Poet and the Book  

Booklet to accompany the exhibit of Thomas Kinsella's personal library, donated by Kinsella to University College Dublin's Library Special C...

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