John Greening discusses recent collections by two eminent Irish poets
ISBN 978 1 64777 243 5
£9.95, 90 pages
New Selected Poems
ISBN 978 1 84777 241 1
£12.95, 242 pages
These two Irish poets were born on either side of Seamus Heaney: Thomas Kinsella in 1928, Eavan Boland in 1944. They bracket him, but they also remind us of the scope of recent Irish poetry. Kinsella and Boland are well known to poetry readers; they have been showered with prizes and their books sell, but neither has achieved Heaney’s degree of popular appreciation. Both are Dubliners, who have spent long periods of their lives in America. Both have been responsible for refreshing the art. Indeed, some of their more radical forays make Heaney look timid and reactionary by comparison. If we too easily associate Kinsella with Jungian instincts and political inclinations, Boland with feminist beliefs and domestic preoccupations, there is nevertheless some truth in the characterisation. What such labelling overlooks is their distinctive music. In the manner of many American poets from the same generation, Kinsella began as a strict formalist, then relaxed into something freer. The style of his late poems (those collected here are from his ongoing ‘Peppercanister’ series, a publishing project worthy of an essay in its own right) is somewhere between that of a refined essayist, and a frustrated psalmist. Boland was never quite so deeply indebted to those ‘blessèd structures’, rhyme and metre, and was quick to master free verse. Her voice is lyrical, potent, emotionally candid yet economical, with an extraordinarily effortless range; she likes to balance thought and image on a taut quivering sentence, taking careful steps, with immaculate line-breaks.
There is no substitute for reading Kinsella as a whole, but this new book is not a bad place to start. He has emerged from a middle period in which the voice was not only bleak but oblique, and there is a powerful sense of renewed spiritual conviction now. Yet the word that returns repeatedly is ‘waste’. He even includes it in his epigraph:
picking the works of my days apart,
will you find what you need
in the waste still to come?
This sardonic note has been present in Kinsella for many decades now, reminding us that Dublin was also Swift’s city. The controversy caused in 1972 when he published his Butcher’s Dozen, a verse denunciation of the Widgery Tribunal investigating Bloody Sunday, is still fresh in the memory. But there is little that is overtly political, less that is misanthropic in Late Poems; the epigrammatic indignation comes only occasionally, just as there are fewer quests now (nothing like ‘Nightwalker’ or ‘The Route of the Táin’). There is, in fact, a palpable still centre (‘centre’ is another of Kinsella’s favourite words), represented by prayers and ‘Songs of Understanding’, embodied in ‘Fat Master’, which describes an organ recital where the shadowy performer takes on a higher role for the poet and some that are breathing around me
Who know that under your courtly courtesies
– bowing forward with your orderly offering
of new discoveries,
and your decorous bowing back –
anything can happen.
. That your offerings
are to the one adequate reflecting Other.
And that we may accept only what we can
of the positives and the perishables
Kinsella alights on the same phrase that Heaney chose for his 9/11 elegy (‘Anything Can Happen’) but his is a much more discursive style; the language is not a bog to draw him in, but an interesting surface over subterranean, unvisited darknesses. The taste for mythological long distance and archetypal sources has not gone away, and ‘The Last Round: an allegory’ could almost be by Edwin Muir. What impresses most, however, is the humanity in this collection, a humility before the language and before much else besides, even when the old proud combative spirit rises, Standing, watching, on opposite sides of the grave,/we exchanged nods in old dislike.
Boland can be lofty. She can be provocative, too. But her strength has always been as a listener from the shadows, half-wondering/what becomes of words,/the brisk herbs of language,/the fragrances we think we sing,/if anything as in her masterpiece ‘The Oral Tradition’. This New Selected Poems puts less emphasis on the provocation, her needling of Ireland’s male-dominated, female-muse-obsessed brotherhood. Her first book was published at a time when Thomas Kinsella was the undisputed king of Irish poets, and for all his own interest in Jung’s anima, Dublin in the 1960s was not especially receptive to creative women. The war horse that stalks past Boland’s quiet suburban house in her 1975 collection is as much an emblem as Yeats’s swans, and by 1980 she is able to call her collection In her own Image and to follow up with a defiant study of motherhood. The poems from Night Feed (1982) include depictions of ‘Woman in Kitchen’ and ‘Degas’s Laundresses’, as well as an address to ‘The Muse Mother’.
At some point in their careers, Kinsella and Boland cross paths. As they approach each other, they are straight-talking, no-nonsense types. She makes much of her life as a suburban mother speaking up for the dispossessed; he is the civil servant and social commentator. But in truth they are both enthralled by mythology (more than Heaney, who is really a history man). If Kinsella sees life as the ultimate allegory, finding his meanings in dream and coincidence, his aspirations more Homeric than lyric, Boland takes us inward and downward, exploring the characters of myth, the nature of myth. Of course, it is hard not to trip over an archetype in Ireland; everything aspires to the condition of epic – even Kavanagh’s ‘local row’ about ‘who owned/That half a rood of rock’. It would not have occurred to Kavanagh that it might be a woman who laid claim to ‘New Territories’, but Eavan Boland took the art out of the potato field, only to turn back and point out what was missed in ‘The Great Hunger’:
…When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Itish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the roads ended…
The scope and ambition of Boland’s poems, with their big bold titles and their unwavering belief in the memorable abstraction, are only equalled by their unforgettable cadences. New Selected Poems is a better introductory volume than the New Collected, which took us no further than the 2001 collection, Code. It also incorporates one or two revisions. Here we have all the key poems from the acclaimed collections – The Journey,(1987) Outside History,(1990) In a Time of Violence (1994) – that remarkable flush of creativity, when Boland seemed to be receiving PBS Awards as a matter of course. But there are also substantial selections (including major sequences) from The Lost Land, Code, and Domestic Violence. Irrestistibly, the book concludes with seven new poems.
When we think of Irish poets it has tended to be those of the North in recent years. But if we woke some day to find that they had flown away, there would still be the mysterious, beautiful work of Thomas Kinsella and Eavan Boland.