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Irlande Vision(s) / Révision(s)

Martine Pelletier

"Unbothered Feet": Visions and Revisions in Thomas Kinsella's Poetry

Taffy Martin

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1In his inimitable, unfailingly entertaining and timeless study of Irish literature, Frank O'Connor claims that the entire thirteen century-long enterprise of Irish writing is in fact one long, continuous — and highly reflective — Backward Look, an ongoing vision and revision of itself and of its origins. Nearly twenty years later, Seamus Deane would continue and yet undermine the pacific underpinnings of that vision by insisting not so much upon a unifying view of Irish writing, a position for which he does indeed argue and which O'Connor by no means takes as a given, but upon what one might call Irish writing's primal and ineluctable experience of revision : "One of the recurrent paradoxes of Irish writing is its preoccupation with the experience of discontinuity" (Deane, 1986, 248) While these two perhaps complementary positions might well suffice as guidelines for a study of "Vision (s) and Revision (s) in Thomas Kinsella's poetry,"an even more fitting point of departure presents itself in the form of a poem by Marianne Moore. Behind its inscrutable title, "Sojourn in the Whale" (1981, 90), lurks an equally inscrutable speaker who is addressing Ireland, an Ireland fallen victim to the worst of foolishness and superstition and, even worse, an Ireland ridiculed and then dismissed by its overseers.

Trying to open locked doors with a sword, threading
the points of needles, planting shade trees
upside down ; swallowed by the opaqueness of one
whom the seas love better than they love you, Ireland —

you have lived and lived on every kind of shortage.
You have been compelled by hags to spin
gold thread from straw and have heard men say :
"There is a feminine temperament in direct contrast to ours,

which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a
heritage of blindness and native
incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to give in.
Compelled by experience, she will turn back ;

water seeks its own level" (Moore, 90)

2But the laconic speaker of "Sojourn in the Whale" revises this benumbing diagnosis, turns it back upon itself and credits Ireland, with an enabling response :

and you have smiled. "Water in motion is far
from level." You have seen it, when obstacles
happened to bar the path, rise automatically. (Moore, 90)

3The protean and mercurial nature of that response and the enigmatic smile which animates it serve as a key to understanding Thomas Kinsella's never-ending succession of poetic visions and revisions. Just as Marianne Moore's curiously silent Ireland "rises" to the occasion but never takes on identifiable form, so Thomas Kinsella's "poet/hero" repeatedly evokes his calling but refuses to define the vision toward which he is striving, a refusal which implacably condemns his endeavor to the rhythmic but eternal stumbling of "unbothered feet".

4One must begin by establishing a context within which to read the "dangerous litter of lacerating pieces" (Kinsella, 1973, 56) which animates Kinsella's most difficult poems. It will then be possible to examine the evolution of the "poet/hero's" vision of himself and of his task and thereby to appreciate the mastery of Kinsella's "failure" to "achieve" that vision. Kinsella's enviably a-(or anti-) dogmatic prefatory essays to his two editions of Irish poetry, An Duanaire, 1600-1900 : Poems of the Dispossessed (1981) and The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), accomplish that task. In the second of these, he formulates an ideal vision of "the Irish tradition [as] a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction," (1986, xxvii) but qualifies, without completely revising, that hopeful vision as problematic and unsettled. The tradition, as he sees it, is the fruit of "two major bodies of poetry asking to be understood together as functions of a shared and painful history," but its integrity is forever assailed by "specialized academic concerns" on the one side and by "nationalist emotion" on the other. It is thus inescapably faced with the threat of being reduced to a mere "annexe to British literature, an 'aspect of the Anglo-Saxon experience."'(1986, xxvii) These provocative comments lead directly to Kinsella's equally provocative vision of the Irish tradition, that of a nearly anarchic mass which refuses to cohere. Having, like nearly all school children of his age, "suffered" the benefits of de Valera's laudable but hardly realistic cultural programs, Kinsella was, by his own admission, happy enough to leave the deadening if not quite dead language behind him along with the classroom of his youth. The Irish language, he claims, "was taught unimaginatively on the whole, in an exclusivist and authoritarian atmosphere." (1986, xxix) His diagnosis of the consequences of the program is indeed grim : "[T] he main body of the Irish literary tradition is a closed book to all but the Irish-speaking, or Irish-reading, minority of the Irish people." (1981, xii) Thus Kinsella worries that the Irish language remains on the brink of becoming an antiquarian, if not a reactionary tool. His now notorious complaint in a 1992 interview, that one could hardly say "Would you lend me your bicycle pump?"" in Irish is deliberately misleading, for he readily admits that "Most of Ireland's contemporary writers in English do, in fact, know modern Irish reasonably well", and he appreciates the fact that "certainly [its] authoritarian element has disappeared." Kinsella's response to the apparent dilemma has been to call for " an act of repossession," (1981, xxix) one which would recognize the entire scope of poetry in Irish.

5One element in his version of this repossession is The Dispossessed, a work which has rightly become a landmark, if not a touchstone, in Irish studies. An even more formidable monument, and one which obviates, albeit temporarily, the question of a dual and forever parallel rather than coalesced system, is Kinsella's translation of The Táin. The Táin predates The Dispossessed by twelve years and yet was a task Kinsella had delayed beginning for over a decade. It was his first return to the Irish language, an undertaking for which he prepared by following Seán O Riada, around the countryside to farms and entire communities where the English language was not allowed and for which he "trained" by trying to keep up with and still remain conscious during O Riada's legendary drinking bouts. The result is an entirely personal vision of the timeless epic and an epic exercise in violence and nonsense. Kinsella undertook the task quite by accident. Having been frustrated — because of inadequate translations — in his search for satisfactory versions of the oldest Ulster stories, he settled upon Lady Gregory's translation only to find it wanting, and for reasons which would determine the work that was to follow : "I emerged with the conviction that Lady Gregory's 'Cuchulain of Muirthemne' though only a paraphrase, gave the best idea of the Ulster stories. This merely emphasized the dearth, for her book, even as a paraphrase, seemed lacking in some important ways, refining away the coarse elements and rationalising the monstrous." (1969, vii) These irrational qualities are the very elements which Kinsella then sought to restore, the vision he set out to revise.

6Beginning with what he described as the "mangled remains of miscellaneous scribal activities," in which "narrative matter [...] withers away into cryptic notes and summaries" and competes with "wholesale indiscriminate interpolations from other sources, in some cases over erased passages of the original," (1961, xi) Kinsella sets out on a perilous course and describes the result of his efforts with what seems to be bemused irony : "As far as possible the story has been freed of inconsistencies and repetitions. Obscurities have been cleared up and missing parts supplied from other sources. [...] A reader who is anxious to know how the text actually runs should be able to restore the original disarray." (xi) Kinsella goes on to point out and defend his decision to restore the original's "directness in bodily matters : [its] easy references to seduction, copulation, urination, the picking of vermin [and] the suggestion of incest in 'How Cúchulainn was Begotten'." (xiv) And he approvingly notes that "The story, as The Táin ends, is not finished." (xiv).

7Not finished, perhaps, but certainly a threshold for the ways in which Kinsella's poetry was to develop after his translation of The Táin. As of its publication in 1969, Kinsella would integrate this new vision of the raw power of the Irish tradition into his own poetry and into his vision of the "poet/creator" who is the speaker of most of the poems. The formerly ponderous voice of the well-known eminently "anthologizable" poems, disappears only to be replaced by one whose regal violence recalls the contained furor of Cúchulainn and the glory of his necessary accouterments :

When that spasm had run through the high hero Cúchulainn he stepped into his sickle war-chariot that bristled with points of iron and narrow blades, with hooks and hard prongs and heroic frontal spikes, with ripping instruments and tearing nails on its shafts and straps and loops and cords. The body of the chariot was spare and slight and erect, fitted for the feats of a champion, with space for a lordly warrior's eight weapons, speedy as the wind or as a wallow or a deer darting over the level plain. The chariot was settled down on two fast steeds, wild and wicked, neatheaded and narrow-bodied. (1969, 153)

8Like the Ireland of "Sojourn in the Whale" whose mercurial energy surges forth when least expected, the "high hero" (148) Cúchulainn takes on new and unsuspected forms at will. But in these passages of The Táin, there is no hint yet of a smile :

The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front. [...] His face and features become a red bowl : he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull ; [...] his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth and throat. [...] His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears. (150)

9This virile posturing seems a far cry from the profile of the "poet/hero" of Kinsella's early, most accessible poems, he of the anonymous crowd of the 1968 "Westland Row," "stooped slightly/With briefcases and books" as they returned home after a day's work :

We stepped on our own traces, not on stone,
Nodded and smiled distantly and followed
Our scattering paths, not stumbling, not touching.
(1979, 85)

10Nor does it bear any resemblance to the nocturnal ramblings of "Nightwalker" with its "wouldn't be" businessman "come scratching in [his] waistcoat [...]/Down to the kitchen for a cup of tea." (1979, 103) But even in these formal poems, those of the stately period which would end with "Nightwalker," "Ritual of Departure" and "Phoenix Park" and coincide with Kinsella's departure from Ireland (and by consequence from the safety of his position as a civil servant), there are already the seeds of his relentless revision of the assurance of that "poet/hero's" control. There are also intimations of the primal urges which animate Kinsella's present universe. For in "Westland Row" the briefcased businessman numbly making his way through "eddying cold gusts and grit" of Dublin at nightfall feeds on the sensuality which he no longer and does not yet again possess.

[...] in a breath of benzine from a garage-mouth,
By the Academy of Music, coming against us,
She stopped an instant in her wrinkled coat
And ducked her childish cheek in the coat-collar
To light a cigarette : seeing nothing,
Thick-lipped, in her grim composure.

Daughterwife, look upon me. (1979, 85)

11And "Nightwalker's" waistcoated banker, "Mindful of the/shambles of the day," wishes himself to be unconscious of his "investment income" clients and calls upon his disquieting Joycean specter to guide his nocturnal wanderings and inform his vision :

Watcher in the tower, be with me now
At your parapet, above the glare of the lamps.
Turn your milky spectacles on the sea
Unblinking ; cock your ear. (1979, 108)

12These are examples of revision "always already" contained within single poems. But Kinsella's revision also extends to individual poems which rewrite earlier ones in order to revise their image of a "poet/hero," sometimes after an interval of several years. Such is the case, and richly so, with "Leaf Eater" (1968) and "Model School, Inchicore." (1985) The earlier poem, which appears on the facing page with the opening lines of "Nightwalker," substitutes a grub for the poet, retreats into a third-person speaker and needs only seven lines to achieve its annihilation. Unable, in spite of his writhing, to sustain himself — "no leaf, no twig/anywhere in reach" — a grub, perched "in the heart of the garden,/On an outer leaf, [...] gropes/Back on itself and begins/To eat its own leaf." (1978, 100) The unmitigated derision of this anti-pastoral homage to and negation of what in "Nightwalker" would become a "scalding soup of memories,/For my drowsy famine" depicts a "hero/victim" who consumes rather feeds upon what should sustain it. For the leaf is Ireland, unable to nurture and to nourish its heroes who turn on it then devour it in their distress. In "Model School, Inchicore", however, Kinsella has entirely revised the negative vision. The "poet/hero's" Ireland has recovered its primal simplicity, complete with schoolyard and chestnut tree, sunshine and recess. Amidst the flying leaves and whirling schoolboys —

and the big chestnut leaves
fell all over the playground
we piled them in heaps
between the wall and the tree trunks
and the boys ran races
jumping over the heaps
and tumbled into them shouting (1988, 20)

13— the speaker retreats to the comfort of remembered isolation : "I sat by myself in the shed/and watched the draught/blowing the papers/around the wheels of the bicycles." He thus finds momentary sustenance, not only in reviewing the scene but by reduplicating the circularity of the leaves and the wind and the bicycle wheels. As opposed to the self-consuming — and unproductive — "Leaf-Eater", the "poet/hero" of "Model School" feeds on the very tool of his labors — a fountain pen. The price, however, will be a bitter one.

The taste
of ink off
the nib shrank your
mouth. (1989, 20)

14As an earlier poem's speaker also affirms, appropriately armed and thus enabled, the "poet/hero" can feed upon his yet and forever inchoate vision :

I feed upon it still, as you see ;
there is no end to that which,
not understood, may yet be noted
and hoarded in the imagination,
in the hold of one's being, so to speak (1973, 11)

15A similar series, in which a later poem rewrites an earlier one — not just thematically but structurally as well — clarifies Kinsella's process of revision and incorporates the primal violence of Cúchulainn, particularly since the vision of these poems is that of a mirror image. The first, "Mirror in February" (1962), was for a long time and may still be Kinsella's most anthologized poem. Its figurative density, its powerful imagery, the perfection of its ponderous rhythm and alternately end and internal, off and slant rime as well as the affirmation of its closure by a rhymed couplet in its final (of three) stanzas reinforce what Barbara Herrnstein Smith would call its "sense of truth" (1968, 152). The poem reads like early Robert Lowell (b. 1917) or Denise Levertov (b. 1923), both of whom are Kinsella's near contemporaries, both of whom began with similarly "well-made" poems, and both of whom would take a similar "leap of form," as their work developed. The example of Levertov is particularly apt since, like Kinsella, she too credits the development of her speaking voice to her move to the United States and her having truly "heard" American voices rather than simply "read," even aloud, American poetry. The speaker in "Mirror in February," who solemnly informs us that he has "reach [ed] the age of Christ," is shaving, "Idling on some compulsive fantasy —" as "day dawns with scent of must and rain". His dark eye and exhausted mouth, lead him inevitably to the mirror of his soul and to the inescapable conclusion — "I have looked my last on youth." But in the third stanza, an outer brutality violates the strictly theoretical, and very deliberately poetic, nature of his musings :

Below my window the awakening trees
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more ? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man. (1967, 63)

16Mirrors don't lie, for indeed the flesh has suffered, but this tortured vision, held nearly desperately in place by the formal brilliance of the poem, springs from more than a simple fear of "how to deal/with photographs and the mirror," (1978, 16) as Denise Levertov so memorably put it. One need only recall the defacement invoked by the "anti-poetic" vocabulary of the last stanza : "hacked", "defaced", "suffering", "brute", "flesh", "quail", "span", "mutilated", "distaste", and the pedestrian "towel".

17We are faced, thus, with one of the first instances of Kinsella's confrontation with the fertile violence which would shake the very foundations of his poetry as of the moment he translated and thus revised the unseeing vision of The Tâin. One must thus read the second mirror image poem, "Worker in Mirror at his Bench," not only as Kinsella's revision of an earlier poem's moment of recognition but as an even more fundamental revision of his (and Ireland's) intimate knowledge of self. Divided into three radically irregular parts, the poem seems initially to be nothing more than a swirl of deprecatory mirror images, but it is in fact a fearless and fearful charge through the experience of a "poet/hero" become "artist/artisan" on "open house" day at his workshop. In Part I there is a hallucinatory overview of the speaker's "artistic efforts":

Silent rapt surfaces
assemble glittering
among themselves.

18A few more pieces.

What to call it...
Bright Assembly ?
Foundations for a Tower ?
Open Trap ? Circular-Tending
Self-Reflecting Abstractions... (1978, 55)

19In Part II, the speaker welcomes his public, a burdensome pack of "flashy coat [s]," "flourished cuffs" and tiresome questions to which, at least, the response is clear :

No, it has no practical application.
I am simply trying to understand something
— states of peace nursed out of wreckage. (1978, 56)

20It is here, then, before a despised public, that the poet achieves his vision, and in the most remarkable fashion. He continues to describe his work on the "dangerous litter of lacerating pieces" as mere bricolage:"I tinker with the things that dominate me/as they describe their random persistent coherences," but his art is ultimately one of dissimulation and concealment. Part II is, in fact, punctuated with smiles intended to disarm and to ingratiate himself with the intrusive public. He smiles to play a role, but he smiles also to achieve his primary goal :

Conceal, and permit...
pursuit at its most delicate,
truth as tinkering
easing the particular of its terror,
bending attention on the remaining depths
as though questions had never been... (1978, 57)

21The refusal (rather than failure) of closure, leads the speaker to confront the mercurial, protean, and frightening, vision of those "remaining depths" and to recognize in Part III of this tortuous poem the vision (of self) toward which the poetry has been leading :

He bends closer, testing the work.
The bright assembly begins to turn in silence.
The answering brain glitters — one system
answering another. The senses enter
and reach out with a pulse of pleasure
to the four corners of their own wilderness. (1978, 58)

22Four masks appear — of gold, silver, bronze and iron — each increasingly painful, each more disturbingly insistent until the final vision — "two blazing eyes [...] one wolf-muzzle [and] unholy tongue [which] laps [...] brothers'thick blood" — cannot be dismissed. The "Worker" is left with little as a means of defence : "The calm smile of a half-/buried face [...] hurtling rigid/from zenith to pit/though dead." It is ultimately from the dead and in a far calmer register that the poet will go on to reconstruct his vision. The poems that follow "Worker in Mirror at his Bench" never even approach its degree of dismemberment or violence. ("Butcher's Dozen," violent in different ways and for different reasons, is earlier and remains, like the other aisling poems, a separate element of Kinsella's œuvre). The mirror reappears in a poem appropriately entitled "Self Renewal" (1988, 30) reflecting "two ragged cuts ; [and] a wet mouth/held shut." The "poet/craftsman" has taken to hawking his wares: "Come and buy/my terrible new capabilities...", but the poem's "shifting rhythms,/the throaty piping" and the "unbothered feet " which I have borrowed as my title come not from the poet's newly gained mastery but, paradoxically, from the goats he watches with a certain degree of envy, "slithering to the beat" and who he tries unsuccessfully to follow "down out of sight/into [...] stony places." (1988, 64) The vision, too, slips over the horizon.

23A recent poem, "At the Western Ocean's Edge" (1990), continues but does not complete the task of revision. The vision of the "poet/hero" has evolved from its stately beginnings through its comic posturing and from its lacerating particulars to the distant echoes of its "unbothered feet." The revisions have been of individual poems, stylistically as well as thematically, but the stumbling seems to have led nowhere. The vision is more, certainly, than a mere reflective, Backward Look, however intense. And while it speaks rupture, that very rupture is one of continuance rather than discontinuity. How then to explain that even when Kinsella returns, as of the publication of Blood and Family, to a more formal poetic line, he continues to refuse closure, thus condemning each vision, and possibly his poetry, to oblivion? It might thus be possible to read Kinsella's undermining of his visions, his revising them until they fade and then vanish, as a counter-strategy to the preponderance of what David Lloyd, borrowing gleefully from Seamus Heaney, has disparagingly called the "Pap for the Dispossessed," the poetry of Irish (post-colonial) identity. Kinsella does indeed sabotage the "the illusion of identity and presence"; and when he isolates "an exceptional moment of fracturing" (Lloyd, 25), it is to inscribe, rather than heal, the fracture. Instead of attempting to operate some sort of "transcendental" healing, or the "foreclosed surety of the subject's relation to place" (25) which Lloyd identifies as being the core of Heaney's popular success, Kinsella depicts his "poet/creator" as forever displaced, even when, as in "At the Western Ocean's Edge," (1990, 27) the quest turns on the question of place. "Hero as liberator" (27) is the first sentence of the poem. And the hero, we learn, is Aogán Ó Rathaille, the perfect foil to "Yeats's romanticized man of action." (Jackson, 151) The hero here is Cúchulainn, he who "found the final equal in his head/then turned the struggle outward, against the sea" (1990, 27) and knew "renewal in reverse." It is here, then, in the person of a beleaguered "poet/hero" and "At the Western Ocean's Edge", that very limit of limits, that Kinsella's vision will affirm its mercurial and forever fathomless dimension :

Aogán Ó Rathaille defined his part
at the Western ocean's edge. A vagrant, turning
the gale wailing inland off the water
into a voice responding in his head,
and answering the waves on their own terms
— energy of chaos and a shaping

counter-energy in throes of balance ;
solitary response, eliciting
order from the uproar of particulars
struggling toward a posture of refusal
on the basis of some kind of understanding,
Man's beggar rags in tatters in the tempest. (1990, 27)

24The refusal to coalesce is absolute, the chaos fertile —'"Water in motion is far from level.'" The vision will swirl eternally, must forever be revised and will never be grounded. Is this not, thus, a late twentieth-century debunking of what Jerome McGann has so aptly identified as "the grand illusion of every Romantic poet": "[the] idea that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture." (McGann, 1983, 137) Neither free of nor, by dissembling repossession, resourced in history, Thomas Kinsella's "poet/hero/artisan/creator" condemns himself in a sort of Blakean glee to the eternal task of revision : "born on waves of threat inside the mind" (1990, 27).



O'Connor, Frank, 1967. The Backward Look ; A Survey of Irish Literature. London : Macmillan.

Deane, Seamus, 1986. A Short History of Irish Literature. Notre Dame, Indiana : University of Notre Dame Press.

Jackson, Thomas, 1995. The Whole Matter : The Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella. Dublin, The Lilliput Press, 1995.

Kinsella, Thomas, tr. 1969. The Táin. Dublin : Dolmen Press.

— 1973. Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems. New York : Alfred A. Knof.

— 1979. Poems 1956-1973. Wake Forest, Illinois : Wake Forest University Press.

Kinsella, Thomas and Seán Ó Tuama, 1981. An Duanaire, 1600-1900 : Poems of the Dispossessed. Dublin, The Dolmen Press.

Kinsella, Thomas, ed. 1986. The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

— 1989. Blood and Family. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

— 1990. Personal Places. Dublin : Peppercanister 14.

Levertov, Denise, 1978. Life in the Forest. New York : New Directions.

Lloyd, David, 1993. Anomalous States : Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment. Durham, North Carolina : Duke University Press.

McGann, Jerome, 1983. Romantic Ideology. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Moore, Marianne, 1981. Collected Poems. New York : Viking Press.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein, 1968. Poetic Closure : A Study of How Poems End. London : University of Chicago Press.


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