Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meeting the Poet (Thomas Kinsella) - memoir

In late 1999 I co-edited (with Theo Dorgan) the anthology Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry. In part, we funded the book by making available a limited edition of copies signed by the ten section editors. In January 2000, I was fortunate enough to go to Thomas Kinsella's home in County Wicklow to get him to sign these copies. It is always difficult to say who your favourite poet is, but in my case Kinsella - at his best - always comes top of that list. As you might expect, I decided to detail our encounter though with no sense that this meeting was as special to Kinsella as it was to me. Here is the piece I wrote, a few years after the fact. I'm happy to say that at nearly 90, Tom Kinsella is still going strong and creating wonderful work and is receiving much deserved (extra) attention in recent years.

Meeting the Poet

Love, it is certain, continues till we fail,
Whenever (with your forgiveness) that may be...

                                                                        ‘Phoenix Park’

As we bumped over a pothole the car made a sudden adjustment veering momentarily off the road. I turned away from the window. My girlfriend, Paola, was driving. She licked the paper of a roll-up which she held in her left hand, then glanced at me, a smile flickering across her lips.

“So, what’s he like? This Thomas what’s-his-name?”

I recovered the lighter from the floor and leaned over to light her cigarette. “Very intimidating by all accounts.”

Paola inhaled, held the smoke in her lungs for a moment, then exhaled. “Great. At least he lives somewhere remote.”

We drove deeper into the mountains. Beyond the rain-streaked window, I saw a burnt-out car rusting on the hillside. The sky had grown heavy with rain cloud, the slate bowl of the sky fringed by bronze that was reflected on the surface of the lake down below us in the valley. It seemed like the perfect stage for a Kinsella poem: an ancient landscape with its primal weather; the ochre of the decaying car lying amongst the granite boulders scattered on the mountainside by retreating glaciers.

In the boot of the Daihatsu Charade, bubble-wrapped and boxed, were special editions of a poetry anthology on which I had worked – with Theo Dorgan – as general editor. We had managed to get the signatures of the nine other section editors, but Thomas Kinsella had proved elusive. He had recently returned from a visit to America and was reluctant to travel to Dublin. I volunteered to go to his house in Wicklow to make the task as painless as possible – or, perhaps more truthfully, that I would get to meet him.


The Kinsellas’ house was hidden from the narrow country road by a wall of oak and hazel and pinned in from behind by the steep incline of a large hill, rainwater spilling down its side in white threads that gathered in a stream at its base. As I lifted the dead weight of the box of books from the boot of the car, a woman in her early seventies emerged from the porch with a wry smile. She introduced herself to us as Eleanor. It was a peculiar feeling seeing her standing there in front of the old farmhouse in flesh and blood. She had been frozen in my imagination as the younger woman in the poem ‘Phoenix Park’ who lay “brilliant with illness, behind glass”.

That poem had been written long before, but I had heard she had been ill again for many years. I was surprised by her skittery vitality as she darted to the boot and lifted the smaller, second box. I followed her into the large, open-plan living room and placed the box onto the mahogany table at its centre. She joked that Tom was in his garret and would be down shortly, then whisked Paola away to help her make lunch.

I stood in the room for a time alone in the gloom of rain-light that seeped in from a window, which stretched almost the entire length of the gable. Above me were exposed rafters and the vault of the ceiling. Along the walls bookcases, and a stark ink drawing of a black crow, an illustration by Louis le Brocquy from The Táin. On the opposite wall there was a Navaho wall hanging, its intricate pattern of earthen-coloured lines reminding me, strangely, of a schematic for an electronic circuit board.

'The Tain' illustration Louis le Broquay

As I began to take the books from the boxes a man appeared in the doorway, instantly recognisable from the photograph on the back of the Collected Poems: the thick glasses and grey beard, “the dry, down-turning mouth” on which one could never imagine a smile forming. I was surprised, though, by Kinsella’s physical size as he stood there in a leather waistcoat. The rumours of his decline seemed premature. He held out his hand and simply introduced himself as Tom, then sat down at the table. It appeared he wasn’t a man interested in small talk.

I opened the first book on the title page. He took an elegant silver-nibbed pen from his inside pocket and signed, with total concentration, in a spiky hand. There was an awkward pause before I opened the next one and he signed again. We continued in this ritual for perhaps half an hour, the silence of the room punctured only by the sound of rain tapping on the window and the occasional laughter that echoed down the hallway from the kitchen.

Just as Tom had finished signing the last book, Eleanor craned her head around the doorframe and announced cheerily that lunch was ready. Tom seemed a little surprised that I was being invited to stay. As I gathered up the books and put them back into the box, I was overcome with the need to tell him that it was reading his poem ‘Mirror in February’ in school that really got me interested in poetry. I realised I may not have another chance so I said, “If it hadn’t been for ‘Mirror in February’ I’d probably be doing something different with my life. It’s the poem that made me want to write.”

After the minutes of rain measured silence I thought my confession must have sounded ridiculous, all the practiced eloquence in the car on the way to this encounter falling apart into a blurted platitude. He stood back with what seemed like genuine surprise, and smiled, “Go way. Really. Tell me.” He waited expectant for me to provide a bigger explanation. Despite having read most of his work, I suddenly felt self-conscious and tongue-tied, as though the weight of posterity on me was too great in that room. I could only muster, “It was the first poem I encountered that was written from a world I recognised.”

As we stood there beside the imposing table, he seemed to relax a little, began to discuss the choices certain editors had made. This had been a difficult part of the process of putting the book together. Theo and I had wanted all the editors to meet up but because the logistical difficulties involved, we decided to send lists around to each so there was no overlap in poems, or over-representation of a given poet.

Tom had chosen to make his selection from the 1930s. He spoke about the failure of Irish poets to grasp modernism. Despite his abrasiveness, at times, on the subject, I detected a sense of isolation on his behalf. No Irish poet had embraced elements of the Modernists more than Kinsella and his profile, it seemed to me at least, had suffered as a consequence due to his work's apparent experimentalism and ‘difficulty’. 

He grew silent for a moment, then mentioned how he had grappled with whether to select anything by Brian Coffey. He put it to me bluntly: “Do you think I should’ve included him?”

I hadn’t expected that. Again, I had a chance to say something incisive, make an impression on my poetic mentor. But I’d never read Coffey and knew for some reason that to admit as much would meet with his disappointment, or perhaps even disapproval. I answered with an attempt at authority: “Well, some of his work is quite interesting, but I think your choice of Devlin was better.”

He nodded. I suspected my opinion didn’t matter to him, but it was surprisingly generous gesture to pretend that it did. 

At that moment Eleanor reappeared in the doorway. I was relieved that my knowledge would not be tested any further through more discussion. Tom and I followed her into the kitchen where we found Paola sitting at the pine table with a relaxed smile, and a mug of tea in her hand.


 As we drove home in the darkness, Paola and I were quiet. I thought of the car out there somewhere in the darkness, rusting a little more in the rain, the boulders still fixed where they had come to rest so long ago, infinitesimally more weathered and rounded. In a way, it was an apt image for the encounter with the poet; his solemn work with the hint of something ancient and immoveable; my dislocation in such a landscape; my fumbling in his formidable presence.

            There was the poem I wished I had talked to him about: a poem about Eleanor, sick in a hospital in the Phoenix Park. Over lunch all four of us had talked for several hours about their time in America and, at Tom’s insistence, religion, a topic that seemed to fascinate him despite his own equivocations on the subject. (I was a practicing Buddhist at the time which he seemed to find curious.) Then, sitting around the table by the bright pink Aga stove, Eleanor then told us about an illness which left her in a state of near-paralysis for several years. After a time, she had recovered unexpectedly and completely.

I thought of all Tom’s probings and doubts as we sat there in the bright, airy space drinking tea. I remembered the Navaho rug in the dark living room, its coloured grids and pattern of connections – that phrase in ‘Phoenix Park’ about “the tissue of order”. But the poem was about more than order. It attempts to answer the question: “What was in your thoughts… saying, after a while, / I write you nothing, no love songs, anymore?”

 As we left the Kinsella’s house in the twilight, Eleanor and Tom stood in the bell of porch-light waving us off. Eleanor had told us to call in again if we were in the area. I knew we wouldn’t – or I wouldn’t have the courage.

The lights of Dublin spread out before us as Paola and I descended from the foothills towards the city, the bay a dark entrance scooped out of the grid of streetlights and housing estates. In the boot of the car, two boxes of books signed and ready to be delivered into the world. I had finally met the poet who first gave me the shock of excitement that words on the page can make as they struggle to “elicit order from experience.”  

But it was the question in the poem that drew my attention again. Like the poet and his wife in ‘Phoenix Park’, Paola and I had also made a journey before a departure. As we pulled up outside our flat in Mountpleasant Square, the rain finally eased. Paola opened the hall door for me as I carried the boxes up the narrow staircase, then placed them on the floor beside all the other boxes that were stacked about the room – separately labelled and divided in piles.

Soon, Tom and Eleanor would also pack up their life in Wicklow and leave that primal place to return to their second home in Philadelphia, both now seeming to exist as real people in my memory, but also, somehow, mythic figures frozen in a frieze in the porchlight - 'brilliant behind glass'.

Thomas Kinsella

Galway, 2004