UCD ULYSSES MEDAL FOR THOMAS KINSELLA by Maurice Harmon
The following is the text of the speech made by Maurice Harmon at the award to Thomas Kinsella of the Ulysses Medal on 16 June 2008, in University College Dublin.
From the start Thomas Kinsella’s career has been marked by rigorous dedication to the craft of poetry. Although burdened with a keen awareness of impermanence and mutability he has engaged creatively with the forces that threaten human relationships, achievement, and existence itself. At the heart of this engagement lies the conviction that poetry requires a sustaining love, and this trust in the support of his wife Eleanor has been a theme affirmed throughout his work.
His sense of a menacing evil was born out of Irish conditions, the circumstances of his birth and upbringing in the Kilmainham-Inchicore area west of Dublin city, the savage destruction of the Second World War and the menace of the atomic age. The harrowing psychodrama of the poem 'Nightwalker' encapsulates the horror of his vision. The poignant deaths of relations, friends and the fellow artist Seán Ó Riada became part of an ominous mosaic. In his elegies for the composer he raised the issues of artistic ambition, responsibility and possibility to a poignant, philosophical level. Deeply moving and personal, Vertical Man is a carefully worded meditation on what the artist may achieve within the beauty and brevity of life.
Kinsella’s exploration of the nature of existence was linked to a shift in his work from inherited forms. Denying himself the security of traditional forms, he developed a style and structure in which all the elements of a poem are aesthetically deployed. It was a characteristic and necessary realignment of poetic and linguistic skills to match and reflect a sensibility that was engaged over a lifetime at its outer edge of feeling and intelligence. The paradigm of fall and renewal, of encounter, set-back and recovery is played out over and over in successive situations and in a variety of styles. His poetry alternates between reined-in rhythms, disjointed phrases that halt and impede emotional release to moments in which feeling runs freely and sequences flow. There are passages of great emotional range and power but there are also poems where the consciousness is fractured, the mind under stress, and where the shocked sensibility recoils from what it encounters.
This appraisal of the human condition and the personal strain it entails finds expression in a number of superbly orchestrated sequences within the Peppercanister publications and within individual poems, such as the Seán Ó Riada elegies and Her Vertical Smile. The appraisal leads to the serenity of recent work, which examines issues of theological belief and philosophical thought. The world is seen as a comfortless place, not likely to be improved by Divine intervention and not likely to be made more acceptable through philosophical or theological inquiry. People exist in ‘soiled survival’, in a state of minimal expectancy, doing the best they can and in that doing may be satisfied. The task of the artist is to be faithful to this actuality.
Incorporating as much as they can of the human story, great artists have the capacity to encompass experience, to find the means within art itself to render the widening artistic vision. For not only has Mr. Kinsella investigated the conflict between creativity and destruction, he has pursued their historical and imaginative presence in classical and Celtic mythology, in the confirming depth and complexity of archetypal patterns, in the work of psychoanalysts, and in the major intellectual and imaginative patterns of western thought, as expressed in Eriugena, Marcus Aurelius, Saint Augustine, Jung, Dante, Goethe, or Gustav Mahler.
There are two sides to Kinsella’s poetic achievement: on the one hand this massively coherent and persistent thinking about and embodiment of the nature of human existence, on the other a remarkable body of translation from Irish. His translations connect modern writing in English with the long tradition of poetry and prose written in Irish. He reaches beyond the nineteenth century to satires, love poems, lamentations, and outcries of religious fervour or repentance written in the two preceding centuries. He found an affinity with Aogán Ó Rathaille whose desolation after the collapse of the Gaelic order is a paradigm for the artist’s isolation in our time. Further back he discovered the unique body of nature lyrics, religious poems and love poems in the early Irish period. At the heart of this fruitful engagement lies his translation of the Táin Bό Cuailnge published by Dolmen Press with superb illustrations by Louis le Brocquy.
The integrity of his remarkable career is confirmed in the two sides of his work, the translations from the Irish language and the significant and singular achievement of his own poetry.
Emeritus Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin, Maurice Harmon's most recent poetry collection is The Mischevious Boy and Other Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2008). His Selected Essays (edited by Barbara Brown) was published by Irish Academic Press in 2006. He is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review.