Essay On Thomas Kinsella Poems

‘Kinsella’s poetry extends the reader’s understanding of life. Discuss.’


Having studied a selection of poetry by Kinsella on my Leaving Certificate course, I have no hesitation in saying that they not only extend my understanding of life, but challenge me to confront reality and to accept, endure and handle whatever life brings.
The poems which, I believe, gave me this impression are “Mirror In February”, “Model School Inchicore”, “Chrysalides” and “Thinking of Mr.D”. Important themes in these poems are fragility of childhood innocence, an awareness of mortality and the struggle for comprehension. Richly sensuous imagery, rhythm and sound patterns entice the reader into an experience that expands the understanding of what it means to be human.

“Model School Inchicore”, is one of Kinsella’s poems where the poet imaginatively re-enters the land of his childhood to explore his human journey from innocence to knowledge. The “blank paper” handed to children represents the inexperienced, innocent minds of the children, who will be deeply affected and altered by their educational experiences. The “marla” symbolises the remoulding and shaping of the children’s minds as they “start with a ball of it” and keep “rolling it” until it wears down. Similarly, “in the second school”, the “white dot” illustrated on the blackboard signifies the beginning of knowledge, starting from zero. Kinsella’s thirst for wisdom is wonderfully communicated in his innocent assertion: “I am going to know everything”. Knowledge, for him, holds limitless potential. However, the young poet is growing and changing and this is reflected in the changing seasons. It is autumn and the children play with fallen leaves. A boisterous amount of energy is evoked in the language and imagery as “the boys ran races/jumping over the heaps/and tumbles into them shouting.” The vitality is sharply contrasted with the following image when the poet sits by himself in a shed, watching the papers being blown “around the wheels of the bicycles”. Here, we are reminded of the “blank paper” and “marla” and notices that a journey has been undertaken and is still in progress for Kinsella. The child is learning about his religion and turning over the notions of sin and judgement in his mind by reciting the catechism. The role of the young poet is suggested in “every idle word that man shall speak/he shall render an account of it/on the Day of Judgement”.
The language has evoked from the simple, childish diction to the formal diction of the catechism. Similarly in “Chrysalides”, Kinsella interprets the transience and fragility of childhood purity. The sexual awakening aroused within the boys makes them numb and “insensitive”. Their instincts are “blurred” and their hearts are “dulled”. They are unmoved by the horrible sight of the “wedding flight”. It was only some time afterwards when they felt the psychological impact of this “lasting horror”. In these poems, Kinsella explores the theme of transience and regeneration. The poet explains to the readers that childhood innocence is inevitably lost. As we gain more knowledge, our childhood innocent mentality begins to vanish.

The poem “Thinking of Mr.D” depicts an individual’s confrontation of the realities of life, such as ageing. This poem describes the loneliness that comes with getting old. We learn from the final image in the poem that the ghostly figure of Mr.D staring into the water is extremely lonely. After all the gossiping and socialising in the bar, Mr.D led a lonely, solitary lifestyle. This poem also focuses on “the pain and bodily plight” of the elderly. “Turning../quickly aside from the pain” suggests Mr.D’s suffering. This poem is about the erosive nature of age and illness. Nothing can protect the individual from the ravages of time and pain.

From my previous study of poets, I noted how Shakespeare emphasised nothing is immune to time’s ravages. In Sonnet 60, the poet stresses how “nothing stands but for his scythe to mow” while Sonnet 12 portrays how “nothing’ gainst Time’s scythe can make defence”. In reality, nothing can stand up to time’s trouble scythe. The passage of time will cause everything on earth to fade away. Similar to Shakespeare, Kinsella’s poetry depicts the ravages time inflicts on the human body. Parallel to “Thinking of Mr.D”, “Mirror In February” is another poem where Kinsella explores the erosion of decay wrought by time. The world of nature seems to mirror the condition of the poet. The “dark trees” and the “dry bedroom air” are linked to his own reflection in the mirror : ” a dark exhausted eye/ a dry downturning mouth”. Here, Kinsella uses pathetic fallacy to create an analogy between man and nature that is continued throughout the poem. He is “riveted” and can only “stop and stare” at the devastation caused by time. However, a note of hope is sounded. From the personal awareness of ageing and contemplation of the inevitability of death, comes new inspiration. Although, Thomas Kinsella has been disturbed by the reflection of his own transience, the poet manages to accept the condition. He acknowledges with dignity that he is “not young and not renewable, but man”. The capacity to transcend death and decay while maintaining personal dignity is explored both in “Mirror in February” and “Thinking of Mr.D”.

The poetic techniques used by Thomas Kinsella allows a young reader to understand what is it to be human. In the poem “Thinking of Mr.D”, the sibilance emphasises the sarcastic quality of his bitter tongue, as he taps his shoe in time to his own commentary on his fellow man – ” He sipped and swallowed with a scathing smile”. We can almost hear the whispering, accompanied by hisses of contempt in the repeated ‘s’ sound. The poem “Mirror In February”, contains sensual imagery throughout the whole poem which heightens the impact on the reader. We smell the “must”, feel the “dry air”, see the “dark trees” and the “fading lamp”. Kinsella uses assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme in “Chrysalide” to create a richly musical effect for the reader. “Our last free summer we mooned about at odd hours” and “sleeping too little or too much , we awoke at noon” are examples of assonance and internal rhyme respectively. The use of broad vowels and sibilance also slows down the pace of the poem and creates a unique mood.

In conclusion, Thomas Kinsella’s poetry has reinforced an understanding of the meaning of life for young adults in a unique way. He has taught us to accept the reality of human ageing. All we can do is accept that suffering is part of the human life-cycle. Kinsella’s poems have encouraged us to handle whatever life brings. Kinsella has taught me to face the ravages of time with all the courage and dignity I have. Hence, his poetry has extended my understanding of life.

Related Notes

This article is about the Irish poet. For the U.S. Representative from New York, see Thomas Kinsella (New York).

Thomas Kinsella (born 4 May 1928) is an Irish poet, translator, editor, and publisher.

Early life and work[edit]

Kinsella was born in Inchicore, Dublin.[1] He spent most of his childhood in the Kilmainham/Inchicore area of Dublin. He was educated at the Model School, Inchicore, where classes were taught in Irish Gaelic, and at the O'Connell Schools in North Richmond Street, Dublin. His father and grandfather both worked in Guinness's Brewery.[2] He entered University College Dublin in 1946, initially to study science. After a few terms in college, he took a post in the Irish civil service in the Department of Finance and continued his university studies at night, having switched to humanities and arts.[3]

Kinsella's first poems were published in the University College Dublin magazine National Student. His first pamphlet, The Starlit Eye (1952), was published by Liam Miller's Dolmen Press, as was Poems (1956), his first book-length publication. These were followed by Another September (1958), Moralities (1960), Downstream (1962), Wormwood (1966), and the long poem Nightwalker (1967).

Marked as it was by the influence of W. H. Auden and dealing with a primarily urban landscape and with questions of romantic love, Kinsella's early work marked him as distinct from the mainstream of Irish poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, which tended to be dominated by the example of Patrick Kavanagh.

He received the Honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin in May 2007.[4]

He taught the Irish Tradition Programme at Trinity College, Dublin.

The composer and member of Aosdána, John Kinsella (born 1932), is his brother.

Translations and editing[edit]

At Miller's suggestion, Kinsella turned his attention to the translation of early Irish texts. He produced versions of Longes Mac Unsnig and The Breastplate of St Patrick in 1954 and of Thirty-Three Triads in 1955. His most significant work in this area was collected in two important volumes. The first of these was The Táin, (Dolmen 1969 and Oxford 1970), a version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge illustrated by Louis le Brocquy.

The second major work of translation was an anthology of Irish poetry An Duanaire: 1600-1900, Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), translated by Kinsella and edited by Seán Ó Tuama. He also edited Austin Clarke's Selected Poems and Collected Poems (both 1974) for Dolmen and The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986).

Later poetry[edit]

In 1965, Kinsella left the civil service to become writer in residence at Southern Illinois University, and in 1970 he became a professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia. While at Temple, he developed a program for students to study in Ireland called "the Irish Experience".

In 1972, he started Peppercanister Press to publish his own work. The first Peppercanister production was Butcher's Dozen, a satirical response to the Widgery Tribunal into the events of Bloody Sunday. This poem drew on the aisling tradition and specifically on Brian Merriman's Cúirt An Mheán Óiche. Kinsella's interest in the publishing process dates back at least as far as helping set the type for The Starlit Eye 20 years earlier.

In the Peppercanister poems, Kinsella's work ceased to be Audenesque and became more clearly influenced by American modernism, particularly the poetry of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell. In addition, the poetry started to focus more on the individual psyche as seen through the work of Carl Jung. These tendencies first appeared in the poems of Notes from the Land of the Dead (1973) and One (1974).

In the 1980s, books such as Her Vertical Smile (1985) Out of Ireland (1987) and St Catherine's Clock (1987) marked a move away from the personal to the historical. This continued into a sometimes darkly satirical focus on a contemporary landscape through the late 1980s and 1990s in such books as One Fond Embrace (1988), Personal Places (1990), Poems From Centre City (1990) and The Pen Shop (1996). His Collected Poems appeared in 1996 and again in an updated edition in 2001.


Poetry collections[edit]

  • Poems 1956-1973 (Dublin, The Dolmen Press, 1980);
  • Another September (Dolmen, 1958);
  • Poems & Translations (New York: Atheneum, 1961);
  • Downstream (Dolmen, 1962);
  • The Clergyman (Dublin: St Sepulchre's Press, 1965);
  • Tear (Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall Press, 1969);
  • Nightwalker and Other Poems (Dolmen, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969);
  • Ely Place (Dublin: Tara Telephone Publications/St. Sepulchre's Press, 1972);
  • The Good Fight (Peppercanister 1973);
  • Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (Knopf, 1973);
  • Fifteen Dead (Peppercanister, 1979);
  • One and Other Poems (Dolmen, Oxford University Press, 1979);
  • Peppercanister Poems 1972-1978 (Dolmen 1979; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1979);
  • One Fond Embrace (Deerfield, MA: Deerfield Press, 1981);
  • St Catherine's Clock (Oxford University Press, 1987);
  • Blood & Family (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988);
  • Poems from Centre City (Peppercanister, 1990);
  • Madonna and Other Poems (Peppercanister, 1991);
  • Open Court (Peppercanister, 1991);
  • The Pen Shop (Peppercanister, 1997);
  • The Familiar (Peppercanister, 1999);
  • Godhead (Peppercanister, 1999);
  • Citizen of the World (Peppercanister, 2000);
  • Littlebody (Peppercanister, 2000);
  • Collected Poems 1956-2001 (Oxford University Press, 2001);
  • Marginal Economy (Peppercanister, 2006);
  • Collected Poems 1956-2001 (Wake Forest University Press, 2006);
  • Belief and Unbelief (Peppercanister, 2007);
  • Man of War (Peppercanister, 2007);
  • Selected Poems (Carcanet Press, 2007; Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 2010)
  • Fat Master (Peppercanister, 2011);
  • Love Joy Peace (Peppercanister, 2011).
  • Late Poems (Carcanet, 2013).

Prose collections[edit]

  • The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (Carcanet, 1995);
  • Readings in Poetry (Peppercanister, 2006);
  • Prose Occasions: 1956-2006 (Carcanet, 2009).

Poetry and prose[edit]

  • A Dublin Documentary (O'Brien Press, 2007). (Selected poems with photographs and author's commentary)


  • The Táin, translated from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. Dolmen, 1969; Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • An Duanaire - Poems of the Dispossessed, an anthology of Gaelic poems; edited by Seán Ó Tuama. Portlaoise: Dolmen Press, 1981 ISBN 978-0-85105-363-9.


  • Fair Eleanor, O Christ Thee Save (Claddagh Records, 1971)
  • Thomas Kinsella - Poems 1956-2006 (Claddagh Records, 2007).


External links[edit]

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