Brendan Kennelly

The Essential Brendan Kennelly, edited by Michael Longley and Terence Brown (Bloodaxe Books)

“It was a gift that took me unawares
And I accepted it”

These lines from “The Gift”, the second poem in this selection and uttered early in the poet’s journey, signal a clear declaration of his commitment. Since that ringing note of acceptance and throughout a long career, Brendan Kennelly, poet and teacher, has remained steadfast to his poetic pledge.

In their valuable and astute introduction, the editors ( Terence Browne and Michael Longley ) speak of Kennelly’s “ predilection for publishing work thematically in selected editions with creative disregard” for chronology. Such was the case with his commodious Collected Poems,  Familiar Strangers, which eschewed a timeline for a somewhat unorthodox approach, where poems often appeared side by side as rather odd bedfellows.

Here we have a chronological, as well as representative and judiciously chosen, record of the poet’s achievement that does, as the editors intend, give a sense of the “shape and substance” of Kennelly poetic career – that career and its significant contribution to the canon deserve no less.

Kennelly is a poet of the wide embrace, as the Longley/Brown list demonstrates. Their “essential” Kennelly covers a range of forms and content, from the concise and compact shorter lyrics – My Dark Fathers, Bread, A Kind of Trust, I See You Dancing Father and that magnificently affirmative favourite, Begin – to extracts from the ground-breaking narrative sequences – Cromwell and The Book of Judas – that established him as one who took the side of the most demonised figures from history’s hate-list.

It was Kavanagh who said that when a poet learns to speak for himself, he must then speak on behalf of others. Whether the older poet made this point directly to a young Kennelly is not known – but throughout his work the Kerry poet has always been conscious of this responsibility and fully attentive to it by allowing his poems to be the medium for a myriad of voices, a distinguishing characteristic of his work.

He allows those voices to address the reader directly through statement, plea, commentary, confession.

I am the prince of liars, Xaviar O’Grady,
I am Tom Gorman, dead in the bog,
I am Luke O’Shea, in Limerick prison…
(from Am )

Another familiar Kennelly device is this creation of a character or persona through whom the poet in fact vents his own thoughts – Moloney in the early poems, ozzie in The Book of Judas, Ace in Poetry My Arse.

From the outset he was a poet with a mission: his affinity with Kavanagh is obvious, he is the poet of “proper praise” but he also knows when to unleash the scathing utterance, the Swiftian lash  – against whatever: pomp, sanctimony, falsehood, the self-regarding ego, the vulnerability of society’s victims. There is no posturing, his attacks are full-blooded – as Gerald Dawe has pointed out he assails the “myth of Ireland with a vengeance”. There are certain Kennelly poems that surely afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.

Kennelly uses a crisp, pared-down language to great effect – one that is a model of clarity and always mellifluous. At times he is the poet of outrage – on other occasions the poet of tender empathy, a kind of Dostoyevsky-like empathy with the outsider, the maverick, the cipher, whoever might pass by unnoticed and unheeded.

He moves from the here-and-now to the mystical, a quality he shares with Kavanagh. One of his great strengths is his imagistic directness, there is too a deceptive ease to his Bardic style. Many of his poems exemplify Frost’s contention that poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”.

Whenever you walk smiling through a room 
And your flung golden hair is still wet
Reading for September’s homaged rays;
I see what is, I wonder what’s to come
I bless what you remember of forget
And recognise the poverty of praise.

There is something of the dissident in Kennelly; this is evident not only in his choice of subjects ( Cromwell, Judas…) but in the manner in which he appropriates and reanimates the language of the city street and rural village. Such places have provided him with the “breathing spaces” that poetry requires. This  Kerry poet may have forged his identity in Dublin, but the “note of awe-struck wonder”, referred to by his editors, was I sense something that came as part of his nurturing and initiations in the  communal parish. It is also one of the most appealing attributes of this poet.

Of course, there are other Kennellys at work in these pages: a sharp laconic wit and a satiric touch that Swift would have admired have long been part of his arsenal – here, from Poetry My Arse, is a poem worth quoting in full.

Points of View

A neighbour said De Valéra was
As straight as Christ,
As spiritually strong.
The man in the next house said
Twas a great pity
He wasn’t crucified as young.

Along with this volume, another handsome Bloodaxe production, there are two bonuses: the cd of Kennelly’s distinctive voice reading – or more likely reciting – these poems adds to the occasion, and give us a real sense of their rhythmical elegance.   The insightful and astute introductory commentary by Brown and Longley is valuable for both new and seasoned readers of Kennelly’s work.

“A true poem is dreamed and danced as well as thought”: the Australian poet Les Murray could have had Brendan Kennelly in mind when he made that statement. A Kennelly poem is both song and dance, their cadence and language carrying the reader to those places where the poet makes his own music and is in tune with himself.

Reviewed for Poetry Ireland Review, Spring 2012

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