Contemporary Poetry Review

As Interviewed By:
Aidan Fadden

The Bird's Throat & the Budging Crocus: An Interview with Brendan Kennelly

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.Biographical and critical introduction

Brendan Kennelly has been writing poetry since the 1950s. He was born in rural county Kerry, in south-west Ireland and grew up there before moving to Dublin where he attended Trinity College. 
     Critics have drawn attention to this move as being significant in the development of his work. In this respect he shares something with other rural-born poets drawn, or forced, inevitably, to more metropolitan environments. One thinks of Kavanagh, who left Monaghan for Dublin, and Heaney, who went initially to Belfast from rural county Derry and then left the North in the 70s for county Wicklow, in the shadow of Dublin.
     Kennelly’s early work combines an expression of an Irish country living and recognition of the accumulations of Irish history, which have settled over the basic, essential acts of living. As he says in his preface to A Time for Voices (Bloodaxe Books, 1990), "…there’s a group of poems set in childhood, several of them fairly brutal or violent, naturally so…" Take, for example, "The Pig-Killer":

On the scoured table, the pig lies
On its back, its legs held down
By Ned Gorman and Joe Dineen.
Over its throat, knife in hand, towers
Fitzmaurice, coatless, his face and hands
Brown as wet hay. He has travelled
Seven miles for this kill and now,
Eager to do a good job, examines
The prone bulk. Tenderly his fingers move
On the flabby neck, seeking the right spot
For the knife. Finding it, he leans
Nearer and nearer the waiting throat,
Expert fingers fondling flesh. Nodding then
To Gorman and Dineen, he raises the knife,
Begins to trace a line along the throat.
Slowly the line turns red, the first sign
Of blood appears, spreads shyly over the skin. The pig
Begins to scream. Fitzmaurice halts his blade
In the middle of the red line, lifts it slightly,
Plunges it eight inches deep
Into the pig. In a flash, the brown hands
Are red, and the pig’s screams
Rise and fall with the leaping blood. The great heaving
Body relaxes for Gorman and Dineen.
Fitzmaurice stands back, lays his knife on
A window-sill, asks for hot water and soap.
Blade and hands he vigorously purges, then
Slipping on his battered coat,
Eyeing the pig, says with authority–
‘Dead as a doornail! Still as a mouse!
There’s a good winter’s feedin’ in that baishte!’
Fitzmaurice turns and strides into the house.

     However, there are also, " …poems born of positive feeling connected with the brutality of other poems." A poem like ‘Yes’ shows the difficult but necessary affirmations of hope and love:

I love the word
And hear its long struggle with no
Even in the bird’s throat
And the budging crocus.
Some winter’s night
I see it flood the faces
Of my friends, ripen their laughter
And plant early flowers in
Their conversation.
You will understand when I say
It is for me a morning word
Though it is older than the sea
And hisses in a way
That may have given
An example
To the serpent itself.
It is this ageless incipience
Whose influence is found
In the first and last pages of books,
In the grim skin of the affirmative battler
And in the voices of women
That constitutes the morning quality
Of yes.
We have all
Thought what it must be like
Never to grow old,
The dreams of our elders have mythic endurance
Though their hearts are stilled
But the only agelessness
Is yes.
I am always beginning to appreciate
The agony from which it is born.
Clues from here and there
Suggest such agony is hard to bear
But is the shaping God
Of the word that we
Sometimes hear, and struggle to be.

His work is characterized by a powerfully wide-ranging imagination, which seeks to get under the outer skin of experience and defamiliarise it. Thus, Kennelly’s ‘I’ frequently speaks for almost anyone or anything but ‘himself’. It becomes the voice of abstract principles and natural phenomena: silence, lightning, a key, a woman, a child. So, the ‘Gift’ of poetry comes,

Small and hesitant
Like children at the tops of stairs… (ATFV 15)

     Kennelly’s engagement with Irish history and the myth–making potential of historical rhetoric culminated in the daring and celebrated epic, Cromwell: a poem (Beaver Row,1983; Bloodaxe Books, 1987). From his own immersion in a raconteurial tradition of storytelling, ballad, song and oral transmission, Kennelly has developed a fascination with the slippery, treacherous nature of language. If, as has been said recently, Gunter Grass can be seen as the conscience of post-war Germany, maybe Kennelly can be seen as being the unofficial laureate of post-colonial Ireland, at least in the Republic. By giving a voice to Ireland’s Hitler, Kennelly has shown that he is prepared to think the unthinkable in relation to Irish historical certainties. In such a way, he provokes reaction and stimulates debate.
     This is not without controversy as many would argue for the veracity of the ‘myths’ surrounding Cromwell, particularly those preserved through the Irish language and would see such approaches as dangerous historical revisionism.
     The flow of critical material on Kennelly is wide and deep. An excellent collection, which also contains an extensive bibliography, is Richard Pine’s Dark Fathers into Light (Bloodaxe Books, 1994). Also worth reading is Åke Persson’s That Fellow with the Fabulous Smile: a Tribute to Brendan Kennelly, which gives some illuminating background and entertaining anecdotal commentary about the man. A Time for Voices is his most recent selected works and covers the period 1960-1990. There are still some single volume editions in print: Moloney Up and At It (Mercier Press, 1984); The Boats Are Home (Gallery Press, 1980); Cromwell: a poem (Beaver Row, 1983; Bloodaxe Books, 1987); The Book of Judas (Bloodaxe Books, 1991) and Poetry my Arse (Bloodaxe Books, 1995).
He has recently published two slim volumes, The Singing Tree (The Abbey Press, 1998) and Begin (The Abbey Press, 1999).

The following article arises from an interview conducted with Brendan Kennelly on Friday, 17th September, 1999 in Bewley’s Café, Westmoreland Street, Dublin.

Having originally been set the task of reviewing The Singing Tree, for Fortnight magazine, I sat down to the task of getting to know Kennelly’s work. I like to get to know a book before I start to write anything down and I will take it with me on buses, planes or trains and leave it lying around so I can pick it up at when the feeling takes me. I always hope that I am going to like a book, so I give it time in order that I may find something positive to say.
     Reading Kennelly as my bus made its way up towards Belfast’s Cave Hill, overlooking the city and Belfast Lough, I didn’t have to wait long to be stirred by these poems. This was quality poetry but accessible, rhythmic but not constrained, meaty and vulgar, when necessary, poignant and profound. It was alive with a distinctive Kerry voice and idiom and the appropriation of the discourses of history, myth, folklore and something of the popular culture of thrillers, lyrics and film. At his best, he expresses the importance of getting up and getting out of one’s self, one’s old tired skin and colliding with experience. It’s as though he’s been dropped in a foreign city with all the fear and excitement and trepidation of everything being new and discoverable.
     When I sat down to interview Brendan Kennelly, with my list of questions and my nerves, hoping that he wouldn’t mind wasting his time with another journalist, I didn’t yet feel quite like this. I liked the poems and I went back and read through Cromwell and the earlier work, finding the same spirit at work. However, it was not until I met the man and talked with him and listened to him that I began to imbue the texts with a sense of the person who wrote them. This element of reading with the authentic voice is very important to him. As he said to me, whenever he is able, he gets out and reads his work because he feels it is necessary, as otherwise it can quickly become "stale bread."
     I begin by asking him, to say a little about Cromwell, perhaps his most famous book and he unfolds an account of the formative processes behind that long poem. County Kerry, where he was brought up speaking Irish and English, suffered terribly at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. Villages were burnt, massacres committed and the name of Cromwell has become, almost without question, a byword for evil and infamy. This is what he and his generation was told as children. He recalls a great school-teacher there who, "taught us history in terms of stories" but adds, significantly, "as I grew older I began to read history."
     It emerges that a happening upon the letters of Cromwell and a subsequent reading of them led Kennnelly to reassess the given image of Cromwell, which he possessed. This getting beneath the skin of a subject, a feeling or an image is a powerful impulse behind his work. He recognizes the importance of history to literary expression and the inconsistencies and paradoxes contained in histories, especially in terms of narrative. It is, he tells me, from this uncertainty that his poems tend to grow.
     In his own Parish, for example, in more recent times, a Protestant man was beaten by the Black and Tans (British army auxiliaries at the time of the Irish War of Independence). The man became a recluse and never left the house in which he lived. It was he who formed the basis for the hero of an early novel, which Kennelly wrote, centred on a water shortage "of all things" and the well owned by the recluse. It was, perhaps, an encounter, when Kennelly was a bus conductor, in 1950s London, that made an even more concrete contribution to his ideas concerning ‘man’ and ‘myth’. The driver of his bus had actually been a Black and Tan yet, in Kennelly’s own words, "we got on great". This, albeit after a few weeks of what he terms "crusty acquaintance" before he revealed the nature of his former profession. "I think," he says, "all that sank into me," as well, of course, as finding the letters of Cromwell.
Kennelly wrote a poem prior to the writing of Cromwell, ‘The House that Jack Didn’t Build’ (ATFV 150), a form of allegory on the colonisation of Ireland and a suggestion of the larger poem which would emerge.

There was this little house
Nicely situated on the side of a hill
Within walking distance of the sea.
The moment I saw it I said to myself,
That’s mine. That house was built for me.
So I walked in.

In this poem are contained the seeds of Cromwell, especially the theme but also the slightly deadpan, ironic, prose quality of it. He tells me how the ideas coalesced along with sad developments in his own life - the death of his parents, the breakdown of his marriage. However, he adds that he, "didn’t let Cromwell into the poem for about a year–I wrote about nightmares instead."
     So, his ideas for a poem grew out of more than just a particular historico-political agenda. Stephen Dedalus’s "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" seems to merge with the belief that ‘history is our own lives’. In this sense, Kennelly’s work answers more populist needs than those of the academy.
     In the library of Trinity College, he discovered letters from Protestant farmers written around 1641, detailing their own persecution at the hands of Catholics and "turned these into verse." From his own Parish, he then set about gathering the various legends and stories concerning Cromwell and found that, "The two began to coalesce; the private, personal nightmares and the nightmare of history…"
     As we speak about the narrator of that poem, Buffún, who is the epitome of the "cute Kerry hoor", we get on to the subject of dialogue, which is crucial in Cromwell. He imagines possible conversations, between unlikely parties, in unlikely situations and considers this to be a universally useful principle, not least in the current context of Northern Ireland. He says,"…the old principle’s a good one: ‘Make the room in your heart for the unthinkable’--and I tried to do it with Buffún and Cromwell."
     He begins to draw this particular narrative together, telling me about the coincidence of this poem originally being put on as a play, which premiered at the Bush Theatre, Dublin while his old London trolley-bus used to begin its journey at London’s Shepherd’s Bush. At which point he breaks into a highly amusing burlesque of Will Flint, the Black and Tan bus-driver. Voices are so important to his work. When he is writing he has to be alone, he says, as he has to roar the lines of his characters out loud in order to get them to sound right. He is a funny and able mimic.
     As humour and a free play of voices are important in his work so too is the technical construction of his poems. Despite having acquired a reputation for being able to produce poems very freely, at a comparatively fast rate, Kennelly does make deliberate use of the sonnet form, which he considers, "the great colonising form." It is also in the beauty and great difficulty of that form that he sees its attraction although he deliberately disrupts the form, "in order to let people talk to each other." He makes an effort to admit voices, which might not otherwise have been included in the catalogue of history.
     In the course of our conversation, his interest in the importance of alternative realities and the unlikely provenance of certain experiences begins to materialise as something distinctive in his work. What he has referred to as,"…the byways, laneways, backyards, nooks and crannies of self…(Preface to ATFV 11-13)"
     If Blake saw visions then Brendan Kennelly can have visions too. If ‘authority’ would seek to classify such people as mad, so be it. Speaking with the man here there is a sense that he is someone who has access to an extra frequency, in terms of perception or the way in which perception is processed, if you like. His work and his personality seem to acknowledge the very real presence of mystery, unknowing and barely apprehended impressions of meaning in experience. He has faith. He acknowledges that he has a fairly conventional religious faith. That belief that there is something else, despite the frequently observed desperate difficulties of existence, seems to sustain him. Precision, in the image, perhaps, is there in his work and there is something of the religious in that. However, there is also an imprecise, loose quality about his narrative, which denies the rigid detailing of experiences. "I See You Dancing Father" is a frayed but fond memory of his own father:

No sooner downstairs after the night’s rest
And in the door
Than you started to dance a step
In the middle of the kitchen floor.
And as you danced
You whistled.
You made your own music
Always in tune with yourself.
Well, nearly always, anyway.
You’re buried now
In Lislaughtin Abbey
And whenever I think of you
I go back beyond the old man
Mind and body broken
To find the unbroken man.
It is the moment before the dance begins,
Your lips are enjoying themselves
Whistling an air.
Whatever happens or cannot happen
In the time I have to spare
I see you dancing, father.

In The Man Made of Rain, he recounts having a vision of a figure, who appears to be entirely made of rain. This occurred after having been admitted to hospital for serious surgery where the vision began. The figure pursued him after leaving hospital, along Dublin streets speaking to him while he himself would answer back in turn. This Christ-like figure took him on fantastic journeys of the imagination through "my father’s bones", to "the land of scars, where scars are roads" and to "the land where there is no language." Whether one believes that visions are ‘for real’ or not, there is a fantastic imagination at work here, innovative yet with a childlike simplicity about it which is refreshing.
     Could it be that the dream-world can overlap into one’s everyday life? We ponder this and I am aware that this is not scripted, that we are, as we had agreed on the phone, just having a chat. He cites Kavanagh, who said that, "Poetry is honesty", by which I’m sure he doesn’t mean truth. What Kennelly is saying is that poetry, reading it or making it, involves addressing your best-perceived actuality, at any given time or in any given situation. For a poet, "…the moment you can reconcile style with honesty, you’re on the threshold of writing a poem," adding that, "…a good style is close to Judas, it’s close to the sexual, it’s close to treachery."
     He still takes a delight in the poetic craft and tells me how there is nothing quite like getting out of bed at three in the morning and writing "an oul’ poem." Yet, he stresses that it is important for poetry to be light; not insubstantial but free of moralising heaviness, playful and ludic, "like the swallow’s flight." At the same time he emphasises, as his work does, the place of poetry in society and its ability to effect social change. This may not be on a grand scale but it is within the poet’s range to at least communicate. He also likes to turn things around and one of his favourite ideas is that the poem reads the reader, "defining your limits, your power to pay attention…to be changed…to smile at your own sad inabilities in the face of certain emotional problems."
     It confirms things, doesn’t flatter and is educational. The need for honesty is a reciprocal need between poet and reader. With this in mind, I ask him about the effects of globalisation in our culture and its impact upon writers specifically in terms of living and living through language. Is it easier now for poetry to be heard and if so, what is its function? He thinks for a moment, before saying, "Yeah, that’s a great question." On the one hand, he says, the poet is, "…an intelligent freak, laughed at by the money men and the kids but also one of the necessary bright freaks, at the edge of society, who can say outrageous things at parties and get away with it."
     While laughing at this and probably recalling one of his own legendary performances, he points out a sad side to this, which he identifies in, "… the new dynamic literalism of thinking, from the young particularly [that] does not like to entertain the complexities, the ambiguities, the ironies, the challenge of a poem, because a poem, like I said, it reads you … a poem is having fun with you."
     I am reminded of the words of another Dublin academic, Professor Declan Kiberd, of UCD, whom I interviewed in 1998, shortly after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. We were discussing Ireland and post-colonialism and he referred to that document’s absence of substantial provision for culture and the arts as something which would "come back to haunt us." Both these men, I think, are saying the same thing: society could probably do worse than listen to its poets.
     That very word and cliché, "poet", lies at the root of the problem of "dynamic literalism". What Kennelly identifies is the way in which those who are made, perhaps, to feel uncomfortable by poetry might seek to portray a poet as something of an irrelevance, a dusty relic, a sentimentalist. In Åke Persson’s, That Fellow with the Fabulous Smile: A Tribute to Brendan Kennelly, Bono, of U2, says "why can’t a poet advertise Peugeot cars…?" The point being, presumably, that a poet deserves a living and is part of the real world.
     It is clear to me that Kennelly is every inch a poet; someone who listens, sees, watches, feels and expresses. The true poet engages with the environment and engages the reader by what they say. Of course, this is never going to be perfect; one must remember they are neither saints nor gods.
     Kennelly is not your overtly academic, introverted, self-obsessed writer--he is certainly deep and profound in his efforts to mine for truth or a more honest form of what might constitute truth but he is garrulous and open, generous and fun. "Everything should be for the first time," he says but this is not always possible. Actions become habitual, clichés but he, at least, strives to be, "…always in search of the energy that goes with the young blood of wonder which springs from seeing the face of a word for the first time."
     He applies this to life also, saying that in relationships people should make love "as if it were for the first time." One should always try to keep things fresh. It is clear that he is enjoying himself when he tells me that the poet’s duty also is to "shake hands" with words "as if we were meeting them for the first time…and say ‘would you like a pint?’" Again, we both erupt in laughter.
     I eventually wound up the interview after we had talked a little more about his influences. He could identify with Yeats’s struggles with "the sedentary trade", admired MacNeice as a great love poet and got on well with the Northern Poets, some of whom he had met as a student and with whom he is still friends.
     I went away from Bewley’s that day feeling slightly changed and inspired but also had the feeling that I might have made a small change in the life of Brendan Kennelly. Therein lies part of what must be his great ability--a willingness to listen and be moved by other people and by experience and a great honesty to answer what is there in terms of feeling and to interrogate what we may all too easily gloss over as incontrovertible fact.

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