Brendan Kennelly: Poetry My Arse
Behind the image of the naughty cherub from Kerry talking about poetry, sex and religion was a darker side to Brendan Kennelly
Charming and provocative, spiritually uplifting and downright bawdy, and ever on the point of throwing his head back to laugh uproariously at himself, at the height of his popularity Brendan Kennelly was television gold.
Unlike any Irish poet before him, Kennelly's name was made by his television appearances, most notably and memorably on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show, appearances that bewitched and beguiled a nation, and saw him feted by politicians, the religious and the general public alike.
Like the entire cast of The Canterbury Tales rolled into one, Kennelly managed to be both the thoughtful and erudite professor of modern literature at Trinity College at the same time as he was the untamable, almost feral, voice of passion, inspiration and the flesh, a liberation theologist whose weapons were the word, laughter and prodigious feats of memory.
Kennelly went beyond being a poet; such was his life force and communicative power, to many he was poetry itself.
This new biography of the poet questions these contradictory aspects of his nature but fails to see that, rather than alienating him from his audience, it was these same qualities that, in fact, endeared him to it.
Much of Kennelly's power as a poet derives from his ability to explore the troubled psyche of a cast of characters (Cromwell and Judas are the best known of them, but there is also his poetic alter-ego from his third 'epic' work, Poetry My Arse). Kennelly's method, as with many other literary ventriloquists, has been to find in himself some flaw or doubt or darkness, and to amplify it until it seems to grant him access to his subject.
Such poetic ventriloquism is not new. Sandrine Brisset, the Dublin-based French author of this often fascinating, frequently reductionist study, herself reminds us that bardic and medieval poets, for instance, often wrote in the voices of objects or animals, as if to better appreciate their true natures.
These were well known to Kennelly. And from early on, his work had this same voice-throwing, shape-shifting quality.
But there is a considerable difference between the poet's own assertion that 'objects spoke to him', however strange that might sound to a general reader, and Brisset's conclusion that schizophrenia ('not widely discussed at that time') may be at the heart of the work. It is as if the biographer were seeking a single, medical explanation for the poems, as if art were merely the result of a range of symptoms.
Whatever initially prompted those works – the violence of Cromwell, and the betrayal and guilt of The Book of Judas – are, more than anything else, responses to major foundation myths of contemporary Ireland. Their subjects are, one might say, among our inherited archetypes.
At the time of that book's original publication in 1983, the legacy of Cromwell was undeniable in the violence of the North. And, when it comes to Judas, there can be few subjects to rival betrayal and guilt for a central place in the national debate.
Brisset is more sure-footed where she remarks that, on all of those television, and dozens of radio, appearances, Kennelly left the darker work outside the studio, instead determined to charm his viewers and listeners even as his bestselling books read like a vicious pub brawl after closing time.
Was the poet trapped by his success, by the expectations of a devoted audience, by production values of the day? After nights spent in what Yeats called 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart', was Kennelly looking for refuge, and maybe even love, in his public appearances?
Brisset questions, too, Kennelly's cosy relationship with politicians like Charles J Haughey. But strangely she seems to miss the thinly veiled attack on Haughey's major contribution to the arts in Ireland, personified in Poetry My Arse, the querulous anti-hero central character Ace de Horner (get it, Aosdána?)
Whatever inference we may draw for the repeated references to 'masks', and to smiling as a kind of mask that make parts of this book read like amateur psychology, we should remember that the poetry of voices in which Kennelly engaged is only made possible by a kind of method acting. And we might do well to distinguish between actor and role.
Brendan Kennelly was a notoriously heavy drinker for decades. We are told, for instance, that he once put away three bottles of whiskey in a day (though a later chapter expands this to a 'daily' occurrence). Kennelly has talked publicly of his guilt in this respect, in particular with reference to his neglect as a father. (Indeed, we are told to expect further grim revelations of family life from his daughter Doodle in the near future.)
Following heart problems and surgery in 1996, the now sober poet wrote some of his finest work, including the post-operative, visionary poem The Man Made of Rain. Kennelly remains a part of Dublin street life, still resident in Trinity and occasionally visible sitting outside cafes in the vicinity; he remains open to the wonder of his adopted city in which he is yet local and determined outsider.
But at 77 he is now in retirement and has largely withdrawn from public life; he is no longer on our television screens as the ever-engaging, verbally dexterous, popular face of Irish poetry, smiling or not, and we are all the poorer for that.
Pat Boran is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and presents The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1.