Thursday 21 November 2019

Review: The Essential Brendan Kennelly Ed by Terence Brown and Michael Longley (With CD of poems read by author)

Bloodaxe Books, €14.99, Paperback

Rhyme and reason: Brendan
Kennelly has enthralled
poetry lovers over many
decades of writing
Rhyme and reason: Brendan Kennelly has enthralled poetry lovers over many decades of writing

My dictionary defines "flaneur" as deriving from the French "flaner", which means "to saunter."

The flaneur himself (always a man, it seems) is thus a saunterer or stroller and his terrain is invariably urban -- indeed, 150 years ago Charles Baudelaire summed it up by declaring a flaneur to be both "a gentleman stroller of city streets" and "a person who walks the city in order to experience it".

In other words, you won't encounter too many flaneurs on the Wicklow Way or the Ring of Kerry, though it's from the latter that the most familiar flaneur in our capital city comes. However, just as it's doubtful that the term had much currency in the Ballylongford of Brendan Kennelly's birth and upbringing, it's also unlikely that the poet himself has ever regarded himself in such preciously French terms.

Yet a flaneur he has always been, this honorary Dubliner, even though in the days when alcohol was an untrustworthy companion, as he departed from O'Neill's of Suffolk Street or other adjacent hostelries, he was as apt to totter as amble back to his rooms in Trinity College.

He could be a formidable, indeed volatile, figure in those years and those venues, but he gave up drinking before it got the better of him, and the Brendan Kennelly regarded with great fondness over the last few decades by so many people -- most of them with no pretensions to literary appreciation -- has been an entirely benign version of his former irascible self, still informed by the same passion for life, art and conversation but without any dark undertow.

That, though, doesn't altogether explain why he has occupied such a central place in our capital and in the hearts of so many of its citizens. Nor does length of tenure quite account for it -- Seamus Heaney has lived in Dublin for almost as long, yet for all the Nobel laureate's openness to well-wishers he doesn't invite the kind of familiarity that inspires deep affection from jackeens. He may be a national monument but he's not a local treasure.

Visibility has much to do with it. Unlike Heaney or other notable Irish writers, whom you'll come across occasionally in cafes and bookshops, Kennelly has constantly been out and about on the actual streets of the city. And along with that visibility comes the accessibility of a man who has always welcomed chance encounters.

And people approach him because they have the illusion of knowing him, even if that illusory knowledge has been largely based on his many Late Late Show appearances down through the years, where he came across as a cuddly Celtic sage, and on the endearingly daft television ads he did for Toyota -- daft because he didn't drive and endearing because . . . well, because he was Brendan.

Yet he's never been one of the lads, not even in his wild years. For all the unfeigned friendliness, there's a slight sense of distancing there when you come across him on Nassau Street or in Hodges Figgis or in the main quadrangle of the college, where for decades his passionately engaged lectures enthralled generations of students.

He's never less than warmly courteous and generous during these meetings and he always seems delighted by the casual happenstance of it all, but there's a hint of coolness behind the smile as he thinks his own thoughts and makes judgments that he'd never utter -- and a feeling, too, that he's both engaged in the conversation and not quite there.

That's the poet in him, and he must sometimes lament the fact that when his name is mentioned many people instantly think of him as a cherishable "personality" rather than a poet, whereas in reality that is what he has always been, with more than 20 collections to his name since the publication of My Dark Fathers in 1964.

Nor has his verse received the critical seal of approval that's routinely granted to Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and some others -- a state of affairs acknowledged by Longley and Terence Brown in their introduction to The Essential Brendan Kennelly (published this week by Bloodaxe to honour the poet's 75th birthday tomorrow) when they concede that "amplitude sometimes seems like unwieldy bulk".

Or to put it more plainly, Kennelly has always written too much. He can do nothing about that, of course -- clearly the writing of poetry is almost as crucial to him as breathing -- but the reader may wish it otherwise. Certainly, as you read through the various volumes, there are far too many poems that seem either uninspired or undeveloped -- too casual in their execution, their passion undone by a lack of precision. Indeed, you get the feeling that there's so much teeming around in the poet's head and demanding utterance that his impatience to get it all down on paper takes precedence over any other consideration.

But in the best of the poems the passion and the precision are marvellously merged and there are many of these in this new selection, which also offers a CD of the poet, recorded at various times and in various locations, reading 36 poems in his inimitable, indeed enchanting, way -- he's one of the few poets who know how to read their own work.

Indeed, the selection -- although let down by a turgidly academic foreword -- offers a good introduction to the poet's achievement. Kennelly himself has edited previous selections but those were thematically arranged, whereas here the poems are presented chronologically, which seems more sensible and more useful to those wishing to see how the poet has developed over the years.

However, some constants remain throughout -- notably a rage against injustice and brutality, a tender concern for those made to suffer, a wry acknowledgment of human failings and foibles and an often bawdy celebration of lives exuberantly lived.

The poet's own life and work merit celebration, too, on this eve of his birthday.

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