A Divided Collection



Prose Occasions, Thomas Kinsella, Ed. Andrew Fitzsimons 

(227pp, £18.95 Carcanet)



This is an interesting summary of Kinsella's critical writing hobbled by peculiar editorial decisions and structuring. Fifty years of critical work has been edited and selected from, yet the decision has been made to relegate 13 years' worth of early book reviews, often very brief and ephemeral, to the last 100 pages of the book ('Early Reviews'), then begin with longer prose works from 1958 and proceed chronologically. There is, therefore, an overlapping period, accounted for by Kinsella's 'divided career', as he puts it in his editorial note, and his early years working as a public official.


This would not be a major problem, except that there are also overlapping subjects and themes: early comments on Austin Clarke, for example, dating from 1956 and 1964 are relegated to the back of the book, yet Clarke is then treated at greater length in the first section of the book in pieces from 1973 and 1974, often very helpful and contemporary accounts of the impact of his work as it eventually appeared. Kinsella seems fairly diffident about some of these early book reviews and it is questionable whether they all merit being collected and reprinted. There are hidden in them, however, often surprising judgements: writing on Auden in 1956 he says 'The Shield of Achilles may not add anything to Mr Auden's stature' (when most critics agree that the title poem may be Auden's greatest single later poem) and finds MacNeice's 'Autumn Sequel' to be 'a considerable poem' in 1954 - both highly arguable evaluations. On the other hand, his comments on Donald Davie's poetry are fair and helpful,  he precisely describes Elizabeth Jennings as 'a good minor poet...an honourable vocation', praises the 'fiercely modern eye' of R.S.Thomas and spots the talent of Eavan Boland early, in 1963.  Perhaps tighter editing of this section would have left a smaller, more lasting selection of Kinsella's early journeyman reviewing?


The more substantial, longer prose pieces are more consistent and stand on safer ground. Yet, even so, some rather ephemeral notes written for the Poetry Book Society in response to being selected don't really earn their keep and it is the more considered pieces on Yeats, Pound and Gaelic poetry which really repay close reading. I was delighted, also, to read the 'Notes. 1963. Encounters with Jazz', if only for the description of Thelonious Monk playing at the Five Spot Cafˇ in New York: 'Plump and elegant, with a rough tweed jacket, and a high tweed hat - almost rimless - jammed on his head. Urgent and fast-moving; a cocky, uncaring performance.'


       © M.C. Caseley 2009