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"Cries of Anguish, Cries of Joy: the Poetry of Brendan Kennelly" by Hatto Fischer

A poet can best be judged by the measures he intends to live by. For James Joyce, it was according to Brendan Kennelly as stated in his excellent essay „James Joyce's Humanism“ (Journey into Joy, ed. Ake Persson, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1994, p. 217 – 230) „distance by necessity“. That bespeaks itself of an attitude of candour towards everything, and allowed James Joyce to make close-up observations of the meat which got stuck in between the teeth while at the same time sitting, so it seemed, in a cloud above Dublin when describing his fellow men.

As for Brendan Kennelly himself, the measure he lives by are the „voices to be heard in the streets of a city made up of exiles.“ This includes fore mostly all those children who are forced to live outside, in the streets, in make shift card board boxes, and who come alive when they can tell him, the professor of Literature at the University of Trinity, a story or two, after which, for sure, they stretch out their hands to receive a payment. That is important to Brendan Kennelly, since those children love to spin lies, when creating stories, but they do it in their own innocent way so that he has to love. Still, in terms of basic judgement, it is important to tell the difference when someone tells a lie and not the truth.

Moreover for Brendan Kennelly a poet cannot be heard, that is his voice does not become audible, if he lives only in a half made up world, and therefore humanity cannot be heard in his poems.

With the power of the imagination he reaches out, so that the children of the street are not left just standing there. At the very least, one can listen to the story they have to tell.

Of interest is, therefore, that in the second poem of the second chapter in his Epic poem 'Judas', he indicates that he went through a transition, for his soul turned into an 'old crow'. If this is not a beautiful materialisation of an authentic, equally self critical connection of the poet to social life, what else could that be? His transition takes place after showing himself to be caught in the middle of the usual social dilemma when confronting daily reality in Dublin. For instance, he sees not only that there is this woman, but realises by 'images' projected by society upon her that someone like her is excluded. This not belonging to social reality in a double sense is crucial for any reading of Kennelly's poems.

There is a historical truth behind whatever he writes. Like Veronese being attacked in his times by the Catholic Church since the painter includes whores, beggars and blind people in scenes depicting the Last Supper with Jesus Christ, likewise the contemporary poet is pressurized by society into excluding the reality of humanity. This negation results out of society's wish for the 'pure' and therefore demands to be shown only beautiful and happy images.

To live by the measure of human truth and to write accordingly despite the pressures of society, it requires of the poet to have more than mere stamina. For he must face not only the critics, but also go through the backlash when he breaks that rule and writes accordingly about what lives in the very same society, but which is not recognized as such by the latter. They may be called 'abandoned truth' which the poet has to fetch and bring back into society.


She's there


My soul is her lower lip but only for

A moment, then it's the story she becomes

Before my eyes in the coughing street where

I am trying to remember her name.


“Ginnie, Giennie Greene, sir. I takes this blanket, yes,

An' I makes through the streets, I'm a beggar,

I looks right into the tourists' eyes

An' takes what I can for e sisters an' brothers.


An' why am tellin' you this? Once, a bad day

You gave me bread, gave me white bread.

That's why I'm talkin' like this.'


My soul is an old crow perched in a tree.

Ginnie, Ginnie Green, what do you mean to me?

White bread for living you begged, white bread I gave.

Who'll give the bread you'll beg for the grave?

           In: Brendan Kennelly, Judas, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1992, p. 30

There she is: Ginnie. Brendan Kennelly walks up to her like he does to all the other children who know him by now: the Professor of Literature at Trinity College, and who can easily be fobbed! Kennelly laughs when he tells this part of the story to indicate how the children view him. They love to tell him stories since he always falls into the same trap: “how much does the story cost me this time?”, he asks. He walks only then away after having given not just white bread, but also some money.

The matter of giving money needs to be stressed. Despite of his deep humanitarian streak, Brendan Kennelly has a very definite viewpoint as to the role money plays in the lives of people: a force of corruption, and even worse a power in a world built on the belief only money makes people. Hence he sets out to show what is not true about this social image suggesting money makes people. Like Veronese, he includes still other elements of reality, elements which are commonly denied. Consequently he writes his poems in a very realistic, equally completely sober manner, despite of him having taken quite heavily to alcohol till a certain stop was made. He knows that he comes thereby very close to an absolute betrayal of what that society had taught him, primarily hatred. He struggles to unlearn that in order to see again life with full human compassion. And he comes to recognize that the most difficult hatred to unlearn is 'learned hatred!'

The result of that insight is not only this epic poem called “Judas”, which contains 12 chapters and goes over 378 pages, but more crucial as follow-up to James Joyce's “Ulysses”, he does not go into exile or abroad, but decides to stay where he is: in Dublin. Hence he needs other balances and counter balances, in order to be able to relate at one and the same time to those homeless children in the streets of Dublin and what he has confront in the faculty lounge of Trinity College where he meets a staff far removed from the children but which cherishes reading a newspaper and enjoying along with it a cup of coffee in the lounge. Of course intellectual survival is not restricted by this fact alone, for the Irish society is marked by an intense debate. Always there are numerous controversies and lively interactions, but the signals and symbols used to circumscribe the etiquette of behaviour hardly reflect that kind of explosive immediacy by having Trinity in the middle of Dublin. The contrast could not be greater. When looking outside the window of the faculty lounge, it is possible to see the tennis players coming back from their game, while outside the main gate of the university, there are the children who beg to sell bits and pieces of news items they picked up in the streets of Dublin. That is not a general, but a very particular impediment. For while life seems to continue at least on the surface 'just the same', everything else is being held down if not by violence, then by habits. As Brendan Kennelly puts it, the high cost of living is no longer opposed because once people get used to it, they live with these hardships as part of a constraint on their character or more precisely possibilities to unfold their creative selves. Much of that habit tends to obscure rather than to illuminate. The impact is a deprivation of life itself.

'Judas' as an epic poem is a most remarkable piece of art in more than one sense. It is poetry, but it is also a documentary of the violence in society, an aspect that Kennelly discusses elsewhere, namely when mentioning, for instance, a major poet like Yeats tried to avoid it. However, Kennelly does not wish to remain within the certainty of some definition. That too would violate his principles which guide him to understand life. For instance, he considers it to be a mistake of the education system that they let children grow up in the belief that only a set of definitions fulfils the norm of having gained knowledge. Throughout his poetry, Kennelly cries out that this is not true. The sounds of that cry are smothered by walls capable of silencing any attempt to go on further with the questioning. Here Irish history can again be connected to that of the continent and Europe. It will take, however, ages to bridge the differences. The reasons why will be important to find out and to name, since an kind of growing up will depend upon what education the children receive. It will depend upon what attitudes and values are communicated by teachers. Above all it will depend upon whether or not they get a sense of reasonable affinity to common grounds endorsing reason, but also a love for humanity. In that sense Kennelly is exceptional. He writes about social injustices and irrationalities, but does so free from any vindictive spirit. He does not call for vengeance but rather the real task for his 'Judas' is to unlearn the hatred he had been taught. Everything is written in the realization how difficult that is. That task has to be appreciated, in order to understand the situation in Ireland and how poetry can get caught up in this surge of hatred leading on to an explosive violence. Brendan Kennelly wrote 'Judas' over a period of eight years all spend in Dublin.

Brendan Kennelly will really be appreciated by those who realize what efforts are needed to keep up the trust in humanity, and to do so without succumbing in a blind folded manner to the command of social obedience, as is often preached by the church. Unfortunately there are altogether too many who seem to forget out of pragmatic reasons that love of human knowledge entails as well an impartial search for 'truth'. As a highly respected Irish poet put it, even Nationalism and all other kinds of -isms impede that search. This means in the wake of European integration and post Maastricht positioning, there is a substantial need to reflect what is going on in eduction. For the kind of decisions which are made nearly on a daily basis, they are more often of such a punitive character, that they fail to fulfil the promise of the older generations to pass on knowledge to the younger, and which is best done by setting the latter free to validate by themselves as to what is the truth of the matter. Surely the biggest test is here first of all the ability to live in honesty. That contradicts any form of obedience demanded by those who think to have the power to determine future courses of actions and development.

As said Brendan Kennelly emphasizes that life cannot be understood just by a means of set definitions; rather knowledge is itself an ongoing process of questioning and reformulations the very same questions, in order to a more appreciative angle of what they seek to clarify and to perceive. Learning is after all an open-ended life being free from any pre determining power. The latter calls merely for obedience along only certain definitions and nothing more, and demands that the lived through experiences made despite all the hardships are taken to be the only true ones.

For instance, how crucial this is to understand the difference between the Irish and English life, that can be reflected on hand of how Kennelly thinks how poetry needs to get out of the syndrome of violence of the past. At the same time, poetry has for him to be made for a world which only half listens, while surrendering all too easily to ready made images. This is especially the case if these images can easily to be reproduced by transforming culture into ideology, and still be able to use the subversive nature of the arts to undermine the confidence people could have in themselves.

Kennelly asks emphatically in the introduction to his book 'Judas': “I wonder if many people feel as I do – that in the society we have created it is very difficult to give your full, sustained attention to anything or anybody for long, that we are compelled to half-do a lot of things, to half-live our lives, half-ream our dreams, half-love our loves? We have made ourselves into half-people. Half-heartedness is a slow, banal killer. It is also, paradoxically, a creepy pathway towards 'success', especially if the half-heartedness is of the polished variety. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said that the real tragedy of modern man is the loss of heart. I don't think so. I believe our tragedy is the viability of our half-heartedness, our insured, mortgaged, welfare voyage of non-discovery, the committed, corrosive involvement with forces, created by ourselves, that ensure our lives will be half-lived. There's a sad refusal here. A rejection of the unique, fragile gift.” (Brendan Kennelly, Judas, p. 11)

For sure, this question needs to be answered since Kennelly connects this refusal to a kind of betrayal which underlines in a subtle manner the Judas theme in our lives.

Before exploring the subject of betrayal by refusing to live fully, and not just with a half-heartedness, the other point of Kennelly's position ought to be made explicit. This position speaks directly of the kind of pain he as a poet living and writing in Ireland suffers under:

“There is something in Irish life which demands that you over-simplify practically everything. This is another way of saying that everything. This is another way of saying that everybody must be labelled, made readily accessible, explainable. Protestant, Catholic, Dub, Northerner, Culchie etc., are such labels. Stick any of these labels on a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, and you needn't bother yourself with further inquiry into their characters or minds. The problems of complex personality are easily solved. The label tells you all you need to know. Kerryman, Jewboy, Proddie Dog, Southsider, Northersider. 'Ah, sure, the bowsie never read a book in his life.' L – a – b – e – l. Judas. Now, we know. We have him in his place. The rest is as clear as daylight. We know him to the core.” (op. cit. Kennelly, Judas, p. 9)

More than pseudo-knowledge, labels tend to stick like old glue. Instead of opening up to a process of formulating and reformulating questions as an ongoing effort to understand the world and its people, it freezes that process by claiming vantage points of the already known. Rather than making possible experiences, labels tend to reproduce an uninteresting, boring world.

Like all great poets and writers, Kennelly finds through his writing a way out of that pain. Through his poems, he gains access to the kind of universality which is always the mark of world literature. By investigating 'uncertainty', he attains with the help of the imagination such human understanding which makes possible a way of coping with 'having no voice', 'no way to write back', or 'unable to go beyond hope.' Hence his epic poem about 'Judas' may be introduced by the sub-title 'shortcomings': the failure to realize what is out there in reality and equally what within us that make us betray the 'gift of life'. Even before having understood fully the role Judas plays in Christian mythology, Kennelly points out already that “Judas has a permanent residence on the human tongue.” (op. cit. 12) This is so because Kennelly sees a possible connection between the kinds of refusals to live, including the refusal of “some love-offering we should have accepted” (op. cit. p.11) but also the impossibility to trust fully our words.

Indeed, “in asking these questions, in following the Judasvoice as it appeared in words before my eyes”, Kennelly tries to deal with “the idea of intention or purpose or ambition, children, a notion of love, history, apostles, you, money, sex, selfhood, some lads, politicians and politics, and the possibility that Judas may be the spirit of language, of poetry.” (op. cit., p. 12) Due to an insistence upon consistency, 'Judas' by Brendan Kennelly becomes a revelation of a sort of shock which can sober up any person. While trying to be in the spirit of describing reality free from any temptations for vengeance or hatred, Kennelly moves more and more towards the centre of things. George Steiner called the cultural paradox, or the so-called 'l'ennui': the bad things. Judas stands symbolically, and not only symbolically for this paradox, for he goes beyond a point of mere praise or disgust. Instead, the epic poem about him deals with the very same subject as did Alexander Pope in 'Paradise Lost', namely how beauty can attained when there there is so much ugliness in the world around us and in ourselves? Taken literally, Kennelly contemplates a social stigma placed upon poets by those who move in and out of the literary world, whether now in London, Dublin, New York or Paris. For they are “hate-riddled to an astonishing degree”: poets to them are nothing but “self-centred, malignant bastards” (op. cit. p. 12), and yet they appear to be capable of producing such “beautiful stuff.” Such a realistic viewpoint has the implication at least for Kennelly, tht after having written Judas, he comes to the conclusion, that it is not so much a matter of 'despite', but rather one of 'because.'

That conclusion is very important. By uplifting the thoughts after the language has dragged down the spirit, the key reference point becomes who are you out there, vis a vis her who dares to look into tourist eyes and thus confronts society with another glance, viewpoint, terms of understanding what life is about. Kennelly wrote not only that poem about her standing there with that kind of self-critical reflection, but also in the acknowledgement of the figure 'Judas', he has found access to voices until now not really heard.

“This scapegoat, critic of self and society, throws chronological time out of the window. Before his ancestors arrive on the scene, he was. After the unborn will cease to exist, he'll be. As others arrive, exist and perish, he tholes. Time is merely a stage where his reticent yet theatrical spirit is repeated and refines as it continues to endure the stones of blame thrown by those who really know the score. By treating time in the ways a blamed person treats it, that is, with the ceaseless nervous agility of the accused-from-all-sides, the poem became open to the stimulating effects of that electricity which saves most thinking people from the pornography of labels. And the man could talk and mutter as he wished, or was compelled to. I have always associated unbridgled, passionate muttering of freedom. There is something more attractively in such mutterings than in most of the bland interchanges that go by the name of 'communication'. Wherever I see men and women furiously muttering to themselves in the streets of Dublin, I am saddened by their loneliness, touched by their sincerity, awed by their freedom.” (op. cit. Kennelly, Judas, p. 12)

In having said that, it makes sense that the opening poem of this epic should be about 'lips': afterall, Judas betrayed according to the old bible story Jesus by kissing and therefore identifying him: “yes, that is him!” The final lines of that first poem are: “They slave for me, ask nothing in return. / The harder they work the more I wonder / If I believe them.”

Voices of the streets are often muttered by broken lips. Poetry is about the search for the human voice, liberated from all sorts of suppressions, fears and violences. Many escape that by devious or even not so obvious forms of betrayals. That makes the own voice broken, and broken down are the images to fit the fake like reality. It is apt that Kennelly relates especially this form of broken voices, for 'muttering' are, as Michel Foucault said in 'L'histoire de la folie', the first real signs that truths are being uttered again. Not the smooth salesman talk or of a talkmaster converting spectators into voters, as did recently the television and media managers of Berlusconis consortium to gain an election victory in Italy is what counts for Kennelly. In having reminded even about this famous phrase of Bush prior to his election as president when asked about possible tax raises, saying 'read my lips', this poet of the streets of Dublin acknowledges that “more than anything else / they (the lips) understand silence.” (op. cit., p. 15) It is about the immediate unknown. What a way to start writing an epic poem which in the half-hearted world has been quickly dubbed as being only about 'blood', in order to understand the silence that follows labels and what labels cannot silence.

Having said all of this, then why the title of this essay about Kennelly's poetry 'cry of anguish, cry of joy'? Cry reminds very much of Munch's painting, has a definite expressionistic connotation, as the German philosopher Ernst Bloch would say: the trust of the fist into the labyrinth of lies in the city. That would be Otto Dix and all the Expressionist painters between the Two World Wars. They believe in the anguish of the man and hear it only as a cry, a cry for truth. Yet this cry is not a desire for truth, but a sort of political gambit.

In saying this, I wish to enter the debate about cultural differences (not diversity) within Europe. The excellent work by Joris Duytschaever brought me first in contact with the works of Kennelly entitled “Poetry and Violence” in a small edition called 'Violence and History in the Anglo-Irish Literature'. That book became a key concept for any comparative attempt of European cultures. In this day and age where consumption seems to dominate everywhere, when shopping malls and beggars between those people busy buying themselves into a make belief world that everything costs something and has a price, cultural differences are either only assumed or they become a burden, that is, a sort of obstacle in the free race towards the market as formed and defined by the media. Naturally many concerns go in that direction, but how to deal with these finer issues? Here Kennelly has found a way. If muttering is a particular aspect of discovering truths again in the streets, then cry is a metaphorical arch linking philosophical and poetic contemplations with the need for human actions. The latter can be already a gesture of reaching out with the hand to the one who stands in the street all alone.

In his introduction to 'Judas', Brendan Kennelly reinforces his position by saying that “the imagination provides the most effective means of confronting and expressing the prejudices and inherited hatreds buried in the self until they exist before our eyes like so many lucid accusations confirming Ibsen's belief that poetry is a court of judgement on the soul.” (Brendan Kennelly, Judas, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1992, p. 9) To work with the 'imagination' is to confront one's own reality, restrictive at that, for what one has been taught, grown up with, may not be the best for mankind. “I tried to open my mind, heart and imagination to the full, fascinating complexity of man I was from childhood taught, quite simply, to hate.” (op. cit. p. 9) Kennelly reflects here upon deeper social and psychological determinations than what Freud could conceive to be possible, given his answer to Einstein who asked him, if he had an answer to human aggression, and to which Freud replied that he had no answer – an indication of his honesty. Kennelly relates to that dilemma. It is not a confession, but a realization that one's upbringing was contrary to the belief in life being anything but a contribution towards making life enjoyable, indeed attainable. Hence it is significant that he states, that “a learned hatred is hard to unlearn.” (op. cit. p. 9)

There are such negative proofs as if they reaffirm the old prejudices of life: you cannot trust other people, and, in the sense of Dostoevsky's insight, hatred rather than love unifies people more effectively. But what is this effectiveness? It becomes more than a theatre in which reality is portrayed as if everything is about the foolishness of man. The question takes on really towards political reality, that is, how decisions are shaped and how they are expressed through the very reactions people assume to be an adequate response to a homeless child or the news that another bomb ha killed innocent people watching a football game during the World Cup series 1994 in the United States., Kennelly states here clearly, “it would be easy enough to go through life hoarding and nourishing such hate, feeding it dutifully with endless 'proofs', thus keeping alive for explosive frenzies that fuel political situations such as that in Northern Ireland.” (op. cit. p. 9) Here is after all the astute observer of a kind who does not shun from realistic assessments. This may be the reason why 'Judas' became a best seller I Ireland because such an approach and questioning of the 'frenzy' which everyone knows to be a victim of, gives rise to a potential emancipation from that. Poetry questioning violence? Kennelly would say, that is only possible, if beforehand that hatred stalking in again is questioned and not thereby not allowed to dominate either the discussion or the subsequent actions.

This effort to unearth what lies beneath the common assumptions, prejudices having turned into convictions, such as these children are lazy and do not want to work, to show this is not true, this ambition underlies his poetry not only about 'Judas' but also his essays about other great poets. It is written in the form of a personal account, and becomes under his influence a warm narrative about human thinking, hence of the reflective kind. That makes him into a great humanitarian, even though that should not be taken in the romantic or illusionary sense. After all, Irish life and the poetic tradition in that country knows other kinds of enlightenments, but which are cut short too often by bloody uprisings and continual repressions, so that a certain kind of frenzy prevails. With it come the many labels.

For lack of another word, humanism in such a context is rather a curse than a declaration of love for people. It is a fist as much as a cry. They go together, but due to being full of compassion for life, equally a cry of joy. The question remains whether the vindictive closeness to death giving usually poets an authoritarian voice is but the kind of immediacy which breathes life into what is being said just now, there in reality the poetry made by man? Anthony Roche in his review of Kennelly's 'Judas' refers to this thesis by Walter Benjamin, namely “that death is the storyteller's authority, the vantage point from which a unique authority is gained.” (Anthony Roche, The Book of JUDAS in 'Dark Fathers into Light', p. 107).


Hatto Fischer

Athens July 1994




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