Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Remembering Brendan Kennelly by Ann Davis

while at Trinity College Dublin, Dublin and Ireland

I spent the 1966-1967 academic year at historic Trinity College Dublin.  It was a glorious, stimulating learning experience, filled with exploration and adventure in this renowned university and rich cultural country. I did everything I could to lap it up, to drink enthusiastically of all that was new and Irish.

Trinity College Dublin is a majestic and wonderful place.  Located in the centre of the city, the big stone gates are flanked by statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. Founded in 1592,  you enter the college through a passage guarded by a liveried porter, into a generous cobble stoned yard edged by manicured green lawns. Part way along is the imposing library, built between 1712 and 1732, as a legal deposit library housing all published books in Ireland and Great Britain as well as various archival treasures, such as the Book of Kells.

I was registered in three courses, a full load. One was a European history course, covering, I believe, Napoleon to World War I. For the first time this focussed course gave me an understanding of the sweep of history, of how various events interrelated and affected other parts of the world. Another course was the first art history course I ever took, a survey, taught by a woman who took the train from Belfast every week to meet her class. Using the ubiquitous slides, and covering way, way too much, I loved it.  The professor suggested I come back for a Masters degree, working on Irish high crosses.  Regretfully I could not see many employment opportunities for someone who knew something about Irish high crosses and I did not take up her kind offer. Yet her course clearly resonated in many ways, for I eventually became an art historian. Of my third course I remember nothing.

I heard tell of a course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, taught by Brendan Kennelly, who seemed agreeable to auditors.  I still have my copy of Ulysses, inscribed “Dublin 1967” and clearly treasured for, when in Florence later that summer, I put it in a tooled leather cover. There is a photograph of Kennelly in V.S. Pritchett' s 1967 Dublin a Portrait, which must have been taken just about when I knew him. He was photographed sitting adjacent to a deep window well, in a room which looks empty.  Perhaps it was in college.  Wearing a thick duffel coat, fully buttoned up, over a jacket and tie, the professor is pensive, eyes almost closed, with the light illuminating only one side of his face. In a big lecture hall - his reputation was already considerable and he always attracted a large class - we sat on hard, narrow wooden benches with equally hard straight wooden backs, which must have been there for decades, if not centuries. Kennelly would have needed his duffle coat in winter. There was little or no heat in the university buildings, such that I certainly never took off my coat, although, by the second term I felt acclimatized enough to remove the glove from my writing hand.

Kennelly’s literature class was unlike any I had taken. Rather than analyze form and content, rather than discuss theories of literature and Joyce’s innovations, Kennelly would spend a little time explaining where the action took place and any terms with with we might be unfamiliar, but for most of the class he simply read to us. His voice, fluid and gently accented with the lovely Dublin lilt, revealed the considerably humour in the book. What I remember most about this fantastic experience was prolonged laughter. We could not wait to return each week. I had taken a number of literature courses at Bishop’s University, where I was doing my undergraduate degree, but, at the end of second year, I decided not to pursue literature, although my marks in those courses were good.  In fact when a literature professor asked me if I was going to take more of his courses, I replied that I found that perpetual intellectual dissection  took away much of my enjoyment of the material.  The professor was big enough to acknowledge my point of view.

Kennelly’s approach suggested new possibilities. In avoiding literary posturing, he implied that there were other valid approaches to the consideration of important books. Mind you this suited Joyce, for all of Joyce’s wirings are down to earth, about the mean, dirty and boozy lower-middle-class. In so doing Joyce created a myth. Joyce, and Kennelly after him, delighted in the “talking mind”, the stream of consciousness, the naturally dramatic Dublin. With spirit, wit, delight and loads of Irish charm, Kennelly gave us a sense of the place of Dublin, a private look into the very soul of the capital. Methodologically he gave us permission not to be intellectual, or purelyrational, bur rather to welcome the emotional and spiritual. This was liberating for me and effected the rest of my intellectual life.

Ulysses parallels in characters and main events The Odyssey. Adam Nicholson, in his wonderful new book about Homer, The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters, (2014) contends that what is valuable and essential in Homer’s poems is his “ability to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an enclosed eye.” (P. 249) The same could be said of Joyce’s writings. Joyce gave his stories a heightened sense of realism by incorporating real people and places into them. At the same time that Ulysses presents itself as a realistic novel, it also works on a mythic level, by way of a series of parallels with Homer’s Odyssey. In Ulysses Stephen, Bloom, and Molly correspond respectively to Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope, and each of the eighteen episodes of the novel corresponds to an adventure from The Odyssey. The episodes catalogue contingency, the absence of any overriding permanence. They engender what Milan Kundera calls the central importance of the novel form “where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood.” (Philosophy and Social Hope, 1999) The relative value of truth is pertinent.  With Joyce, and Homer before him, it is not so much a matter of truth per se, but more a matter of a deepening sense of reality, a widening of the imagination, as Susan Sontag explains. (The Mighty Dead, p. 250) Both Homer and Joyce situate their action in the radiant present, while to some extent enshrining the dynamic past. This sense of being vividly there, the sense of place is reinforced with Joyce’s stream of consciousness speech, although some readers, used to more formal, punctuated style of writing find it difficult. June 16, 1904, the day that Leopold Bloom roamed Dublin, exposing Celtic lyricism and splendid vulgarity, stands for life, in Edmund Wilson’s words “what our participation in life is like.”

The very messiness of life, the reality that not all of it fits conveniently into a heavy professorial emphasis on the rational, Kennelly’s delighted reading of Ulysses, allowed us access to the emotional and intuitive sides of our selves. This was a new look, a freeing, a liberation that I had not experienced before. Beyond Kennelly and TCD, the Irish fostered such an intuitive, often mystical approach. The Celtic revival, the romantic determination to reintroduce the almost-dead Irish language, as well as the myriad myths and traditions, all reinforced the validity of the emotional approach. 

Certainly the emotional and spiritual were major characteristics of Irish culture. As Joyce was leaving Dublin for Paris, the Gaelic League and the Irish revival were in full swing, with AE, Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge trumpeting myth and mysticism, promoting a new appreciation of historic Irish literature and poetry. I, in turn, sampled freely, often unaware of what I was really witnessing. At the Abbey Theatre, founded by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, I saw J.M. Synge Playboy of the Western World and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Along with some of my ex-patriot friends, I enjoyed ogling any new chapter heading in the Book of Kells, especially meeting the strange, invented animals that populate this extraordinary volume. I delighted in Glandalough, that erie, powerful Early Medieval monastic site, that seemed to demand a different kind of apprehension. Here the very landscape, a glacial valley in County Wicklow, as well as the ancient ruins on it, appear to frustrate any rational understanding, preferring the world of spirits and visions, imagination let loose. I loved it all, feeling a new expansion, a new connection.

I did not know Brendan Kennelly as a poet.  I only knew him as an incredibly charismatic Irish professor who wholeheartedly embraced his city and culture and who delighted in sharing his feelings with us. Everyone hopes to get a few good teachers in their lives.  I was luck enough to have that benefit.  Interestingly, or perhaps serendipitously, another in my panoply of excellent teachers was Dr. Tony Preston, who taught Greek Culture at Bishop’s University. Preston, of course, emphasized The Iliad and The Odyssey. From Brendan Kennelly I learnt the great value of his breadth of approach, his willingness to embrace the emotional and intuitive, not just the rational and the real. While lauding the actual, whatever that might be, I relaxed into a new appreciation of the metaphysical and the mystical, such that much of my subsequent professional career involved examinations of creativity that could only be deemed to be in some aspects transcendental, abstract, beyond reason. Added to this, I gained an understanding of place, of the importance of physical location and presence. At the time I did not realize how important Kennelly, TCD and Ireland would be for me, but that wonderful year changed my life.


Ann Davis

March 2015


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