Brendan Kennelly: The poetry confessor

Brendan Kennelly is not just one of Ireland's most popular poets but a much-loved media figure. He talks to Christina Patterson about ballads and blasphemy
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The Independent Culture

Brendan Kennelly is more famous than Seamus Heaney. That's in Ireland, of course. In England, he can wander the streets without being noticed. In Dublin, he can't walk down a road without being stopped by a stranger. It's not autographs that people want from him, but poems. For Brendan Kennelly - poet, pundit, TV personality and professor - has also taken on the unofficial role of Ireland's poetry confessor.

Perhaps that's why he set off for our interview several hours before we were due to meet. "I was here at 8 o'clock this morning" he tells me cheerfully when I arrive at the scheduled time of 10.30. "I have the sluggard's respect for precision. I have a real terror" he continues "because I'm a slowcoach and I love strolling - and in my mind I'm always late for everything. 'I wandered through each chartered street,'" he quotes, with a dazzling smile. "I was really taken by the beauty of the houses."

Brendan Kennelly is, in fact, like a parody of a poet. He really does "wander through each chartered street", composing poems and reciting other people's and he does observe the world with the wide-eyed wonder that has today turned the houses of Earls Court into English "order and beauty and connection". In the course of our conversation, he mentions at least three random poetic encounters: with a policeman, during a women's marathon in Dublin, who insisted on reciting "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; with an old man lying in a street doorway who told him that he, too, was a poet and that the shadows under his eyes were his "cries for lost loves"; and with a man "on the corner of Dalton Street" who told him he loved John Masefield. Anyone else would resent the intrusion on their time. "The strange thing is," says the famously generous Kennelly, "they have something new to say, a lot of them. I love the sense of newness, the sense of enthusiasm in the eyes of a complete stranger".

His first taste of fame came not from poetry but football. In 1954, when he was 17, he played in an all-Ireland match and "lost it". "Even to this day now," he confesses, "there are people who will say to me 'Aren't you the lad who lost the all-Ireland for us?' and you get this clatter from them - because they'll never let you forget. Football is a great metaphor for life."

Like many Irish poets, Kennelly's early poetry experiences were forged between the school and the pub. "When I went to national school in 1940," he explains, "there was a teacher who taught us poetry in Irish and English... But even more than that was the fact that in my Dad's pub people sang ballads every night and they recited poems from people like Service. As a boy, I used to write ballads for weddings and immigrants. Fellas would come into the pub and say 'I'm going to England or America' and I'd like a poem about my own town."

School in Kerry was followed by a stint as a bus conductor in London and then a degree in literature, and a teaching post, at Trinity College, Dublin. His colleagues there included the poets Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Eavan Boland. "We had a magazine called Icarus," he remembers. "We'd go to each other's readings. We learnt from each other." In between, he did a PhD on "Modern Irish Poets and the Irish Epic", a category into which he was himself fast falling. But he is far too modest to stake this claim."To this day," he says, "I do not say I am a poet. There's something in me that says what you do, you do your best at because you have to, because it's like an itch."

As itches go, it has proved remarkably productive. Kennelly has published more than 20 books of poems as well as two novels and a torrent of anthologies and plays. His new book, Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004 (Bloodaxe, £12), runs to nearly 500 pages. Unlike most "selected poems" - which aim to present the trajectory of the poet's work - it is structured not chronologically, but thematically. "I called this book Familiar Strangers," he writes in the introduction, "because the more familiar one becomes with certain poems, the stranger they are... Not to pay attention is to let familiarity become boredom, to stifle the innate strangeness of people and things".

"The book begins," he tells me, "with the word 'Here' and ends with 'Begin' but you could switch them - and in between children, women, men, mythology, history, voices, voices." It is the voices - in all their rich diversity - which are at the heart of his work. His earlier "Selected Poems" was called A Time for Voices and included poems in the voice of a blind man, a dead baby and even a book. There's also a moving, and much anthologised "Poem from a Three Year Old" in which the toddler (Kennelly's daughter, apparently) has an intimation of mortality: "And will the flowers die?// And will the people die?// And every day do you grow old, do I/ grow old, no I'm not old, do/ flowers grow old?"

"You know," he says, leaning forward, as if to impart a secret from the gods, "people say that we have one voice, and we have, and it's connected with our self, our egotism. But there's another side to us: the mum and the dad, the sisters, the brothers, the fishermen and the workers and the teachers, the drinkers, the storytellers, the beggars, the liars."

That sounds suspiciously like everyone, and it's true Kennelly's work is exhaustive in its scope. In addition to the fishermen, workers etc, whose voices are not often heard in literature, he has taken on two of the most unpopular voices of all. His epic poem, Cromwell, pits a timeless Irish caricature, Bufun, against the English arch-enemy, while The Book of Judas tackles one of the less popular figures in the Bible. Both were bestsellers. Both were controversial and funny. In a scene where James Joyce meets the Holy Family, Jesus asks him about his work. " 'Am I in it?' queried Jesus. 'Yep' said Joyce. 'Pass the salt'."

"I remember a fella saying that I should be hanged," says Kennelly. "He stopped me in the street." A significant number of the hundreds of letters he receives each year are, in fact, from angry compatriots who see Kennelly as the blasphemer incarnate. "Some of them are wonderfully abusive" he grins. He gets "ten or twelve letters" every day and tries to reply to them all. "If somebody wrote to me," he explains, "and said I'd love you to write a verse or two for me then maybe I'll write eight lines for them". Blimey. And this is on top of an output that's larger than that of any other living Irish poet.

Kennelly's extraordinary status as public property and private poet clearly has a great deal to do with the Irish view of poetry as an art form that straddles both spheres. "It's born in your solitude, or even in your loneliness," he confides "but it can be shared in jovial situations. I've always thought keep your loneliness to yourself and share the joy."

Like most poets, Kennelly has experienced more than his fair share of loneliness and pain. And, like many Irish writers before him, it started with the bottle and ended with the break-up of his marriage. For the past 18 years he has lived alone in rooms at Trinity and has not had a drink. "I still wake up occasionally longing for a whisky," he says, "but I have managed to avoid it. But I understand anybody who goes back."

His second major life crisis came with bypass surgery in October 1996. The day after surgery he had a vision of a "man made of rain", a vision which he promptly wrote down and which extended, this being Kennelly, to 60-odd pages. "Where have I been when they say I've returned?" he asks the man made of rain. " 'Where beginning and end/ combine to make a picture, compose a sound/ reminding you that love is a singing wound". It is the only one of his poems that is reproduced in its entirety in Familiar Strangers - an indication of its significance in his life and indeed his work.

"If I'm anything it's open" says Kennelly "and I think sometimes like a wound. Because that's what a wound is. A wound is open. Naturally I feel a bit foolish at times about certain things - and I don't mind. I always loved Yeats," he adds. "You know that beautiful poem 'My 50th Year Had Come and Gone'?" And then, enchantingly, Ireland's best loved poet, the man who had U2 at his 60th birthday party and who fronted the Toyota ads on telly, the only living poet to have a festival named after him, recites the poem. "'It seemed so great my happiness,/ that I was blessed and could bless.' I love that 'seemed'"he says.

Biography: Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly was born in 1936 in Ballylongford, County Kerry. After a spell as a bus conductor in London, he read literature at Trinity College, Dublin. He was Professor of Modern Literature there for 30 years, until his retirement earlier this year. His latest book, Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004 (Bloodaxe, £12) draws on more than 20 books of poetry, including three earlier selections: A Time for Voices, Breathing Spaces and Begin. He is best known for two controversial poetry books, Cromwell and The Book of Judas, which was followed by the even more notorious Poetry My Arse. A regular guest on Irish television and radio., he has just been voted "the most attractive voice in Ireland" on RTE's Radio 1. He lives in Dublin.