Irish Arses – Brief Poems by Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly, an Irish poet and novelist, was born in Ballylongford in County Kerry on 17 April 1936.  His parents owned a pub at the village crossroads. He was educated at the inter-denominational school, St. Ita’s College in Tarbert and at Trinity College, where he edited the student literary magazine Icarus. He graduated from Trinity and wrote his PhD thesis there. The subject of his doctoral thesis, Modern Irish Poets and the Irish Epic, was the revival of ancient Gaelic mythology in English verse by notable Irish poets, including Samuel Ferguson and W.B. Yeats. He also studied at Leeds University. He was Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin for thirty years until his retirement from teaching in 2005. In 2010 he was awarded the Irish PEN Award for his contribution to Irish Literature. He now lives in Listowel in County Kerry.


A prolific and fluent writer, Brendan Kennelly has more than fifty books to his credit, over thirty of them collections of poetry. Many of them are book-length sequences, adapting and adopting various voices to his own ends: For me, poetry is an entering into the lives of things and people, dreams and events. An early sequence Cromwell (Beaver Row Press, 1983; Bloodaxe Books, 1987) is a wildly ambitious attempt to convey the historical import of a polarising figure in Anglo-Irish relations by utilising various voices and personae and then putting them through a chronological blender. The use of a persona can be a liberating agent and reveal more about our existence and our way of life than personal outpourings. Not only does Kennelly ventriloquize Cromwell, but he also creates his own gargantuan and rabelesian figures, in particular a mythical mad Irishman with the Joycean name of M.P.G.M. Buffún Esq. (pronounced buffoon). A later book, Moloney Up and At It (Mercier Press, 1984) continues the rabelesian theme, but in a rural manner. Set in his native Kerry and using the local language, these ten comic poems on the themes of sex and death are monologues in the voice of a local man. Kennelly himself appears as a comic foil in the concluding poem.

The poems below are taken from four of Kennelly’s most ambitious books. The Book of Judas (Bloodaxe Books,1991) is an epic poem of nearly 400 pages, almost 800 poems, mediated by the Biblical figure of Judas transported through history, myth and legend to contemporary Ireland. What unites this amazing enterprise is not only the reviled figure of Judas but the sense of ultimate betrayal which he symbolises. I believe, he writes in a preface, that this culture is now in an advanced state of self-betrayal, playing Judas to itself. In this poem I wanted this man to talk to himself, this culture to mutter to itself of what is lost or forgotten or betrayed or grotesquely twisted in memory. Talk to himself, Judas certainly does. The great strength of the book is its relentlessly colloquial style, pouring out cliché, bombast, invective, obscenity, blasphemy and sheer bloody-minded self-exculpation. (From my vantage point as traitor/I see what’s true.) There are times when the sheer effort to cope with the style breaks down and the book splutters and stutters along for pages at a time (Clichés, I said, clichés, is this all you have to give.) But Kennelly works hard to offer a variety of complimentary voices to that given to his anti-hero, what he calls the Judas voice. Biblical, historical and literary figures of betrayal swagger their way through the narrative. Like Paradise Lost, the book is in twelve sections; like Satan, Judas is its compelling anti-hero; and like Milton, Kennelly has created a style appropriate to his grand enterprise, one that owes more to a televisual than a theological age. (I kept a production notebook on the crucifixion.) It is a remarkable work.

Poetry My Arse, subtitled, “A riotous Epic Poem”, (Bloodaxe Books,1995) is equally ambitious. This poem concerns a poet, poetry, language and various forms of relationship. The poet Ace de Horner, moves through his poetry, the city, different relationships. He broods a lot. The city in question is Dublin and, as well as being identified as “post-colonial”, Kennelly also calls it, in a prefatory “Acenote”, the most garrulous city in Christendom. There are elements of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with Ace de Horner as a latter-day Bloom or HCE. The book is defiantly garrulous, a kind of shuffling arena of voices. These voices lead to a cacophony of bile and bluster, like a Dublin bar-room at closing time. While the poetry is constantly undercutting itself as it spools out, there is a bluntness to the satire. The book, it seems to me, lacks the rigour or intellectual control to transform bitterness into a sustainable satire on Dublin’s literary life. It operates best at the level of burlesque, lampoon, farce and crude jokes. In defiantly undercutting any auspicious or traditional sense of the resonance of poetry, the exuberance and exhibitionism are left to do the work of social and literary criticism. The poems are propelled by the energetic thrust of their defiant style and best read as part of a compelling comedy. Any objection to a book that refuses to take itself seriously is always going to be met with an in-built deflector. Kennelly’s response to one negative reviewer is apt: The reviewer said it was full of shit, sex and violence. He was right. My intention was his perception. But it is also about the connection between the poet and his society. It explores the nature of poetry, my blind Dublin Homer who sees more clearly as he becomes more blind.

Arses reappear in Martial Art (Bloodaxe Books, 2003). Given the scatological, even the pornographic nature of much of Kennelly’s work, it is not surprising that he turned to the Latin poet for inspiration. What is surprising, and welcome, is the manner in which he reins in his exuberance and attains an uncharacteristic concision. The book is no structured translation of much translated poems. It includes translation, but it is also an effort, successful in large parts, to wrest Martial to his own ends. Some of the poems are in the mode of the Latin poet rather than mere translations. There are verses here which I wrote after trying to translate him, or while I tried to translate him.  It is a tribute to the skill with which he conducts the enterprise that it is sometimes hard to know which poem is original and which is a translation. The empathy is emphasised when Kennelly calls Martial a wandering provincial in a confident metropolis. Martial’s movement from the Spanish town of Bilbilis to Rome is mirrored in the transition of Kennelly from the rural Kerry town of Ballylongford to metropolitan Dublin. The identification is further explored in a brief introduction: If he’d been a boxer, he’d have developed a new kind of knockout punch, smiling at his victim as he walked back to his corner. His themes are many and varied. He writes of money, food, wine, furniture, style, power, sex, corruption, love, hatred, streets, darkness, families, poverty, snobbery, poets, poetry, polished deceit, aesthetic back-stabbers, High Art, low artists, metropolitan egotism and arrogance, politics, escape to the countryside, property, law, education, greed, manipulative men and women, cliques, loners, talkers and chatterboxes of every shade and motive, patrons, misery, the happy life, clothes, enemies, gossip, friends, flattery and the old constant problem of personal survival and hope of self-renewal. That’s Rome two thousand years ago. That’s Dublin today… Is one translating Martial? Or is Martial, smiling and mischievous as ever, translating the translator? The rock-star as literary critic, Bono, has endorsed Brendan Kennelly’s translations, in a blurb, This is poetry as base as heavy metal, as high as the Holy Spirit flies, comic and tragic, from litany to rant, roaring at times, soaring at other times. He may be overblowing the achievement, but he has a point.

Three Irish arses make an appearance in Now (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). The first is that of a swan who “cocks his arse/to the full moon.” The second and third use that slang Irish invocation, my arse or, more colloquially, O kiss me arse. (See below.) Typical of Kennelly, he can be both concise and verbose at once. The book consists of more than six hundred and fifty three-line poems: I decided to write a poem sequence of three-liners that would try to convey the sliding identities of “now.” Although they flirt fitfully with terza-rima, epigram, even the odd haiku-like structure, they have more in common with the energetic burst that make up Poetry My Arse. The sequence is autobiographical and contains a motley cast of odd and incongruous characters with names like Tinker, Deborah Breen, Professor Strong, Zachary Hoakes and Professor Hoggett. As if to repay the tribute in the blurb on Martial Art, even Bono makes a grandiloquent appearance in the sequence. In a brief introductory note, and these introductory notes are among the more pleasing aspects of his many collections, Kennelly invokes some of his previous books and argues Now is an attempt to probe the concerns (obsessions?) with time in these poems in a more condensed, immediate way that is influenced by ancient proverbs from different cultures and modern headlines from different countries. Each of these often rhyming triplets posits questions of time, of an inherent Now, of the relation between a personal past and a city’s past. Despite their brevity, they are more loquacious than condensed, the work of one of the most eclectic and energetic of Irish poets.



Brief Poems by Brendan Kennelly


Christmas 1986

At the entrance to the church, in black
Spare lettering: GUNS NOT PRAYER.


Herod’s Epitaph

Time’s children gave him plenty rope:
While there’s death there’s hope.



The camp is nowhere, yet a hundred
Starving stragglers drag in here every day.



Despite madness and heartache
Despite white supremacy and black magic
Despite heaven’s rage and earthquake
Let’s take a commercial break.


How Able is Abel

Saxon shillings, Yankee dollars, Irish mist:
Cutest hoor that ever pissed.
Turns muck to amethyst.


All poems © Bloodaxe Books.




“I like sleeping with Stephen.
I like sleeping with Stephen’s daddy too.
Neither knows I sleep with the other.
I keep two men happy. And you?”


For Adults

“Why are you so intent,”I asked, “on getting
other men’s wives into bed?”
“Adultery is for adults,” he said.



“I know,” she said, “when we laugh and fuck
life’s a blessèd slice of luck.”


The Good News

I told him I was getting married.
His lip
curled into a question:
“Will she take the whip?”



“She broke both legs, we soon forgot her.
If that woman was a horse we’d have shot her.”



She lifted her head, Ace heard her say,
“Well, that’s my protein for today.”


All poems © Bloodaxe Books.



Three Things

Three things make an epigram sing:
brevity, honey, sting.



The god of divination is under stress.
What he’ll say
is anyone’s guess.



When these two talk in their usual way
the sun covers its face and turns away.



When one dines alone
one knows the meaning 
of conversation.


Two souls

I know two souls
who always go to bed late
fearing their sleep
may lessen their hate.



Had Prattus the heaven’s embroidered cloths
he’d wipe his arse with them.



If Martial’s truth were told
all that I give
is less than I withhold.



He sits up late in a cold, dark place.
Why? His wife’s face.


Passion and permanence

What he, in love, bedwhispers to her
is printed on air, scrawled on water.


The art of war

Soldiers never afraid to risk their lives
are quivering cowards before their wives.


Further translations of Martial by Brendan Kennelly, together with the original Latin, are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.

All poems © Bloodaxe Books.

from NOW

He wonders why hate
has such an accomplished smile.
Hell is a paradise of style.


He observes that sometimes in summer leaves fall
as in autumn, whether on a swan’s nest 
or a body in the canal.


Now the philosopher: “There is no difference between living
and dying.” “Why, then, do you not die.”
“Because there is no difference.”


“A poem should not mean
but be.”
“On the matter of meaning and being, we disagree.”


The swan cocks his arse
to the full moon, 
going down.


“Ravenous appetite, my arse!
A man is no more 
than a lusty goat waiting to snore!”


“O kiss me arse,” she chirps, “forget your gloomy style.
It takes forty-two muscles to frown,
seventeen to smile.”


“Will she ever shut up?
Why can’t the thoughtless 
be wordless?”


All poems © Bloodaxe Books.



The “Trinity Writers” Page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Wikipedia page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Bloodaxe Books page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Poetry International page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Poetry Archive page on Brendan Kennelly.

An Irish Times article on Brendan Kennelly by Eileen Battersby.

A review of Martial Art by Paul Davis.


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