'Blitzophrenia: Brendan Kennelly's Post-Colonial Vision

By McDonagh, John | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

'Blitzophrenia: Brendan Kennelly's Post-Colonial Vision


McDonagh, John, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


The poetry of Brendan Kennelly is principally characterized by various degrees and notes of resistance. From his earliest poems in the late 1950s to his latest collection Martial Art (2003), Kennelly has sought to establish a poetic independence that aggressively resists generic categorizations. At his corrosive best, Kennelly epitomizes a post-colonial Irish poetics that exists on the margins, eating away at a monolithic cultural centre by consistently voicing those whose very presence begins to erode the edifice of Irish identity. From the probings and musings of Oliver Cromwell to the carnal reflections of a bus-driving Black-and-Tan, Kennelly's poetry acts as a cultural correlative, highlighting the complex historical, social, and sexual undertones that are constantly seeking an elusive expression. While he eschews overt politicizations of his work there is a discernible politico-cultural forcefield within which his poetry appears to operate. Principally it involves often disturbing dialogues with a variety of both real and imagined characters who are free to explore their scapegoated roles in the fabrication of what Ernest Renan referred to as 'the spiritual principle' of the nation. (1) Kennelly's own description of 'Blitzophrenia' is the closest to a quasi-theoretical framework to which he will admit and it provides a searing and provocative lens through which an increasingly fragile and disparate contemporary Irish culture can be viewed. (2)

In 1991, Bloodaxe Books published a selection of Kennelly's poetry called A Time for Voices and this title can be viewed as a further explication of the blitzophrenic modus operandi favoured by Kennelly. The selection ranges over an incredibly productive thirty-year period (1960-1990) and Kennelly's feeling of poetic liberation through the articulation of a myriad of voices permeates the introductory note. He declares that the 'use of the first person is a great distancer' thus freeing him from a potentially claustrophobic relationship between the self and the articulated voice. (3) Consequently, the poems are suffused with many different voices 'many of them in vicious conflict' (A Time for Voices, p. 12) and this blitzophrenic device energizes the poems with an often ruthless passion. The self to which Kennelly refers is a diffracted, decentred, and deracinated entity, experiencing and expressing the blitzkrieg of, amongst others, childhood, education, latent desires, and masked fears. Far from being the articulator of a secure personal voice, he portrays himself as the owner of a myriad of voices, writing in a state of blitzophrenia, juggling a multitude of personalites, both real and imagined, and struggling for some kind of expression in his poetry. Whatever consistent poetic voice emerges from this exhausting process is thus described by Kennelly: 'If there is "an authentic voice" it is found in the atmosphere deliberately created so that the voices of uncertainties may speaksing their individual stories' (A Time for Voices, p. 12).

In the introductory essay to Irish and Postcolonial Writing--History, Theory, Practice, Glenn Hooper appositely notes that a good deal of contemporary Irish literature operates within 'unstable and erratic' boundaries'. (4) The application of post-colonial theory to the complexities of the relationship between history and nationhood has led to the emergence of literary texts, according to Maria Tymoczko, 'that question, shift, subvert and recreate cultural norms, linguistic norms and poetics' (Hooper, p. 182). Within these mobile parameters, Brendan Kennelly's poetry ranges over the contemporary and the historical with little concern for the temporal integrity of either. The characteristics Buffun experiences in those around him, and the national characteristics to which he is exposed, elicit the connections with Cromwell and others in his dream-imagination. Two crucial questions now arise: if an individual can have such a vibrant, personal dream-imagination, could a collective national dream-imagination also exist and to what degree would it contain images and icons of nationhood?

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