Brendan Kennelly is a celebrated figure among his own countrymen, almost as much so as Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. Kennelly is not only a poet, he is also Professor of Modern Literature at Dublin's venerable Trinity college. However, it is not so much Kennelly's literary standing as his frequent exposure in the media which accounts for his nationwide popularity: Hardly a day goes by without some mention of him in the columns of the tabloid press.
On his sixtieth birthday party, members of the rock group U2 were among the guests, and until recently the Irish could watch their favourite poet in a funny TV commercial for a well-known brand of car. A remarkable performance, not least because Kennelly does not have a driving license.
Kennelly's popularity may in large part be due to the fact that his poetry reflects the Irishman's eclecticism in all its aspects and carries it to the extreme. Typically, Kennelly's selection from his early poems was entitled A time for Voices: Poems 1960-1990. Typically, because Kennelly in his poems speaks in many voices, as well as employing a wide variety of formats, from free narrative verse to strict sonnet form.
About his inclination to speak in different voices, Kennelly once wrote: 'For me, poetry is an entering into the lives of things and people, dreams and events.' And 'The use of a persona can be a liberating agent and reveal more about our existence and our way of life than personal outpourings.'
This inclination to enter into other people's lives takes on grotesque proportions in the long cycle Cromwell (1983) in which Kennelly not only ventriloquizes through the historical figure of Cromwell but through a variety of contemporary figures, while pitting a timeless caricature of the Irish, one M.P.G.M. Buffún Esq. (pronounced buffoon) against their English arch enemy.
A still greater polyphony of voices is heard in The Book of Judas (1991), in which all sorts of evildoers slug it out with one another and with the reader, and in Poetry My Arse (1995), a literally gargantuan collection which reads like an ode to the city of Dublin, and especially the coarse but highly inventive vernacular of its inhabitants.
As may be expected, Brendan Kennelly is a great performer of his own work.
[Brendan Kennelly took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 1999. This text was written on that occasion.]