Culture Literature

Poem of the week: “Begin” by Brendan Kennelly

This academic year begins just as the Fringe Festival closes for the first time in two years. Walking around the city the week before freshers – despite there being a hum of excitement in the air – there was a distinct sense that something important had ended. The grass of George Square was muddy, the construction in Bristo Square was still in place, and at lunchtime Ting Thai was full of permanent residents rather than students. There was a poignant sense of sadness for the end of a festival as much as there was excitement for the new year. 

‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly captures this inevitable link between openings and closings. Unpretentious and riddled with half rhymes and almost cadences it comfortingly follows the rhythm of everyday life. Each time a pattern emerges it shifts and changes slightly, constantly moving forward. 

Through tiny scenes like ‘the pageant of queuing girls/the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal’, he captures Dublin but also leaves space for the reader to impose their own cities over the lines. Like the urban landscape, throughout the poem there is room for the beautiful and the rotten, the virtuous and the sinful. Presented with ‘couples sharing a sunny secret’ and the ‘loneliness that cannot end’, Kennelly ties these apparently contradictory feelings of solitude and togetherness with a narrative string. In doing so he shows that they can’t exist alone, as one is ‘perhaps what makes’ the other ‘begin’. 

Throughout, Kennelly has a soft appreciation for the everyday: ‘begin to wonder at unknown faces/at crying birds in the sudden rain’ and ‘begin to the roar of morning traffic’, which ground the poem in the familiar. 

Right at the end, in the last four lines, this tone changes: ‘Though we live in a world that dreams of ending/that always seems about to give in/something that will not acknowledge conclusion/insists that we forever begin.’ That final rhyme has a musical tone, a perfect cadence to the imperfect half rhymes of the rest of the poem, that leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweetness. Kennelly, through his observation of the cyclical nature of life, offers a world that though often repetitive and tragic, is nonetheless still full of hope and possibility. 

Image: DLR Library Service via Flickr

Brendan Kennelly’s Selected Poems are available from Bloodaxe Books