John Kelly

NOTIONS reviewed at Dublin Review of Books

"Kelly’s poems are marked by both gravity and wit – as well as by a copious resourcefulness."

"impressively accomplished collection." Gerry Smyth



High Jinks and Down to Earth
Gerard Smyth

Notions, by John Kelly, Dedalus Press, 84 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251416

The introductory poem to this collection is titled “The Small Things”, and it is to small things that John Kelly often looks for his poetic materials throughout this impressively accomplished collection: a mountain hike, a weekend away, locking up the house at night, or a memory from boyhood of being “back in Bundoran in my anorak / in the racket flash of the amusement arcade / Just my mother and me …”

He may feel “that jag of terror” when he “can’t remember who sang what”, but several of the poems here are powered by memory; we encounter the particulars of growing up in the North, of his generation’s experiences there during what is euphemistically referred to as the Troubles – “northern streets all set for bombs”, “Brits decked out in nets and twigs” and “some loaded tribal dig from the passing UDR”. In both “In Lieu” and “Control Zone”, Kelly handles his recollections of the era comfortably, the quirky humour helping to provide the right form for these poems: “I’d walk home through the town / And my bag was rifled through again / in case I carried anything incendiary / bar an inky NME - …”

This collection is flush with acute observation and understanding, as well as sparkling felicities in the imaginative detail and linguistic invention, the language always tightly structured. Resonant points of reference to popular culture crop up elsewhere: from “ black armbands on Top of the Pops” to “ Dad’s Army on the BBC”. In a conversation with the artist Basil Blackshaw, “Soutine comes up / Kristofferson, Cezanne / but mostly horses, badgers, greyhounds …” Imagination and memory combine in a fruitful relationship. The Gaeltacht, in the poem of that title, is not only a place for improving a learner’s Irish but to encounter a fantasy:

there was Nadia Jane Gilgunn,
a wondrous blonde from Iur Cinn Trá
with visible crimson bra straps
and a Lemon Fanta tongue.

The mood in many of these poems is tinged with hints of yearning. He knows how to give us just the right amount of information and when to hold back; also when to adopt the storyteller’s voice, put on the mask: in the cinematic “Katya” he renders a fictional scene that could be out of Le Carre or Len Deighton –

Evenings in Pushkin Square,|
we were well observed and overheard
by that sulky lad who was always there
in a leather coat that shone like coal –

at least until I collared him
up against the hotel door
and wound him up|
with talk of Bony M and Rasputin ...

There are some lovely twists and detours in poems – one that begins by telling us that “Before the Gaelic pitch was a Gaelic pitch / it was a pitch-black hole full of every frog and vole”, suddenly veers off to introduce the reader to the “Hag of night. / Gloom bird to the poet Keats”. He can wander or quickstep from Sandymount Strand to Rue des Halles in “… the first Arrondissement”, from “… the clean, green morgue of the Erne Hospital” to the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow.

In “Haydn’s Skull” (this could almost be a Matthew Sweeney poem ) he lets his whimsical notions run riot with the historical facts around the theft of the composer’s skull, allowing it to find its way to Sunday’s Well, then into the hands of an “antiques dealer from Rathgar” and onto a GAA pitch.

Such imaginative and adventurous leaps are regular occurrences in Kelly’s poems (the free-wheeling “Chairman of the Board of Governors”, his tribute to the singer Paul Brady, packs in a fair amount of history, geography and musical lore along with an eclectic cast of characters). What might seem a playful exercise or display of high jinks in some of Kelly’s poems can be beguiling; the light touch more often than not leads to a down-to-earth realisation:

I took it for that childhood bird,
not so much for what it was
as for the utter nothingness I heard. (“Halloween Owl”)

Or John McGahern’s funeral, which he remembers for “the scrape and thud of Aughawillan clay / that breath I took before I drove away”.

Like Ted Hughes, Kelly is aware of the proximities of the natural world: the pike “ splashing in the shallows – / out if its depth entirely ...”; “The snipe / shoot up and out / from under my boots …”; starlings “hunched in hundreds / on clotheslines, mowers, handlebars …”. His well-known passion for music embraces even the “wintry electronica of birds”.

There are Heaneyesque moments too and they are memorable, as in “10 January 2016”: “There was a man who used to cut the grass. / He used a scythe, the snaking shaft of it, / the sned – just right for swivel and for sweep.”

The spare lyricism of the poems, their coherence and fluency, along with the background hint of yearning, add up to a quietly powerful mix. Notions is a book of many modes and settings – the elegy (“Christmas Day” in memory of Dennis O’Driscoll is one of the book’s finest achievements), the nature poem ( nowhere better than in “Winter’s Blessing”), domestic scenes ( the beautifully compressed “Nocturne”), and particularly tender poems for his children. In the concluding lines of “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” (for Evie at fifteen), the poet recognises the universal truth in any father/child relationship:

I can scribble a map, I can tell you what’s in store.\
But, more and more, my darling girl
I can only leave you to the door.

In “The Gymnast”, a poem to another daughter, he reminds her of the old belief that it’s a sign of luck when a flying swift drops its shit on you. But she “couldn’t be convinced … Not by gravity or wit”. Kelly’s poems are marked by both gravity and wit – as well as by a copious resourcefulness.


Gerard Smyth's latest collections of poetry are A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus ) and The Yellow River, a collaboration with artist Seán McSweeney (Solstice Arts Centre )

NOTIONS reviewed at JMI

Sounding from the Page
John Kelly

Sounding from the Page
Known for his innovative music broadcasting, John Kelly's first collection of poetry, 'Notions', which has just been published by Dedalus Press, finds beauty in the small things, writes Laura Sheary.


John Kelly has presented some of the most acclaimed music and arts programmes on the Irish airwaves over the last two decades. Today, he is perhaps best known for fronting The Works Presents, a weekly RTÉ One arts magazine programme, and for presenting Mystery Train on RTÉ Lyric FM, a reincarnation of the groundbreaking music programme of the same name that ran from 2000 to 2006. As an author, Kelly has published three novels, his most recent being 2014’s From Out of the City, which was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Bord Gáis Book Awards. Notions is his first poetry collection.

Clarification, expression and preservation
Kelly recently gave reason as to why he felt compelled to write this collection, stating that ‘certain life experiences, good and bad, were beginning to insist on clarification, expression and preservation’. In keeping with this, Notions is a collection of poems that immediately strike the reader as having existed in the most intimate spaces of the writer’s mind long before they were committed to the page. These are snapshots of memories and stories that have matured and been coloured by time, and Kelly forms connections between different moments in his life in the most unusual of ways.

As one might expect, the book is brimming with references to culture and music – a snippet of conversation with Frank Sinatra in a New York bar, a brief history of the song ‘Love me Tender’, and thoughtful, affectionate encounters with paintings and their creators. Elsewhere, it is in poems involving Kelly’s children and loved ones where affection shines through.

‘The Small Things’ is the first poem in the collection and the narrative presented here sets the tone for the rest of the book. Kelly describes the somewhat ordinary activity of working out an injury in the gym, when he senses ‘the cranky silver arm of a slot machine’. Suddenly, by way of this striking association, we are transported back to the Bundoran of his youth where he is in an amusement arcade with his mother who has ‘holiday drizzle… still on her cheek’. The poems that follow are filled with simple yet powerful moments such as this one, where human connections and their importance are highlighted amidst the clamour of everyday life.

Sounding from the page
The overwhelming possibilities that this life can offer are explored in poems such as ‘The Gaeltacht’, where Kelly writes of the awe felt by Nadia, ‘a wondrous blonde from Iúr Cinn Tra’, when she reaches the top of Errigal mountain. Amongst such moments, there are surprising, humorous ones, and it is the memory of Nadia’s ‘Lemon Fanta tongue’ that stayed with me when the poem had ended. Kelly’s words find beauty in the small things just as they do in the profound.

This beauty remains apparent in the more melancholic moments of the book. ‘Winter’s Blessing’ expertly intersperses descriptions of nature with subtle evocations of grief and Kelly creates a still, warm atmosphere to allow the music of birds to sound from the page. Here, the soloing thrush is ‘lit like an old friend’s soul in the bones of a silver birch’. This is yet another example of the strange workings of the mind and memory and the links that they make. Along with the rest of the poems in the collection, it is fundamentally about living, and acts as an affirmation that light can find its way to us in many unexpected ways.

Notions is available from Dedalus Press at

Published on 15 November 2018
Laura Sheary is a writer and musician based in Belfast. In 2018 she took part part in the Journal of Music/Arts Council of Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme. Laura graduated with a BA in Music and English from University College Cork in 2012. In the following years, she worked as a singer, pianist and songwriter with indie pop band Staring at Lakes whose performance highlights included Other Voices, Electric Picnic and Castlepalooza. In 2016 she obtained a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast where her focus turned mainly towards creative fiction. She is currently working on her first novel and continues to create music, with solo material due for release in 2018.

NOTIONS reviewed in The Irish Times

"poems of great tenderness and linguistic skill."

Caitríona O'Reilly


full review here

Read On →

John hosts and reads at Seamus Heaney 100 Poems event.

Pavillion Theatre. Dún Laoghaire. Readings by Simon Armitage, Paula Meehan, Colette Bryce, Marie Heaney, Mark Doty and John Kelly

Before his death, Seamus had intended to assemble a personal selection of poems from across the entire arc of his writing life, small yet comprehensive enough to serve as an introduction for all comers. He never managed to do this himself but now the 100 Poems project has been completed, resulting in an intimate gathering of poems chosen and introduced by the Heaney family.

To celebrate the publication of 100 Poems, Simon Armitage, Paula Meehan, Colette Bryce, Marie Heaney, Mark Doty and John Kelly read selected Heaney poems. Plus music from Colm Mac Con Iomaire.


pics by Ger Holland.

John presents Lankum with Best Group Award at RTE Folk Awards

John was very honoured to present Lankum with the award for Best Group at the RTE Folk Awards at Vicar Street. Their album Between the Earth and Sky got its very first plays on Mystery Train

John has written about NOTIONS for the RTE Culture website

"The publication of my first poetry collection Notions has provoked, in the main, the following responses from my friends. Some say they had no idea that I wrote poetry at all and others, those who have known me for thirty years or more, are asking why it has taken me so long? And that’s not a question I can answer easily.

Back in the late eighties I was one of a bunch of undergraduate poets at Queen’s University in Belfast. I say ‘bunch’ because the world ‘group’ refers specifically to Heaney, Mahon and Longley who were, of course, the hardest imaginable act to follow. That said, the poets of my generation were published in all the journals and gathered together in the best anthologies. To the outsider, some of us might have appeared to be up and running."

read full article here

NOTIONS is reviewed in The IRISH TIMES

A very generous and considered review of John's book by the poet Caitríona O'Reilly

NOTIONS is published by Dedalus Press

John has published his debut poetry collection at Dedalus Press.


"Constantly inventive and unerringly precise, the poems in John Kelly’s debut collection reveal an author at home with both the stand-alone lyric and the longer, apparently improvisational pieces that contribute so much to this book’s extraordinary brio and style.

The breadth of cultural reference is perhaps a given, but Kelly’s real achievement is to make sense of a sometimes teeming field of vision. From the natural world to the troubled north of his youth, through encounters with art – and its creators – to poems that chart the seismic changes that come with love, fatherhood and loss, Notions is a book full of humour and play, wonder and woundedness."

When you bow your head
to the soloing thrush,
lit like an old friend’s soul
in the bones of a silver birch.
— from ‘Winter’s Blessing’

“These are very remarkable and compelling poems.With strong narratives and events, vivid and surprising language, and a marvellous square-on exactness.”
— Bernard O’Donoghue


John was honoured to host Shane's 60th Birthday Tribute at the NCH. Performers included Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O' Connor and Johnny Depp. Shane was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by President Michael D. Higgins.

Read On →


"I'm home now. This is what I do."


John spoke to Breffni Cummiskey about music, radio and the return of the Train


interview here 

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