Wake: Up to Poetry
U2: Brendan Kennelly’s Number One Fans
Like many Irish people, the poet Brendan Kennelly is a fan of the band U2. However, Kennelly has a leg up on his fellow U2 fans: the band is a fan of him. Kennelly is often called “the people’s poet” for his open, accessible style, (Dublin’s Sunday Tribune). Kennelly’s epic poem, The Book of Judas, was published in 1991; that same year, U2 released its seventh album, Atchung Baby. Their album—in particular, the song “Until the End of the World”—explores many of the same themes as Kennelly does in The Book of Judas: betrayal, love, what it takes to change the world. The lyrics of “Until the End of the World” express these ideas beautifully: “In the garden I was playing the tart / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You, you were acting like it was the end of the world” (Bono).
The parallels in U2 and Kennelly’s work prompted an Irish newspaper, The Sunday Press, to ask Kennelly and U2 front man Bono to critique each other’s work. Both Irish artists enthusiastically agreed. In his review, Bono said, “The Book of Judas is an epic achievement and as over the top as the subject deserves. This is a 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.” Kennelly’s review of U2’s work was equally admiring. Kennelly wrote, “This record goes further than merely rejecting cynicism. It praises in a joyous yet sometimes quite ironic way the fragile but enduring power of love in a world whose values seem to denigrate that power.”
This dialogue marked the beginning of an enduring, cordial relationship between Kennelly and the members of U2. The band members were among the guests at Kennelly’s sixtieth birthday party, and in 2003, Bono performed “God’s Laughter,” a poem written by Kennelly, on the audio collection Voices and Poetry of Ireland (Harper Collins Books). A year later, on May 17, 2004, Bono spoke to the graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania. In his address, Bono again turned to The Book of Judas for inspiration: “There’s a truly great Irish poet; his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this epic poem called The Book of Judas, and there’s a line in that poem that never leaves my mind, it says: ‘If you want to serve the age, betray it.’ What does that mean to betray the age? Well to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.”