Leafy with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
In a lecture entitled ‘Man and Poet’, Kavanagh said:
‘We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable’.
The Canal Bank sonnets are unhurried poems in which Kavanagh’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is, in effect, the natural poetic sequel to ‘Advent’.
Anthony Cronin has described Patrick Kavanagh as an intensely private man who lived his life in public places, a man who thought mediocrity the enemy of genius, the enemy of life. He did live a public life as journalist and man about town but Kavanagh also claimed that, ‘the only subject that is of any great importance is – Man-in-this-world-and-why’. He also believed that, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’ and that great beauty and profound truths can be discovered in apparently ordinary places.
‘Canal Bank Walk’ is written in the traditional 14-line sonnet form. In this poem, Kavanagh combines both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, using the same methods as in ‘Inniskeen Road’.
Religion is a dominant feature in Kavanagh’s poetry, both as a theme and as a source of imagery. Religion features thematically in ‘Advent’, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, and ‘A Christmas Childhood’.
His attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer. He said: ‘As a poet I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the first poem Kavanagh wrote after coming out of hospital in 1955. He claims to have undergone a mystical experience through hospitalisation and recovery. His whole view of life and of poetry has now changed. From now on his poetry will be about celebration, about joy, about appreciating the wonderful world God has made. He has been reborn; his new-born soul is being baptised in, ‘the green waters of the canal’. Canal water is no longer canal water. He sees it now, not through material eyes but through spiritual eyes. He is baptised and from now on will do, ‘the will of God’; and the will of God is that he steep himself in the ordinary world – ‘Wallow in the habitual’. He will go back to his original innocence, to a state of ‘oneness’ with nature, with God’s creation. He will ‘grow again with nature’ as he did before experience corrupted him and wonder died (see ‘Advent’). There won’t be any more intellectualising. He will just settle for the world of the senses, the world of sight and sound. Now that he is renewed and at one with nature, he has eyes for the very ordinary things – ‘the bright stick trapped’, ‘the couple kissing ‘, ‘the bird building’.
The couple are not alone on the seat, the ‘breeze’ adds a third party and is symbolic of his new found gift of observation of ordinary things. He sees the bird, ‘gathering materials for the nest’ and looks on this ordinary sight with spiritual eyes and the ordinary is transformed – it takes on a religious significance: the bird is preparing the stable at Bethlehem where the Word will be made Flesh, where God will reveal Himself in the form of new life. Everything will now be brand new; he has just been born as it were; a world that has grown stale through experience and familiarity is new again – ‘eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat’. It’s an ‘unworn world’ – brand new.
He wants to be ensnared in this world of the senses, in this world of sight and sound, in the world of, ‘fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’ – the voices of nature no doubt. He uses the image of the web to suggest his wish to be captivated by nature, he doesn’t want to escape back to a world of analysis and ‘testing’. ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ – he will gladly settle for the world of the senses – no need for the sophistication of intellectualising – ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’. He wants to pray (as children do) ‘unselfconsciously’, without restraint. He sees his soul being dressed in a new dress ‘of green and blue things’ – the green of the earth and the blue of the sky – the totality of creation – the world of the senses.
Kavanagh’s poetry is a record of a journey that brought him from Monaghan to the banks of the Grand Canal, a journey of discovery and exploration in which he reveals himself as one who found the ordinary, extraordinary, and that, ‘the things that really matter (are) casual, insignificant little things’. Even in the city the images are rural and we are treated to a virtual cornucopia of happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds. The poet, Harry Clifton, has said that, ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’.
In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ it is obvious that Kavanagh is capable of great lyrical intensity. There is great lyrical, gentle but impassioned quality in lines such as, ‘O unworn world enrapture me’ or, ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ and a sense of being totally at ease. Kavanagh’s language can be what Patrick Crotty calls ‘grittily realistic’ (especially in ‘The Great Hunger’) but there is also a colloquial rhythm in such lines as, ‘There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ or, ‘That was the year of the Munich bother’ and there is also a great lyrical quality here in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where ‘pouring’ and ‘overflowing’ seem to describe the poem’s rhythm and mood:
‘For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.’
This is a beautiful unhurried poem in which the poet’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.