There is a very telling little poem by Michael Hartnett tucked away in A Book of Strays called ‘Aere Perrenius’. In it the poet recounts early encounters with Patrick Kavanagh after Hartnett had made his way to Dublin, ‘fresh from Newcastle West / at twenty, with a sheaf of verse / tucked into my belt’. It is really a very gentle admonition by the very prescient Hartnett who was already garnering academic interest. He is saying to those who are required, as part of their academic studies, to rummage through the entrails of a poet’s work to be gentle in their excavations.
The Latin phrase aere perrenius comes to us from Horace. In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any man-made monument: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” (“I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.”). Hartnett would probably have been first introduced to the beauty and wisdom of Horace by Dave Hayes, erudite classics scholar and teacher of Latin at St. Ita’s Secondary School, Newcastle West where Hartnett studied for his Leaving Cert in 1950’s.
Hartnett’s poem ‘Aere Perrenius’, is therefore, really a poetic warning to young aspiring academics not to ‘tamper with the facts’ of his verse – or indeed Kavanagh’s verse either! He mentions these, ‘dull strangers with degrees / who prune, to fit conceptions’. These aspiring scholars build their theories on fragile ground, ‘give you ancestors and heirs’ and try to ‘bring you into line / with academic aims, / number all your bones / and make false claims.’
Would-be academics who undertake such necessary work should be aware, however, of the poet’s sensitivities. Hartnett is adamant that he can live with being forgotten but not with being misunderstood or misinterpreted:
It is easy to forgive
a world that forgets
but not a world that changes
with subtle sentences
a life that was and is.
Both Hartnett and Kavanagh have had their fair share of being misunderstood – and for those who are familiar with the ‘history’ of their friendship, many will find Hartnett’s appeal on behalf of his ‘mentor’ very commendable! He claims to understand Kavanagh, for all his rough edges, ‘the smokescreen of your talk / about fillies, about stallions’. His intimate knowledge of the man from Inniskeen is encapsulated in that uniquely Irish form of the ultimate trusting relationship: ‘I sometimes placed your bets.’
He declares that the bronze statue by the Grand Canal in Dublin’s Baggott Street is best described by Kavanagh’s own word ‘banal’! He, unsuccessfully as it happens, hopes that he will never suffer a similar fate. He issues an appeal to all young, and not so young, aspiring academics to thread softly when they come to investigating and exploring the work of any poet:
I’d rather be forgotten out of hand
than wronged in bronze:
let the sad facts stand.
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