The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

Kavanagh was born on the 21st. of October 1904, in the village of Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan.  His father was a shoemaker and had a small farm of land.  Kavanagh received only primary school education and at the age of thirteen, he became an apprentice shoemaker.  He gave it up 15 months later, admitting that he didn’t make one wearable pair of boots!  For the next 20 years Kavanagh would work on the family farm, before moving to Dublin in 1939.  From his early years on, he was a man who was out of place.  When in Monaghan Kavanagh was a dreamer in a world of realists who were concerned with what seemed to him to be the mundane and banal aspects of life.  In Dublin he stood out as the man up from the bog, who didn’t understand the complexities of city life.  He was seen as gauche and unrefined.  Ironically in Monaghan he was seen as effeminate for having an interest in poetry.

Kavanagh’s interest in literature and poetry marked him out as different from other people in his local place.  In a society that was insular and agricultural, a man’s worth was measured by the straightness of the furrow he could plough, rather than the lines of poetry he could write.  Kavanagh’s first attempts to become a published poet resulted in the publication of some poems in a local newspaper in the early 1930’s, and in the publishing of his autobiographical novel, Tarry Flynn, in 1939.  Urged on by his brother Peter, who was a Dublin-based teacher, Kavanagh moved to the city to establish himself as a writer.  At that time, the Dublin Literary Society was dominated by an educated Anglo-Irish group with whom Kavanagh had nothing in common; among them were Oliver St. John Gogarty and Douglas Wylie.  They saw Kavanagh as a country bumpkin and referred to him as ‘that Monaghan boy’.

His early years in Dublin were unproductive as he struggled for recognition.  In 1947 his first major collection, ‘Soul for Sale’, was published.  These poems were the product of his Monaghan youth.  In the early 1950’s Kavanagh and his brother Peter published a weekly newspaper called ‘Kavanagh’s Weekly’; it failed because the editorial viewpoint was too narrow.  In 1954 Kavanagh became embroiled in an infamous court case.  He accused ‘The Leader’ newspaper of slander.  The newspaper decided to contest the case and employed the former Taoiseach, John A. Costello, as their defence counsel; Kavanagh decided to prosecute the case himself, and he was destroyed by Costello.  The court case dragged on for over a year and Kavanagh’s health began to fail.  In 1955 he was diagnosed as having lung cancer and had a lung removed; he survived, and the event was a major turning point in his life and career.  In 1958 he published ‘Come Dance with me Kitty Stobling’.  In 1959 he was appointed by John A. Costello to the faculty of English in UCD.  His lectures were popular, but often irrelevant to the course.  In the early 1960’s he visited Britain and the USA; in 1965 he married Katherine Maloney.  He died in 1967 from an attack of bronchitis.

Kavanagh’s reputation as a poet is based on the lyrical quality of his work, his mastery of language and form and his ability to transform the ordinary and the banal into something of significance.  He is an acute observer of things and situations, and this allows him to make things that may seem ordinary and unimportant into something deserving of a place in poetry.

He is constantly using his work to make sense of the natural world, be it in Dublin or Monaghan.  More importantly, Kavanagh is always trying to assess his own place in this world.  He often approaches a poem from a point of doubt, where he is unsure about where he belongs, and uses the poem to come to a resolution.  The best example of this is in the poem ‘Epic’.  He is also trying to praise God and nature in his poems.  Indeed his Monaghan poems are not so much about the area, but about how it effects him and his work.  It would not be unfair to say that Kavanagh is very self-obsessed.  But in his defence it surely can be said that because of this he is writing about what he knows best!

KAVANAGH’S TECHNIQUE AND STYLE

Language:  In attempting to create a sense of the mystery and magic of a child’s mind, Kavanagh’s use of language is a vital ingredient in his work.  He uses words in a new fashion.  He fuses words together, such as ‘clay-minted’ and most famously ‘leafy-with-love’.  These phrases and words give extras energy to his poetry and provide it with vigour.

Imagery:  Kavanagh’s use of imagery is a very important aspect of his language.  In ‘Advent’ he alludes to the Nativity: ‘…  old stables where time begins’.  In ‘Inniskeen Road’ he refers to Alexander Selkirk.  Colloquial language is an intrinsic element of Kavanagh’s style.  His phrasing is conversational and many of his phrases owe their origin to his Monaghan background: ‘Among simple decent men too who barrow dung’; ‘every blooming thing’.

Structure – Form:  The poems on our course display Kavanagh’s ability in the sonnet form, which is a structural feature of ‘Inniskeen Road’, ‘Advent’, ‘Lines Written….’, and ‘Canal Bank Walk’.  In ‘Inniskeen Road’, Kavanagh combines features of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms.  The sonnet is divided into an octet and a sestet like the Petrarchan sonnet.  In the octet the poet paints a picture and the problems are posed.  The poet’s personal response is contained in the sestet.  However, the opening stanza can be subdivided into two quatrains following the Shakespearean form, each containing a separate picture of Monaghan life.  The sestet also can be divided into a quatrain and a rhyming couplet, therefore mirroring the Shakespearean division into three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme of the poem is also Shakespearean: abab,  cdcd,  efef,  gg.

In ‘Advent’ Kavanagh also experiments with the sonnet form.  The poem is an amalgam of two sonnets, but the stanza pattern is neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean.  The opening two stanzas each contain seven lines, and are meant to represent the period of advent, before Christmas. The third stanza representing an entire sonnet is meant to represent the changes which will follow after this period of penance (advent)  has ended.

‘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’.

‘Lines Written… ‘ is fashioned completely in the Petrarchan style.  Both the thought pattern and the rhyming scheme follow an octet-sestet pattern.

Patrick Kavanagh in O'Brien's Bar, Dublin. www.tcd.ie

Patrick Kavanagh in O’Brien’s Bar, Dublin. http://www.tcd.ie

MAJOR THEMES

Religion

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’.  ‘Advent’ uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery.  The theme of the poem is penance-forgiveness-grace, which reflects the theology surrounding the Catholic church’s season of Advent and the Nativity.  He desires to return to the state of childish innocence.  His reasons are twofold: he will become a better Christian and he will also become a better poet if he can look at the world through the eyes of a child.  This theme is followed up in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where the idea of redemption is introduced, as Kavanagh draws analogies between the waters of baptism and the water of the canal.

Rural and Urban

Although Kavanagh arrived in Dublin in 1939, leaving between behind the sixteen acres of stony grey Monaghan soil, it was not until the mid-50’s that his adopted city provided him with material for his poetic genius.  The summer of 1955 and the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin are the time and place which moved Kavanagh to write ‘Canal Bank Walk’ and ‘Lines Written…’.

Kavanagh’s 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’.  This new appreciation of the environment, his vision of Eden, is evident in his novel ‘Tarry Flynn’, (1939) where he wrote: ‘O the rich beauty of the weeds in the ditches, Tarry’s heart cried: the lush Nettles and Docks and tufts of grass.  Life pouring out in critical abundance’.  In the novel he also wrote: ‘Without ambition, without desire, the beauty of the world pared in thought his unresting mind.’  These two sentences describe exactly the mood of Kavanagh in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ and ‘Lines Written…’.  Here the environment is glorified in a pantheistic manner.  Kavanagh (not unlike Wordsworth before him) uses hyperbole to demonstrate the magnificence of Nature, as experienced by the innocent mind of a child or of the poet reformed to the state of grace.  The opposing attitudes expressed by Kavanagh to the environment of Monaghan and Dublin reflect more on his state of mind than on the environments themselves.  In 1963 he did recognise the beauty of the Monaghan countryside when he wrote:

‘Thirty-years before, Shank Duff’s water-fill could have done the trick for me, but I was too thick to realise it.’

Another portrait of Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey. www.paulmccloskeyart.com

Another portrait of Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey. http://www.paulmccloskeyart.com

A Summary of Features found in Kavanagh’s Poetry

  • Kavanagh presents a realistic portrayal of rural life and resists any idealised depiction of peasant culture or customs.
  • He is a very accomplished celebrant of the ordinary and the commonplace.
  • In his poetry, the past is his past and the present is that of his immediate environment as he lives it.
  • One of his main themes is the authentic engagement with his own people and his native place.
  • His work after 1950 centres on the poet’s watching over ordinary things with affection and love.
  • He makes use of conversational rhythms and everyday colloquial phrases but can combine these with literary and biblical allusions.
  • For Kavanagh, community experiences, places and events serve as viable and valuable subjects on which to work with his imagination.
  • A tone of celebration and a sense of wonder and mystery pervade much of his later poems such as the ‘Canal Bank’ sonnets.
  • However, some of the earlier poems evoke a sense of loss and loneliness, coupled with resentment and occasional despair. This is especially evident in his long poem, ‘The Great Hunger’.
  • Kavanagh’s imagery is richly suggestive, often colourful, evocative and vibrant.
  • He also makes interesting use of hyperbole, paradox and irony in his work.
  • There is a wonderful sense of clarity and assurance in his later sonnets. The light is brilliant and the language is sacramental.

 

 

Enjoy the voices of Kavanagh and the great Luke Kelly sing one of the great love songs of all time! (Put together by Peter Doherty).

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