Inniskeen Road: July Evening
By Patrick Kavanagh
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
Copyright © Estate of Katherine Kavanagh
In his early poems Kavanagh experimented with a dreamy, transcendental sort of poetry. He seemed to want to escape from his own real world. He didn’t feel that his own world was a fit subject for poetry, or that poetic thought could be expressed in ordinary language. All this has changed when he comes to write ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ in 1936.
This is one of the first examples of realism in Kavanagh’s poetry. For the first time he has found the courage to use his own specific world and his own position within that world as the subject matter for poetry. In this poem he writes about his own local place – a world in which he was both an insider and an outsider. He belongs because he was born there and lives there. He doesn’t belong because, as a poet, he is isolated, he is different. In this poem he writes eloquently about this anomaly.
This poem is about a local and personal experience. It’s the first time that Kavanagh uses actual place names and personal names in his poetry. There is a specific place, Inniskeen Road, and a specific time, July Evening at half-past-eight and the centre of local activity is Billy Brennan’s Barn. It’s the first time that Kavanagh’s own local world comes to life in his poetry and marks a major watershed in his poetry where from now on realism is at the heart of all his work. He writes about his own real, personal situation in the real world of Inniskeen Road during a summer barn dance. To make the poem even more real, he uses the present tense throughout – it’s as if the action is happening as he speaks.
THEME: This poem is about the isolation of the poet. A poet is different from other people: he is not interested in material matters such as the price of cattle, the progress of crops or the results of football matches. The poet lives in the world of imagination and because of this he is often considered as an outsider; he is isolated – a loner – he does not fit in to ordinary society. So the price the poet pays for his gift of poetry is the pain of isolation.
This poem recounts a local barn dance and the whole neighbourhood has gone for an evening’s enjoyment. Kavanagh has not gone – perhaps for fear of being laughed at. The tone of the octet (first 8 lines)is thoughtful as well as being bitter. There is a sense of loneliness in it – ‘and there is not a spot upon a mile of road…’ He feels a palpable sense of being excluded by the other young people’s ‘half-talk code of mysteries’ and by their ‘wink and elbow language of delight’.
In the sestet (final 6 lines) the tone is again very bitter when he considers his own isolation and compares his lot (similar to Elizabeth Bishop in ‘Crusoe in England’) with that of Alexander Selkirk, the prototype for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – ‘Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight…’. Listen to the bitterness of the final line: ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming (God damned) thing’.
LANGUAGE: Kavanagh is the poet of ordinary language. He has no place for poetic diction or flowery language. Instead he uses ordinary, colloquial language. This use of ordinary speech is part of his simplicity; he does not try to impress; he is not looking over his shoulder at the literary critics. Here he is content with himself and with his language: there is a country barn dance in ‘Billy Brennan’s barn’, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes’, there is ‘the half talk code of mysteries’ and also he notices ‘the wink and elbow language of delight’, capturing perfectly the closely-knit peasant atmosphere of the local dance.
STRUCTURE: In the first quatrain (4 lines) Kavanagh focuses on the togetherness, the closely-knit community spirit of the place – the cyclists going along the stony road to the local dance. They are so closely-knit they don’t even have to speak to be understood, they wink, use ‘half-code’, and nudge each other in an excited way – they communicate in code, they gesture and signal each other. This creates a huge obstacle for the reticent, isolated poet.
In the second quatrain the road is deserted. We sense the poet who has probably noticed all the earlier excitement from a safe distance, hidden from view, now is overcome with a sense of isolation and the silence on the roadway is unbearable, ‘not a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ – he might as well be on a deserted island.
In the sestet Kavanagh further contemplates his own situation and his plight as a poet. The break between the octet and the sestet on the page symbolises Kavanagh’s separateness from the community. For him, the price he must pay for being a poet is to be considered an outsider. This notion is typically Irish and goes back many years when the Bardic poets had great standing and power in the community: they could make or break a lord or lady and were often paid to praise a patron or denigrate an enemy. This is the price Kavanagh must pay for his poetic gift and he calls this state a ‘plight’. He makes the comparison with Alexander Selkirk, a man who was marooned on a deserted island. Of course, Selkirk was set ashore voluntarily, so Kavanagh is not totally a reluctant loner. But he is honest; honest enough to admit that poetic solitude is not some grandiose, blessed, exalted state. He rejects the ‘solemn talk of contemplation’. Here he is distancing himself from pretentious phoney literary attitudes and poses.
RHYMING SCHEME: This is a Shakespearean sonnet and therefore it has the classic Shakespearean rhyming scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. However, Kavanagh is experimenting here and even though the sonnet has a Shakespearean rhyming scheme, the sonnet is laid out in the classic Petrarchan pattern of octet followed by sestet. As we have referred to earlier he cleverly uses the break between octet and sestet to show his own separateness and isolation from the community; to show his plight as an outsider.
- First published in 1936
- First published example of Kavanagh’s realism
- Poetry could be written about the local and the ordinary
- This is a personal poem – Kavanagh’s own situation – his plight as poet – insider and outsider
- Honesty – ‘solemn talk of contemplation’ – distances himself from phoney literary attitudes and posing
- Ordinary world – a road, bicycles, a barn dance
- Conversational tone – ordinary diction can be used in poetry