Kavanagh writes about the ordinary world around him; about a world of ‘whins’ and ‘bogholes’ and ‘cart-tracks’ and ‘old stables’. He has learnt anew to look at the ordinary in an extraordinary way. This is part of Kavanagh’s greatness as a poet: he is content with his own world, his own reality. It may not be a sophisticated world, but no matter. This willingness and ability to be faithful to himself and his world is part of his simplicity. Simplicity, after all, is just the ability to be satisfied with oneself, no matter how ridiculous one may seem to others.
All through his poetry, Kavanagh has a respect for the commonplace, the ordinary. He wants to ‘wallow in the habitual’. In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he tells us what it was like to be a poet in a peasant community where he was an outsider. It’s a July evening and all the locals are celebrating at the local barn dance. Kavanagh is alone on the road. He knows now the price that is to be paid for his gift of poetry; the price is isolation and loneliness. Poet or no, he has human needs, the need for human contact, the need for romance. He dismisses the pretentiousness of the intellectuals, ‘I have what every poet hates in spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation’. This is the ordinary, it is the authentic voice of the outsider who yearns to be loved.
In his poem ‘Advent’, he feels that he may perhaps have lost some of the wonder that lies in the ordinary. He may be beginning to lose respect for the everyday world because of over-familiarity, ‘we have tested and tasted too much…..’ he sets out to recapture that fascination that he once found in the ordinary. He is going to renew himself through suffering during the penitential season of Advent by eating only ‘the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’. He has decided to regain his state of childish innocence and then he will once again revel in the ordinary, in ‘the whins, the bogholes, the cart-tracks, old stables …’ the ordinary will once again be wonderful, a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be spirit shocking’; it will touch his soul. The boring chat of an old fool will no longer be tedious. It will again have a newness; it will contain ‘prophetic astonishment’. The common everyday world will fascinate him; there will be wonder in the ‘whispered argument of a churning’. From now on his interest will be ‘wherever life pours ordinary plenty’. He is going to settle for the ordinary, ‘the banal’. Instead, he will now no longer over-analyse the world of the senses, ‘please God we shall not ask for reason’s payment’. He won’t ask the ‘why’ of things, ‘nor analyse God’s breath in common statement’.
There is nothing pompous or pretentious about Kavanagh. He respects the commonplace, whether it is in the Monaghan of his youth or in the canal area around Baggot Street of later years. He enthuses about the swan going by ‘head low’ or the fantastic light ‘that looks through the eyes of bridges’, or again the common sight (in Kavanagh’s day) of a barge on the canal. When he dies he wants no ‘hero courageous tomb’. He’ll settle for something much more humble, ‘just a canal bank seat for the passer-by’ – for the ordinary man in the street.
There is more to be said about Kavanagh’s treatment of the ordinary: he often takes the ordinary and elevates it to a new level; he gives it a heroic dimension. The little waterfall on the canal becomes Niagara Falls. Even the little patch of grass at Baggot Street Bridge becomes his Mount Parnassus, his place of inspiration. The barge on the canal is also given legendary status. It is bringing ‘mythologies’ from afar like Jason’s Argos no doubt. The barge men, too, will have yarns to tell in Dublin pubs, these yarns may be just well-made lies about strange sights they claim to have seen in that world beyond Sallins! Kavanagh elevates these events and now they become ‘mythologies’. Athy may be a not-very-important little town some forty miles from Dublin but it is elevated by Kavanagh to the status of heroic places like Athens and Rome. Athy becomes a ‘far-flung’ place.
Elsewhere in his poems, we have the same elevation of the ordinary. His own humble plight as a lonely soul becomes equated with that of Alexander Selkirk. A bird building a nest is an ordinary sight but in his poem ‘Canal Bank Walk’ it takes on a greater significance. In that nest, new life will be born and through that new life God will reveal himself; in that nest, the Word will be made Flesh. In this poem we also see that the canal water is no longer mere canal water; it is now elevated to the Jordan (where Christ is baptised by John), ‘the green waters of the canal pouring redemption for me’. In ‘Advent’ he can see Christ in a January flower and the ‘decent men who barrow dung to gardens under trees’ are engaged in great work, they are helping God to continue the work of ongoing creation. They are, he proposes, co-creators with the Almighty.
Finally, we come to Kavanagh’s language and diction. His language is not strictly poetical, not pompous, not sophisticated. It is the language of every day, it is colloquial. We don’t find Kavanagh resorting to poetic diction. He uses the phrasing and rhythms of ordinary speech. The result, of course, is that his poetry has often been adversely criticised for its rugged rhythms. Kavanagh would not be over-concerned about this. He had, he said, developed ‘the philosophy of not caring’. ‘The bicycles go by in twos and threes, there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ – that’s a perfect example of ordinary, colloquial language. Examples like these occur everywhere in Kavanagh’s poetry. This ordinary diction conveys the simplicity, integrity and total lack of pretension in Kavanagh. He is, indeed, a poet of the ordinary.