An important element in Kavanagh’s poetry is his obvious honesty, integrity and simplicity. According to Kavanagh, simplicity is the ability to be content and satisfied with oneself no matter how ridiculous or silly or commonplace one may appear to others. A simple man is not a poser; he has no need to look over his shoulder to see what others think; there is no desire to seek the approval of the experts or of one’s peers. To have simplicity is to have what Kavanagh called ‘the philosophy of not caring’.
Kavanagh manifests simplicity in his poetry in three ways:
- First, we have the simplicity of subject matter or theme.
- Secondly, he writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about.
- Thirdly, there is simplicity of language and technique, in his rhymes and in his rhythms.
The simplicity in his subject matter and themes is easily seen. He writes unashamedly about the ordinary, commonplace world around him; he does not search for lofty, intellectual themes. He writes about ‘whins’, ‘bogholes’, ‘cart-tracks’, barn dances, farming, ‘men.. who barrow dung in gardens under trees’. He draws from the ordinary but authentic world of his own experience. He tells us of the awful loneliness of being a poet in a peasant community, about being ‘king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’. He recalls bitterly how he, as a poet, had been ‘soul destroyed’ by an uninspiring environment, how Monaghan ‘burgled his bank of youth’, how it ‘flung a ditch on my vision’. He tells too of his deep human need for love and romance, ‘lost the long hours of pleasure, all the women that loved young men’. This is all the ‘stuff’ of reality and ordinary reality at that. It may not be a great heroic world, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is the world of authentic experience and he is content with it. That’s simplicity.
In his poetry, Kavanagh writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about. He finds wonder in a barge coming up the canal, in a swan going by ‘head low with many apologies’, in ’the bright stick trapped’, in the light which comes ‘through the eye of bridges’. Everywhere he is satisfied with his world, he does not need to go searching for a theme, they are all around him. He finds a message in ‘the whispered argument of a churning’ or in the street ‘where the village boys are lurching’. He finds his God being revealed in incidents as ordinary as a bird building a nest or in decent men ‘who barrow dung in gardens under trees’.
This same simplicity is to be found in his language and diction. He has little time for poetic diction or flowery pompous language. He uses ordinary everyday colloquial language, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes, there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight.’ There’s nothing very poetic about that! Other examples of his ordinary language are numerous: ‘Every old man I see reminds me of my father’, ‘Commemorate me where there is water, canal water preferably’. Etc. etc. etc. There is nothing pretentious about this poetic voice, rather it is honest. He is content with his own language, however ordinary, and doesn’t care how he is perceived by the literary ‘purists’.
We can also see examples of his simplicity in his rhythms and rhymes – his technique. His rhymes are often imperfect. For example he rhymes ‘water’ with ‘brother’, ‘roars’ with ‘prose’, ‘silence’ with ‘islands’, ‘bridges’ with ‘courageous’, ‘lover’ with ‘wonder’, ‘weather’ with ‘father’, ‘musician’ with ‘London’, and ‘web’ with ‘lib’. These rhymes would not, I’m sure, meet with the approval of the ‘experts’. But Kavanagh is not concerned. He is content with himself, he is not trying to be polished. After all, he is simply an honest peasant poet writing about ordinary, unsophisticated, personal things. Over-polished rhyming would surely be out of place here, it would be seen as less authentic
His rhythms are often, too, coarse and rugged. This is only to be expected since, as I have already stated, he is not using poetic diction but ordinary, colloquial language which is not always musical. Listen to a few examples: ‘O commemorate me where there is water..’, ‘I have what every poet hates, in spite of all this solemn talk of contemplation’, ‘that man I saw on Gardner Street was one’. All these lines have the ruggedness of ordinary speech. Kavanagh is, however, content with them. He has discovered in his life the ability to be satisfied with himself no matter how others may come to regard him. That’s honesty. That’s integrity. That’s simplicity.