Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

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Spring Pools

By Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Analysis:  

Robert Frost was very much influenced by the Romantic and Victorian poets who had gone before him.  As with the Romantic poets, Frost sees the natural scene, accurately observed, as the primary poetic subject.  Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.

Romantic nature poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, were usually meditative poems.  The landscape was sometimes personified or imbued with human life as it is in this beautiful lyric.  The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’.  Frost puts many of these principles to good use in this poem.

Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during turbulent and changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned.  He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills.  He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’.  His poetry was written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’.  He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half rhyme.

This short lyric poem opens as Spring begins to take hold of the landscape.  The forest pools formed by the last of the melting snows and rain still mirror the cloudy sky.  The poet informs us that these pools will not last long because the roots of the mighty trees in the Vermont forest will very soon greedily soak up these pools in order to encourage leaf growth.  This is a rather unusual and disturbing perspective on Nature – the poet sees an ominous, dark side to Nature.  The trees soak up the Spring pools and within a short period of time, they are covered in leaves that blot out the flowers on the forest floor and the pools of water which gave them sustenance.  This is symbiosis in reverse and reflects Frost’s unusual perspective on Nature.

Frost demonstrates to us here that he was a keen observer of the natural world.  Plants, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry: the physical world of spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains are all part of the rich landscape he describes for us.

However, we must realise that the natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place.  Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation.  Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’.  His descriptions of nature are not sentimental.  He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold.

The imagination enables the poet to see the world in this new way.  In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state.  This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry.  This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.

The poet is being very philosophical here and looks at Nature in an unusual way.  Yet he is very balanced in his thinking and this balance is reflected in the structure of the poem.  Stanza One describes the coming of Spring in all its glory.  We see his efforts at balance in his use of repetition in the lines,

And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,

Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,

In Stanza Two, Spring gives way to Summer and again Frost shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature.  He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways.  The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’.  He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools.  It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.

The main theme of this poem is mutability and the transience of time.  These are important, weighty concepts in poetry in general but especially here.  This poem, ‘Spring Pools’,  sees time as being destructive.  For him, yesterday’s flowers wither, Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in Autumn.  The unpalatable epiphany for the poet is that Time destroys beauty.

Therefore, we see the imagery in some of Frost’s poems is deceptively simple.  There are images from the natural and the human worlds.  Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre.  In this poem the imagery carries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous.  Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic.  So, beware: simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound!

Nevertheless, in his beloved Vermont countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’.  His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of fences, of apples, and of himself.  Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism.  He chooses the road ‘less travelled’.  He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in such poems as ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’.  His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.

Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here

 

2014-08-27_16_56_52_View_down_the_Stony_Brook_from_the_Stony_Brook_Trail_in_the_Stony_Brook-Millstone_Watershed_Association,_New_Jersey

Exploring Michael Hartnett’s early development as a poet….

Bridget Halpin’s Small Farm in Camas

Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett

brigid-halpins-cottage-today

Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. The photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

 

Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney.  According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th,1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.  Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26.  Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.

Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas.  He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890.  Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla.  He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25.  Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times.  Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.

This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett.  Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head – her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’.  Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West.   He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”.  This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s.  Maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.  This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.

In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911.  By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna.  Over the coming years, they had six children together, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita.  Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia.  His daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921.  Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna.  Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.

Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her.  The cottage which was little more than a three roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926.   The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70.  The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today.  According to Michael Hartnett himself this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling.  Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales.

Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm.  He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club.  They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale.  Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin.   John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85.   Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery.  Her grave is as yet unmarked.

Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and had they six children.  Michael Hartnett[1] was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s.   Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’.   Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband.   Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.

This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin.  Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself!  His Wikipedia page tells us that,

…  his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.

Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975  Hartnett wrote:

My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother.  She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s.  She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty per cent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her.  It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).

We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick.  While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s.  In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language.  In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of  175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law.  This works out at 20% of respondents.  In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded.  In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141.  The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 2o%, however.  Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.

His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated.  She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth.  The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past.  It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.

Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age.  In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885.  He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!

It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated.  For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas.  However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class.  His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’.  He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education.  His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk.  However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’.  John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,

‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal).  We were good friends.  He was certainly always living in town at that time.  I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her.  We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’  Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’,    ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’.   Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not?  In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:

Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’,    ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’.   Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not?  In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:

I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –

not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth

when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots

  and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.

We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential  ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.  He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman” , which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament.  Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885.   Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons.  He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside.  This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn.  There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology.  For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,

Her fear was not the simple fear of one

who does not know the source of thunder:

these were the ancient Irish gods

she had deserted for the sake of Christ.

However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits.   His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001.  He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,

All the perversions of the soul

I learnt on a small farm,

how to do the neighbours harm

by magic, how to hate.

The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden.  The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”).  The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace.  The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh.  Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,

I was abandoned to their tragedies

and began to count the birds,

to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,

and to avoid among my nameless weeds

the civil war of that household.

Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas.  His grandmother’s world view is almost feral.  She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,

A bird’s hover,

seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,

was rain, or death, or lost cattle.

This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,

The day’s warning, like red plovers

so etched and small the clouded sky,

was book to you, and true bible.

We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for.  In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,

You died in utter loneliness,

your acres left to the childless.

Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations.    We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious.  However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’.  This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name!  Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio!  The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for this earlier gaffe.

Therefore, the townland of Camas, and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche.  His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School.  He was thirteen.  Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet.  It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing.  Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’.  It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt,  to the young poet’s  voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane.   It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’poems written exclusively for local consumption.  Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,

A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,

A cottage thatched with golden straw,

The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches.  However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,

The sun goes down on Camas Road.

The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”.  This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany.  The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas.  He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin.  He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair.  These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with

Sugán belts and long black coats

with big ashplants and half-sacks

of rags and bacon on their backs.

They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’.  Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.

As another part of the myth that he had created, Hatnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom.  He was immensely proud of this fact.  In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:

I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith.  When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).

Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett.   MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock).  As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there.   However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom!  He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street.  However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry.  The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)!  Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him.  Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to  revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had  earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom.  His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,

…… to hear a  Gaelic court

Talk broken English of an English king.

As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality.  We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson.  We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area.   His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas.  Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself?  The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”.  He is,

……. climbing upwards into time

And climbing backwards into tradition.

 So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century.  The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry.  Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’!  In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’.  When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry.  He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh,  to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.

Works Cited

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Hartnett’s Wikipage

Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133

Hartnett, Michael.  Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.143

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.

Sources:  My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.

[1] Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.  

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Bridget Halpin’s derelict cottage as it was in early 2017. The cottage is presently undergoing a major extension. (Photo Credit: Dermot Lynch)

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

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Michael Hartnett on Confirmation Day circa 1953

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

By Michael Hartnett

No great dreams were found

in our nineteen-forties streets:

Newcastle West

slowly turned its face

from a bitter past.

We were a complicated sum perhaps

but made of simple needs

and demanded no world-changing vision.

We moved along the scale

living our own lives,

made separate, but never split,

by time’s long division.

We remained a stable number

that certainly would last:

whatever we had become

we began with simple hearts.

But suddenly one friend is cancelled out

and the long subtraction starts.

Commentary: This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994.  However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992.  Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.

Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died.  These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland.  These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.

This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’)  and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’,  written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.  We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.

Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s.  She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett.  This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’.   Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below).  Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor.  Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.

However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he used to swop comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’.  The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’.  These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West.  Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town.  Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here.  Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.

The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’.  The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.

Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.

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Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.

A great love poem for the day that’s in it!

from Anatomy of a Cliché

by Michael Hartnett

9 ‘I want you to stand with me…..’

I want you to stand with me

as a birch tree beside a thorn tree,

I want you as a gold-green moss

close to the bark

when the winds toss

my limbs to tragedy and dark.

You are to be the loveliness

in my cold days,

the live colour in my barrenness,

the fingers that demonstrate my ways.

I can anticipate no days

unless your graceful sway of hands

arrange my awkward life.

…………………………………

‘Water Baby’ by Michael Hartnett

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Water Baby

By Michael Hartnett

Already the chestnuts, each a small green mace,

fall in the rusted chainmail leaves.  The swifts,

like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.

Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,

small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;

lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.

The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.

Many cling to rafts of music but I,

I am not happy with the human race

aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –

I skip dripping in the shining rain

and feel the minute fingers tap my face

and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell

I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.

Commentary:

Some day I hope to write a fitting analysis of this beautiful sonnet – a commentary that will do it justice.  In the meantime, I have to agree with my son Don who has suggested that this is Michael Hartnett’s best sonnet and a poem for which Hartnett deserves acclaim and greater recognition.  Leaving Cert English Poetry course developers please note!

 

“A sense of loss pervades much of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry” – Discuss

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

Kavanagh is very adept at reflecting the common, everyday occurrences in the rural area of Monaghan in which he grew up.  He writes in a direct way about his own experience with the land.  He celebrates the beauty of nature’s commonplace things.  And yet, a sense of loss also pervades much of his poetry.

In one of Kavanagh’s earlier poems, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, he stands on his mile of kingdom, insisting with pride, or perhaps defiance, that he is king of ‘banks and stones and every blooming thing’.  The poem explores the nature of being a poet and in this regard,  Kavanagh acknowledges the reality of his ‘plight’, in spite of the grandiose notion of poetic ‘contemplation’.  The poet shares with us his deep sense of loss.  It is a loss of companionship as others rush past him in ‘Twos and threes’.  Other young men and women make no attempt to communicate with the poet who stands alone on the roadside.  At the dance, he imagines their own coded communications, from which, once again, he is excluded.  The hurt is felt as the poet stands in solitude, isolated from his community, with ‘no shadow thrown / That might turn out a man or woman’.  Kavanagh has been reduced to being a spectator and he sees that this is the high price he must pay for his poetic gift.  The bustle of the dance is in stark contrast to the silence of the mile of road where not even a ‘footfall’ can be expected.

The exploration of the loss of companionship is further developed in ‘The Great Hunger’.  In this poem, Kavanagh explores and also explodes many of the romantic images of the simple, contented rural peasant in Ireland.  He exposes the inadequacies of a social system which stifles the emotional and sexual needs of Patrick Maguire, who becomes entrapped by his clay bride, the land.  Similar to the poet in ‘Inniskeen Road’, Maguire is unable to communicate his needs to others; his only reason for shouting at his farm labourers is to extend his orders for the day.  He is bogged down in empty promises: ‘Who was it promised marriage to himself / Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Halloween’.  He attempts to console himself for his loss of fertility, without wife, without children, pretending to his soul ‘That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April’.

In this society, the lie that ‘Clay is the word’ is perpetuated and so Maguire ‘lives that his little fields may stay fertile’.  In moments of frustration and despair he cries out ‘if I had been wiser!’ but he knows he can never escape ‘the grip of irregular fields’.  Tragically, Maguire’s cries are unheard and unheeded.

A further exploration of loss is evident in ‘Advent’.  In this poem, the concern is with the loss of innocence and wonder.  Kavanagh employs religious association to suggest his yearning to return to a state of innocence in which the ordinary and the commonplace are ‘spirit-shocking’.  It is a poem that declares the poet’s regret at having been corrupted by experience – ‘we have tested and tasted too much’.  Although the poem details the poet’s loss, it does not plummet into despair.  The loss is balanced by the uplifting mood of hope in the third stanza that after Christmas the poet will once again take possession of that ‘luxury’ he had previously lost, ‘And Christ comes with a January flower’.

Kavanagh’s verse is usually self-revealing.  In ‘On Raglan Road’ yet another aspect of loss is related to us.  Once more Kavanagh opens his mind and heart with honesty, cautioning in the first line of the lyric that his love’s ‘dark hair would weave a snare’.  Despite his awareness of the ‘danger’, the poet begins his courtship and enthusiastically woos his friend with gifts ‘of the mind’ such as poems.  A major concern of the poem, however, is lost love, and so despite the poet’s attempts to win his friend’s trust and love, the courtship fails.  Loss of faith in women is replaced with loss of faith in the land in the poem ‘Shancoduff’.  Hills which are looked upon with affection and some pride, are re-evaluated in light of the cattle-drovers’ denouncement that they are ‘hungry’ and ‘forsaken’.

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that in his poetry Kavanagh speaks his mind in praise and in condemnation.  In his subjective verse, his feelings run very deep.  Certainly, he may share with us his celebrations but he does not ignore his sense of loss and isolation.  He records his resentment at being an outcast in his own community in ‘Inniskeen Road’. He denounces the privation of opportunity and fulfilment in ‘The Great Hunger’. He yearns for his lost innocence and wonder in ‘Advent’ and he agonises over his lost love and lost faith in ‘On Raglan Road’ and in ‘Shancoduff’.

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‘Oh, can I still stroke the monster’s back or write with unpoisoned pen…’

“Patrick Kavanagh is a very Religious Poet” – Discuss

 

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

There is a major religious element to Kavanagh’s poetry.  Kavanagh is clearly deeply influenced by his early Catholic upbringing and all that this entails.  He finds inspiration in the liturgical seasons such as Advent.  His poems contain references to Genesis in the Old Testament and to the sacrament of Baptism.  Examples of this orthodox Catholic theology is clearly evident in such poems as ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ and many more.

In the poem ‘Advent’, Kavanagh feels that he has been corrupted by the whole process of living.  He has ‘tested and tasted too much’.  By ‘testing’ and ‘tasting’, of course, he means that he has indulged in pleasure for the mind and pleasure for the body.  Kavanagh feels too that he has lost the wonder of things, ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.

In order to purify himself, Kavanagh is going to use traditional religious methods: ’the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’.  He wants to win back lost innocence, to ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’.  He is going to make a new spiritual beginning; he is going to leave the apple of sin back on the tree and start again in innocence: ‘We’ll return to Doom the knowledge we stole but could not use’.

In this poem, Kavanagh feels that the world has grown sour and stale.  He wants to reawaken the newness that was once in the world for him before he lost wonder and innocence.  This newness and spiritual renewal is to be achieved through penance and self-denial.

Once he has been purified and spiritually regenerated, the ordinary world around him will be new.  It will be new because he will have been spiritually renewed.  He will now find newness and wonder in the ordinary ‘banal’ things – in something as common as the sound of a churning, in the very ordinary almost clichéd sight of the village boys ‘lurching’ at the street corner or in the sight of decent men ‘barrowing dung in gardens under trees’.

Now Kavanagh will be rich – spiritually rich: ‘Won’t we be rich, my love and I’.  And he vows that he will not destroy his new-found wonder and innocence by analysis, by questioning, by intellectualising.  He will not ask for ‘reason’s payment’.  He will not ask the ‘why’ of things.  He will be content to wonder.  As he says in another poem, ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.

Kavanagh has now discarded his old self – the self that ‘tested’ and ‘tasted’, the self that was obsessed with the worthless pursuit of pleasure and knowledge: ‘We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’.  There is going to be a new beginning: ‘And Christ comes with the January flower’.

The poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is equally religious.  The year is 1955 and Kavanagh has recently emerged from hospital having undergone a sort of religious experience or spiritual renewal.  The natural world around him is wonderful.  The canal banks are ‘leafy with love’ and the canal water has taken on a religious significance.  It is now Baptismal; water, baptising the poet’s new-born soul.

From now on Kavanagh is going to do the will of God and God’s will is that he steep himself in the ordinary world, ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  God’s will is that he go back to that state of oneness with nature which he had in the innocence of childhood.  He must ‘grow with nature’ again.  For Kavanagh the very breeze takes on a personal dimension: it is adding a third party to the couple kissing on an old seat; it is making up a threesome.

In this poem, Kavanagh’s view is deeply religious.  A bird preparing to build a nest is no longer just a bird building a nest.  It has taken on a religious dimension.  The bird is, in a spiritual sense, preparing a place for the Word to be made flesh.  In Kavanagh’s new-found spiritual view of the world, all new life is a manifestation of God.  It is God Himself visible in physical terms.  The bird is ‘gathering materials for the nest for the Word’.

Kavanagh now wants to live in total oneness with God’s creation, with nature.  He will live life at the level of the senses.  There will be no more intellectualising.  He wants to be trapped forever in the world of sight and sound: ‘enrapture me in a web of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’.  He seems to feel that he has lived too long and too much in the world of questioning, testing and analysis.  He has neglected the world of sensual contact with nature; ‘feed the gaping need of my senses’.

Finally, in this poem, Kavanagh wants to return to the innocence and simplicity of childhood where he could pray without inhibition: ‘Give me ad lib to pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech’.  He wants his new-born soul to be dressed in green and blue things.  This is the green of the earth and the blue of the sky, the totality of nature, of God’s creation.  There will be no searching for answers. He will settle for ‘arguments that cannot be proven’.

Kavanagh then, in the poems ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is deeply religious.  He is religious in two ways; he is spiritually renewed personally and nature itself takes on a very religious significance.  He wants, as it were, to begin again in innocence – to be, in effect, the very first Born-Again-Christian in 1950’s Catholic Ireland! 

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Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

“Patrick Kavanagh’s Poetry is full of Honesty, Integrity and Simplicity” – Discuss

 

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Patrick Kavanagh by Barnie Maguire on ArtClick.ie

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.

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The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

“Patrick Kavanagh is a poet of the Ordinary” – Discuss

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Bikes on the Road to Billy Brennan’s Barn, Inniskeen – courtesy of http://www.fisherbelfast.wordpress.com

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.

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

‘Death of an Irishwoman’ by Michael Hartnett

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Bridget Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. Photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

Death of an Irishwoman

By Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems.Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001.

Author’s Notes:  Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies.  In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”.  In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations.  

A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral.   Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.

In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80.  Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.

Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother.  His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955.  Hartnett was thirteen.  This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.

Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s.  Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.

Bridget Halpin is a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament.  According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder.  This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:

I loved her from the day she died.

 What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets.  Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126).  His final metaphor:

She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change.  Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.

In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect.  During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts.  This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this).  Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant.  He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town.  His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:

We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.

This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:

old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.

Author’s Note:  Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation.  The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this.  As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when,  in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885.  He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!

Bibliography

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012