Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry. He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form. Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers. He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella. But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life. His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.
A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns. His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions. In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition. It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace. However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability. There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention. Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty. He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!
On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:
A swan goes by head low with many apologies
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it. He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life. Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it. As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems. The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind. Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely. A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem. The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line. The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal. On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines. Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references. In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image. By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem. It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.
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.
Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works. In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter. He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’ Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur. Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term. There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method. The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him. He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images. He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan. God ordained that men should work and suffer. But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’ His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation. This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects. Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact. Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..
God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet. In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’ Of Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem. He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate. Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God. He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:
…………………………, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.
He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold. First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured. The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder. This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’. This poem is deceptively simple. Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene. It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:
O unworn world enrapture me….
He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable. This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.
Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets). There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves. Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe. In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure. All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem. A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’. ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief. The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric. But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes. The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment. What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation. The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet. He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly. His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable. Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:
……….. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two. It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’. It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious. Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably….
In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience. Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:
Commemorate me thus beautifully…
As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene. He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge. Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives. Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.
Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements. His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used. In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world. It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses. And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience. It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.