Some Recurring Themes in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

 

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Those hungry hills….

Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems.  These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:

  • Loneliness and isolation;
  • Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
  • Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
  • The relationship between the poet and nature;
  • Religion;
  • Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.

It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career.  Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’.  The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’   and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent.  Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:

You sang on steaming dunghills

A song of coward’s brood

You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch

You fed me on swinish food.

The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion.  The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm.  His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated.  He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:

You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm.  It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone.  Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:

The first gay flight of my lyric

Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’.  Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him.  He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance.  They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’.  He is pointedly excluded.  He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst.  This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point.  The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.

There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings.  Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature.  The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope.  He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him.  There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him.  Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer.  He now feels as if he has been reborn.  He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes.  Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:

O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web

Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech

This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.

The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’.  Here again, the tone is optimistic.  Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’.  It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water.  Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan.  This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work.  The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.

‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme.  It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems.  Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’.  In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track.  However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed.  The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’.  The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again.  There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet.  Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems.  Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons.  ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience.  Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life.  By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful.  The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty.  Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind.  Metaphorically he is born again!  Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced.  He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.

This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

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An Overview of Patrick Kavanagh’s Poetry

Those hungry hills....

Those hungry hills….

 

In Chapter 3 of his novel Tarry Flynn, Kavanagh describes a summer sunset and, though sunsets have often been written about, when Kavanagh does it, like all true artists, he makes it his own:

‘The summer sun was going down in a most wonderful yellow ball behind the hills of Drumnay.  It turned the dirty upstairs windows of Cassidy’s house into stained glass.’

Here the beauty of the evening sun is captured with all the simplicity of a child’s painting: the sun is ‘a most wonderful yellow ball’; the local place and people are named and the ordinariness of dirty windows is put before us.  But Kavanagh’s way of setting the world has transformed those windows into beautiful things of praise.

It is important to note that almost all the poems by Kavanagh on the Leaving Cert Syllabus contain references to place and the people who make those places special.  As Michael Schmidt puts it, in Kavanagh’s poetry, ‘Naming of places and things is of almost magical significance’.  He writes in praise and celebration, for the most part, but in the extract from ‘The Great Hunger’, a darker relationship with place is explored.  In Sean O’Brien’s words, ‘The Great Hunger’ depicts farming as, ‘hard labour and the bachelor male condition as sexually frustrated’.  By contrast, in ‘Epic’ and ‘Advent’ the countryside is written about with affection and the rural images in his city poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, are happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds.  Harry Clifton thinks that ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’ – for example ‘Inniskeen Road’ and the Canal Bank Sonnets are gloriously set in mid-July.

In many of Kavanagh’s poems, he is the outsider and the speaker in the poem is aware that this has advantages and disadvantages.  He himself felt that:

‘A poet is never one of the people.  He is detached, remote, and the life of small-time dances and talk about football would not be for him.  He might take part but could not belong.’

‘Inniskeen Road’ and ‘Epic’ are poems which highlight the position of the poet; he feels cut off, at a remove from his neighbours, and yet the poems hint at how he is also content with his lot.  In ‘Raglan Road’, the painful memories of unrequited love give way to the poet’s own belief in himself and yet, in ‘Lines Written…’, he chooses what has been described by Antoinette Quinn as, ‘an unegotistical tomb, a monument to his poetics rather than to his person’ where, ‘future visitors are asked to sit with their backs to the memorial description, reading instead the scene before them’.

Kavanagh’s own experience of life is at the heart of a Kavanagh poem.  He writes directly out of his own experience – rural life, farming, childhood memories, unrequited love, illness and convalescence, his love of nature, his gratitude to God.  When he writes ‘I’, he is almost always writing in his own voice and, even when he writes in the third person, as when he writes about Patrick Maguire and what Kavanagh called ‘the prison of a farmer’s life’ in ‘The Great Hunger’, he also includes the voice of a concerned, involved narrator which creates a closer link between the harsh, bleak world of the poem and the reader.

But the world of Kavanagh’s poetry is above all celebratory.  Poems such as ‘Advent’, ‘The Hospital’ and the Canal Bank sonnets are all love poems to place.  Here when Kavanagh looks, he sees ‘the newness that was in every stale thing’ and he delights in the ordinary, the natural, the physical world ‘of bog-holes, cart tracks, old stables’, ‘dreeping hedges’, ‘square cubicles in a row’, ‘The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry, / The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap’, the trapped stick, the grass, canal water ‘stilly / Greeny at the heart of summer’.  In a lecture entitled ‘Man and Poet’, Kavanagh said:

‘We are in too great a hurry.  We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments.  But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us when no one is looking with all that is memorable’.

The Canal Bank sonnets are unhurried poems in which Kavanagh’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.

Anthony Cronin has described Patrick Kavanagh as an intensely private man who lived his life in public places, a man who thought mediocrity the enemy of genius, the enemy of life.  He did live a public life as journalist and man about town but Kavanagh also claimed that ‘the only subject that is of any great importance – Man-in-this-world-and-why’.  He also believed that, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’ and that great beauty and profound truths can be discovered in apparently ordinary places.

John McGahern tells of how the forty-one-year-old Patrick Kavanagh once pointed out a particular grass and said: ‘I love that grass.  I’ve known it since I was a child.  I’ve often wondered if I’d be different if I had been brought up to love better things’.  In the end, though, he did believe in Ballyrush and Gortin, in ordinary things, for it was in the ordinary that not only meaning could be found but that Kavanagh discovered the extraordinary.  He had, in the end, come to the discovery that, ‘The material itself has no special value; it is what our imagination and our love does to it’.

Kavanagh is capable of great lyrical intensity.  There is great lyrical, gentle but impassioned quality in lines such as ‘O unworn world enrapture me’ or ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ and a sense of being totally at ease.  Kavanagh’s language can be what Patrick Crotty calls ‘grittily realistic’ (especially in ‘The Great Hunger’) but there is also a colloquial rhythm in such lines as ‘There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ or ‘That was the year of the Munich bother’ and there is also a great lyrical quality in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where ‘pouring’ and ‘overflowing’ seem to describe the poem’s rhythm and mood:

‘For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.’

Kavanagh has an extraordinary ability to create fresh, surprising images

  • ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’;
  • ‘a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’;
  • ‘I am king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’;
  • ‘The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff’;
  • ‘Mass-going feet / Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes’;
  • ‘The wind leans from Brady’s, and the coltsfoot leaves are holed with rust’;
  • ‘And Christ comes with a January flower’;
  • ‘we tripped lightly along the ledge / Of the deep ravine’;
  • ‘Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind’; ‘the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard’;
  • ‘a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word’;
  • ‘A swan goes by head low with many apologies’.

Kavanagh’s poetry is a record of a journey that brought him from Monaghan to the banks of the Grand Canal, a journey of discovery and exploration in which he reveals himself as one who found the ordinary, extraordinary, and that ‘the things that really matter as casual, insignificant little things’.  He offers us a version of himself in his poem ‘If Ever You Go To Dublin Town’:  ‘If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so’ he says, ‘Inquire for me in Baggot Street / And what I was like to know’ and he goes on to tell us that he was ‘a queer one’, ‘dangerous’, ‘a nice man’, ‘eccentric’, ‘a proud one’, ‘a vain one’, ‘slothful’ and it ends:

He knew that posterity had no use

 For anything but the soul,

 The lines that speak the passionate heart,

 The spirit that lives alone.

 O he was a lone one

Fol dol the di do,

Yet he lived happily

I tell you.

 

 

from “The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh