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’.
In his early poems Kavanagh experimented with a dreamy, transcendental sort of poetry. He seemed to want to escape from his own real world. He didn’t feel that his own world was a fit subject for poetry, or that poetic thought could be expressed in ordinary language. All this has changed when he comes to write ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ in 1936.
This is one of the first examples of realism in Kavanagh’s poetry. For the first time he has found the courage to use his own specific world and his own position within that world as the subject matter for poetry. In this poem he writes about his own local place – a world in which he was both an insider and an outsider. He belongs because he was born there and lives there. He doesn’t belong because, as a poet, he is isolated, he is different. In this poem he writes eloquently about this anomaly.
This poem is about a local and personal experience. It’s the first time that Kavanagh uses actual place names and personal names in his poetry. There is a specific place, Inniskeen Road, and a specific time, July Evening at half-past-eight and the centre of local activity is Billy Brennan’s Barn. It’s the first time that Kavanagh’s own local world comes to life in his poetry and marks a major watershed in his poetry where from now on realism is at the heart of all his work. He writes about his own real, personal situation in the real world of Inniskeen Road during a summer barn dance. To make the poem even more real, he uses the present tense throughout – it’s as if the action is happening as he speaks.
THEME: This poem is about the isolation of the poet. A poet is different from other people: he is not interested in material matters such as the price of cattle, the progress of crops or the results of football matches. The poet lives in the world of imagination and because of this he is often considered as an outsider; he is isolated – a loner – he does not fit in to ordinary society. So the price the poet pays for his gift of poetry is the pain of isolation.
This poem recounts a local barn dance and the whole neighbourhood has gone for an evening’s enjoyment. Kavanagh has not gone – perhaps for fear of being laughed at. The tone of the octet (first 8 lines)is thoughtful as well as being bitter. There is a sense of loneliness in it – ‘and there is not a spot upon a mile of road…’ He feels a palpable sense of being excluded by the other young people’s ‘half-talk code of mysteries’ and by their ‘wink and elbow language of delight’.
In the sestet (final 6 lines) the tone is again very bitter when he considers his own isolation and compares his lot (similar to Elizabeth Bishop in ‘Crusoe in England’) with that of Alexander Selkirk, the prototype for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – ‘Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight…’. Listen to the bitterness of the final line: ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming (God damned) thing’.
LANGUAGE: Kavanagh is the poet of ordinary language. He has no place for poetic diction or flowery language. Instead he uses ordinary, colloquial language. This use of ordinary speech is part of his simplicity; he does not try to impress; he is not looking over his shoulder at the literary critics. Here he is content with himself and with his language: there is a country barn dance in ‘Billy Brennan’s barn’, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes’, there is ‘the half talk code of mysteries’ and also he notices ‘the wink and elbow language of delight’, capturing perfectly the closely-knit peasant atmosphere of the local dance.
STRUCTURE: In the first quatrain (4 lines) Kavanagh focuses on the togetherness, the closely-knit community spirit of the place – the cyclists going along the stony road to the local dance. They are so closely-knit they don’t even have to speak to be understood, they wink, use ‘half-code’, and nudge each other in an excited way – they communicate in code, they gesture and signal each other. This creates a huge obstacle for the reticent, isolated poet.
In the second quatrain the road is deserted. We sense the poet who has probably noticed all the earlier excitement from a safe distance, hidden from view, now is overcome with a sense of isolation and the silence on the roadway is unbearable, ‘not a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ – he might as well be on a deserted island.
In the sestet Kavanagh further contemplates his own situation and his plight as a poet. The break between the octet and the sestet on the page symbolises Kavanagh’s separateness from the community. For him, the price he must pay for being a poet is to be considered an outsider. This notion is typically Irish and goes back many years when the Bardic poets had great standing and power in the community: they could make or break a lord or lady and were often paid to praise a patron or denigrate an enemy. This is the price Kavanagh must pay for his poetic gift and he calls this state a ‘plight’. He makes the comparison with Alexander Selkirk, a man who was marooned on a deserted island. Of course, Selkirk was set ashore voluntarily, so Kavanagh is not totally a reluctant loner. But he is honest; honest enough to admit that poetic solitude is not some grandiose, blessed, exalted state. He rejects the ‘solemn talk of contemplation’. Here he is distancing himself from pretentious phoney literary attitudes and poses.
RHYMING SCHEME: This is a Shakespearean sonnet and therefore it has the classic Shakespearean rhyming scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. However, Kavanagh is experimenting here and even though the sonnet has a Shakespearean rhyming scheme, the sonnet is laid out in the classic Petrarchan pattern of octet followed by sestet. As we have referred to earlier he cleverly uses the break between octet and sestet to show his own separateness and isolation from the community; to show his plight as an outsider.
First published in 1936
First published example of Kavanagh’s realism
Poetry could be written about the local and the ordinary
This is a personal poem – Kavanagh’s own situation – his plight as poet – insider and outsider
Honesty – ‘solemn talk of contemplation’ – distances himself from phoney literary attitudes and posing
Ordinary world – a road, bicycles, a barn dance
Conversational tone – ordinary diction can be used in poetry
Kavanagh was born on the 21st. of October 1904, in the village of Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan. His father was a shoemaker and had a small farm of land. Kavanagh received only primary school education and at the age of thirteen, he became an apprentice shoemaker. He gave it up 15 months later, admitting that he didn’t make one wearable pair of boots! For the next 20 years Kavanagh would work on the family farm, before moving to Dublin in 1939. From his early years on, he was a man who was out of place. When in Monaghan Kavanagh was a dreamer in a world of realists who were concerned with what seemed to him to be the mundane and banal aspects of life. In Dublin he stood out as the man up from the bog, who didn’t understand the complexities of city life. He was seen as gauche and unrefined. Ironically in Monaghan he was seen as effeminate for having an interest in poetry.
Kavanagh’s interest in literature and poetry marked him out as different from other people in his local place. In a society that was insular and agricultural, a man’s worth was measured by the straightness of the furrow he could plough, rather than the lines of poetry he could write. Kavanagh’s first attempts to become a published poet resulted in the publication of some poems in a local newspaper in the early 1930’s, and in the publishing of his autobiographical novel, Tarry Flynn, in 1939. Urged on by his brother Peter, who was a Dublin-based teacher, Kavanagh moved to the city to establish himself as a writer. At that time, the Dublin Literary Society was dominated by an educated Anglo-Irish group with whom Kavanagh had nothing in common; among them were Oliver St. John Gogarty and Douglas Wylie. They saw Kavanagh as a country bumpkin and referred to him as ‘that Monaghan boy’.
His early years in Dublin were unproductive as he struggled for recognition. In 1947 his first major collection, ‘Soul for Sale’, was published. These poems were the product of his Monaghan youth. In the early 1950’s Kavanagh and his brother Peter published a weekly newspaper called ‘Kavanagh’s Weekly’; it failed because the editorial viewpoint was too narrow. In 1954 Kavanagh became embroiled in an infamous court case. He accused ‘The Leader’ newspaper of slander. The newspaper decided to contest the case and employed the former Taoiseach, John A. Costello, as their defence counsel; Kavanagh decided to prosecute the case himself, and he was destroyed by Costello. The court case dragged on for over a year and Kavanagh’s health began to fail. In 1955 he was diagnosed as having lung cancer and had a lung removed; he survived, and the event was a major turning point in his life and career. In 1958 he published ‘Come Dance with me Kitty Stobling’. In 1959 he was appointed by John A. Costello to the faculty of English in UCD. His lectures were popular, but often irrelevant to the course. In the early 1960’s he visited Britain and the USA; in 1965 he married Katherine Maloney. He died in 1967 from an attack of bronchitis.
Kavanagh’s reputation as a poet is based on the lyrical quality of his work, his mastery of language and form and his ability to transform the ordinary and the banal into something of significance. He is an acute observer of things and situations, and this allows him to make things that may seem ordinary and unimportant into something deserving of a place in poetry.
He is constantly using his work to make sense of the natural world, be it in Dublin or Monaghan. More importantly, Kavanagh is always trying to assess his own place in this world. He often approaches a poem from a point of doubt, where he is unsure about where he belongs, and uses the poem to come to a resolution. The best example of this is in the poem ‘Epic’. He is also trying to praise God and nature in his poems. Indeed his Monaghan poems are not so much about the area, but about how it effects him and his work. It would not be unfair to say that Kavanagh is very self-obsessed. But in his defence it surely can be said that because of this he is writing about what he knows best!
KAVANAGH’S TECHNIQUE AND STYLE
Language: In attempting to create a sense of the mystery and magic of a child’s mind, Kavanagh’s use of language is a vital ingredient in his work. He uses words in a new fashion. He fuses words together, such as ‘clay-minted’ and most famously ‘leafy-with-love’. These phrases and words give extras energy to his poetry and provide it with vigour.
Imagery: Kavanagh’s use of imagery is a very important aspect of his language. In ‘Advent’ he alludes to the Nativity: ‘… old stables where time begins’. In ‘Inniskeen Road’ he refers to Alexander Selkirk. Colloquial language is an intrinsic element of Kavanagh’s style. His phrasing is conversational and many of his phrases owe their origin to his Monaghan background: ‘Among simple decent men too who barrow dung’; ‘every blooming thing’.
Structure – Form: The poems on our course display Kavanagh’s ability in the sonnet form, which is a structural feature of ‘Inniskeen Road’, ‘Advent’, ‘Lines Written….’, and ‘Canal Bank Walk’. In ‘Inniskeen Road’, Kavanagh combines features of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms. The sonnet is divided into an octet and a sestet like the Petrarchan sonnet. In the octet the poet paints a picture and the problems are posed. The poet’s personal response is contained in the sestet. However, the opening stanza can be subdivided into two quatrains following the Shakespearean form, each containing a separate picture of Monaghan life. The sestet also can be divided into a quatrain and a rhyming couplet, therefore mirroring the Shakespearean division into three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme of the poem is also Shakespearean: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In ‘Advent’ Kavanagh also experiments with the sonnet form. The poem is an amalgam of two sonnets, but the stanza pattern is neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean. The opening two stanzas each contain seven lines, and are meant to represent the period of advent, before Christmas. The third stanza representing an entire sonnet is meant to represent the changes which will follow after this period of penance (advent) has ended.
‘Canal Bank Walk’ is written in the traditional 14-line sonnet form. In this poem, Kavanagh combines both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, using the same methods as in ‘Inniskeen Road’.
‘Lines Written… ‘ is fashioned completely in the Petrarchan style. Both the thought pattern and the rhyming scheme follow an octet-sestet pattern.
Religion is a dominant feature in Kavanagh’s poetry, both as a theme and as a source of imagery. Religion features thematically in ‘Advent’, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, and ‘A Christmas Childhood’. ‘Advent’ uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. The theme of the poem is penance-forgiveness-grace, which reflects the theology surrounding the Catholic church’s season of Advent and the Nativity. He desires to return to the state of childish innocence. His reasons are twofold: he will become a better Christian and he will also become a better poet if he can look at the world through the eyes of a child. This theme is followed up in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where the idea of redemption is introduced, as Kavanagh draws analogies between the waters of baptism and the water of the canal.
Rural and Urban
Although Kavanagh arrived in Dublin in 1939, leaving between behind the sixteen acres of stony grey Monaghan soil, it was not until the mid-50’s that his adopted city provided him with material for his poetic genius. The summer of 1955 and the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin are the time and place which moved Kavanagh to write ‘Canal Bank Walk’ and ‘Lines Written…’.
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’. This new appreciation of the environment, his vision of Eden, is evident in his novel ‘Tarry Flynn’, (1939) where he wrote: ‘O the rich beauty of the weeds in the ditches, Tarry’s heart cried: the lush Nettles and Docks and tufts of grass. Life pouring out in critical abundance’. In the novel he also wrote: ‘Without ambition, without desire, the beauty of the world pared in thought his unresting mind.’ These two sentences describe exactly the mood of Kavanagh in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ and ‘Lines Written…’. Here the environment is glorified in a pantheistic manner. Kavanagh (not unlike Wordsworth before him) uses hyperbole to demonstrate the magnificence of Nature, as experienced by the innocent mind of a child or of the poet reformed to the state of grace. The opposing attitudes expressed by Kavanagh to the environment of Monaghan and Dublin reflect more on his state of mind than on the environments themselves. In 1963 he did recognise the beauty of the Monaghan countryside when he wrote:
‘Thirty-years before, Shank Duff’s water-fill could have done the trick for me, but I was too thick to realise it.’
A Summary of Features found in Kavanagh’s Poetry
Kavanagh presents a realistic portrayal of rural life and resists any idealised depiction of peasant culture or customs.
He is a very accomplished celebrant of the ordinary and the commonplace.
In his poetry, the past is his past and the present is that of his immediate environment as he lives it.
One of his main themes is the authentic engagement with his own people and his native place.
His work after 1950 centres on the poet’s watching over ordinary things with affection and love.
He makes use of conversational rhythms and everyday colloquial phrases but can combine these with literary and biblical allusions.
For Kavanagh, community experiences, places and events serve as viable and valuable subjects on which to work with his imagination.
A tone of celebration and a sense of wonder and mystery pervade much of his later poems such as the ‘Canal Bank’ sonnets.
However, some of the earlier poems evoke a sense of loss and loneliness, coupled with resentment and occasional despair. This is especially evident in his long poem, ‘The Great Hunger’.
Kavanagh’s imagery is richly suggestive, often colourful, evocative and vibrant.
He also makes interesting use of hyperbole, paradox and irony in his work.
There is a wonderful sense of clarity and assurance in his later sonnets. The light is brilliant and the language is sacramental.
Enjoy the voices of Kavanagh and the great Luke Kelly sing one of the great love songs of all time! (Put together by Peter Doherty).