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

from Anatomy of a Cliché


by Michael Hartnett

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.


Canal Bank Walk by Patrick Kavanagh


Leafy with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
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 for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.


 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.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is, in effect, the natural poetic sequel to ‘Advent’.

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 is – 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.

‘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’.

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’.

His  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’.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the first poem Kavanagh wrote after coming out of hospital in 1955.  He claims to have undergone a mystical experience through hospitalisation and recovery.  His whole view of life and of poetry has now changed.  From now on his poetry will be about celebration, about joy, about appreciating the wonderful world God has made.  He has been reborn; his new-born soul is being baptised in, ‘the green waters of the canal’.  Canal water is no longer canal water.  He sees it now, not through material eyes but through spiritual eyes.  He is baptised and from now on will do, ‘the will of God’; and the will of God is that he steep himself in the ordinary world – ‘Wallow in the habitual’.  He will go back to his original innocence, to a state of ‘oneness’ with nature, with God’s creation.  He will  ‘grow again with nature’ as he did before experience corrupted him and wonder died (see ‘Advent’).  There won’t be any more intellectualising.  He will just settle for the world of the senses, the world of sight and sound.  Now that he is renewed and at one with nature, he has eyes for the very ordinary things – ‘the bright stick trapped’, ‘the couple kissing ‘, ‘the bird building’.

The couple are not alone on the seat, the ‘breeze’ adds a third party and is symbolic of his new found gift of observation of ordinary things.  He sees the bird, ‘gathering materials for the nest’ and looks on this ordinary sight with spiritual eyes and the ordinary is transformed – it takes on a religious significance: the bird is preparing the stable at Bethlehem where the Word will be made Flesh, where God will reveal Himself in the form of new life.  Everything will now be brand new; he has just been born as it were; a world that has grown stale through experience and familiarity is new again – ‘eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat’.  It’s an ‘unworn world’ – brand new.

He wants to be ensnared in this world of the senses, in this world of sight and sound, in the world of, ‘fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’ – the voices of nature no doubt.  He uses the image of the web to suggest his wish to be captivated by nature, he doesn’t want to escape back to a world of analysis and ‘testing’.  ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ – he will gladly settle for the world of the senses – no need for the sophistication of intellectualising – ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.  He wants to pray (as children do) ‘unselfconsciously’, without restraint.  He sees his soul being dressed in a new dress ‘of green and blue things’ – the green of the earth and the blue of the sky – the totality of creation – the world of the senses.

 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 (are) casual, insignificant little things’.  Even in the city the images are rural and we are treated to a virtual cornucopia of happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds.  The poet, Harry Clifton, has said that, ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’.

In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ it is obvious that 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 here 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.’

This is a beautiful  unhurried poem in which the poet’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.



Advent by Patrick Kavanagh


We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Most Irish adults over 30 will be familiar with Soundings, the Interim (!) Anthology of poetry edited by the late great Augustine Martin, which was used for many years as a Leaving Cert Poetry Anthology.  ‘Advent’ is one of the many gems which lie within its covers and surely this poem qualifies for what Seamus Heaney describes as one of the many, ‘lyrics which now belongs in the common mind as if they were prenatal possessions’.  On the centenary of Kavanagh’s birth in October 2004, Heaney praised him for his, “indefectible gift for discovering the mystical body of the world in the bits and pieces of every day.”  Nowhere is this more evident than in this beautiful seasonal poem.

In this poem Kavanagh experiments with the sonnet form.  It 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  has ended – here Advent is seen as a ‘mini-Lent’.  In actual fact maybe we are reading too much into the fact that there are 28 lines in the poem and 28 days in the Season of Advent itself!

‘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 and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us!  His reasons, I think, are twofold: after this period of denial and fasting – a 1950’s version of detox! – he will become a better Christian and he will also become a better poet if he can look at the world again 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.

‘Advent’, therefore,  is a very religious poem – religious at a personal level.  Kavanagh feels that experience has corrupted him – he has ‘tested and tasted too much’.  ‘Tested and tasted’ indicate seeking pleasure for the mind (Knowledge and analysis) and pleasure for the body.  He has lost his innocence.  Now he wants to recapture that lost state.  He is going to do it through penance, by self-denial and sacrifice, through ‘the dry black bread’ and ‘the sugarless tea of penance’.  He will ‘coax back the luxury of a child’s soul’.  By this he means that he will try to rediscover the innocence of a child and the ability to wonder.  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!   He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity.  A ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again;  the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful.  The whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality is renewed; wonderful now will be ‘whins’, ‘bogholes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’.

When he has been purified and renewed through penance and self-denial he won’t have to go searching for the newness and the wonder in ordinary things; the whole world will be new and alive and fresh and cliché free – ‘We’ll have no need to go searching for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  There will be wonder and newness all around in the very ordinary things – ‘in the whispered argument of a churning’ or in a sight as common as a few local lads holding up the wall, or in the sight of,  ‘men barrowing dung to gardens under trees’.  There will be wonder and newness where things are growing – ‘where-ever life pours ordinary plenty’.   This childlike inquisitiveness will also do wonders for his poetic inspiration – he will now have no end of subjects to write about.

Now he will be rich – spiritually rich.  He does not intend to destroy this wonder by questioning, by analysis, by asking the why of things.  He will be content to revel in wonder.  No more intellectualising… ‘..to look on is enough in the business of love’.  He has abandoned the process of analysis, he has thrown all that into the dust-bin, and he can see Christ all around …’in the January flower’.  He can do this because now he has spiritual eyes – he has been renewed through penance and self-denial.

Therefore, this poem is a search for lost innocence, an attempt to recapture the ability to wonder – ‘discovering the mystical body of the world in the bits and pieces of every day’.