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

kav2

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’.

Stony Grey soil (2)

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

“Patrick Kavanagh is a very Religious Poet” – Discuss

 

Patrick Kavanagh 1

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! 

Patrick Kavanagh

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

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

 

53967f30ccfe99cad03d5c2ee3223197

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.

grand_canal_dublin_2006

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

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

Inniskeen road (1)

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

Stony Grey Soil by Patrick Kavanagh

 

Patrick Kavanagh - Stony Grey Soil (1)

Stony Grey Soil

by Patrick Kavanagh

O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.

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.

You told me the plough was immortal!
O green-life conquering plough!
The mandril stained, your coulter blunted
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.

You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of cowards’ brood,
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch,
You fed me on swinish food

You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!

Lost the long hours of pleasure
All the women that love young men.
O can I stilll stroke the monster’s back
Or write with unpoisoned pen.

His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

 

Kavanagh spent the first half of his life farming ‘the stony grey soil’ of his native Monaghan.  In Ireland in the 1930’s and ‘40’s this usually meant a life of dull, hard work.   He recalls the hardship, misery and austerity in this poem and also, of course, in his major opus, ‘The Great Hunger’.  In ‘Stony Grey Soil’ Kavanagh regrets having wasted his youth in a barbarous, bleak place.  The very title, ‘Stony Grey Soil’ suggests a hard, harsh, dull, unimaginative world – not an ideal environment for a poet.

In this poem, Kavanagh sees himself as a victim who was deprived, deceived, lied to, cheated and robbed by his homeplace and the way of life it imposed on him.  The poem is an outpouring of anger and accusations against Monaghan for what it did to the poet.  The soil of Monaghan is personified in the poem in very unflattering terms.  Because he is personifying Monaghan, he has to use metaphor extensively.  The soil is represented as a thief, a cheat, a depriver, a liar, a burglar; it is seen as one who ‘flung a ditch’ on his vision; as one who weighed down his feet to prevent his flight into the world of poetic imagination.

In harsh metaphor after harsh metaphor, he pours out a sustained and strident angry tirade against the place where he feels his youth was wasted and his potential inhibited and stunted.  Monaghan and the farming way of life is a thief, ‘the laugh from my love you thieved’.  It is a cheat, it dealt falsely with him, ‘you took the gay child of my passion and gave me your clod conceived’.  It gave him poison for perfume, ‘you perfumed my clothes with weasel-itch’.  It is a liar, ‘you told me the plough was immortal’.  The soil and the rural way of life are seen as a robber, ‘you burgled my bank of youth’.  It tried to blind his vision and limit his potential, ‘you flung a ditch on my vision of beauty love and truth’.

To summarise, Kavanagh is bitterly attacking and blaming Monaghan and the drudgery of farm life.  It stole the fun and humour of his youth and gave him instead the ‘clod-conceived’, which suggests perhaps, practical, pragmatic ideas about crops and cattle.  His ambition and self-belief were ruined.  He was aware of his own potential; he believed that he had ‘the stride of Apollo’ but Monaghan dragged him down and ‘clogged the feet of my boyhood’.

Monaghan flung a ditch on his vision.  It limited and confined him, instead of providing inspiration it fed him ‘on swinish food’.  This is a particularly harsh metaphor, suggesting that the whole atmosphere of farming life was totally without any aesthetic dimension.  The people among whom he lived his life are represented as ‘cowards’ brood’.  This seems to suggest that they were slave-minded and without the courage to break out of their dull, drab routine.  Hardly fit company for a poet!

We have seen how Kavanagh’s bitterness is shown in the harsh metaphors which he uses to describe his victimisation.  The tone of the poem – in particular the first five stanzas – is extremely bitter.  Perhaps it could best be described as accusatory.  Notice the recurring accusations in the repeated ‘you’: ‘you thieved’, ‘you took’, ‘you clogged’, ‘you told’, ‘you fed’, ‘you perfumed’, ‘you flung’, ‘you burgled’.  We all know that if you want to start an argument the best word to use to begin it is ‘you’!

However, the poet is unable to sustain this tirade to the bitter end and in the final three stanzas he relents and his great love for his native place surfaces at last.  The accusatory ‘you’ occurs no more and now he is sadly reflective, almost nostalgic (which suggests that the poem is written from a distance in both time and place).  He mentions the hallowed place names of his native place with reverence, almost as if in a religious litany: ‘Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco’.  He is, after all, mourning what might have been.  At a very human level he is regretting the romances that never formed part of his young manhood.  Wherever he looks in Monaghan he sees ‘dead loves’ that were born for him.  These represent not only the romantic loves that never happened in that barren place but also all his unfulfilled potential as a poet.

Stony Grey soil (2)

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

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

Inniskeen road (1)

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

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

By Patrick Kavanagh

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –

There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,

And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries

And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.

Half-past eight and there is not a spot

Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown

That might turn out a man or woman, not

A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

 

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.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

 

Copyright © Estate of Katherine Kavanagh

 

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.

SUMMARY:

  • 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

 

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

The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

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.

Patrick Kavanagh in O'Brien's Bar, Dublin. www.tcd.ie

Patrick Kavanagh in O’Brien’s Bar, Dublin. http://www.tcd.ie

MAJOR THEMES

Religion

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.’

Another portrait of Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey. www.paulmccloskeyart.com

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

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).

Remembering Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West

Michael Hartnett was an esteemed poet from a young age, but his assurance about his creative destiny had its dangers.  In the following edited essay, first published in The Irish Times on February 16th, 2009,  MICHAEL SMITH recalls a significant artist whose early death at 58 on the 13th of October, 1999 can be viewed as an accident of time and place.  

The author, Michael Smith himself, poet and Aosdána member, passed away in November 2014. His contribution to the arts as a teacher, poet, editor, translator and publisher cannot be overstated.  He had a profound impact on the Irish literary scene. He has been described as a classical modernist, a poet of modern life. Born in Dublin in 1942, Michael Smith was the founder of New Writers’ Press in 1967 and had been responsible for the publication of over 100 books and magazines. He was keen to promote the modernist tradition in Irish poetry, publishing the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Anthony Cronin,  and Michael Hartnett, among others.

******************

As with many relationships, even the most intimate, it is often extremely difficult to pinpoint the original meeting. I can only say that it was in the early stage of our enrolment in UCD that I first met Michael Hartnett. I cannot recall the circumstances of that first meeting. I can’t even remember what academic subjects Michael had chosen. What I do remember is that James Liddy (and perhaps John Jordan) had agreed to pay his first year’s fees. So the lad from Newcastle West in Co Limerick was indeed going to receive some patronage. This patronage was bestowed purely on the strength of his poetry. Michael was recognised as a gifted poet from a relatively early age, and quite rightly so.

Michael almost never attended a lecture, so far as I recall. I was little better myself. The whole novelty of being university students was more than enough for both of us. Study was for others. Unlike Michael, I was deeply rooted in my Dublin working-class background, whereas, for Michael, Dublin was a kind of playground, despite his Limerick working-class background. But that working-class background was something we shared.

I think Michael had no other ambition than to be a poet. I think he gave little thought to how he would survive financially in the future. Was he feckless in this regard? Probably. Did he come to Dublin with the naivety of Kavanagh, expecting wonderful things? I doubt it. He didn’t have that innocence. On the other hand, he wasn’t cynical. John Jordan and James Liddy had accepted him as a gifted poet. The future was in the lap of the Muse.

What memories I have of him are selective, like all memories, I suppose. Often we would walk home together after a drinking session in McDaid’s, where we were usually treated to drinks by James Liddy and his friend, Patrick Clancy. Patrick Kavanagh was still holding vociferous court there at the time. Michael had already had his first confrontation with Kavanagh in the Bailey at the launch of the first issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by John Jordan and published by the Dolmen Press. That confrontation is too notorious to need detailed repetition. Michael made an adverse comment on Kavanagh’s poem (to Kavanagh himself, although Michael didn’t know who he was) that begins: “I am here in a garage in Monaghan.” Kavanagh’s reaction was violent, upturning a table full of drinks.

Michael was living in digs in a cul-de-sac off the North Strand, so our walk home often overlapped. I recall him voicing his strong disapproval of Kavanagh’s raucous behaviour in McDaid’s, saying that if anyone in Newcastle West behaved like that, he would be barred from the pub, and why should a poet be made an exception of.

He had great admiration for Yeats, though, oddly, not so much as a poet but as a businessman. He admired Yeats’s business acumen.

In his digs, under the bed, Michael had a small brown cardboard suitcase which he opened for me once to show me a huge quantity of beautifully scripted poems. I sometimes wonder what happened to all of this material.

There were, of course, other young poets in UCD at the time: Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Brian Lynch, Eamon Grennan, Malachy Higgins, to mention just a few names that come to mind.

In the case of the first three, and including myself, James Liddy was undoubtedly the extraordinarily generous mentor, with John Jordan a reserved encourager.

Of all of us, it was Michael who was held in the highest esteem by both John and James. And that esteem was well-deserved, for Michael arrived in Dublin as an already accomplished poet who was not looking for, nor needing any, teachers in the art of poetry. Much has been made of Lorca’s influence on Michael, largely because of his later version of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, but really it has more to do with the precocity of the early work of both poets.

I have never met any poet who was more assured of himself as a poet than Michael was. It was his destiny. All else seemed of secondary importance. But however impressed by that I was, I sensed a danger in it, recalling Wordsworth’s lines in his poem “Resolution and Independence”:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof come in the end, despondency and madness.

I knew, and indeed Michael knew, that there was no money in poetry (Kavanagh had learnt that years before) and that he would have to earn his living at some stage in the future – but he seemed unconcerned by this. Writing poetry was a lifetime’s work, regardless. I sometimes think that a lot of Michael’s problems of later years came from that dedication. Yes, he did later earn his living in the international telephone exchange on Andrews Street, but he found it boring and was only too glad to escape from it (even during working hours) and head for O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street to drink pints with some other of his escapee colleagues from the exchange.

And Michael was good company, a wonderful raconteur, witty, and possessing a fund of knowledge of all sorts of arcane subjects. He had an extraordinary memory. Yet always it was as the poet that he was treated, in whatever company he found himself. That was the identity he had chosen or had been chosen for him. I think he never abandoned that. And therein lay a danger, the same sort of danger that beset Dylan Thomas, for one cannot always be a poet. There has to be a life apart from being a poet, at least for poets without personal financial resources or the resources of a generous benefactor. Ezra Pound had his wife’s money behind him, and also financial support from his doting father. Neither Michael nor Dylan Thomas had anything of the sort.

For Thomas there was the horrible scrounging and, later, the equally horrible American readings. For Michael, after his stint in the exchange, there was very little, and he seemed to live a hand-to-mouth existence, even when later he returned to Newcastle West with his wife, Rosemary, and their two children. Later, a cnuas from Aosdána came in useful, and some prizes he won and some royalties he managed to squeeze out of publishers.

To attempt to be a professional poet in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a recipe for trouble. The days of the literary salons, such as Æ’s, were well and truly over. That left the pub, which unfortunately became Michael’s court, where he met his admirers who provided him with the kind companionship he needed, treating him to drinks and accepting him as a poet.

Was there anything else he might have done, any alternative? There was not at the time any such thing in Ireland as a poet in residence. So Michael made do with what was available.

A poet is not like a novelist who must toil daily and for long hours if he or she is to be productive. For the poet, the Muse is fickle and her visits are not on demand. So the poet must wait, never sure what the future holds for his work. When his own lyrical gift began to fail (though not until he had written some of the best poems written by an Irish poet in his time), Michael turned to translations from the Irish, translation always being a good means of keeping one’s skills honed.

Why did Michael turn to writing his own poetry in Irish? I think that this, too, was part of his attempt to be accepted socially as a professional poet. After all, in the old Gaelic order there had been such an acceptance. That order, however, was long gone and could never be recovered. After his early-evening court sessions in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, his admirers (often cultivated and literary civil servants) would head off to their respectable homes in the suburbs, leaving Michael as an abandoned court jester (which, in due course, he was becoming). Let it be said that there was no malice in this among those who patronised Michael with drink and small loans of money. But they had families at home and a job to do the next day.

Michael’s early death, whatever the medical causes, can be viewed as an accident of time and place. In a sense, he was a martyr to poetry. Gifted, even a genius, but nonetheless a martyr. If only . . . It’s useless now to ponder such possibilities.

MichaelHartnett

Aere Perrenius … more lasting than bronze …

Hartnett bronze by artist Rory Breslin in The Square, Newcastle West.

Hartnett bronze by artist Rory Breslin in The Square, Newcastle West.

There is a very telling little poem by Michael Hartnett tucked away  in A Book of Strays called ‘Aere Perrenius’.   In it the poet recounts early encounters with Patrick Kavanagh after Hartnett had made his way to Dublin, ‘fresh from Newcastle West  / at twenty, with a sheaf of verse / tucked into my belt’.  It is really a very gentle admonition by the very prescient Hartnett who was already garnering academic interest.  He is saying to those who are required, as part of their academic studies, to rummage through the entrails of a poet’s work to be gentle in their excavations.

The Latin phrase aere perrenius comes to us from Horace.  In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any man-made monument: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” (“I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.”). Hartnett would probably have been first  introduced to the  beauty and wisdom of Horace by Dave Hayes, erudite classics scholar and teacher of Latin at St. Ita’s Secondary School, Newcastle West where Hartnett studied for his Leaving Cert in 1950’s.

Hartnett’s poem ‘Aere Perrenius’, is therefore, really a poetic warning to young aspiring academics not to ‘tamper with the facts’ of his verse – or indeed Kavanagh’s verse either!  He mentions these, ‘dull strangers with degrees / who prune, to fit conceptions’.  These aspiring scholars build their theories on fragile ground, ‘give you ancestors and heirs’ and try to ‘bring you into line / with academic aims, / number all your bones / and make false claims.’

Would-be academics who undertake such necessary work should be aware, however, of the poet’s sensitivities.  Hartnett is adamant that he can live with being forgotten but not with being misunderstood or misinterpreted:

It is easy to forgive

a world that forgets

but not a world that changes

with subtle sentences

a life that was and is.

Both Hartnett and Kavanagh have had their fair share of being misunderstood – and for those who are familiar with the ‘history’ of their friendship, many will find Hartnett’s appeal on behalf of his ‘mentor’ very commendable!  He claims to understand Kavanagh, for all his rough edges, ‘the smokescreen of your talk / about fillies, about stallions’. His intimate knowledge of the man from Inniskeen is encapsulated in that uniquely Irish form of the ultimate trusting relationship: ‘I sometimes placed your bets.’

He declares that the bronze statue by the Grand Canal in Dublin’s  Baggott Street is best described by Kavanagh’s own word ‘banal’!  He, unsuccessfully as it happens, hopes that he will never suffer a similar fate.  He issues an appeal to all young, and not so young, aspiring academics to thread softly when they come to investigating and exploring the work  of any poet:

                                                            I’d rather be forgotten out of hand

than wronged in bronze:

let the sad facts stand.

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

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