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’.