He made his own kingdom, a mythology, a world that can be summoned in a moment
It’s hard to think of Kavanagh without thinking of The Placeless Heaven, Heaney’s great essay, not only an account of the winnowing of Kavanagh, but a self-portrait of the poet Heaney would become. For Heaney, it was not MacNeice that “threw the switch that sends writing energy sizzling into a hitherto unwriting system” but Kavanagh who gave him the permission to write about his own world.
And Kavanagh gave permission to readers as well as poets. When I was young, Yeats was wonderful but Kavanagh looked and sounded like a relation. He taught me that poetry could be anywhere, better than God who turned out to be a disappointment, a “no show” in fact.
Kavanagh’s story is as good as Grimm – a small farmer walks outside of his “whitethorn hedges” and his long walk to Dublin turns into a lifelong tough pilgrimage. He meets with disappointment, he experiences poverty, he makes mistakes, grows bitter and yet his sincerity is absolute while his best poems open into another world “sizzling” with its “own importance”.
Kavanagh made his own kingdom, a mythology, a world that can be summoned in a moment. A Kavanagh sonnet is an object of wonder – like holding a box of light. How can he make the Bull McCabe spring from the earth in a handful of words? How can he make me feel I am on the Iniskeen Road in July? I can’t distinguish his Monaghan Christmas from my childhood Christmases – the “wistful” turner of the “bellows wheel”, the ‘Mass-going feet” crunching “the wafer ice on the potholes” have somehow entered the seam of my north Cork memory.
I first heard the Gospel of Timothy read by Warren Oates over a sandy grave in Peter Fonda’s fine western The Hired Hand – “His disciples said to him: On what day will the kingdom come? Jesus said: It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.” I sizzled in that moment knowing exactly what he meant – I’d experienced once before, in Kavanagh’s poetry:
The tracks of water to a drinking place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
Martina Evans’s latest collection is The Windows of Graceland
In between these bracing, all-or-nothing heavyweight bouts, he could be “light”
“I know it is not right to be light and flippant,” he writes, flippantly, in The Same Again, “There are people in the streets who steer by my star.” Fifty years later, where is this star? He struggles with the idea of “importance”, of being a “star”, in poems as different as Epic, The Great Hunger, Who killed James Joyce?, Leaves of Grass, all of them great poems which insistently take off at an unusual angle from their titles: Epic is not very epic, but a sonnet, Maguire’s hunger is spiritual and sexual, Joyce has been travestied, Whitman was “nearly made . . . a poet”: Kavanagh loves to wrestle down and strong-arm his grand material to terra firma, setting the world to rights on how things are.
And, as he became “Patrick Kavanagh”, he trained that knockabout satire on his own role, bringing himself back to earth. But, in between these bracing, all-or-nothing heavyweight bouts, he could be “light” himself: he discovers “star-lovely art / In a dark sod”; in A Christmas Childhood the “stars in the morning east” dance to his father’s melodeon” while his mother’s “stable-lamp was a star.” In Iniskeen Road: July Evening, and Innocence, and Advent, and the canal bank and hospital poems (why isn’t the book which contained them, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, republished?), the poet is at ease, freely espousing what was around him, riffing on the material, miraculous rhymes jamming lines together, a permanent, unimprovable fixture of Ireland’s imaginative life.
John McAuliffe’s latest collection is The Way In. He is poetry reviewer for The Irish Times and teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing
Recently I dreamed of him and Yeats in the Shelbourne Hotel – with Kavanagh bellowing like a bull
That, it has been observed, which does not pretend, already has style enough. “There are only three artists on Parnassus at the present time,” Patrick Kavanagh once commented in McDaid’s celebrated home for demented wanderers and disputatious, skinflint hairy rascals, “Racine, Herman Melville and . . . Ludovic Kennedy . . !
Only recently I dreamed of him and Yeats in the Shelbourne Hotel – with Kavanagh in his trademark rumpled jacket of Harris tweed bellowing like a bull: “Ye buckin’ effete Ascendancy upstart – I’ll tether you to a plough and larn ye that there’s more to literary life than twilight and fairies!”
Where are they now, I often ask myself, those weighty individuals whose words count – deep down, where it matters. Those, for example, of James Baldwin’s friend Lorraine Hansey who squared up to the Kennedys, Anthony Cronin so recently departed.
James Baldwin himself – obstinately unafraid to display his own vulnerability.
And Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh – still high upon Parnassus, wreathed in a Mucker fog, ascending further with every day that passes.
Patrick McCabe’s novels include The Butcher Boy
We don’t read him as closely as we like to kid ourselves
Kavanagh would have hated this. If we’re going to mark the man’s anniversary, we should say something true. Over time, poets become little more to one another than an opportunity for eloquence. Such eloquence would have sent Kavanagh howling into the drumlins. I’m doing it even now!
Kavanagh hurts, much as home hurts. I grew up six miles from Inniskeen. I wanted to be him, then I wanted to be anything but him. Among eejits whose love of poetry extends only to Kavanagh, I can be dismissive. Among prigs dismissive of him, I bristle.
We don’t read him as closely as we like to kid ourselves. His popularity (interpretive centres, quotes centred on polished roadside granite) obscures the poems. Years ago, Poetry Ireland Review asked for nominations for Ireland’s most underrated poet. Gerry Dawe, to some amazement, picked Patrick Kavanagh.
Kavanagh is . . . what? The bane of all buckleppers, those eloquent flunkies who attended Yeats’s leavings. That impoverished bellyache of Dublin entre deux guerres. A one-man no-man’s-land between provincial gobshites and clever chaps of leafy south Dublin fast-tracked to the top table. A bad lung and a masterpiece about a hospital. A chip-on-the-shoulder visionary forever synonymous with canals. The assonantal drawl and thickened consonants of the Border, whereby “brother” and “water” become miraculously a full rhyme.
Conor O’Callaghan’s latest collection isLive Streaming
In his prose as well as poetry, Kavanagh was always ready to extol the imagination
Kavanagh’s writing is an unsettling mixture of evocative description and veneration for the imagination. He was no respecter of persons, especially critics, and Seamus Heaney found the perfect word to describe what he gets away with – “chancy”. Who else would call a poem Kerr’s Ass, or begin “We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass / To go to Dundalk with butter”? But he does not baulk at the most extravagant flights of imagination – even in that same poem ending with the “god of imagination waking / in a Mucker fog”. In his prose as well as poetry, he was always ready to extol the imagination. He said he was shy of calling himself a poet, because poetry had something transcendent to it: something that should not be lightly claimed. Shancoduff begins “My black hills have never seen the sun rising, / Eternally they look north towards Armagh”, before, in the spirit of his The Great Hunger, facing the grim question “Who owns them hungry hills?” and ending “A poet?. Then by heavens he must be poor / I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?”. Heaney said Kavanagh showed how poems could be written faithful to the – often harsh – reality of farming life. This is true; but his deeply grounded poems could not be equalled: nobody else claimed the grand indifference to judgment that enabled him to take the twofold risks of claiming the Shakespearean poet’s “fine frenzy rolling” and awareness of rustic deprivation at the same time.
Bernard O’Donoghue’s latest collection is The Seasons of Cullen Church
John F Deane
His last years, where he found love, confidence, and a meaningful faith, the poetry achieved magnificence
In the beginning there was chaos, a formless earth, but the creator Spirit, like a breeze, was stirring. One of the marks of genius is that one will not know where that genius comes from, whence it blows, whither it is headed. Patrick Kavanagh has been exemplary, growing from an out-of-the-way country wildscape and a demanding and sentiment-ridden Catholic faith, into one of Ireland’s finest poets. There seemed little promise in the early work; Ploughman for instance, has a forced ending: “I find a star-lovely art / In a dark sod. / Joy that is timeless. O heart / That knows God!” In Dublin, knowing rejection by the coterie of poets writing then, he lost faith and trust in his love for the soil, made to feel inferior. He worked through intense inner struggles to maintain belief in himself; touching on his Christmas childhood innocence, bemoaning the loss of his mother, examining the negative forces of an interior Great Jimger. And came through. He realised that what he had tried to give up, in home-place and in faith, was really his soul. “I cannot die / Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.” His last years, where he found love, confidence, and a meaningful faith, the poetry achieved magnificence. In poems like Canal Bank Walk he was reborn. The wonder of this odds and sods man, Patrick Kavanagh out of Monaghan, is that somewhere deep down inside him he intuited the cosmic Christ, and turned his love of the earth into lasting poetry of the highest order.
John F Deane’s latest collection isSemibreve
Kavanagh not only gave the green light to young Seamus Heaney, he gave it to that other national poet across the water
Brought up on the Welsh shore of the Irish Sea and discovering in my teens the early work of R S Thomas, I didn’t know how much of what seemed so Welsh in the poet’s world was descended from Ireland. Thomas had been inspired by a section of The Great Hunger published as The Old Peasant in Cyril Conolly’s Horizon (January 1942). Kavanagh’s Maguire it turned out had offspring after all, in the person of Iago Prytherch. His great poem resounded too in Thomas’s The Airy Tomb and in the dialogue of The Minister. This meant that when a little later I was put on to Kavanagh I met him half way, as it were between Monaghan and Montgomeryshire. And with delight. He was not a stranger. There was personal resonance here too. Hadn’t my father made his debut with a radical exercise in rural realism, Wigtown Ploughman (1939), set among the Irishry of southwest Scotland? I go back to Kavanagh often to remind myself what belonging in a place really means. To remember how Kavanagh could say with authority: “O Monaghan hills when is writ your story / A carbon copy will unfold my being.” Besides which we’re all buckleppers now. He had too an eye as sharp as John Clare’s for natural observation. But here’s the literary historical point: Kavanagh not only gave the green light to young Seamus Heaney, he gave it to that other national poet across the water. And that is altogether extraordinary.
Andrew McNeillie is literature editor at Oxford University Press and founder of Clutag Press. His works includeAn Aran Keening
His rebirth as a poet could not have taken place without the bitter disillusionment of his middle years
“Continuation is everything,” Patrick Kavanagh writes in the preface to Self-Portrait (1964), yet radical change is at the heart of his artistic legacy. He is a poet of contradictions, and these have determined his lifelong capacity for creative renewal. At first strongly influenced by the pastoral mode, Kavanagh soon began to shape the landscape of his Iniskeen childhood into work of striking observation and feeling.
Though this was the source of his artistic originality, in time he would resist the category of “green fool”, opting instead to be a nonconformist figure in the Irish literary landscape. The Great Hunger (1942) was the first real indication that this iconoclasm would find a lasting poetic form. Though the spiritual and sexual deprivation of mid-century Ireland is brought into stark relief in this poem, it is ultimately an expression of thwarted love.
From this point onward, controversy marked Kavanagh’s life and work. His bitterly satirical writing and abrasive personal style made him a both a daunting and compelling figure for a younger generation of poets and readers. In the last decade of his life, however, he wrote with renewed energy of the capacity of everyday experiences to surprise and inspire. Yet his rebirth as a poet could not have taken place without the bitter disillusionment of his middle years. The “continual breaching of boundaries” noted in the New Yorker’s review of Come Dance with Kitty Stobling (1960) describes Kavanagh’s entire creative life. For him, art was an expression of love – it was only through great attentiveness that human experience could be understood.
Dr Lucy Collins of UCD’s School of English Drama and Film has curated an exhibition entitled Kavanagh Reconsidered to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, featuring material from the Kavanagh Archive which comprises the papers of both Patrick Kavanagh and his brother Peter. It will run in the UCD Library Special Collections reading room until June 2018. It is open to the public, and all are welcome.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
What a vast presence his was for the younger generation of Irish poets in Dublin
I never met Patrick Kavanagh. In a pub once I saw him coming in with Katherine; a voice said “there’s poor old Paddy Kavanagh”, and the tone was of a piece with a weaving of dismissive anecdote and quotation characteristic of older Dublin at that time, it seemed. It was after his death that I became a friend of his widow Katherine, met most of his friends, helpers and admirers, and began to realise what a vast presence his was for the younger generation of Irish poets in Dublin.
I wasn’t an insider, having just come back to Ireland after growing up in Cork and spending time in Oxford and Italy. Writing poetry on my own, I was not attracted by the rural male cohort that at first I thought Kavanagh belonged to. I could see that The Great Hunger was much more than that – dimly. It took several readings to really appreciate its energy, the skill and flexibility it deployed. That flexibility was all over a lesser poem – one I remember standing in Eason’s in Cork to read, just published in John Jordan’s Poetry Ireland, – Sensational Disclosures: Kavanagh tells all. But I finally heard Kavanagh’s voice, the voice in his poetry, when on the night of his death his great friend Leland Bardwell stood up in Slattery’s in Capel Street – I can hear her now, her clear ladylike voice, the last lines of Prelude:
“… eternal lanes of joy/ on which no man who walks can die … Ignore Power’s schismatic sect/ Lovers alone lovers protect.”
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is an award-winning poet, professor (emeritus) in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin and was appointed Ireland Professor of Poetry in 2016
He was the first about many things
It was a strange thing being a girl in Monaghan and having a local poetic definition of my place. I remember reading Spraying the Potatoes and it was so real to me I felt myself “hanging from the sky”. My world was raised up for scrutiny, but because poetry is the opposite of journalism, the mirror allowed rays of contradiction to glisten on its surface.
I liked the ruthlessness of Kavanagh’s words, not knowing at the time just how unique they were. As I read more I may have suffered from my first agonised dissonance. It was hard to accept some of the bleakness when I was becoming aware of the whiff of change about me. He died while I was at school and on the morning I remember one teacher getting us to spread the poems out on our desks. Strangely, they seemed particularly alive that day.
Later, when I threw myself into the renovations of our reality, it was hard to have a place for his voice. But I returned to it and found its savage truthfulness even more illuminating. He was the first about many things. Even about having the nerve to allow love poems their uncertain, nervous wistfulness.
Evelyn Conlon's latest work is Telling: Selected Stories
At first you could almost imagine that the speaker in this week's poem, Advent by Patrick Kavanagh, is Adam, addressing Eve some while after the Fall. Calling the addressee "lover", after all, implies a close and carnal relationship. But the "too much" that the speaker and lover have "tested and tasted" is more inclusive than sexuality. The intellect is implicated in the word tested, although the tongue-tickling alliteration might seem to privilege sensation. In a poem whose deepest concern is with poetic integrity, the Muse herself may be identified with the "lover".
The "chink too wide" reinforces the idea that "wonder" is lost, both through bodily indulgence and excessive self-consciousness. The advent fast takes place in darkness – "the Advent-darkened room" – and external light would interfere with the sense-deprivation necessary to the act of penance. The paradoxical "luxury" that the penance will "charm back" resembles the birth in poverty of the infant Jesus – the restoration of "a child's soul".
Underlying the emotional charge of the poem is Kavanagh's sense of his native village in Inniskeen as an eden he sacrificed for the corrupt metropolis, Dublin. His outcry is not, I think, against knowledge, but city-slick, poetically useless knowingness. If such knowledge belongs originally to "Doom", as the speaker says, it must be perceived as truly terrible, and perhaps represent the worst that could happen to this poet: the loss of local roots leading to the decay of imagination.
Although the poem is nostalgic, its metaphysics reach wider than nostalgia. The Wordsworthian myth that a child arrives with inborn "intimations of immortality", later lost in the process of maturation, permeates Advent. Two vivid examples of childhood epiphany are contrasted in the second stanza. The word "wonder" reappears, heightened by the intensifier "spirit-shocking". That black Ulster hill is iconic for Kavanagh, and brings biblical associations in other poems. For example, in A Christmas Childhood, he looks up at "Cassidy's hanging hill" and imagines three whin bushes, or gorse, as the three wise kings riding across the horizon. Here, the "spirit-shocking" hill seems almost the metaphorical expression of the "prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking …" The half-rhyme (spirit-shocking/talking) unifies the miraculous with the banal.
Kavanagh's adult mind is arguing with itself, wanting to believe in the resonant words, but acknowledging the speaker as "an old fool". Christ-like, the poet both redeems and judges. His "Advent" is not simply the joyous arrival of the redemptive child: it also foreshadows the second coming.
The restored sense of place is what will urge "you and me" to go outside, not to look upwards, but to see the ordinary things with fresh eyes. The impetus is similar to that of the speaker in Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen". In fact, Kavanagh's "old fool". with his words of "prophetic astonishment", seems not unrelated to the elder who says of the cattle: "Now they are all on their knees." But there are no kneeling oxen in Kavanagh's rural vision, simply "the whins/ And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins". Notice these are "old stables", not the singular stable of the nativity narrative. "Time begins" in an ordinary stable, provided the spectator looks on the scene with rejuvenated consciousness.
The inclusive rush of that line signals an exultant mood in the last stanza. The future tense is assertive: Christmas will compel a new start. It will bring childhood unforgettably alive again, and allow ancient processes to recommence. In those first four lines, Kavanagh's rhymes are thick and muddy, tactile and insistent. Poetry itself is set alight by "an old phrase burning" through the ordinary human domestic voices heard "in the whispered argument of a churning…" Again, Kavanagh presents his ideal world of farm and village realistically. Those "lurching", unruly local boys are no less valued than the busy women churning butter and the "decent men" who "barrow dung" – a terrific use of an unexpected verb – to nourish their gardens. "The difference" between false and real is grounded in honest, and above all, unselfconscious physical activity.
Language "pours ordinary plenty" in that last stanza, though it's not always so ordinary. "Dreeping", in "dreeping hedges", might be a coined word, fusing together the words "dripping" and "deep"; it also contains the Scots "dree", to endure, adding further density and rootedness to the hedges. "Clay", in "clay-minted wages", is an echo of the despairing opening words of Kavanagh's The Great Hunger: "Clay is the word and clay is the flesh." So "the clay-minted wages/ Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour" connect with failures of imagination and linguistic energy.
The shape of the poem is interesting: two stanzas of seven lines, and one of 14, joining up two sets of seven. This structure suggests the four weeks of the advent period, and the poem could be read as two rough-hewn sonnets. The rhyming is irregular, and some lines have no end rhyme. Kavanagh is more engaged with the weight and sound of words than with cadenced finesse. Although he uses "clay-minted" as a negative phrase, it might be an apt description of this awkwardly beautiful poem. The final couplet's epiphany, extending the birth-miracle into the new year, discovers Christ in an early flower, itself a product of the winter-darkened clay.
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.
• Advent by Patrick Kavanagh is included in Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004). It is reprinted by permission of the trustees of the estate of the late Katherine B Kavanagh, through Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.