Patrick (Joseph Gregory) Kavanagh 1905–1967
Irish poet and novelist.
Kavanagh wrote in the shadow of Yeats and Joyce but nonetheless received critical acclaim. His long poem "The Great Hunger" established his reputation and is perhaps unexcelled in its bitter evocation of peasant life. In 1939 he left his country birthplace, Monaghan, for Dublin. There he wrote criticism, satire, and poetry but his irascible nature kept him apart from the literary establishment which he often ridiculed. His autobiographical novels, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn, do not match the power of the lyrical beauty and wry humor of his verse.
(See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
I opened Patrick Kavanagh's "The Green Fool" with the fear that once more I was going to be treated to the comically condescending view of the Irish peasant, or to the heroic and poetic. It soon appeared that this distinguished young poet has more in common with men like John Clare and Edward Thomas; for this is the Irish peasant writing with the simplicity, even the craftiness, of his kind about his life in the cabin. How he cobbled, how he plowed, how he hired himself at a hiring fair, saw a bride sold at a wedding, and became one of the boys who cut telegraph wires and stopped trains in "the Troubles"—these are his stories, simple reports of everyday life. Under the simplicity, in those lines of everyday talk between people selling pigs, soling shoes, going to chapel, and so on, there is a truthfulness which never strains after effect. He writes from the soil up, and without going into the pantheistic Celtic raptures of the townee. Here and there a false literary note perhaps, but Mr. Kavanagh has it in himself to be one of the rustic masters. He is good enough as it is to make one tremble for his development.
V. S. Pritchett, "A Young Man Looks at Present-Day Europe—A London Letter," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 1938, p. 11.∗
In Patrick Kavanagh peasant Ireland has a poet. But "peasant Ireland" needs an explanation.
Patrick Kavanagh writes under this new dispensation. His verse has no longer a traditional lilt with the overtones of folk-poetry: again and again we catch a rhythm that recalls "The Waste Land." But "A Soul for Sale" is of the Irish countryside, and its figures are recognizable as the farmers and priests, the boys and girls of a parish. He mints phrases that bring the countryside and the people to us…. The poet, remembering the sentimental treatment of Irish country people by certain poets is determined to be hard and disillusioned. But he goes too far in this recoil from sentimentality. It's all very well to demolish Tom Moore as an Irish poet as he does in "A Wreath for Tom Moore's...
(This entire section contains 440 words.)
Statue," but it is absurd to denounce Tom Moore in the terms that Patrick Kavanagh uses….
Perhaps it is because he belongs to a transition period that this poet is so unequal: Patrick Kavanagh has not made up his mind whether he should celebrate or satirize. In "The Great Hunger" he attempts to give monumental treatment to the peasant. But he also wants to satirize the joylessness of the countryside: to do this he has to give his Pat Maguire an extra raw deal by giving him a vinegary sister as well as a dominating mother. When Patrick Kavanagh is wholehearted he writes poems that have the tang of sloes pulled off the bushes—"Pegasus," "Father Mat," "Blue Bells for Love," "A Christmas Childhood," "In Memory of My Father," "Art McCooey," "Spraying the Potatoes" are such poems.
Padraic Colum, "The Tang of Sloes," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1947 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1975 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 38, September 20, 1947, p. 24.
Mr. Patrick Kavanagh, who is about the same age as Mr. [Louis] MacNeice and Mr. [W. H.] Auden, is generally thought of by the better judges among his countrymen as the best Irish poet since Yeats. He is unlike Yeats in his origins, a peasant and a man of Roman Catholic formation, unlike him also in being a love poet whose love is directed to outer nature rather than to women, who eschews heroic gestures, and whose love of nature is a little like that of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, an outpouring of gratitude to the God whom he sees everywhere in nature, not only in nature where it is strikingly beautiful. He is a bachelor, his poems tell us, a poor man, a man who has suffered from illness and who has sometimes wished that his life might be more intense or dramatic, but who is saved from desperation by an incurable grace, his gift of loving and finding happiness in ordinary things….
So unlike the grand self-dramatizings of Yeats, [the] poems by Mr. Kavanagh [in Come Dance with Kitty stobling] have something in them of Wordsworth's "wise passivity"; he sees the main purpose of poetry as to be "passive, observing with a steady eye", or, after sighing a little for the undramatic nature of his poetry and his life, he adjures himself:
So be reposed and praise, praise praise The way it happened and the way it is.
Mr. Kavanagh, however, is not an Irishman for nothing, and this book contains also a sprightly satire on a small country's cult of the small poet,… a cuttingly amusing little poem about a party to celebrate (possibly) one of Miss Honor Tracy's Voltairean skits on the Irish clergy, and even in straight poems some fine flashes of Irish wit and fantasy….
The humour, the self-irony, give a complexity and richness to what otherwise would be a straight Hopkinsian or Wordsworthian response….
[Here] is a poet of striking talent, and of unusually likable and honest poetic personality. Nor can Mr. Kavanagh be dismissed as a simple, pious peasant from a backward country; the diction and the movement of the … book as a whole, show a cunning dexterity and a high sophistication, in the good sense of that word. Under the mask of ease, diffidence, the digressive offhand manner, the poet murmuring half grumblingly to himself, there is a notable confident skill.
"Alive and Kicking," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3050, August 12, 1960, p. 514.∗
The career of Patrick Kavanagh presents extraordinary features completely outside the usual literary framework. His "Collected Poems" … reveals an astonishing talent—according to some enthusiasts, the finest not only in Ireland but in all English-speaking areas—that has kept on renewing itself not so much by a process of orderly growth as by a continual breaching of boundaries. Judging by his recent poetic practice as well as his comment on that practice, it is clear that Kavanagh now stands free of all obligations except the deepest and most demanding claims of the open imagination. The early work of this poet, born in the Irish countryside, reflects a life close to the pieties and rude circumstances of the agricultural laborer. His disillusion with the lot of the Irish countryman came into being only after he had described that lot—in "The Great Hunger" …—with mixed affection and loathing. His subsequent descriptions of Dublin literary life and politics were again filled with the blackest disillusion. Kavanagh's chief object of detestation has come to be the coat-trailing charming Irish semi-clown—a tragicomic caricature designed, according to the poet, for the foreign trade. Behind Kavanagh's intransigence stands a thorough understanding of modern traps laid on all sides for the bafflement of human dignity, as well as an unfaltering sense of some human innocence, marred but indestructible. His satire, cutting close to the bone, spares neither cause, nor institution, nor individual. He names person and place, and he can be as scathing in a sonnet as in a piece of parody or a stretch of doggerel…. To come upon Kavanagh's spontaneity is delightful, and one understands the sober reasons that have kept him from being listed among the more official and solemn post-Yeatsians. Far from officialdom of any kind, Kavanagh survives and flourishes in that invigorating region where, without respectable let or hindrance, the wild rivers run and the wild timber grows. (pp. 194, 196)
Louise Bogan, "Books: 'Collected Poems'," in The New Yorker (© 1965 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 8, April 10, 1965, pp. 194, 196.∗
[Patrick Kavanagh's "Collected Poems" show him to be] the strongest poet to have come of age in Ireland under the inhibiting shadow of Yeats…. A poor peasant, he was reared … in "the stony grey soil of Monaghan," on a 16-acre hill-farm…. [The theme of "The Great Hunger"] is not the Irish potato famine, but famine in man's soul and frustration in his body. The central image is an unmarried peasant tethered to the clay by his mother, respectable and loveless. Kavanagh now says that he dislikes the poem because "Tragedy is underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born," but he wrote it with humor and compassion. He created an Everyman of the Irish countryside, a moral poem where each part fits accurately together, the story beautifully narrated with a rhythm that responds to shifts of mood…. The sharp details of this great work contribute to a terrible and moving image of human frustration.
When Kavanagh himself fled from the clay, he went to live in Dublin, where his life has become a legend of comedy, to which at times his poems have seemed like dogged footnotes. For example, "The Paddiad" is a roistering lampoon on the Dublin literary scene, set of course in a pub. But Kavanagh in Dublin is not a match for her native sons in the satirical game. Austin Clarke has a finer cutting edge to his voice, and a more exact knowledge of the thing he wishes to cut. In a spirit of Irish fun, Kavanagh seems for a while to have betrayed his talents.
Then, after an illness …, he enjoyed a period of clarity regained, in which he wrote several poems in an extended sonnet form. With a longer flowing rhythmical line that supersedes its metrical origins, the voice of his own personality speaks. These beautiful poems are the most positive work he has done. Where "The Great Hunger" is a narrative tragedy of love's frustration by man, the later group of sonnets is a lyrical celebration of love fulfilled in man by God. The matter of the sonnets is still the clay of ordinary human affairs, but where in the earlier poem his love of the clay destroys the hero, in the sonnets both clay and mankind are redeemed by love….
Richard Murphy, "New Beauty from Old Clay," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1965, p. 4.
In an essay on Suffering and Literature in the October 1959 issue of the Dublin magazine, Nonplus, Patrick Kavanagh stated one of his guiding principles. He said: "All we learn from experience is the way from simplicity back to simplicity." Certainly, his earliest poems are simple in form and diction. They deal boldly and lucidly with themes of the Irish countryside and of the solitary individual's quest for religious truth, but are often marred by conventional imagery and easy sentiment. This Kavanagh himself has recognized; he no longer approves of the greater part of the work written before 1955, and even has reservations about The Great Hunger (1942) which is certainly his most important work to date. This poem presents a terrifying and convincing picture of the spiritual and sexual hunger of the Irish peasant; its mood is that of Van Gogh's Potato-Eaters; the harsh imagery, the frequent abruptness of diction, and the grotesque simplicities of his protagonist's imagination, all combine to form a vision of mythic intensity…. In his fascinating Self Portrait Kavanagh says that this poem "lacks the nobility and repose of poetry", but also emphasizes that it is not a piece of rural reportage, but an exploration of "all that mass of mankind which lives below a certain level of consciousness. They live in the dark cave of the unconscious and they scream when they see the light."
This comment also points to Kavanagh's often self-lacerating search for discomfiting truths…. [His] wayward, fascinating Self-Portrait is filled with ascetic distrust of all pretentious rhetoric and intellectual ingenuity. He emphasizes the need for "complete casualness … being able to play a true note on a dead slack string". Thus the later poems in Come Dance with Kitty Stobling (which are included in the Collected Poems) record "love's mystery without claptrap", and are filled with wry understatements and raw colloquialisms which delicately explore the hidden lyricism of the most common human experiences.
It was in 1955, on the banks of Dublin's Grand Canal that Kavanagh experienced his moment of re-birth, and realized that he wished to do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal, Grow with nature again as before I grew.
This revelation led him to that "final simplicity" in which "we don't care whether we appear foolish or not…. We are satisfied with being ourselves, however small." Thus Kavanagh's work since 1955 includes much idiosyncratic light verse, many cunningly careless obiter dicta, and a degree of self-assertion which at first looks like egotism and then reveals itself to be one aspect of the deepest kind of humility. The self-regarding, or self-displaying poems dramatize the speaker's passionate hunger for self-knowledge and self-abnegation…. The danger of this "inexhaustible theme" is its inexhaustibility; having no philosophic scheme behind it and no thematic limits upon it, Kavanagh's recent work sometimes slips into a casual conversationalism that can only be relished by the subtlest of readers. By having "No system, no Plan", Kavanagh may have lost that audience of ordinary folk who loved his "peasant" poems and were outraged by The Great Hunger, even though he now wishes them to be "stimulated by our stuff". This will not, however, disturb him. He is his own man, a strange and wonderful phenomenon in a world sick with togetherness, and he is one of the most original and disturbing poets alive. (pp. 234-36)
Robin Skelton, "Life at Work," in Poetry (© 1965 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CVI, No. 3, June, 1965, pp. 234-36.
There are certain poets of whom it can be said that they have a unique personal vision—Blake and Yeats for example—and one knows immediately what is meant. They have a new, inimitable, disturbing way of looking at life and, at their best, they communicate this vision successfully. In twentieth-century Ireland, one poet (apart from Yeats) possesses such a vision—Patrick Kavanagh—who, for some unaccountable reason, is one of the most misunderstood and undervalued poets of our time. It is with Blake and Yeats that Kavanagh must be compared, for he is a visionary poet and towards the end of his life he claimed that he had achieved a truly comic vision…. It is the purpose of this essay to clarify what Kavanagh meant by the comic vision; to show how comedy appears in his poetry; and in so doing to trace his development. (p. 159)
Patrick Kavanagh never suffered from abortive ideas of sophistication. Like all the true visionaries, his aesthetic, scattered carelessly in fragments here and there, is distinguished by its sanity and sheer good sense. It is also blissfully free of all pretentiousness and obscurity. The clarity of all his statements on poetry is a mark of his confidence and clearsightedness. (pp. 160-61)
The poems in Kavanagh's early work, Ploughman and Other Poems, are beautifully simple. Yet they contain certain elements which endure into his later work, though in a transfigured way. In the introduction to his Collected Poems, Kavanagh tells us that, for him, poetry is 'a mystical thing, and a dangerous thing'. It is mystical because it is concerned with man's dialogue with God, the foundation-stone of all Kavanagh's work, the source of his humour and sanity…. (p. 161)
Belief in [a] gay, imaginative, unfeared, creative God vitalizes Kavanagh's early work. It is this spirit of positive belief that makes such simple lyrics as 'To A Blackbird' so authentic and buoyant…. In that poem is, in genetic form, another vital aspect of the comic vision achieved by Kavanagh towards the end of his life: his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong. (pp. 161-62)
This is another aspect of his vision which needs to be stressed: the significance of the casual and the apparently insignificant. In this attitude is the refusal to be deceived by anything, the determination to accept himself, and by so doing, to forget himself….
In the best of his early poems Kavanagh looks into himself, desiring this detachment, the key to not-caring about the 'important'. He is trying, in the poetic sense, to keep his soul pure. (p. 163)
[It] can be said of him that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem. He recognized that, in most cases, obscurity is simply a failure of the poet's imagination, the sanctuary of the inadequate….
This simplicity, present from the beginning in Kavanagh's work, is characteristic of his achieved comic vision. He saw that his simplicity was a gift from the gay, imaginative God; that it was the most difficult thing in the world to achieve; and that if sophistication has any meaning at all (and no word in the English language is more abused or misunderstood) it means that the poet has the courage to be utterly himself, his best self, and that nothing else will do. (p. 164)
Because Kavanagh passionately believed in his own conception of simplicity, he was impatient, both in his own work and in the work of others, with whatever violated that conception…. Passionate belief is certainly the source of whatever achievement lies in the future; it is also the reason why poets are sometimes compelled to distort their accomplishments in the past. Because of his beliefs, Kavanagh was guilty of this distortion in his evaluation of The Great Hunger. He somehow failed to see that this splendid though rather uneven work was a vital stage in his journey toward the comic vision. Kavanagh had to write The Great Hunger, and in his own time, he had to dismiss it…. The Great Hunger is a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination; it is a furious episode in a story that is fundamentally passive, reposed and serene; it is an angry protest from one who really believes in calm statement; it is a fierce hysterical digression in the journey from simplicity to simplicity. Kavanagh dismissed it and from his viewpoint he was right to do so. But he was also wrong. The Great Hunger has a proud place in the larger story….
Patrick Kavanagh knew the meaning of poverty, and so he never tried to sentimentalize it. (pp. 164-65)
The Great Hunger is about a man who can trust nothing: not the gay imaginative God, nor life itself, nor men, nor women, nor his own heart and soul. Patrick Maguire is married to his fields and animals instead of to a woman. Dominated by his mother, servile to his Church, committed to his meadows, his life is a sad farce of slavish work, furtive masturbation, crude pretence, increasing mindlessness, decreasing manhood and the drab inevitable advance towards old age. The bitter irony of his existence is that he is devoted to a shocking self-deception that began in boyhood and can end only with his death.
In portraying the appalling life of this central, solitary figure, Kavanagh presents the two major tensions of the poem. There is first, the tension between Christianity and a fertile, pagan or completely natural world. (p. 166)
The second tension re-enforces the first. It is between the increasing impotence of Maguire's physical and spiritual being, and the irrepressible rebel bloom of the fields and meadows. (p. 167)
What Kavanagh insists on most of all in this poem is the appalling normality of Maguire's fate. Underlying the two tensions mentioned is the theme to which Kavanagh returns again and again, both by direct statement and by implication. This is Maguire's devouring sexual frustration, the agony he suffers from the 'impotent worm on his thigh'. Maguire is a tragic figure. He is a man who, sentenced to a horribly lingering death, is compelled to watch the natural world reproduce itself with spendthrift fertility while he shrivels into barren anonymity. (pp. 167-68)
The final picture of Maguire emphasizes his sheer emptiness. It is a frightening portrait of a man and his world utterly devoid of hope; and Kavanagh explicitly states that this is not simply a personal tragedy. The darkness and guilt touch everybody on the land…. (p. 168)
One of the most attractive things about Kavanagh's comic vision is his sense of the vulgarity of analysis. He disliked the assumption behind the work of many analysts, especially literary analysts, that whatever is analyzed can be totally known. Like Yeats, Kavanagh knew that nothing can be fully known, and the man who assumes it can is committing a crime against wonder, violating that sacred sense of mystery that is at the source of all poetry. We revert to his fundamental belief in a gay, imaginative God and understand why, in 'Pegasus' when he has offered his soul for sale to the Church, the State, 'the crooked shopkeepers' and the rowdy, bargaining tinkers, and nobody will have him, he realizes that nothing matters but his own freedom and the integrity of his imagination…. (p. 170)
For Kavanagh, at this stage, the rewards of this liberty are two-fold. First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it … becomes more assured….
The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of savagery which is inextricably involved with the deepened sense of wonder. (pp. 170-71)
Kavanagh satirizes those events, people and ideas we would expect him to satirize: Dublin's pretentious poetasters, its bumptious 'intellectuals', its complacent middle-class, its vicious sentimentality and its 'insincere good-nature'. (pp. 171-72)
It becomes increasingly clear that Kavanagh is not really at home in satire. In a magnificent poem called 'Prelude' he shows his competence as a satirist and then proceeds to declare his sense of its inadequacy…. Ultimately, satire is for Kavanagh 'a desert that yields NO'. In a later poem, 'Living in the Country', he repeats his rejection of satire and informs us of his deeper intention:
I protest here and now and forever On behalf of all my people who believe in Verse That my intention is not satire but humaneness…. (p. 174)
Satire falls away because it is not an enduring part of the comic vision. It is at best a necessary digression….
[As evidenced by his introduction to his Collected Poems,] Kavanagh has almost completed the journey from simplicity to simplicity. The angry protest of The Great Hunger is over; the sword of satire is blunted in his hand. He has achieved an ideal of vigilant passivity, a belief in poetry as a mystical, dangerous thing, a resolution to be at once humorous and humane. He sees the privileges and responsibilities of observation, has a profound understanding of the nature of love, and recognizes one of the most fascinating and complex subjects for poetry: poetry and the poet. Out of his life, his digressions, failures, sufferings, disappointments and triumphs, he has hammered a superbly lucid and rarefied poetry that is the pure product of the comic vision. (pp. 174-75)
[There is] 'a pure flame' of inspiration in a number of Kavanagh's later poems. There is also a certain amount of trivial verse which, on first reading, would appear not to have been written by the same man. Yet if we re-read bad poems such as 'A Summer Morning Walk' and 'Sensational Disclosures—Kavanagh Tells All' … we shall see that they have a certain lightness of touch and tone, but are completely devoid of any visionary impact…. There are times when Kavanagh writes as if he were somebody else imitating Kavanagh's originality, as though he were indulging in a frivolous parody of his own vision. (pp. 175-76)
At the very centre of [his comic vision] is that ideal of disinterest which Kavanagh expresses with perfect lucidity and authority in 'Intimate Parnassus'. This might be considered as Kavanagh's Defence of Poetry, a brilliantly compressed statement of poetic belief. Briefly, the poet is god-like in his detachment and is, in the deepest sense, indestructible…. Looking at suffering and strife, he must remain detached. Seeing men and women going about their daily business, he must be 'sympathetic'. (p. 177)
In that state of passive, steady observation the poet discovers a strong sufficiency. Here too he appreciates the nature of love and survival because, for the man who has a 'main purpose' and lives up to it, all things fall into sane perspective and acquire an individual meaning. In such a state, for example, the phenomenon of evil is not seen as hideous or terrifying, it is simply 'sad'; while, at the same time, seen from this divine vantage-point, it retains the capacity to be totally transfigured in the pure flame of comedy…. (pp. 177-78)
It is not at all surprising that Kavanagh writes about the mind of God. This is the focus of the comic vision. The attempt to understand God's mind, if rewarded with belief, is the truest source of comedy: it leads to detachment, and therefore to sanity, and therefore to the rare ability to see things as they are. (p. 179)
Kavanagh submits himself completely to the God who 'refuses to take failure for an answer'. At the deepest level of vison, Kavanagh himself refuses to take failure for an answer. And yet, paradoxically, Kavanagh did have a sense of failure, but true to character, he celebrated even that in his own inimitable way. 'If Ever You Go to Dublin Town' is a triumphant celebration of failure. In fact, it is not failure in any accepted sense of the word. It is, more accurately, a sense of not having fully accomplished what it was in him to do. But when one remembers what Kavanagh tried to do (and to a great extent actually did) one recognizes the great dignity of this sense of 'failure'…. (pp. 180-81)
But there are plain, technical reasons for this sense of 'failure'…. [His] is the dilemma of a poet who finds himself without a mythology. In the end, the internal world of the self needs the structure of myth to sustain it in poetry. Kavanagh never bothered to create a mythology. Indeed, the very purity of his comic vision means that the number of poems he wrote is fairly limited. He wrote about a dozen great poems. (p. 181)
The wonderful thing is that a sensitive reader coming from a study of Kavanagh's poems realizes that here is one of the greatest modern poets whose comic vision brought him through tragedy and suffering, whose passionate sincerity revealed itself in an insatiable hunger for reality…. (p. 182)
Brendan Kennelly, "Patrick Kavanagh," in Ariel (© A. Norman Jeffares and the University of Calgary, 1970), Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1970 (and reprinted in Irish Poets in English: The Thomas Davis Lectures on Anglo-Irish Poetry, edited by Sean Lucy, The Mercier Press, 1973, pp. 159-84).
The title poem 'Ploughman' [of Patrick Kavanagh's first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936),] is representative of the poetry Kavanagh wrote at this period, both in theme and style….
This poem reveals a considerable lyrical skill, and a felicity of phrase, but is slightly self-conscious, and literary. One is aware of the influence of the Georgian pastoral mode in the strongly marked rhyme and rhythm and a deliberate simplicity. The poem does not escape sentimentality and the same weakness is found in several others in the collection. But glimpses of Kavanagh's honesty and intelligence are to be found even in this early volume. He can be ironic as well as wistful about country life. (p. 49)
Another poem of this early period that shows how Kavanagh was finding a voice of his own is 'Shancoduff'…. This poem expresses a feeling for the countryside that is very different from the conventional pastoral sentiment that appears in many of the earlier poems. The face of Monaghan is accurately and lovingly revealed here and the image of the frost—'the bright shillings of March'—is wholly original and not simply the traditional currency of pastoral. (p. 50)
In 1942 Kavanagh published his most sustained and dramatic poem about Irish country life, The Great Hunger. There is a marked difference between this sombre and powerful piece of writing and the pastoral lyrics of Ploughman and Other Poems. (p. 51)
[The Great Hunger] has an edge of bitterness that springs from Kavanagh's own struggle against the tyranny of the plough and the fields. (p. 55)
Kavanagh writes from inside the world of the little fields; he is not just looking over the bank from the roadside like the motorists he refers to, and like some other poets of the countryside.
There are undoubtedly weaknesses in the poem; there is a raw edge now and again, a certain stridency that sometimes grates on the ear; but taken as a whole it is profoundly moving. Although there are occasional lapses when the vitality of rhythm and language seems to flag a little, for the most part the writing is taut and resonant, and it combines a colloquial ease with flashes of vivid imagery. Kavanagh catches brilliantly the turns and tones of country talk and reflection. (pp. 55-6)
The Great Hunger may also be considered as a 'pastoral' poem of the twentieth century, depicting a rural life that has already largely vanished. It has been linked with The Deserted Village, but there is very little in common between Goldsmith's nostalgic dream of 'sweet Auburn' and Kavanagh's stern picture of Monaghan. We get an equally strong contrast if we set The Great Hunger alongside Wordsworth's Michael, another 'pastoral' poem with a lonely, suffering man as its central figure. Michael's suffering is due to a single misfortune falling on him in his old age. Apart from this, his life is one of humble dignity and content. He is idealised as a noble peasant, a shepherd in daily contact with the uplifting presences of nature….
Wordsworth does not call our attention to the dung and the clay that cling to the feet of peasants; he ignores the boredom and the ignorance, the meanness and lust that Kavanagh makes us keenly aware of. This is not to say that Kavanagh is simply a dreary 'realist', disillusioned and sour, and anxious to explode the myths of pastoral innocence and beauty. On the contrary, it is his keen awareness of the possibilities of life and love and the light of the imagination that makes him aware of the frustration and misery of Maguire's restricted lot. Indeed Maguire himself has intimations of immortality, glimpses of joy and eternity. He is no more indifferent to nature than Michael is, but his response is less steady and dignified, dragged down by practical and personal cares. (p. 59)
Wordsworth's single-mindedness in Michael is reflected in the grave dignity and simplicity of his blank verse, quietly even in tone and diction from start to finish. Kavanagh ranges through a variety of tones and rhythms, from the Biblical-prophetic opening—
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
to the jazzy repetition and colloquialism of
Sitting on a wooden gate, Sitting on a wooden gate, Sitting on a wooden gate He didn't care a damn.
Whether we see it as a twentieth century descendant of English pastoral poetry, or a rural 'waste land', it seems to me that The Great Hunger is a major poem…. Although Maguire is a small peasant farmer in an Irish parish he takes on a universal significance. He is typical of many men who lead lives of quiet desperation. He has some awareness of his own condition but he lacks the insight and the courage to act from the promptings of his deepest feelings. In spite of this he is not insignificant or contemptible, and Kavanagh does not despise him, nor does he condescend towards him. There is pity for his fate but it is saved from sentimentality by irony. He writes with profound sympathy because he himself has been in Maguire's situation, but also with detachment because he writes as a poet. The 'ordinary barbaric life of the Irish poor' has found a new voice, sombre, powerful and haunting. (pp. 59-60)
The dualism of Kavanagh's feelings about the countryside continues through all his work. Golden memories of Christmas and harvest, and the spell of familiar place-names, must be set against bitter attacks on the backwardness and barbarity of the country. But in the dialogue of love and hate it is love that finally predominates. This is perhaps especially true of his poetry. There are very few poems that express the resentment against his country upbringing that is sometimes found in his prose comments. One of them is 'Stony Grey Soil' published in A Soul for Sale (1947)….
Even in this poem the hate is mingled with love. We are aware of it in the catalogue of place names—'Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco'. Hate is sometimes only the reverse side of the coin of love. Kavanagh himself points this out in some characteristically pointed and perceptive words about the nature of art.
The artist may hate his subject with that kind of furious enthusiastic hate which is a form of love, and which equally with love is a giver of life in literature. But when he dismisses it with contempt he is guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost.
Kavanagh's quarrel with himself over his country background was complicated by friends and critics. Although he once saw himself as 'the green fool' (the Irish peasant poet) he passionately resented being labelled and stereotyped in this role. Indeed all his life he fought an uphill battle against the literary and journalistic label. He resented being 'exhibited as a strange animal discovered by a visiting journalist'…. (p. 68)
How was he to shake off the offending and falsifying stereotype while remaining faithful to the childhood country that he loved? He strenuously resisted the popular image of the poet, especially the Irish poet, as 'an inspired idiot': and the 'fallacy that because a man is born in the country his sensibility and feeling for life deserts him when he leaves his green fields'.
One of his most successful poems springs from the attempt to re-affirm his love of the country while resisting the stereotype. In the Bell he describes his poem 'Innocence' as 'an answer to some superficial or vicious people who would have me cornered in a small field', and elsewhere he called it 'my reaction to the idea of the inspired country idiot'. (pp. 68-9)
['Innocence'] is one of a group of what might loosely be called Monaghan poems. Some of them are included in A Soul For Sale, others not. They show us one side of Kavanagh's achievement as a poet, his own distinctive and personal kind of nature poetry….
Kavanagh, unlike many other Irish writers, did not leave his native fields never to return. In later years he returned many times to Inniskeen and his comments reveal the continuing tension of opposites. His returns were both joyful and saddening: he felt both continuity and separation, sameness and difference. (p. 69)
At the same time he realised that there was no going back. An inseparable part of that early life was its complete unconsciousness and unawareness. Once a man has eaten of the tree of knowledge he cannot return to innocence. He may regain innocence and reach again the place from which he started, but it will be by a winding route through the world of experience, not by a simple return. He realised, too, the difficulty of re-working early material and getting right the angle at which he once saw Dublin or his attitude to cruelty to animals. There was a danger of being false, melodramatic or sentimental. The past had to be connected with the present if it was not to be dead….
Kavanagh's involvement in country life has clearly conditioned his approach to nature and the countryside. He does not walk out as a spectator in search of the picturesque or the beautiful. He once said that 'the fields looked at me more than I looked at them'…. (p. 71)
He never believed in a romantic pursuit of beauty in nature. He felt that walking should always be done with some practical purpose in mind, not simply to admire the view. He reversed W. H. Davies's oft-quoted exhortation to us to stand and stare at the world around us.
Memorable beauty comes to us obliquely while we are going about our troubled business.
W. H. Davies wrote:—
What is this life if, full of care We have no time to stand and stare? (p. 72)
The mode and the moods of the 'Monaghan' poems follow naturally from Kavanagh's general approach to his home fields. In most of them there is a relaxed, easy acceptance of the country world, without any straining or standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of wonder. 'Peace' … is an early but excellent example. (p. 73)
[Its mode] is neither Horatian nor Wordsworthian, but plain 'Monaghan'. Kavanagh remembers, not the primrose or the daffodil, but the cocksfoot and the grass growing over the stones. This is not the Ireland of wild mountain and glen, not the landscape of Paul Henry or Seán Keating, but the quiet unexciting landscape of the little tillage fields. It is observed from the inside. The detail, deliberately commonplace, is sharply focussed and remembered with affection: 'an old plough upside-down on a weedy ridge'. The tone and movement of the verse is relaxed; the words seem casual and yet the lines fall with a quiet force in a firm pattern of rhyme, so that we accept the almost rhetorical lift of the last couplet. It is a much finer poem than the far more famous 'Lake Isle of Innisfree', in which Yeats is similarly exploring a vision of rural peace. Yeats's vision is romantic and sentimental, and his nine bean rows belong to a fairy world rather than the world of country fellows. (p. 74)
[Kavanagh's Collected Poems] is not a complete collection. At the same time it is not a selection, because it contains some of his worst poems. But it does include the bulk of Kavanagh's published poetry and it allows us to see his work in perspective. There is a great difference between the beginning and the end of the book; there is considerable variety of style and mood, and there is striking unevenness of achievement.
Broadly speaking, Kavanagh's weakest poems come at the beginning and end of his career as a poet. Since he had as early models the verse corner of an Irish Sunday newspaper and the thin romantic-pastoral diet of minor Georgian poets, it is not surprising that many of his early poems are weak. The carelessness and indifference in some of his later verse is not due to incompetence or bad models; it is deliberate.
'Anyhow, I did arrive at complete casualness, at being able to play a true note on a dead slack string', Kavanagh remarked in Self-Portrait. This casual manner was something he valued and cultivated. We find it, for example, in 'Literary Adventures'…. Here the manner is successful; the tone is easy, relaxed and yet the words are communicating what he wants them to communicate.
But some of the casual poems give an impression of carelessness and clumsiness rather than colloquial ease. Kavanagh leaned over backwards in an effort to avoid solemnity and respectability. 'One of the good ways of getting out of this respectability,' he wrote, 'is the judicious use of slang and outrageous rhyming.' But such usage must be judicious if it is to succeed. Some of the poems seem to me to avoid one kind of 'ponderosity' only to fall into another. An example of this is 'The Gambler: A Ballet with Words'. It is not sufficiently light and amusing to carry off its outrageous rhymes, in an Ogden Nash manner, nor has it sufficient poetic pressure to be effective on a more serious level…. The rhymes are certainly outrageous; but they call attention to themselves for no particular reason. The reader becomes more conscious of the language than of the statement made.
Kavanagh once remarked during an interview that: 'Poetry is not really an art. It's only saying things.' The remark illuminates the difference between his approach to writing and that of Yeats who wanted his words to sing and dance, or to have the cold beauty of sculptured stone. 'Words alone are certain good.' Yeats falls over into rhetoric; Kavanagh falls over into doggerel. Yeats would never have used words like 'anti-dignity', 'unhard' and 'unselectual'. Kavanagh doesn't care if he forces a rhyme in the most amateur way. (pp. 107-08)
In the Collected Poems the satirical poems are grouped together at the beginning of Section IV. This affords the reader an opportunity to consider Kavanagh's work as a verse satirist. It might be expected that he would excel in satire. He had a reputation for destructive wit and he had a passionate hatred of many things. But in fact, with a few exceptions, his satiric poems seem to me the least rewarding to the reader.
There are two sustained satires on the Dublin literary and cultural world, 'The Paddiad' and 'Adventures in the Bohemian Jungle'. 'The Paddiad', or the Devil as a Patron of Irish Letters, is an attack on a literary group in Dublin which is promoting a bogus renaissance in Irish letters. When the poem was published in Come Dance with Kitty Stobling Kavanagh included an apologetic explanatory note to warn the reader that it was based on 'false and ridiculous premises', on 'the sad notion with which my youth was infected that Ireland was a spiritual entity'.
The devil of the poem is a mild literary dictator 'the master of the mediocre', who dispenses praise to the literary Paddies gathered round him…. Into this circle intrudes Paddy Conscience, 'a man who looks the conventional devil', a half-drunk, dirty, disreputable poet, with 'a dangerous arrogance'. This is clearly Paddy Kavanagh himself. In the course of the poem he is chucked out of the bar and soon news comes of his death in Paris. The devil speaks ingratiatingly of his genius, ready to gather him into the fold of Irish letters, now that he is safely dead…. The verse is clever and amusing, but it is difficult to accept Kavanagh's terms of reference. The satire is too personal, insufficiently distanced and detached. The same weakness is found, to a much greater degree, in 'Adventures in the Bohemian Jungle'. Again Kavanagh himself, as the simple Countryman, is too nearly involved in the poem. The waters of satire are muddied by personal rancour; there is insufficient distillation. The satire is too gross, too simple, without any real laughter. At times the tone is almost embarrassing…. A greater detachment in the tone of 'House Party to Celebrate the Destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland' makes this a much more successful poem. Kavanagh does not appear himself and his method of satire has more subtlety. (pp. 109-10)
Even when his main intention is not satire, a satiric edge gives cutting power to much of Kavanagh's poetry. In 'Father Mat' the figure of the old priest is conveyed with sympathy, but there is a sharp satiric sketch of his young curate. (p. 111)
Except in the very early romantic poems, irony is an ingredient of all Kavanagh's poetry, seasoning and sharpening its flavour. It is present in 'The Great Hunger' and we find it in 'In Blinking Blankness', the last poem to appear in Collected Poems. Here he turns the irony against himself as he often does. (pp. 111-12)
Magic is not always spilled from Kavanagh's trucks of language, but when we have discounted the weak and ineffective verse—perhaps more than half the book—we are left with enough genuine and original poetry to earn him an honorable place amongst the poets of the twentieth century…. [The] poetry that seems to me the best [is] … the Monaghan poems and the poems of the Canal Bank period. Most of these are in the Collected Poems, and they demonstrate a remarkable thing, that after all the years that have passed since Wordsworth made nature worship fashionable, after all the clichés about the 'beauties of nature' and the 'good earth', a twentieth century poet can still write about the country with freshness and vitality. At his best Kavanagh does just this, and part of his strength lies in the fact that his vision of rural life is never divorced from common reality. His feet are firmly planted in the clay and dung, and yet, in the midst of the commonplace, he perceives those 'bright shoots of everlastingness' that Vaughan knew.
At the same time his bright shoots are by no means found only in the country. The Canal Bank poems belong to Dublin, even if there are glances back at Monaghan; and some of the successful personal poems have no particular location. The Collected Poems reveal a poet, not simply a country or peasant poet. (p. 113)
The great poetic virtue for Kavanagh was to be true to one's own feeling and experience, even if it seemed like selfishness. He steadfastly refused to pay tribute to any cause or movement, doctrine or ideology. (p. 115)
Kavanagh was never a poet with a mask. He was always patently and blatantly himself. This was his strength, but also his weakness. It might be said that Yeats found a new energy in his old age by discarding masks and disguises, by dismissing his circus animals…. Kavanagh had no masks to discard, no 'players and painted stage' to dismiss. When personal vision failed him, there was nothing for him to fall back on, no mythology, no service to cause or craft to sustain him. In his last years his occasional poems express a sense of loss; the page before him is blank and inspiration flags…. (pp. 115-16)
'In Blinking Blankness', 'On Rampas Point', and 'Personal Problem' all suggest a drying up of poetic springs, an exhaustion of spiritual energy….
The same harsh honesty distinguishes these few last poems; and it must surely be counted to Kavanagh's credit that he did not flog a sour soil to produce more verse in his last years. (p. 116)
In spite of unevenness and occasional sourness, in spite of sometimes shouting 'praise' and 'beauty', instead of revealing and presenting them, Kavanagh does kindle once more the reader's enthusiasm for life. He does, in Wordsworth's phrase, 'reinvest with spirituality the material universe', and lead us back to
The placeless heaven that's under all our noses.
Alan Warner, in his Clay Is the Word: Patrick Kavanagh 1904–1967 (© 1973, Alan Warner), The Dolmen Press, 1973, 144 p.
Kavanagh limited himself, it is true, to writing about himself only and the ways of life that formed him, although he extended his range somewhat in his journalism. But after Yeats and Joyce, immediately after them, perhaps self-limitation was the best course for an Irish writer, since the history of the human race, the nature of the unseen world, the possibilities of linguistic experiment, and what Kavanagh liked to call contemptuously "the Irish thing" all had been adequately covered. What was left? Daily life. Mud, stones, flowers, food, drink, faces, joy, sickness, hope, despair, spite, resentment, family, love, hate, and the occasional intimation of—something. No symbols anywhere. In "Is" (1958) Kavanagh wrote: "The only true teaching/Subsists in watching/Things moving or just colour/Without comment from the scholar." Kavanagh knew that it was difficult for a poet to get by without adopting some symbol or theory as his own: Yeats's masks and gyres. But he could not honestly find anything appropriate unless, as he once said half-facetiously, it was the magpie.
There are allusions aplenty, even the odd conundrum here and there in Kavanagh, but their context is the clay of Monaghan [his birthplace] and the streets of Dublin, not a literary copybook. Kavanagh tried to be parochial without being provincial, he wrote of the universal particular. "Parochialism and provincialism," Kavanagh used to say, "are direct opposites. A provincial is always trying to live by other people's loves, but a parochial is self-sufficient." Most Irish writing of this century, whatever its quality, has been aimed at foreign markets, produced as an exportable commodity, like beef or family crests. Irish writers, living in a colonial or post-colonial situation, have like their counterparts in other emerging nations tried to prove to themselves that they are human by gaining the respect and attention of their former colonial masters, even when their fear of inferiority is masked by patriotic rhetoric and reference, or when they appear to care little one way or the other about the colonizers. (pp. 13-14)
At worst this sort of post-colonial egoism makes for complacency and empty, defensive pride, as it did for the Irish Free State after 1927, with its censorship laws, designed as if to prove that Ireland had nothing to learn from the rest of the world. There is a touch of such complacency in Kavanagh…. But the weight of his writing falls against those of his countrymen who boasted of their insular Irishness, taking as their self-definition fantasies about Celtic blood, cultivating traits and poses designed, Kavanagh would say, by foreigners or by Irish writers desirous of pleasing foreigners. "I do not believe," wrote Kavanagh, "that there is any such thing as 'Irish' in literature." Joyce had said the same thing by making the hero of his Dublin epic a Jew.
Kavanagh's attitude to nationalism in literature was extreme and … at times inconsistent. But he was part of a general literary reaction against mythopoeic notions of Irishness…. Kavanagh loved ridiculing nationalist abstractions, and he had never been caught up in them, except as a youthful diversion. He was too aware of the hungers of daily existence for patriotism to do anything for his physical or spiritual digestion. (pp. 14-16)
Certain factors then ought to be kept in mind [when discussing] Kavanagh's verse. He was in revolt against fake nationalist sentiment and images, and he was, in his best work, concerned with capturing the poetry of ordinary life as he knew it. He tried to present this life bare, unadorned by received literary conventions or by flashy literary techniques. At the same time he often managed to get into his lines a spiritual quality that lifts them a little above mere matter. The nationalistic emphasis of much of the Literary Renaissance was abhorrent to him, but the spare, direct, personal style of Yeats's later work was an undoubted influence on him, as it has been on all recent Irish poets of any merit. He had no use for Joyce's ballet of rhetoric, styles and symbols, but Joyce the mimic of life was a continuous influence on Kavanagh…. (p. 17)
It must also be understood that Kavanagh's work is the product of a very low, dispirited period in Irish life and literature, the sort of psychological slump that most nations emerging from colonial rule experience after the revival of the past fails and people become aware that they have to make do with the rubble left behind by the departed conqueror…. By 1940, when Kavanagh began doing his best work, national independence was a reality but the vision had blacked out, and Ireland seemed to the most sensitive of her writers a dismal hole, its citizens becoming obsessed with ambitions of bourgeois respectability, isolated from the world by circumstances and by a perverse self-will…. Having seen the nationalist myths dissolve, disheartened by the values of the developing society, the better Irish writers had by 1940 turned caustically critical…. Kavanagh's most important single poem, The Great Hunger (1942), is an exegesis of the squalor of Irish country life. (pp. 18-19)
In 756 lines, divided into fourteen sections, the poem describes the life of Patrick Maguire, a small farmer…. [In] between the maddening, deadening details of country life, the stunted energies and hopes of people tethered to the land come across in concise images with great emotional impact. The Great Hunger has the power of a natural force, a flood or a drought.
I am not sure how to account for this natural force, it is so natural. Its rhythms are mostly those of common speech, often willing itself to rhyme, sounding sometimes vaguely ballad like, but on the whole deliberately flat, dreary, and irregular, with the hint of an Irish air or even a nursery rhyme in the meter. (pp. 20-1)
Kavanagh's Great Hunger is the spiritual, intellectual, and sexual hunger of the Irish countryman, who whatever else he lacks usually has enough to eat…. The tone of The Great Hunger ranges from somber to bitter, to wistful to futile, and it is more bitter than anything else. The glib and riotous peasants of Synge, the droll country wits of Lady Gregory, the hard-riding country gentlemen and romantic beggarmen of Yeats—all are absent. (p. 22)
Kavanagh was fond of calling the Literary Renaissance "a thoroughgoing English-bred lie." Certainly his idea of country truth has nothing of the Celtic Twilight about it. His Patrick Maguire is like a rural version of one of Joyce's paralyzed characters in Dubliners…. (p. 23)
The Great Hunger is tragedy without drama because Maguire never contests anything, has no energy to struggle. We are aware only of the hunger-ache in him, and it is only that which distinguishes him from the farm animals…. [It is hard to convey] the cumulative force of the poem [or] suggest the direct simplicity of its language and images and the unadorned authenticity of its detail. It is a didactic work…. At last, Patrick Maguire is not noble. Whatever dream or dignity he had in him the clay has choked. When finally he is underground and "The tongue in his mouth is the root of a yew," we know that he was dead long before he died anyway. (pp. 24-5)
Benedict Kiely has described The Green Fool, accurately, as being "as honest and unaffected and happy and humorous a book as any young poet ever wrote about himself." (p. 28)
[The Green Fool] has a mature, easy tone that Kavanagh was not to recapture for many years, and the savagery of The Great Hunger must have been born in part out of his literary frustrations. In the course of describing the blossoming of a poetic soul The Green Fool touches on countless details of country life that are of anthropological as well as literary interest. (pp. 29-30)
In The Green Fool, as later in Tarry Flynn, the character and the characters of Inniskeen come across as so varied and so intense that one looks on in fascination and with little enough of either approval or disgust…. Certainly Kavanagh does not spare himself from humorous treatment, as when he describes how he taunted the son of the Protestant sexton and then ran for his life from the wrath of the boy's father. Everyone seems to get his due, and no more.
There is nothing stage-Irish here, the observations are too precise for that. We get a sharply focused picture of a specific region and proof that there are not one or two but hundreds of Irelands tucked away among low hills or high mountains, black-soiled valleys or white-stoned coasts; a country as yet unhomogenized by the mass media; a place where crossing a stream can bring a change of accent and custom. (p. 32)
His mixed emotions about finally departing Inniskeen are crystallized in Tarry Flynn…. (p. 39)
It covers much of the same ground as The Green Fool…. Aesthetically it is superior to the earlier work, more humorous, tighter, and more coherent by virtue of its controlling theme, the inevitable departure from the countryside of its young poethero Tarry. (pp. 39-40)
Kavanagh leaves us at last with the pain of uprooting and the beauty of what Tarry loves. No bitterness, no resentment at the stony grey soil, only sadness and confusion at the power of home and the urge to leave it. (p. 40)
[Throughout his early years in Dublin Kavanagh] kept on with his verse and became an active giver and receiver of what Yeats called "The daily spite of this unmannerly town."
In those days the Palace Bar in Fleet Street was the center of literary activity or at least talk…. Here Kavanagh's satirical verse was spawned. (p. 42)
At first Kavanagh concealed in verse if not in speech his contempt for this and related Dublin scenes, turning instead against Monaghan as a way of trying to shake the clay from his boots. But he was never absorbed into this society, though he became important to it as a character, a tolerated scourge. He acquired a reputation as a wild and eccentric poet, mostly because of his bluntness—"I don't know you and I don't want to know you"—and the aggressive, controversial nature of his reviews, which attacked the general level of taste in the country. It was a way of calling attention to himself, and it worked, not entirely to his advantage, because it enabled people to pigeonhole him as an oddity, a green fool. (p. 43)
He became known and he knew people, but it was lonely. In a way he occupied the outsider's place in Dublin that he had in Inniskeen, but without home comforts and land comforts. His anger at the city broke into verse [in "The Jungle" (1948).]… (pp. 43-4)
The hate runs on uncontrolled in "The Jungle," but in other poems Kavanagh leashes hate to irony and the satiric knife cuts deeper, cleaner…. [In "The Defeated" (1951), in] the plain, conversational style of which he was becoming a master, Kavanagh catches the envious defensiveness of the provincial capital and implies his place in it. His satire has this in common with his lyrical verse, that it requires no formal exegesis, only an ear. To damn each hog or praise each violet straight to its face was his way.
To him the Dublin writers were most of them frauds and bores trying to capitalize on "the Irish thing" and doing their best to diminish and exclude the genuine article, Kavanagh. "The Paddiad" (1949), inspired by Pope's "Dunciad," makes fatuous the writers of Catholic novels, pious verse, Tourist Board pap disguised as poetry…. Celtic Mist, Connemara West, and Frog are based on three writers Kavanagh held in especially low regard: Austin Clarke (a generally admired and prolific poet), Roibeard O'Farachain (novelist and poet), and M. J. McManus (literary editor of the Irish Press). Or so Kavanagh named them in a letter to his brother, but they are recognizable types and could represent any number of people. "The Paddiad" mocks the backscratching, self-perpetuating apparatus of Irish letters. The devil appears as patron of the Paddies…. (pp. 44-6)
In "Adventures in the Bohemian Jungle," a verse play,… Kavanagh takes on the entire Dublin art world, literature, theater, painting, music, all tightly bound to commerce. The scene combines the nighttown episode of Ulysses, the Inferno, and Pilgrim's Progress. Kavanagh appears as the simple Countryman, full of love, believer in the power of poets, bewildered by this temple of the Muses, which is nothing more than a drunken party. (p. 46)
Kavanagh wrote many poems in this vein, often appearing himself in the role of naïf or indignant truth-teller. They were worthy efforts, slashingly funny, but one can keep at such stuff only so long. It is the sort of satire that has behind it a reforming urge, a messianic impulse, and when poem after poem would appear in newspaper or little magazine, raise a few titters, cause people to say the equivalent of "Kavanagh's done it again, what a droll fellow, I understand he is unkempt and drinks to excess, clever writer though, a genius, surely, or near-genius," and disappear down the rat hole of notoriety—when this would happen again and again, Kavanagh felt wasted, empty, a failure. And often, when he was not writing satire, he would write about failure…. ["Portrait of the Artist" (1951)] expresses contempt for popular standards of success but also Kavanagh's cold misery at feeling unrecognized. (p. 48)
Kavanagh's progress, if that is the right word, reminds me of Samuel Beckett's many-named hero, Murphy-Watt-Molloy-Moran-Malone-Unnamable, who after years of searching, cursing, hating, wondering, wandering, loses his last possessions, confronts death, casts off his selves and self-fictions and gives himself up to pure contemplation of the space around him; Kavanagh wifeless, curling up sometimes in basements, slopping about Dublin "dishevelled with shoes untied," taken as one thing by onlookers while a contradictory poetic universe whirled in his head, confronts death and achieves for a moment equilibrium in poetry that contemplates whatever corner he finds himself occupying. (p. 57)
On March 31, 1955, Kavanagh was operated on for cancer of the lung. The lung was removed. Unaccountably he recovered completely…. [Barely] eluding death had a serious and positive effect on his poetry. It was after this that he wrote three or four of his finest lyrics, permanent ones, I think, that will with The Great Hunger make his monument. Kavanagh himself thought that he had not become a poet until after his illness, and while the judgment is too narrow, it has its truth. His sickness deprived him of a lung and of much hatred, or let us say that the trauma of his cancer made the targets of his hatred seem as petty as they were and as unworthy of his continuous attention. In "The Hospital" (1956) he wrote of love…. Simple, original, moving; a return to the naming and praising of his early verse but without gush or awe-struck pose; the language common as the subject. Kavanagh's love is that of disinterested (selfless, if you like) appreciation. It was that way with women, too, for at least from the evidence of his poems his love was rarely requited. Love is pursued, missed, remembered…. "On Raglan Road" is typical of Kavanagh's love poetry in theme even if he varied his language and form over the years…. But if women, like fame, eluded him, he felt after his illness that he was free to love without bitterness those things of which he asked nothing but their existence: the natural world, man-made objects acted on by nature and by time, even women when they were out of reach in memory or fancy…. Poetry had become all. As in "The Hospital," naming is the love-act. Poetry is not one activity in life, it is life itself, the lover's means of seeing and feeling, letting the gods commingle, out-of-sense, unreasonable.
"That a poet is born, not made, is well known," Kavanagh said in 1963 in a "Self-Portrait" broadcast over Irish television…. Kavanagh felt that in order to achieve … the simplicity of return, he had had to reach a position of what he called "not caring." By this he did not mean cynicism but acceptance of his or any other man's humble place in the world, which would spin regardless of him but which was worth observing and capturing in words, whatever the effect, whatever the consequence, the likelihood being that there would be none. Not caring, "we don't care whether we appear foolish or not. We talk of things that earlier would embarrass. We are satisfied with being ourselves, however small. So it was that on the banks of the Grand Canal between Baggot and Leeson Street bridges in the warm summer of 1955, I lay and watched the green waters of the canal. I had just come out of hospital." Three years later he was able to write of "Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal/Pouring redemption for me, that I do/The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,…. ("Canal Bank Walk," 1958)." This was the first of several canal bank poems celebrating the grass and water running across the south side of Dublin…. The greatest of his canal bank poems is "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin, 'Erected to the Memory of Mrs. Dermot O'Brien'" (1958)…. (pp. 58-61)
Kavanagh got rid of a great deal in order to accomplish this sonnet: self-righteousness, self-pity, the temptation to take himself rather than life seriously. He had always insisted on realism, scorning writers who falsified life, but here, as he commented in 1959, he brought about "the final fusion of all crudeness into a pure flame." It is a religious conception of poetry, the poet as priest, language the transubstantiating power. The poem seems borne on the ambient air it describes. Its technique, while unobtrusive, has much to do with its success and is made possible by the new self-confidence that somehow came to Kavanagh after fifty years of age. The rhyme, for example, [is audacious]…. The effect is to make the poem's intensity seem off hand, bottled-up but escaping with graceful pressure, a backhanded catch, the favorite winning by an easy neck.
Writing about ecstasy has its perils. Joyce's celebrated epiphany, the beach scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, tastes like trifle today, thought it is possible Joyce intended it as an example of how not to describe visionary experience. The later Yeats provided Kavanagh with a better model in "Vacillation" where the dull, off-hand phrase "twenty minutes more or less" makes the ecstasy of "my body of a sudden blazed" believable and affecting. Getting the mood into words, it was essential to convey a mundane setting in colloquial language—Yeats's shop, cup, and table-top, Kavanagh's banal canal-bank seat.
"The mark of the poet is his lightness, the pure personality revealed bare in all its volatility and with the gaiety that is of God…." So Kavanagh said lecturing at University College, Dublin, in 1956. He quoted St. Augustine: "I am conscious of something within me that plays before my soul and is as a light dancing in front of me. Were this brought to steadiness and perfection in me it would surely be eternal light." The mystical impulse had been with him from the start but not until 1956, and with greatest effect in 1958, was he able to "record love's mystery without claptrap" not here and there in an isolated verse but with a fair consistency. These later poems are the sequel to Tarry Flynn: the poet departed, travels the road of hate into the city of love and light. In poetry, at least, and if it is possible to separate Kavanagh's life from his work, it must be said that work gave him what life never could. There was too much desperation in him for personal happiness. (pp. 62-3)
For Kavanagh the moment, "the passionate transitory," was always the true poetic subject. The difficulty was in clearing away the claptrap. Violent rejection was a start but, as we have noted, nay-saying such as that of The Great Hunger carries with it its own distortions. And one of the difficulties Kavanagh faced was that he loved Ireland, not as an abstraction but as specific hills, faces, and phrases, fiercely. The objective world and the mystery emanating from it moved and attracted him, even as the falsifying of that world repelled him or made him laugh. As for the self, or that old nag the soul, he became free and most eloquent when he ceased caring about it. The mystic tries to lose his self in the Other or the One. Kavanagh had his own modest sort of mysticism, losing himself in the Many, a hedge, a hill, a bridge, people, specified and reformed into a poem…. (p. 66)
Darcy O'Brien, in his Patrick Kavanagh (© 1975 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1975, 72 p.
By Night Unstarred consists of two posthumous prose fragments by Patrick Kavanagh…. Subtitled "An Autobiographical Novel", it has been edited with an introduction, connecting passages and epilogue by Peter Kavanagh, whose role as his "brother's keeper" has many likenesses to that of Stanislas Joyce….
By Night Unstarred was begun in 1950. It was to follow two earlier autobiographical works, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn, which had earned him some fame. There was also the notoriety occasioned by his long poem "The Great Hunger", whose evocations of masturbation ("the no-target gun fired") led to the banning of the Irish number of Horizon. For his new book, according to Peter Kavanagh, "he used the novel form—for him a tired and tedious vehicle". Hardly a recommendation, one might think. But, though obviously hell to meet, Patrick Kavanagh is one of those writers whom it is fascinating to read and to read about.
At the outset of the book the hero Patrick has insulted, or been insulted by, the newly-rich Devine family, middle-class Dubliners interested in the arts for social reasons. There follows a flashback to trace the rise of the Devines from their impoverished background as peasant farmers. Though sketchy in parts, this is Kavanagh at his best, economical, lyrical and mercifully free from any political context: it is the world of his own young manhood….
The second fragment shows the middle-aged poet angling for a job in Dublin…. In this second fragment there are some lively phrases—a bishop "sweeps into a room like a hostess in evening dress"—but the prevalent tone is depressive. Kavanagh is incautious in blaming other people for their lack of humour, and more convincing when he tells us that "it is dangerous to write down one's own fears, one's self-pity, lest in the end it might all come true".
For the most part, it did. Or so we learn from Peter Kavanagh's epilogue….
Kavanagh believed himself to be in reaction against the whole Irish literary movement, and especially against Peasant Quality (known as "P.Q.") as found at the Abbey Theatre. But time has blurred the difference, and made authenticity seem less important than talent. Talent he certainly possessed; By Night Unstarred, irritating and unsatisfactory as it may be, provides further evidence.
Frank Tuohy, "Dublin's Depressive," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3951, December 16, 1977, p. 1467.
[Patrick Kavanagh's Lough Derg] was one of the most authentic compositions of comparable length to be offered us since The Waste Land. From the poet of The Great Hunger (1967) much passion was expected and an expressive constancy of feeling is likewise to be found in Lough Derg. At times, the verse (free but with irregular rhyme) goes, perhaps, a little roughshod; but never drops into that prosiness as when we say that 'Homer nods'.
The etiology of the poem is interesting; and we are indebted to the poet's brother Dr Peter Kavanagh for giving it to us. 'Patrick', he tells us, 'was a Catholic with emphasis on the mystical element. He did not dismiss the penitential approach. He wanted to understand it. That is why he went to Lough Derg'—the Irish Lourdes—on what might be called a reverent open-minded ironic pilgrimage. What he found there and sought to set down in the fortnight he returned to Dublin was the reason he delayed issuing the poem during his lifetime. His brother tells us that he was 'unsure that he had achieved the unique detachment' he had pursued. 'Not to have achieved it would mean that it was no more than a sinful treatment of a sacred subject … there was a danger that he might appear to be intruding on the sympathy and the prayers of sincere people.'
It is well that we have Dr Kavanagh's retrospective comments on the poem, since a superficial reading might encourage the view that the poet was sending-up the Catholic ethos when what he was doing—as I conceive it—is something analogous to what Muriel Spark did in her first novel The Comforters; namely, to draw a distinction between the pure Faith of the religion and the imperfect travesties of it as represented by certain of the laity and the priesthood. This might well be an over-simplification, since Kavanagh's occasionally home-spun lines are by no means an indice of any lacking subtlety of mind. (pp. 45-6)
The method of retreat at Lough Derg constitutes fasting and other abstinences. This, to the poet, is the easy way out, though he would have recognized its validity for the truly 'simple soul' (simple-spirited and large hearted such as Flaubert wrote about in his immortal conte). Because of this kindergarten highway code to heaven, he writes of 'the boredom of Purgatory'—
Their piety that hangs like a fool's, unthought, This certainty in men, This three days too-goodness.
All that I have written here, however, does little more than define the poem in terms of its theme's partially negative approach; and there is so much more to it than this. Kavanagh describes his persona in the poem as that of a 'half-pilgrim'; and possibly it might be truer to say that the 'non-pilgrim' half is not so much doubter as pagan in the pantheistic or 'nature mystic' sense. But, in whatever theological fashion one decides to describe the poet's attitude, aesthetically and psychologically the poem seems to me one of the most interesting religious compositions since Bishop Blougram's Apology. (p. 46)
Derek Stanford, "Magicians of Language" (© copyright Derek Stanford 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 12, September, 1979, pp. 44-8.∗