Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Special Place of Patrick Kavanagh in Irish Poetry

In a recent conversation, a friend and I agreed that Patrick Kavanagh had a special influence on us. The both of us rural Irish, we have that affinity with his particularly Irish view of the world.

For all Yeat’s heroic Irish peasant, Kavanagh was closer to the truth of it, and his insight is correct:
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived. 

You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick tongued mumble.

And yet, Kavanagh knew the gold in his experience: in ‘A Christmas Childhood’, the child’s imagination is remembered, and expressed with snow-crisp freshness:
“My child poet picked out the letters
 On the grey stone,
 In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
 The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
 Cassiopeia was over
 Cassidy's hanging hill,
 I looked and three whin bushes rode across
 The horizon - the Three Wise Kings.” 

Kavanagh saw poetry where most saw the dank misery of rural living. 

“They laughed at one I loved -
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love's doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.”……………..from ‘Innocence’ 

And then there is Kavanagh the universal poet; where TS Elliot starts ‘The Wasteland’  

“April is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing  
Memory and desire, stirring  
Dull roots with spring rain.” 

Kavanagh starts ‘The Great Hunger’: 

“Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill - Maguire and his men.
If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove
Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book
Of Death? Here crows gabble over worms and frogs
And the gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges, luckily.
Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?
Or why do we stand here shivering?
Which of these men
Loved the light and the queen
Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself
Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe'en?
We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain,
Till the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay
Rolls down the side of the hill, diverted by the angles
Where the plough missed or a spade stands, straitening the way.”
But it is the beautifully observed detail of lives and landscape that makes Patrick Kavanagh special to writers such as myself and my friend. If he was a painter, I would call it his painterly consideration of the minute.

“One side of the potatopits was white with frost
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!” 

“The tracks of cattle 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.” …from ‘A Christmas Childhood’
A poet from 'our place'; Kavanagh released the Anglo-Irish strangle-hold from around the necks of Irish poets.

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