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
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
Kavanagh knew the gold in his experience: in ‘A Christmas Childhood’, the child’s
imagination is remembered, and expressed with snow-crisp freshness:
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.”
poetry where most saw the dank misery of rural living.
laughed at one I loved -
triangular hill that hung
Big Forth. They said
That I was
bounded by the whitethorn hedges
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’
the cruellest month, breeding
of the dead land, mixing
with spring rain.”
starts ‘The Great Hunger’:
“Clay is the word and clay is the
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
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 potato‑pits 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.