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A True Poet

All true poets are gay, fantastically humorous

There is insistent particularity to the writing of Patrick Kavanagh, a wiseness of local reference, as one says, whereby to locate the time, place, and person of all that may occur. As young men, we were long warned by Pound to go in fear of generality: "Any tendency to abstract, general statement is a greased slide. . . ." Of course, such concern might be set aside if the subject were love or war or our own immaculate feelings, yet it was clearly a help to know in some respect that it was ourselves we were talking about. The lure of meaning forever invites us surely.

I came to Kavanagh's poetry late, rather dumbly considering one is finally responsible for one's own information. It was the year he died, 1967, after his having been at the International Poetry Festival in London in July. Charles Olson had been there also, as had Ungaretti and Auden and others one might expect. There is an "Addendum" which his brother, Peter Kavanagh, includes as a small blue sheet in the present edition of The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh (1972), happily reminiscent:

But since the arrival of the Beatles and the Stones
Anything goes

Patrick Kavanagh, ed., Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet (Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 1986).


And I am glad
That freedom is mad
Dancing with pot
Hurray hurray
I say
For this beautiful day.
(Extempore at Poetry International '67,
London, 14th July 1967)

Some time after, I'd asked Olson what he had thought of the festival and who had impressed him. Just two, as it happens: Kavanagh and Ungaretti. In the usual welter of professional and/or political maneuvering these two, he said, could make of the weather, or any such fact of common, human experience, a profoundly simple, wondrous music. Those are my words, of course, but it was his point that they were so unambitious to be apart, singular, different, and that what they said, the so-called subjects of their poems, was so plainly evident, open to all. Best that one give an instance:

The Ploughman

In these small fields
I have known the delight
Of being reborn each morning
And dying each night.

And I can tell
That birth and death
Are nothing so fierce
As the Preacher saith.

But when life's but a day
The womb and the tomb
Press lips in fondness
Like bride and groom

And when a man's a ploughman
As I am now
And age is a furrow
And Time a plough,

And Infinity a field
That cannot stretch
Over the drain
Or through the ditch.

One's heard much of the attractiveness of Irish speech, of the gift of the gab, which is certainly to the point with respect to any poetry,


i.e., it helps. Kavanagh, it would seem, never shifts an accent or a movement against the common pattern of saying it, and his rhythms keep sensible to this measure whether placed in an explicit form or permitted to range more at will (as in the "Extempore" quoted):

Bicycles scoot by, old women
Cling to the grass margin
Their thoughts are earthy but their minds move
In dreams of the Blessed Virgin
For one in Bethlehem
Has kept their dreams safe for them. . . .
("Christmas Eve Remembered")

Reading this, curious parallels come to mind, widely divergent in time perhaps, but of the same kind as best I understand it: Villon, in the relaxed seeming doggerel which has such power of canny wit; or, much later, Tristan Corbière, specifically, "The Ballad of the Good Saint Anne" (which I first read in Pound's quotation of it in Make It New ); or my own contemporary, Irving Layton, "The Madonna of the Magnificat," for example. Burns, Heine, Skelton—that is, a tone , a prosody intimate with a voice speaking so that whatever is said with whatever result, that way of speaking is instantly clear. When it can engage a whole people's communal language, it becomes its collective power of expression, to put it mildly. If, as years go by and one gets older, there can be no transcendent resolution, or none more than a literal accommodation and the humor that permits it, then that is the truth of the power as well. It does not change things, so to speak, it reveals them. So Auden says rightly, that poetry makes nothing happen unless one consider such revelation a contradiction of his comment.

Apropos, I was impressed by Kavanagh's great care for Auden, putting him in company with Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer, and Swift. There would seem little in common between the Irishman's roots, as he puts it, in "the usual barbaric life of the Irish country poor" and the urbane Englishman's. Yet one hears the common voice in each case, and Auden has what Kavanagh most values, an insatiable appetite for all the possibilities that poetry offers: "A great poet is a monster who eats up everything. Shakespeare left nothing for those who came after him and it looks as if Auden is doing the same." More, "He is amoral" by which he means, beyond the limits of teaching or the hope to add "anything to life," and there is, finally, "no message but only energy," "detached from this


earth-bewitchment" as Blake or Pope, Swift, Cervantes, Homer. "For comedy is detachment, the view from above" ("Auden and the Creative Mind," Collected Prose , 1967).

It's proposed often that Kavanagh's most impressive work is "The Great Hunger," and one can understand why—given the limits of such choice. The poem, in fourteen sections, is the relentless narrative of a classic peasant small farmer, Patrick Maguire, whose locked, bleak life is given us without the relief of broad humor or generalizing satire. It is all too true, like they say, and what irony one finds is of acid clarity, only making the point drive home the more. As life increasingly passes him by, his last hope becomes thus meager:

The schoolgirls passed his house laughing every morning
And sometimes they spoke to him familiarly—
He had an idea. Schoolgirls of thirteen
Would see no political intrigue in an old man's friendship.
The heifer waiting to be nosed by the old bull.
That notion passed too—there was danger of talk
And jails are narrower than the five-sod ridge
And colder than the black hills facing Armagh in February.
He sinned over the warm ashes again and his crime
The law's long arm could not serve with "time."

Later Kavanagh spoke of the work with a reservation, namely that though there were "some queer and terrible things" in it, it lacked "the nobility and repose of poetry." He says this in a piece called Self Portrait , initially a television script. What he says also is of much use:

There are two kinds of simplicity, the simplicity of going away and the simplicity of return. The last is the ultimate in sophistication. In the final simplicity 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 Street 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. I wrote:

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
Grow with nature again as before I grew. . . .

—and so in this moment of great daring I became a poet.


So too, at this point it would be tacitly useless to insist more than can one final quote from "The Wonders of Love," a late poem:

Do not delay, for the moon
Will be round at our back window soon
And we will see the cool sheaves
Of wheat with its golden believes
And plenty of room for a prayer
As gay and as wild as we are.
It is not a joke that I make,
I labour for happiness sake
And I ask you to dance with your thought
For all other pleasure is not.


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