Patrick Kavanagh, who died forty years ago today is one of the best-loved of all Irish writers and was effectively the first poet of the newly independent Irish State. He had an honest, unpretentious writing manner which contrasted firmly with that of his intimidating predecessor, W. B. Yeats. The literary critic Seamus Deane has described him, shrewdly, as “a bare-faced poet, without masks” and, thanks to those characteristics, “revolutionary.” Growing up in rural county Monaghan, in the unfortunately-named town of Mucker, Kavanagh experienced firsthand the humdrum hardships of rural life. These feature in his novels, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn and also in his most important and ambitious poem, ‘The Great Hunger’, which begins with memorable menace:
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill …
To pursue his literary career Kavanagh moved to Dublin where he lived a precarious, free-lance life, occasionally drifting into journalism. A rough, lumbering man he had a memorably abrasive manner, acquiring enemies and admirers with noticeable ease. These days, Irish artists receive generous treatment from the state but this was not so in the 40s and 50s. To make ends meet, Kavanagh was often reduced to borrowing from friends and similar humiliations. My father, who knew him slightly, remembered how Kavanagh once responded to a greeting in the street: “I’m off to dinner with a fool,” he growled, “the company will be bad, the conversation will be worse — but the food will be mighty.” Kavanagh’s generation of writers, which included Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, was mired in an outwardly genial, but ultimately scabrous, poverty. Kavanagh was frequently ill. Indeed, his sequence of Canal Bank poems, which most Irish children first enjoy at school, was penned after a period of hospitalisation. These poems reflect a new mood in his work, a quasi-Buddhist acceptance, which he described simply as “not caring.” ‘Canal Bank Walk’, for example, opens with a gorgeous labial waterfall:
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.
Celebrity and financial support eventually caught up with him, but, as he put it, “too late.” The final stages of his career were marked by a literary and medical decline. Not that this did anything to diminish his effect on such later luminaries as Seamus Heaney. Kavanagh’s influence is profound — but its nature is not technical so much as it is existential. He showed how it was possible to write about the most crashingly mundane aspects of Irish life while putting to one side the romantic mystifications of the Literary Revival. He is seen, now, as a kind of secular saint: rooted, realistic, and entirely un-pious. “I don’t like the poems of Patrick Kavanagh”, said the Dublin poet Paul Durcan, “I believe in them.”
By John Redmond
John Redmond is a lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. His first book of poems, Thumb’s Width (Carcanet) was published in 2001 and was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. Recent poems deal with computer games and car culture. They also reflect a period of teaching in St. Paul, Minnesota (2001-3). He is also the author of How To Write a Poem (Blackwell, 2005).
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