The re-birth of Patrick Kavanagh
JOHN BIRD [STUDIES] :: Last September, Claddagh Records re-released a double album of Patrick Kavanagh’s work ». It contains many recordings of Kavanagh himself talking or reciting his own poetry, but it also has many other public figures reading his poems. It opens, for example, with Bono reading ‘On Raglan Road’, President Michael D. Higgins reading ‘Stony Grey Soil’, and Liam Neeson reading ‘Memory of my Father’. Other guest readers include Imelda May, Hozier, Aisling Bea, and Sharon Corr.
Kavanagh wrote an important essay in Studies in 1959. It gives an account of what he called his ‘hegira’, his re-birth on the banks of the Grand Canal, as he recovered from his cancer treatment.
It was in this essay that the first version of the renowned ‘Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’ appeared, though without a title. The essay is a melody of self-criticism and literary criticism, often epigrammatic and comic but also clear – nothing hidden or codified.
Here is the last section of his essay, in which Kavanagh describes the new vision of life and life’s purpose which he gained on the banks of the Grand Canal after his recovery from cancer.
Excerpt from ‘From Monaghan to the Grand Canal’
Then one day as I was lying on the bank of the Grand Canal near Baggot Street Bridge having just been very ill in the hot summer of nineteen-fifty-five, I commenced my poetic hegira. Without self-pity to look at things.
To look on is enough
In the business of love.
To let experience enter the soul. Not to be self-righteous. To have a point of view which is a man poised with a torch. Whoever wants to light a taper may; the torch-bearer does not mind. The light was a surprise over roofs and around gables, and the canal water was green stilly.
Commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by, head low with many apologies,
The bending light peeps through the eyes of bridges
And here ! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O memorial me with no hero-courageous
Tomb but just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by
This sonnet was inspired by two seats on the bank of the Canal here ‘Erected to the memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien.’
The main thing is to be free
On the road of my hegira I began to reflect with astonishment how poor as technicians the Irish school of poets and novelists have been. Real technique is a spiritual quality, a condition of mind, or an ability to invoke a particular condition of mind. Lack of technique gives us shallowness: Colum’s
O men from the fields
Softly come through
Mary will fold him
In a mantle of blue.
A charming sentiment undoubtedly, but all on the surface. Technique is a method of being sincere. Technique is a method of getting at life. The slippery surface of the cliché-phrase and -emotion causes a light skidding blow.
I discovered that the important thing above all was to avoid taking oneself sickly seriously. One of the good ways of getting out of this respectability is the judicious use of slang and of outrageous rhyming. Auden in a radio lecture a year or so ago mentioned this and made a special reference to Byron’s Don Juan. The new and outrageous rhymes are not to be confused with the slickeries of Ogden Nash. I draw attention to my rhyming of bridges with courageous.
Another bad thing about the Irish school was its dreadful sadness and lack of comedy. People who are unsure of themselves cannot afford to break out into uproarious laughter or use a piece of slang. You may find a small number of readers who cotton on to the technique but large numbers of people will look with contempt at you and say what a pity it is that he lacks schooling. This can be depressing.
To write lively verse or prose, to be involved with Comedy requires enormous physical and mental power. Energy, as Blake remarked, is eternal delight. The more energy is in a poem or prose work the more comic it is. Melville’s Mob Dick is a tremendous comedy, borne along to its end on the wings of its author’s outgiving faith in his characters. Melville loved everything on that ship. And what a great poet in prose he was! We laugh inwardly in our souls with Melville.
Laughter is the most poetic thing in life, that is the right kind of loving laughter. When, after a lifetime of struggle, we produce the quintessence of ourselves, it will be something gay and young.
But to be undull is dangerous. Dullness as a cultural asset is most valuable. One remembers that old school friend meeting Johnson after many years and his saying rather sadly that he might have been a great success but ‘cheerfulness kept breaking in.’
I have my own trouble with humour. A work that is inspired by the comic spirit has much to contend with, for a work that is inspired by the comic spirit has a sense of values, of courage and rectitude- and these qualities are hated immemorially.
Why they should be hated is not difficult to understand. A man in offering the small unique thing that is the most the greatest possess, eliminates completely the gassy fiction by which the majority live.
The notion of being one of the people is part of the general myth of roots in the soil. Analysing the thing now I see or feel that I always had some sort of kink in me. It is this kink which makes a poet, I believe. As Colette observed, it is not what a poet writes that makes him one, but this other thing. ‘Rectitude’ Cocteau calls it.
To have absolute rectitude in any field is to be an eccentric. You are not in step. Perhaps it is a form of pride and selfishness born of the realization that telling lies is a bore. In high company or low pub this rectitude is a constant quality with a poet. Being fated to live with this terrible tyrant of truth has often driven the possessed to violence, rage and, as in the case of Dylan Thomas, drink.
I am not sure if this kink of rectitude is on the whole beneficial to the man possessed by it; it makes a poet of him, but is it really necessary? It is this kink which makes people say, ‘why are you so damned difficult? We are anxious to help you.’ And so on.
A trouble with the poet is that he is not a professional writer in the usual sense. Most of his hours are spent living. He can gulp out all he has to say in a short time. After a lifetime of experience as Rilke pointed out we find just a few lines. It is because of the minute quantity of that poetic essence that is in the best men that I do not regret having developed late and very slowly. If you read about English poetry you will find that the poets spent most of their time in taverns- Ben Johnson at the Mermaid, Dryden in Will’s Coffee House. It takes a lot of living to produce a little experience. We remember Tennyson’s remark, quoted by Carlyle, ‘I am the greatest poet since Shakespeare; unfortunately I have nothing to say.’
The poet is a poet outside his writing as I have often argued. He creates an oral tradition. He does something to people. I am not sure that that something is always good, for it is a disruptive, anarchic mentality which he awakens- and if we pursue him far enough we will be inclined to agree with Plato that the poet is a menace.
There is however not much danger of his menacing Dublin or, I imagine, Ireland generally.
Voltaire said that doing a thing was the only reward worth while and Cézanne put that idea into practice when, having painted a picture, he left it behind him in a cottage or perhaps flung it into the bushes.
For a period of about a week a year ago, I wrote some poems to the new light and since then I have been sustained by them. If most of them have not yet been published, I do not mind. I am sending them out sparingly, as I want to ‘kitchen’ them.
But maybe now I am talking too near my ego.
It was a long journey for me from my Monaghan with my mind filled with the importance-of-writing-and-thinking-and-feeling-like-an-Irishman to the banks of the Grand Canal in nineteen fifty five, the year of my hegira.
The full essay is available on the JSTOR research platform »