Sacred Peter

Norman MacCaig

  • Sacred Keeper by Peter Kavanagh
    Goldsmith Press, 403 pp, £4.40, May 1979, ISBN 0 904984 48 6
  • Dead as Doornails by Anthony Cronin
    Poolbeg Press, 201 pp, £1.75, May 1980, ISBN 0 905169 31 X
  • The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature edited by Robert Hogan
    Macmillan, 815 pp, £2.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 333 27085 1

My acceptance of an offer to review the Kavanagh book landed me in a mess of puzzles. Peter Kavanagh, the poet’s brother, starts straight off, sentence one, by announcing: ‘When I write about Patrick Kavanagh I write as a partisan, as his alter ego, almost as his evangelist.’ And if you think that’s a dubious basis for a biography, what about this?

As far as possible I shall avoid writing of him as a brother since my interest in him was mainly as a poet. So intense was this interest that I hardly knew him as a person at all. Even his physical appearance has scarcely registered on my memory. When we met we recognised each other, not by appearance, but in some manner difficult to describe, perhaps in the same way animals recognise their own kind.

The next paragraph gives a detailed description of the poet’s physical appearance.

The evangelist author (who suffered for the cause, as evangelists frequently do) laboured over this almost four-hundred-page-long testament with admirable zeal and devotion. What his own voice has recorded is thickly interspersed with quotations from letters, essays, broadcast talks, lectures, and, of course, poems by the bard himself – and photographs. He doesn’t often make value-judgments about the poems, which is just as well; he does occasionally venture an adverse criticism, but by and large his view of his brother’s work is clouded with stars, if I may put it that way. And anyway, his notion of what poetry is chimes discordantly with mine. ‘Technique is important in poetry only so that it may reveal the supernatural.’ Or, more unevasively still: ‘As Patrick read his verso I would listen not for the rhythm, nor for the obvious sense in the lines, but for some superior sense beyond the actual words, some harmonics, communicating a sacred message or incantation delighting me with the knowledge that there was a God.’

Mind you, his brother, who ought to have known better, himself has some pretty soft centred notions about the nature of poetty. He says, ‘Truth is personality,’ whatever that means. And if you ask, ‘Whose? Jack the Ripper’s? Why is yours so special?’ he replies: ‘The greatest work of God on this earth is the dancing flame of poetry.’ And of course he has it.

He does say some boggling things. ‘The poet is in many ways like a woman. Unspoiled women, who have not been introduced to actors, fiddlers and schools of bad painting, have no nationality in the nude.’ This isn’t quoted as a joke, so dues he mean that a naked woman who has met a couple of fiddlers is a patriot? Well, that’s daft, of course, but no daftcr than his statement, and he says things like that again and again. They shake my faith in the man’s reasoning powers till it totters. The same applies to his poetry. When he starts picking at a philosophic or didactic vein, the poem totters and often falls down.

Patrick Kavanagh’s life was a sad, not to say miserable one, with real poverty his closest neighbour, with abuse and contempt shouting too often outside the window and for most of his life neglect of his real gifts eating away at the pride and certainty of being a ‘genius’ which at once supported him and were part cause of many of the miseries he had to suffer. The picture I get of him is a good bit short of being a pleasing one.

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