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.

There are references, for instance, to his attitude to and relations with women – plenty of them, if you take his word. (Peter is reticent about this.) He says (in a poem, though it doesn’t sound like it): ‘I probably had more women who loved me than Byron.’ What a silly, corny, sex-chauvinist, embarrassing boast. But he also says, more than once, that what would solve all his problems was to marry a rich woman. Not necessarily a rich woman he loved, you understand. Just a rich woman. Patrick Kavanagh did in the end marry, in April 1967, and seven months later he was dead.

Admiration, fame, respect, affection, love were things he craved for, but he behaved in ways you would think were calculated to deprive him of these comforting things. He expected to get jobs from people he had publicly abused. (He was honest, you see. He had to say what he thought.) He was an inveterate scrounger who accepted money more readily than he paid it back. His brother says: ‘That’s the way he was, a great man for promising especially if he were about to borrow a shilling.’ His brother again: ‘On the numerous occasions he was forced to seek a hand-out he did so with resentment and never provided the given with that happy glow which comes from giving charity. He was just as likely to abuse the given instead of offering thanks – for Patrick was a moralist and no hand-out was likely to affect his views.’ He sold the family farm, to which his brother had at least as much right as he, without even telling him and of course kept all the money. ‘With five or six hundred I might get in with a rich widow.’ A final quotation on this aspect of the man: ‘Patrick did not sit through the films he reviewed. A glance was usually enough. He would not lake a seat but would stand at the back of the Pit for perhaps ten minutes and as soon as boredom struck he would leave.’ And all this from a man who goes on about integrity.

He was ungenerous in his judgments too. I know that Irish writers have a reputation for the lengths they go in exercising their remarkable gift for malice at each other’s expense. Kavanagh sprayed his acid around with what seems a bitter and ferocious enjoyment. He admits that Joyce had great gifts, but even of him he says he was ‘a powerful engine pulling a light load’. Neatly put, I must say. ‘Pound is as big a cod as c.c.cummings,’ and as for Yeats – ‘he leaves me cold and leaves me in much doubt about his ultimate survival.’

An odd thing is I said I was puzzled – he seemed, at least at limes, to be very much aware of some of his less endearing characteristics. He even says, In an illuminating page or two of self-analysis (it’s supposed to be about someone called Michael, but his brother is so sure it’s about himself that he changes that name to Patrick): ‘Sometimes he deliberately set out to hate people, and though hating by all the rules of warfare seemed the proper thing to do, it was always a failure with him.’ Is that not extraordinary?

After all that, I have to say, and I’m pleased to say it, that there were people who found him an extraordinarily impressive man, for good reasons, quite unlike the drunken, ill-mannered boor that became one of the too many Dublin myths, and there were people who recognised in him, even early on, a poet of large merits, in many ways the most Irish of his contemporaries, more Irish than Yeats.

Why was he the man he was? Nobody can answer that one about anybody, including himself. But there are shaping events and influences that deserve to be noticed. He was born and reared as a peasant. To judge from his brother’s book, those early days were by no means unhappy, though I’m glad his father wasn’t mine. He took part in all the rural occupations both of work and play, and began to feel an outsider only when that dancing flame started dancing. Much encouraged by his brother, he took off for Dublin on the old, search for fame and fortune, a move sometimes said was the most ill-advised thing he ever did in his life, even though memories of his home village soured and he denounced the place and its inhabitants, their narrow lives, their narrow minds, their impermeable Philistinism, with his normal ferocity. At the same time, it remained a sort of Eden to which he could never return. What would have happened if, after sampling what the Big City offered, he had gone back to his native acres, as Burns did? A useless question. For one thing, Burns was, amazingly, short of worldly ambitions. And it never entered his mind to try to pare the claws of the contemporary literary lions and have them purring round his feet. No one, in fact, could have spoken with warmer generosity about his fellow poets than Burns did. Kavanagh was different.

In one way, he had it easier than Burns. He had no language problem. It he had, it was Gaelic or English, and that didn’t bother him at all. He learned some Gaelic in his early days and didn’t take long to forget it. In Scotland, our best Gaelic poets, with one exception – jain Crichton Smith – wouldn’t and maybe can’t write poems in English. It’s with our third language, Scots, that the problem is difficult, because of its relation with English. A Scot, born in Kavanagh’s circumstances and with his education, would have been torn between Scots, his knee-language, and English, and would almost certainly have written in Scots. Kavanagh at least wasn’t pestered and perplexed with that division. But he was divided all the same. Rural man (poet)? Urban man (poet)? He hated being called, as Burns was, the ‘ploughman poet’. His view of himself and his poetry was such that he hated even being called an Irish poet. For poetry has no nationality, and neither have poets. ‘Only minor poets,’ he says, ‘such as Kipling, Thomas Campbell and Rupert Brooke, cared about their country.’

But he could no more escape his country origins than he could reconcile himself to the detestable sophistications of the city. And this is there to be read in the poems themselves. In an acute review of his Come dance with Kitty Stobling (quoted in the biography), Michael MacLiammoir makes much of this. ‘The ploughboy in Kavanagh is the reality, and the Town, and all it stands for, is the trap into which he would willingly let himself be caught if only he could find his way in.’ And, like MacLiammoir, I find hts direct and robust and lyrical voice a lot more pleasing to the ear than the hectoring one he uses to lambast his favourite and too few targets.

One would expect from such a man some blistering satires, especially as he showed at times a neat turn for the concise, the epigrammatic.

     Sanctity
To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of Heaven.

But when his muse is inflamed with a satiric intention her utterance is disappointingly weak. Of The Paddiad, his six-page flyting of his fellow ‘poets’ (he thinks of them in inverted commas), MacLiammoir says: ‘At his worst, as in The Paddiad, he is a cautionary rhymester of the Belloc school – though without Belloc’s accomplished humour.’ Peter Kavanagh thinks it amongst the best things he ever did. I come in the middle. Considering the poet’s temperament, it’s an oddly flaccid performance, like a love poem about a women the author likes. His remarks about hate, quoted above, seem to be true. He scorned and despised a lot of people, but he couldn’t hate them.

His metrics can be clumsy – I don’t think he had a very sensitive ear for word rhythms – and his writing careless. Too often, for example, the rhyme word is lassoed in its proper place in the line and dragged to the end of it:

But nothing whatever is by love debarred.
The common and banal her heart can know.

Was he over-ambitious? He doesn’t interest me as a thinker and still less as a failed mystic. Why he was attracted by abstractions and quasi-mystical flah-flah I can’t understand, for he himself wrote:

The only true teaching
Subsists in watching
Things moving or just colour
Without comment from the scholar.

When he did that, the poetry comes up as fresh as spring water, as in poems like ‘Kerr’s Ass’ or this one, ‘War and Peace’:

Do you hear that noise, Mother,
That comes over the sea?
Is that God the Father raging
In His Eternity?

That is only war, darling,
Drunk men returning
From the pubs of their pleasure.
They’ll be sober by morning.

Do you hear that whisper, Mother,
That follows the sigh
From the house of Injustice?
What was that going by?

That was God raging, child,
Something to fright
More than the shouting
Of a whole drunken night.

It isn’t to be forgotten that he wrote prose as well as poetry, and his autobiography, The Green Fool, and the novel Tarry Flynn, flawed as it is at times by a seeping romanticism, give a clear picture of the Ireland he really knew, the rural one. No stage lrishry about them – nor indeed about ‘The Great Hunger’, the poem that made people realise that there was a considerable poet in their midst who came to them, not groping through any Celtic twilight, but from actual bogs and actual weathers. In fact, I would guess that he might well have helped younger poets, by his example, to creep out from under the upas shade of Yeats, one of those great poets whom it is death to be overly influenced by.

This review may give the impression that I’ve picked on Kavanagh’s faults and ignored his virtues. So it may be worth adding that his brother’s account – as it reads to me – is corroborated by Anthony Cronin in his reissued Dead as Doornails. This is a memoir of Dublin’s Kavanagh, Behan and Flann O’Brien, and of London’s Colquhoun, MacBryde and Maclaren-Ross. Six kenspeckle characters – ‘and a rum lot too, as the devil said when he read the Ten Commandments’. The book is full of extraordinary anecdotes, but there’s more to it than gossip. Cronin says many things that go a good way towards explaining these fantastic and, in the end, sad men.

This seems a place to give a brief but warm puff to The Macmillan Dictionary Of Irish Literature. It’s a fat book of over eight hundred pages which include a fine 48-page essay on Irish Gaelic literature by Seumas O’Neill and a briefer one (nine pages) on Irish writing in English, before getting down to giving the bibliographical and biographical facts about almost five hundred Irish writers, with critical essays attached. I’ve seen books like this before – I even possess two. The critical essays in some of the others were patently written by the writers’ cronies. Here I’m impressed by the acumen and liveliness of the contributors, who have read their authors with eyes wide open to their faults. The result is a reference book which also makes most agreeable reading.