Not a Damn Thing

Nick Laird

In April 1959 Frank O’Connor wrote to his editor at the New Yorker to say that he had taken ‘the family up to Sligo to see how Yeats was getting on’. Since Yeats had been dead twenty years, he should have been getting on just fine. But:

Even he seemed to be disgruntled. Kavanagh the ex-poet ran into me soon after I came home, and the following conversation took place exactly as recorded.

k: I see you do be writing for a paper called the New Yorker.

me: I do.

k: I dare say for a piece in a paper like that you might get big money.

me: Begod, you might.

k: I dare say you might get $500.

me: You might, indeed.

k: You might even get $1000?

me: Still, I’d say $500 wouldn’t be too bad, wouldn’t you?

This is a typical anecdote about Patrick Kavanagh, touching as it does on his unproductiveness (‘the ex-poet’), his peculiar connection to Yeats, his prickliness. Kavanagh was born in 1904 in the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan. At 13 he left school to work for his father, a cobbler and smallholder. He published Ploughman and Other Poems in 1936 and in May 1937 moved to London, where he was commissioned to write an autobiography, The Green Fool. The book was well received, though a disparaging remark in it caused Oliver St John Gogarty to sue for libel. (Kavanagh had written: ‘I mistook Gogarty’s white-robed maid for his wife – or his mistress. I expected every poet to have a spare wife.’) In 1939, having decided to leave Inniskeen for good, he moved to Dublin, and for the rest of his life earned a shaky living as a journalist. He published the celebrated long poem The Great Hunger in 1942; the collection A Soul for Sale in 1947; Tarry Flynn, a novel, in 1948; a periodical, Kavanagh’s Weekly, that ran for a few months in 1952; and in 1960, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems. He died on 30 November 1967 in a Dublin nursing home.

Kavanagh’s importance to Irish literature needs to be understood in the context of Irish history. By the 19th century, English was usurping Gaelic as the Irish vernacular, a process quickened by the famine and emigration of the 1840s. At the same time, writers such as Thomas Moore and Samuel Ferguson were attempting to recover and absorb Gaelic literary tradition. Then, towards the end of the century, figures like Douglas Hyde and Yeats made the Celtic Revival, as it was called, a powerful cultural and political force. Their subject-matter was heroic, mythic, folkloric, and cast in narrative and ballad forms. The Revival, Romanticism’s death-rattle, was an effort to establish a cultural history and heritage for Ireland in contradistinction to England’s, and a reaction to Victorian industrialisation. Ireland, still an agrarian nation, was the perfect place to found a myth of the rural.

Yeats both imagined and questioned the stereotypes. In ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ (1937), he wrote that J.M. Synge, Augusta Gregory and he had brought ‘everything down to that sole test again,/Dream of the noble and the beggar-man’. Though he occasionally wrote socially engaged lines (‘the beggars have changed places but the lash goes on’; ‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone’), they owe more to his idiosyncratic view of history than to any interest in the lives of the Catholic poor. Yeats left social realism to Synge, whom Kavanagh thought ‘an outsider’ and ‘insincere’. The Playboy of the Western World, a fiercely antipastoral play that describes conditions on the islands off the Connaught coast, caused rioting in the streets in Dublin when it was first performed in 1907. In portraying the sharp edge of class systems, Shaw had done something similar, if more limited, three years earlier in John Bull’s Other Island. Kavanagh, predictably, thought Shaw a ‘bogus Irishman’.

Kavanagh first arrived in 1931, symbolically and actually, on the Dublin doorstep of the poet and editor George Russell (Æ), having walked the sixty-odd miles from Inniskeen in his patched-up workclothes. He had already published a poem, ‘Ploughman’, in the Irish Statesman, a journal edited by Russell which Kavanagh had first picked up from a Dundalk newsagent in August 1925 when he was in town for the day for a grass-seed market. It had been a revelation: ‘The first thing my eye fell upon was a review of a book by Gertrude Stein. I read a quotation and found it like a foreign language, partly illuminated by the Holy Spirit.’ In Dublin in 1931 the Celtic Revival was still in full swing, and Kavanagh’s style at first suited it nicely. He was welcomed into literary society as the authentic peasant-poet, charmingly accoutred with hobnails and Monaghan brogue, and began by delivering largely what was expected of him. He was, as Heaney wrote of Caedmon, ‘the real thing all right’: rural, Catholic and poor.

But he was soon riled by what he saw as metropolitan cant; and ten years after his arrival, no longer the court’s jester but its witness, he published The Great Hunger. It was a roaring indictment of the restrictions that small farming communities lived under, and of the authorities enforcing those restrictions: church, family and society. Its fragmented Modernist structure uses cinematic techniques and owes something to The Waste Land, but its best moments are Kavanagh’s own. It opens with a fine biblical inversion:

Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill – Maguire and his men . . .

This is brilliantly mimetic: the initial heavy stress of ‘clay’ drops to the short stresses of ‘is’ and ‘the’, bringing on the stooping of the potato-gatherers of the next line. The rhythm (one and a two and one and a two) quickens into the routine and practised labour of ducking and lifting the potatoes. It’s great stuff, but as an instance of poetic felicity, where sound is integral to sense in the Frostian way, it’s rare in Kavanagh. The Great Hunger should have had an Ezra Pound to snip it into shape.

Occasionally Kavanagh tries to go head to head with Eliot. Section IV opens:

April, and no one able to calculate
How far it is to harvest. They put down
The seeds blindly with sensuous groping fingers,
And sensual sleep dreams subtly underground.

Like The Waste Land, The Great Hunger deals in metaphors of renewal and harvest, of frustration and want, but Eliot’s enjambement (‘breeding/Lilacs’ etc) means his opening lines seep down into one another and come to rest in the soil, with the heavily stressed fourth line, ‘stirring/Dull roots with spring rain’. Kavanagh’s lines also begin in April and end underground, but his version loses momentum and grasps instead at alliteration, and the overladen abstraction of ‘sensual sleep dreams subtly’. But The Great Hunger is never coldly observed, and its moments of non-sense seem to spring directly from the intensity of its commitment, as if the indignant tongue had outbabbled the brain.

Some of the syntax in the poem is put under contorting pressure, and not because of the strictures of dialogue or dialect:

What is he looking for there?
He thinks it is a potato, but we know better
Than his mud-gloved fingers probe in this insensitive hair.

Kavanagh’s ‘we know better’ is a shift from reportage to analysis, but he isn’t The Waste Land’s neutral observer, an anthropologist examining tribal customs: The Great Hunger was Kavanagh writing out of himself, and also writing himself out of a job. His place in Dublin literary society was dependent on his role as peasant-poet and he was courageous enough to shatter that stereotype. He was also determined to reject any kind of organising symbolism (‘No System, no Plan/Yeatsian invention’, he would later write). Things are what they are, banal and sad and pointless.

From the ragged road surface a boy picks up
A piece of gravel and stares at it – and then
He flings it across the elm tree on to the railway.
It means nothing,
Not a damn thing.

Kavanagh’s poem, with its collage of scenes from different seasons and times of day, inverts a medieval cycle of the months, and rewrites romantic depictions of rural life.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Kavanagh split his talent between lyrics and satires such as ‘The Wake of the Books’ (in which O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Austin Clarke appear as characters), ‘The Christmas Mummers’ and ‘The Paddiad’ (in which he himself appears as ‘Paddy Conscience’). As Antoinette Quinn puts it in her introduction to the new Collected Poems, ‘the satires were introvertedly local. Addressed to an Irish and mainly Dublin readership, they did not travel well.’ This is still the case. But Kavanagh managed to move on and to use his poems to judge not others but himself. ‘Bank Holiday’ and ‘To Be Dead’ are harsh lyrics about promise and failure, and even the title of ‘I Had a Future’ admits self-doubt. Among these poems, however, are also the triumphantly assertive lyric manifestos of ‘Kerr’s Ass’, ‘Innocence’, ‘The Hospital’, and ‘Epic’, which begins:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s-land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

He describes a land dispute between the Duffys and ‘old McCabe’, and notes:

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

This is not a straightforward paean to the parish: Kavanagh’s obsession is not with his place but with his place in the world. In ‘Kerr’s Ass’, when abroad in ‘Ealing Broadway, London Town’, Kavanagh remembers another ‘exile’, an ass he once borrowed to carry butter to the market at Dundalk. He begins with ‘the straw-stuffed straddle, the broken beeching/With bits of bull-wire tied’, recalling the little details,

Until a world comes to life –
Morning, the silent bog,
And the god of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.

These are unfussy and powerful pieces, that tend to begin conversationally and end in self-knowledge. Kavanagh creates a place where thought is possible, away from the strictures of both city and country society. ‘Innocence’ ends:

I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.

In March 1955 he was diagnosed with cancer and had a lung removed. He convalesced by lying on the banks of Dublin’s Grand Canal over the summer. In the winter of 1956 a small collection was produced by the literary quarterly Nimbus after Macmillan had rejected it. He spent part of 1957 in New York, and after that had a burst of lyric energy which produced a series of love poems, kinder and happier in tone than most of his work (‘praise, praise, praise/ The way it happened and the way it is’). They include the defiantly reckless title sonnet of his last collection, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, published in 1960. Thereafter his drinking increased in proportion to his dwindling productivity. In his last few years he split his time between the Islington flat of Katherine Moloney – whom he married in April 1967 – and the family farm in Inniskeen, where his two elderly sisters lived.

His Collected Poems appeared in 1964 and the Goldsmith Press published a Complete Poems in 1972. The latter book is full of typos and aggressive explanatory notes from the editor, Patrick’s brother Peter: ‘I knew Joe Holloway well and for the sake of posterity I must record that a more witless bore I have never met before or since.’ Fun as this is, a new edition was needed. Quinn is the author of Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography (2001) and Patrick Kavanagh: Born-Again Romantic (1991), a study of the poetry. She edited his Penguin Selected Poems (1996) and his Selected Prose (2002). She knows her subject’s limitations. In the new Collected she tries to head reviewers off at the pass: ‘Poems in this volume have been selected with the aim of presenting the best of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry. However some inferior verse is included because it represents a particular phase or propensity in his oeuvre.’ If you haven’t already put the book back on the shelf, there’s worse to come. Introducing the first section, which includes poems written between 1929 and 1938, Quinn explains: ‘An unfortunate consequence of following chronology in this instance is that the first poems the new reader confronts are among Kavanagh’s weakest. Even at this early stage, however, there are a few fine lyrics.’

Oddly, this volume contains much less exegesis than the Penguin Selected. The useful Glossary of Farming Terms has been dropped. The notes are inadequate, with only certain names glossed and some Irish and Latin terms not translated. ‘Mermaid Tavern’, a poem laden with references to the overlap between literary culture and pub culture (the title is a nod to Keats’s ‘Lines on the Mermaid Tavern’), has had its thirty lines of notes in the Selected cut to a bald mention of its first publication and source text. Quinn’s introduction gives a useful overview of Kavanagh’s life and work, though she submits too readily to his own clichéd version of masculinity when she writes that ‘he was jousting for top place in the Irish literary pantheon,’ or that ‘Kavanagh was now acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with in Irish letters.’ She claims that Kavanagh’s ‘enduring appeal for Irish readers is, undoubtedly, rooted in a recognition that he is one of ourselves’. Kavanagh spent a lifetime trying to disprove just that and, as Quinn herself recognises, ‘the poet was always to Kavanagh a prophet, a visionary, a theologian, a god. It infuriated him that so many other Irish writers laid spurious claim to this elevated status.’

The problem for Kavanagh’s champions, for those who put him on a par with Yeats, is simply that he isn’t very good very often. Unlike his contemporaries (Austin Clarke, say), Kavanagh didn’t mimic Yeats, though the frequent prosiness and slackness of his writing was a reaction to Yeats’s rhetoric. He probably is, as the Collected claims, ‘one of Modern Ireland’s greatest poets’. But he is also used as a cultural makeweight, because he was all that Yeats wasn’t: Roman Catholic, rural, home-grown. Yeats thought that from the quarrel with others we make rhetoric and from the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry; but some of Kavanagh’s best lyrics are made from his quarrels with his precursor. His response to Yeats’s ‘beautiful lofty things’ was ‘ordinary things have wings.’ Kavanagh’s diluting of poetic rhetoric with demotic language – dialect, slang, even doggerel – was democratic. He claimed he was not interested in a ‘hero-courageous/Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by’. But his jealousy of Yeats, and of the respect Yeats commanded long after his death, sometimes overcame him. The last poem in the Collected is entitled ‘Yeats’, and the book finishes:

Yes, Yeats, it was damn easy for you, protected
By the middle classes and the Big Houses,
To talk about the sixty-year-old public protected
Man sheltered by the dim Victorian Muses.

This sums up the dominant mood of the book: jealous rage expressed in weak verse. The power and kick of the Selected, where The Great Hunger, ‘Lough Derg’ and the rickety beautiful lyrics are allowed to gather cumulative force, is here entirely dissipated by pages and pages of satirical posturing and recriminatory whining, of self-pitying doggerel. Kavanagh is an agitator, a dissenter, the Miltonic pamphleteer rather than the epic poet, but his best poems – ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, ‘Epic’, ‘The Hospital’, ‘Kerr’s Ass’ – have a persuasive energy. They also highlight how weak the remaining pieces are.

Kavanagh’s work is vital to an understanding of Heaney, Durcan, Kennelly and Muldoon. But his inheritors are better technicians, and his innovations seem less new now that we have the writings of those he influenced. The book’s blurb says that he ‘burst through immense constraints to redefine Irish poetry – a poetry appropriate for a fully independent country, both politically and culturally.’ One thinks of Emerson’s call for a new kind of poetry appropriate to America, and of Whitman’s answer to it in his expansive rolling rhythms and inclusive forms and subject-matter. Perhaps Kavanagh’s lack of consistency, his self-regard and bitter insecurities, his sectarianism and contradictions, his small-minded satires and occasional heart-breaking lyrics, and the disproportionately large influence of his work, are peculiarly appropriate to the country of Ireland. But buy the Selected instead.