An Experiment in Poetry: Patrick Kavanagh Grapples with the Challenge of Being Human

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) came of age at the same time his country was experiencing a literary renaissance that promoted a national pride and culminated in Irish independence from Great Britain. Less well known than figures like W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and George Russell (who wrote under the pseudonym Æ and who eventually became Kavanagh’s mentor), Kavanagh followed his elders’ lead and resisted the imposition of British literary norms. He embraced instead Gaelic language and culture, choosing peculiarly Irish subject matter for his poetic fodder. He did so in a range of writings—from poetry to drama to fiction to autobiography and in nonfiction essays, eventually publishing over ten books of various sorts.

Patrick Kavanagh, image from  Poem Hunter

Patrick Kavanagh, image from Poem Hunter

Many writers of the Irish Renaissance found the country lifestyle of the rural poor the most fruitful for their literary explorations because they considered these folks authentic representations of Irish culture. But for Kavanagh in particular this way of life was more than merely poetic inspiration, the stuff of the imagination; it made up his own personal history. Unlike most poets of the Irish Renaissance, Kavanagh grew up the son (the fourth of ten children) of a shoemaker and farmer. He also had a complicated and uneasy relationship with those origins, as he felt they held him back but also provided a genuineness to his poetic voice and literary persona unobtainable otherwise. He loved the countryside, depicting it as enchantingly beautiful in much of his verse, as in these lines from his early “Shancoduff”:

My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.

However, Kavanagh also saw in his rural background a metaphor for lamentable cultural ignorance. "The real poverty [of his upbringing],” Kavanagh explained in a “Self Portrait” series that aired on Irish television, “was lack of enlightenment.” He had to combat this “fog of unknowing” without familial or societal support, and he largely educated himself about literature, which stirred his interests very early on. He felt that he simply did not fit, either in his rural community or in the literary circles to which he aspired, and this lack of fit aggrieved him acutely throughout his life.

What’s remarkable here, in light of its relevance to moral apologetics, is that Kavanagh arrives at a posture of grace, a posture absolutely necessary for stemming the tide of error.

As Kavanagh’s own rural innocence gave way to the sophistication (or, as Kavanagh came to see it, posturing) of the Dublin to which he moved, his poetry changed to social critique, a change that resulted in his landmark long narrative poem “The Great Hunger” (1942). In this poem, Kavanagh unsentimentally depicts peasant life, which served a double blow to his rural upbringings and to the affectations of city dwellers who he thought exploited the poor for their own societal advantages. As this satirical trend in Kavanagh’s writing wore on, it became increasingly acerbic, and often for that reason, missed its mark. Railing against a real (or perceived) fault can easily become a fault in its own right, as it sometimes unfortunately did in Kavanagh’s work. In a note to Poetry magazine, for example, written after the passing of Yeats, reflecting on the state of Irish poetry, Kavanagh judges that “[n]o books of creative interest have been published by an Irish writer recently,” including detailed caustic critique of several specific figures for good measure.

What united Kavanagh’s earlier verse with this social criticism was its reliance for its force on emotion, rather than reason. Kavanagh felt deeply, both the joys of creative expression and a real sorrow and anger at conditions that weren’t quite right; in the cauldron of these emotions, his poems took shape—through them, readers gain a glimpse of truth, even if that truth is somewhat distorted from its lack of rational restraint. In that way, Kavanagh seems much more a throwback to the Romantic age than a product of the Modern era into which he was born. Take this commentary from biographer John Nemo, which could very well describe the work of someone like Samuel Coleridge: “Artistically, he reacts rather than acts. Unlike many modern poets, his poems are not assembled piecemeal like contemporary sculptures but are delivered whole from the creative womb.”

Kavanagh’s life and work took an important turn after he survived lung cancer, an experience that threw into relief all his previous dissatisfactions. Darcy O’Brien writes of the positive effect his health crisis had on Kavanagh: “His sickness deprived him of a lung and much hatred, or let us say that the trauma of his cancer made the targets of his hatred seem as petty as they were and as unworthy of his continuous attention.” Rather than waste any more time on animus, Kavanagh embraced a celebration of the small pleasures of life (Poetry Foundation). As he himself affirmed, “The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things.” This vision comes to fruition in his later poem, “Literary Adventure,” which puts the small happenings of his farmland home on par with world-changing, newsworthy events:

                                            Other exclusive
News stories that cannot be ignored:
I climbed Woods' Hill and the elusive
Underworld of the grasses could be heard,
John Lennon shouted across the valley,
Then I saw a new June moon, quite as stunning
As when young we blessed the sight as something
Sensational adventure that is only beginning.

It is for the poetic mind, Kavanagh here posits, to correct our vision and help us appraise events and people rightly. And although he himself was not consistent on this score throughout his career, what we do see in Kavanagh’s poetry, especially in considering its evolution over the course of his life, is someone working through the challenges of being human, of having very little control of one’s place or gifts, of recognizing the possibilities and limitations of one’s roots, and of coming to terms with the fallibilities of one’s fellow travelers. What’s remarkable here, in light of its relevance to moral apologetics, is that Kavanagh arrives at a posture of grace, a posture absolutely necessary for stemming the tide of error. This posture, as Kavanagh enacts it, sorts through the truths of this world—the value of life and the tragedies that often accompany it, the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of exploitation, the dignity of the human person and the indignities of mistreatment—and finds the creative will to encourage readers toward recognizing, preferring, and honoring the good.

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“Come Dance with Kitty Stobling” by Patrick Kavanagh

“Peace” by Patrick Kavanagh

“Epic” by Patrick Kavanagh

“Literary Adventure” by Patrick Kavanagh

“Shancoduff” by Patrick Kavanagh