A FEW WORDS ON POETS AND POETRY
I don’t think Patrick Kavanaugh is much known outside of Ireland, and that’s fair enough for a poet who declared that the proper world for a poet is his own parish. But for Ireland’s poetic history, he’s an important transitional figure standing between the great Irish Revival poet W.B. Yeats and the more contemporary Seamus Heaney.
The great figures of the Irish Literary Revival, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J.M. Singe, romanticized and glorified the Irish peasant – even though they had never experienced that life -- and predicted the coming of a great Irish peasant poet. For a while, it seemed that Kavanagh would fit the bill. He was raised on a small farm, left school at 13, and taught himself to write poetry.
He walked three days from County Monaghan to Dublin to begin his literary career. At first, it seemed he could be that great peasant Irish poet, but then he wrote The Great Hunger and blew apart what he called the “English bred lie” of the romantic Irish peasant. Life for the peasant was hard, creating not only physical hunger but a hunger in the soul. The writers of the Irish Revival were almost all affluent Anglo-Irish Protestants. Kavanagh and Joyce had their problems with the Church, but they were sons of Ireland, which meant sons of the Catholic Church. Near the end of his life, Joyce was asked if he was still Catholic. His response was “that would be for the Church to say.” No Protestant would have ever answered that way.
And Kavanagh simply brushed aside what had been burning question of Irish literature. Should an Irish writer write in Irish – and remain a marginal figure in the world – or write in English, the language of the oppressor? Joyce, profoundly polyglot, wrote in English but commented that it would remain for him an acquired language. Lady Gregory and Synge immersed themselves in Irish, but wrote in English. Yeats always struggled with Irish (having tried to learn the language, I’ll never fault him for that).
But Kavanaugh, in his usual way, simply commented that an Irish writer should write in English, but in English as it is spoken in Ireland.
In time, Kavanaugh became a critic of the Irish Revival, although he was respectful of Lady Gregory, a truly gentle, generous soul, and he openly admired Yeats’ gifts as a poet. Still, as a person, with his belief in the occult, his wife’s “automatic writing” and his Vision, Yeats was something of a yo-yo.
For his criticism of the Revival, and for the harsh depiction of peasant life in The Great Hunger, Kavanaugh came to be thought of a bitter person, “a drunk and a nuisance.” Perhaps all that is deserved, certainly the drunk part. I think I’ve seen his ghost at McDaid’s Pub in Dublin. But then a miraculous thing happened: He developed lung cancer and almost died. Then, sitting on the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin, with the one lung God had left him, Kavanagh fell in love with life and began to write beautiful, simple poems about the simplest things in life.
He faced home at last and discovered the one great parish of Ireland.