I may be a little late in posting about this but… the wonderful thing about the events of the recent On Home Ground Poetry Festival is that they offered timeless insights into the work of our local writers. And so, to the talk delivered to a packed-out Poetry Tent in Magherafelt from Professor Pat Loughrey, who spoke enthusiastically on the merits of Patrick Kavanagh’s work.
“Patrick Kavanagh won absolutely no money and won little or no awards. He was always, always in dire straits and yet, he wrote some of the most memorable, haunting verse that I think has been written for a long time,” said Pat.
“He also wrote some of the worst verse…”
Kavanagh’s work, we were told, was known to many people – even if some of these people were not always aware that what they were hearing was from this great poet. The example given here was the poem ‘Raglan Road’, with an audio recording of the piece subsequently played to us, to “help and encourage you to rediscover this very raw talent.”
“Some poets and writers are outstanding in their own right and others have had an influence on others truly outstanding… I think it’s fair to say that Kavanagh had a serious influence on the greatest of Irish writers – Seamus Heaney,” said Pat.
Indeed, he said that both Kavanagh and Heaney shared “a great affinity” for the local and for painting magnificent portraits of the ordinary and we had the opportunity to hear another audio recording of Heaney speaking of just this.
‘A man innocent dabbles in rhymes and words and finds that it’s his life,’ said Kavanagh. Heaney echoed his sentiment and said he knew once he began ‘dabbling’ with his own words, that this was his life…
‘I was tremendously excited about his work,’ Heaney said. ‘I believe Kavanagh taught me the courage of his own experience… what he himself implied – that nothing is trivial. The commonly, the ordinary, is as important… as the largest notion and the largest theme.’
Heaney’s words were spoken not long after he graduated from Queen’s University, said Pat, adding that Bellaghy’s celebrated poet had said that not once on his English course had he encountered an Irish voice. Indeed, Heaney’s own experience with poetry, prior to discovering Kavanagh, was that “he felt beyond or even beneath poetry,” said Pat. “Kavanagh showed him it was connected and real.”
A young Patrick Kavanagh, we were told, once wrote: ‘I am writing every day very foolish things in this book… that it may bring honour and renown. Events like this make that childish dream come true.’
With his own background not all that far removed from Kavanagh’s, Pat said the poet had similarly taught him to appreciate and take note of the beauty and the mystery in front of him. “Thanks to him I began to think nothing was common or banal,” he said. “He also taught me to yearn for more.”
Born in 1955 – the year Kavanagh claimed he was ‘born’ as a poet – Pat said Kavanagh’s stint in hospital during this period, when he was treated for cancer, proved a pivotal point in the poet’s life, having journeyed from being a buoyant writer, to one who bemoaned the state of things in later years. Another audio illustrated his point, with the reading of ‘Kerr’s Ass’ – ‘the god of imagination waking in a Mucker fog.’
There were roughly three stages to Kavanagh’s poetry, said Pat – the early delight of his work, the period of hard bitter disillusionment and anger and finally, the reconciliation and ‘coming back’ to himself in his later work. Kavanagh talked of the luxury of a child’s soul, he said – children see the wonder in all they encounter but education can strip them of this… Picasso too, said that it took him five years to paint like Rafael and the rest of his life to paint like a child. He broke every known rule – to great effect.
“No-one, to me, captures childhood better than Kavanagh,” said Pat, playing a recording of ‘A Christmas Childhood’ to illustrate his point. Kavanagh, he added, now studied widely today in schools himself, also wrote about schoolbooks – they were to him “a window into a whole world.” Then, he encountered Robbie Burns, who in his own remarkable voice, could make great things out of the very very ordinary.
Flavouring Kavanagh’s work, said Pat, were the ingredients of his day-to-day life, such as the Catholicism of his family (his sister became a nun and the sacraments of his religion are evident in his poems) and also, the mysticism of the land – of faeries and superstition…
“Faeries were like ghosts in the days before electric light,” said Pat. “It’s an absolute backdrop that keeps recurring in all the verse of that period. Sometimes, these superstitions took on very beautiful imagery. Death was commonplace and no-one writes better, for me, about bereavement and loss than Patrick Kavanagh – for example, in ‘Memory of My Mother’.“
This “crude, crass, rough man,” said Pat, could capture some incredibly powerful images with his words. He loved nature, yet this love was not untroubled, for Kavanagh’s passion for the local was also “fraught and often bitter.” It was his life until he was at least 30 years-old, said Pat and it “wasn’t a dream for him.” ‘Stony Grey Soil’ is an example of a poem wherein he vents his frustration – ‘oh, stony grey soil of Monaghan, you burgled my bank of youth.’ Another such poem was ‘The Grey Hunger’, in which he rejected all that went with the life of the land and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the poet was subsequently not well liked for a time by his neighbours… Indeed, he renounced most of his earlier verse during this ‘wild time’ said Pat, but eventually, his brush with death and his hospital convalescence period, reversed Kavanagh’s mood.
“He rediscovered his love of the everyday and his poetry actually became even better.”
And so, Kavanagh came back full circle, as we often do, to where he more or less started as a poet. He wrote of the banks of the canal in Dublin and “saw such beauty” once more.
‘I know that love’s doorway to life is the same doorway everywhere…’