Kavanagh - beyond the Celtic Mist
Published 16/10/2004 | 00:11
Collected Poems By Patrick Kavanagh Ed. Antoinette Quinn Allen Lane/Penguin, ?32.99 Hugh McFadden This is an important book. Patrick Kavanagh was not "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats", as he was dubbed: rather, he was the most significant poet in Ireland for much of the second half of the 20th century, one whose influence can still be traced in the work of many lead
Collected Poems By Patrick Kavanagh Ed. Antoinette Quinn Allen Lane/Penguin, ?32.99 Hugh McFadden This is an important book. Patrick Kavanagh was not "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats", as he was dubbed: rather, he was the most significant poet in Ireland for much of the second half of the 20th century, one whose influence can still be traced in the work of many leading contemporary Irish poets.
W.B. Yeats was not the one towards whom my generation of poets looked. His was the shadow from which they sought to escape. For many of them, Kavanagh showed the way out of the Celtic mist and the hero posturing of the 'statesman-poet' and 'man of action'. Kavanagh's Irish stew has a much more authentic taste than the Anglo-Irish stew of Yeats and it is much more satisfying as nourishment for the spirit.
The surprising thing is that this book was not done before now, that it has taken so long to get a fairly comprehensive Collected Poems of Kavanagh published in this jurisdiction. There was, of course, the 1964 edition edited by John Montague (MacGibbon & Kee). That was a fine volume, but not really a proper 'Collected', as Montague admitted last July when he gave a talk in Inniskeen. He said he didn't have access to all of the extant poems; so, for instance, the long poem, Lough Derg, was not in that book.
Lough Derg appears in the new Collected Poems and is one of three near-epic poems, the other two being The Great Hunger in its original, Cuala Press form and Why Sorrow?, the longest 'fragment' I ever encountered.
We are indebted to the editor, Antoinette Quinn, who has done so much work in the past decade to compile editions of the prose and poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, nearly all of whose oeuvre is now in print in this jurisdiction.
There has been a long-running legal battle over the copyright to Kavanagh's work, involving the poet's brother, Dr. Peter Kavanagh, a retired academic who lives in America, and on the other side, Patrick Kavanagh's widow, Katherine Moloney Kavanagh (now deceased) and the Trustees of the Kavanagh Estate. In this unseemly dispute, Peter Kavanagh set himself up as self-appointed keeper of the Kavanagh papers, out of which he published his own editions of Kavanagh's work.
Because the High Court ruled against his claim to have any right to publish Patrick Kavanagh's writings in Ireland, the volumes edited by Peter Kavanagh, including another collected volume entitled Complete Poems, have not been sold here or in Britain - as their sale here would breach copyright law.
The important thing is that Irish readers now have a fairly comprehensive Collected Poems available to them. Ms Quinn is to be congratulated, with just one caveat. She has been too severe in her judgment on some of Kavanagh's early work. Which explains the expression 'fairly comprehensive'.
By my calculation, she has excluded 18 poems from the 1964 Collected Poems: many of these were originally published in Kavanagh's first book of verses, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936). She has dropped some verses that are of real interest, such as I May Reap, and Ascetic. In the latter Kavanagh first showed his awareness of the cost of his vocation. Ascetic is a companion piece to My Room (which is included).
Dark Ireland, Mary, Dreamer, At Noon, and Morning are among other poems that should not have been dropped, if only to illustrate Kavanagh's poetic development. After all, this is a Collected, not a Selected, Poems. The first section is a bit like a smash-and-grab raid on a jeweller's window: only the bigger and more shiny jems have been selected.
Otherwise, the editor has done a good job and has restored the chronological order of composition. If Ms. Quinn took away 18 verses, she also gives us 25 'new' ones, some of them very good poems, such as Christmas 1939, Christmas Eve Remembered, April Dusk, Poplar Memory, The Irony of It, Jim Larkin, and Irish Poets Open Your Eyes. It is a mystery why these poems were not collected for the 1964 book.
Several others included here were written after 1964, so they appear in book form for the first time - A Summer Morning Walk, Personal Problem, and Yeats. The first two, along with The Same Again, refer directly to his alcoholism, which along with his other addiction (nicotine) caused him to die at a relatively young age (63). He had a difficult life - and a very difficult career.
In the 'fog' of his youth he only sensed dimly his place in the scheme of things. He was not fully conscious of his poverty until he came to live in Dublin 4. He was much misunderstood and treated with patronising condescension by the Dublin bourgeoise. And he was treated very badly by the arts establishment. Because of this, he turned to social satire, but, as he wrote, 'satire is unfruitful prayer/ Only wild shoots of pity there'.
His best work appeared when he turned his focus inwards in contemplation of his own soul, after he had climbed 'out of that childhood country', and left behind him both the imaging of the outer reality of the world and satire of its inadequate society.
In the 50s he began to play 'a true note on a slack string'. Come Dance With Kitty Stobling marks the zenith of his poetic star and includes much of his best verse, including the two great canal bank sonnets. But there are also a few fine poems in the early 60s, News Item (a love ode to his wife, Katherine) and Literary Adventures, in which he pays fond tribute to his close friend and savant, John Jordan.
Patrick Kavanagh has been more relevant and important to intellectual life in Ireland since the 50s than Yeats because Kavanagh not alone tilled fresh soil, he cleared the ground before he could plough it, making it possible for others to plant their own, new seed. It is more accurate to describe Kavanagh as the greatest Irish poet before Heaney, rather than after Yeats - another reason why this book is important and very welcome.
Hugh McFadden's new collection of verse, Pieces of Time, is published by Lapwing Press. He has edited The Selected Prose of John Jordan, which will be published next spring by Lilliput Press.