Tuesday 11 December 2018

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: A gift for turning words into gems

The poet Patrick Kavanagh
The poet Patrick Kavanagh

Ulick O'Connor

In the medical museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin there is a lung in a glass case preserved in formaldehyde which is of special significance. The lung had been diagnosed by my father as cancerous at an early stage, and this had saved the patient's life.

This was the lung of Paddy Kavanagh, the poet who sometimes spent time sitting down in the museum watching attractive girl students "contemplating my lung".

Kavanagh, who was grumpy with many people, was always nice to me as a writer. He used to do a sports column for the Irish Press under another name.

I would meet him in London, Liverpool or Glasgow when I was representing Ireland at athletic meetings and slip him titbits of news that he might want to use in his column. He himself had been virtually a sports maniac. Gaelic, handball, high jump, shot putt were some of his passions. He even had a trial in goal for Dundalk Football Club.

Kavanagh was the grandson of a wandering schoolmaster, those strange luminous beings that kept the light of the intellect alive when the future seemed dark for the Gael. His father, a shoemaker, was a walking encyclopedia of Irish music.

Time has wheeled Kavanagh to his proper place in the poetry hierarchy. He had a gift which could turn words into diamonds, when used in his verse.

In the poem featured here, Kavanagh remembers his father in exquisitely simple words, whose rhythm is set in counterpoint playing lovingly in the background.

Memory of my father

Every old man I see

Reminds me of my father

When he had fallen in love with death

One time when sheaves were gathered.

That man I saw in Gardner Street

Stumble on the kerb was one,

He stared at me half-eyed,

I might have been his son.

And I remember the musician

Faltering over his fiddle

In Bayswater, London,

He too set me the riddle.

Every old man I see

In October-coloured weather

Seems to say to me:

'I was once your father'.

Patrick Kavanagh 1905-1967

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