By Mattie Lennon
Curious this, how I started off with the right simplicity, indifferent to crude reason, and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man, and came back to where I started. ----Patrick Kavanagh, Self-Portrait.
There are enough anecdotes about Patrick Kavanagh to fill several volumes. Such as his description of writer’s block when he was writing Tarry Flynn, “I’ve a f*cker in a field an’ I can’t get him out of it”. His comment when told by a Garda that he would be prosecuted for writing pornography (The Great Hunger) has gone down in history, “It’s good enough for me; anyone who writes anything that a policeman can understand deserves anything he gets.” And when Flann O ‘Brien’s Faustus Kelly was running in Dublin in 1943 he asked Kavanagh if he would give it a good review only to be told, “I will .. . . I’m not that honest.”
Kavanagh Country is not just about the colourful comments of Ireland’s leading poet of the twentieth century. The author, critic and historian, P.J. Browne was introduced to the works of Kavanagh by John B. Keane in UCD in 1974 and, years later, followed up his “research” when he again met the great John B. at Seton Hall University, New Jersey.
Every Leaving Cert student is familiar with Antoinette Quinn’s biography of Kavanagh and has pored over collections such as, Ploughman and Other Poems, Come dancing With Kitty Stobling and Collected Pruse..
There are those who would argue Patrick Kavanagh and his times have been well covered from his birth in Mucker in 1904 to his death in Dublin in 1967.
Kavanagh Country approaches the complex subject from a new angle. P. J. Browne and photographer David Maher set out to show us Kavanagh through the best of his poems and pictures of the rural and urban scenes which triggered the poets imagination. On the surface it would appear that “resentment” is not too strong a word to describe Kavanagh’s feelings on Monaghan- but neither is “love.”
As Browne says, “His ambivalence about his move to Dublin was never resolved.”
O stony grey soil of Monaghan,
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.
You clogged the feet of my boyhood,
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.
Blame at its best heaped on his native heath for, he believed, burgling his bank of youth. Yet, in another poem he could see that, “ God was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.”
Browne tells us that Kavanagh “brought his country ways to the city” and so he did. The city in this case is Dublin but in an English city, also, Mucker, was not forgotten:
We borrowed the loan of Kerr's big ass
To go to Dundalk with butter,
Brought him home the evening before the market
An exile that night in Mucker.
We heeled up the cart before the door,
We took the harness inside —
The straw-stuffed straddle, the broken breeching
With bits of bull-wire tied;
The winkers that had no choke-band,
The collar and the reins . . .
In Ealing, Broadway, London Town
I name their several names
Until a world comes to life —
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.
You won’t find many John Hinde postcards of Inniskeen but thanks to the wonderful work, in black and white, of Dublin-based David Maher every poem is accompanied by suitable and evocative picture. The picture with A Christmas Childhood would bring anyone back to a cold December morning in rural Ireland to stand with the six-year old Kavanagh and listen to his father make music as,
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
The work of David Maher prompts one to concur with the words of Elliot Erwitt, “ . . .Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Kavanagh saw things differently. He once said, “A poet is not one of the people; a poet is an institution.” Once, in one of his grumpier moments (of which he had many) a wannabe versifier asked him, “how do I write poetry”? The response was concise and informative, “Observe. Open yer f*ckin’eyes”
In Irish Poets Open Your Eyes he writes;
Irish poets open your eyes,
Even Cabra can surprise;
Try the dog-tracks now and then-
Shelbourne Park and crooked men.
Could you ever pray at all
In the Pro- Cathedral
Till a breath of simpleness
Freed your Freudian distress?
Enter in and be a part
Of the world’s frustrated heart,
Drive the golf ball of despair,
Superdance away your care.
Kavanagh was a great fan of James Joyce and he had a similar attitude to his native heath. When Joyce was asked, in Trieste, “Will you ever go back to Dublin?” he replied, “Did I ever leave ?”
The man from Inniskeen was in complete agreement with the Greek poet Cadaly who said,
“No matter where you wander all over the world, in the fields and streets where you grow up, there you will live and there you will die.”He delighted in telling the story of how his brother, Peter, while taking a Sunday morning stroll in San Francisco, came on a group of Irishmen playing Gaelic football and how,
“ . . . everything was as at home . . . not a man of them had ever left home and the mysterious Pacific was just a bog-hole gurgling with eels and frogs.”It must be said that he also fell in love in Dublin. During his final illness he told his sisters, “I’ve a feeling of death on me and I want to be buried in Inniskeen” but he wanted to be commemorated in Dublin,
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb- just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
The one hundred and twenty-eight pages of Kavanagh Country will enable you to accompany the poet down the Mucker lane on his way to Kednaminsa school, experience the frustrations of a rural adolescent as he watches the young ones going to the dance in Billy Brennan’s Barn of feel the waters of the Grand canal “pouring Redemption.”
Kavanagh Country, published by Currach Press is now available. Price: €20