From the Archive
Editor’s Choice: John Montague’s tribute to his fellow poet Patrick Kavanagh on his death
Patrick Kavanagh: With The Great Hunger (1942) the reality of rural life appeared for the first time in Anglo-Irish poetry Photograph: The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland
From The Irish Times on Saturday, December 2nd, 1967: A Tribute to Patrick Kavanagh by John Montague, accompanied by a poem by Bruce Williamson.
He knew that posterity has no use
For anything but the soul
The lines that speak the passionate heart ...
PATRICK KAVANAGH is dead, and a period in literary Dublin seems ended. I remember, with the clarity instinct reserves for important events, the first time I ever saw him. I was walking down Grafton Street with another U.C.D. poet, slightly older and more knowledgeable in the ways of the city than I was. “That’s Patrick Kavanagh”, he said, pointing across the street. There is a drawing by John Ryan in the first issue of Envoy which catches exactly the man I saw, hat jammed on his head, arms under his oxter; a figure of defiance.
Contrary to popular fallacy, it is not necesary to be a genius to write poetry: what is needed is a genius for language which may, or may not , bring individual grace. Indeed, thinking of Raleigh’s part in the massacre of Smerwick, I am not even sure that you need human integrity. But in order to be a poet, you must have both, and the man I met in a Grafton Street public-house a few days afterwards was clearly a genius. The energy and gaiety of his own truth shaped everything he said.
Humbled, I went back to my books, to discover the difference between “the standing army of Irish poets,” as Patrick called them, and the real thing. It was a difference that Kavanagh himself had only discovered slowly, and one could still make him squirm by quoting the lines from his first book, “Ploughman and Other Poems” (1936), about James Stephens’s goat. But through the Celtic Twilight whimsy, the outlines of a real landscape were beginning to emerge:
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
The re’s a dance in Bill Brennan’s barn tonight .
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and -elbow language of delight. – (“Inniskeen Road”).
With “The Great Hunger” (1942) the reality of rural life appeared for the first time in Anglo-Irish poetry. The ripples from that extraordinary work are still spreading, for, as well as being a masterwork, it changed the whole course of Irish poetry. Henceforth, whatever their background, education, and obsession, poets would have to measure themselves against Kavanagh’s breathtaking honesty of vision.
In later years, he tended to disparage “The Great Hunger”, but I remember an amiable discussion in the late 50s in which, after analysing the merits of a horse called, appropriately enough, Paddy’s Point, we mutually agreed that, if “The Deserted Village” had more art, it had less passion than “The Great Hunger”. It was this kind of comically serious conversation which drew many people to Patrick Kavanagh, to warm themselves at the fire of a comic spirit which could find fuel in every detail.
HEARTS OF THE MATTER
There is no doubt about the art in the poems of “A Soul for Sale” (1947), which celebrate details of his country experience. Many years later, in the sonnets written after his operation for cancer, he recovered that energetic simplicity:
A year ago I fell in love
with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital . . .
But in order to get there , he had to pass through the valley of satirical disillusion represented in the middle section of the “Collected Poems”. Was that pilgrimage really necessary? Patrick Kavanagh knew he was immortal, and that is inclined to make a man difficult at times; nor had he the useful knack of conserving his energies. The richness of personality that could turn a lawcase into a crucifixion allies him with the other great Dublin poet who was born on the day that he died: the later Kavanagh is now as much a part of the folklore of this city as “The Great Dane”:
On Pembroke Road look out for
my ghost .
Dishevelled with shoes untied.
Playing through the railings with
Whose children have long since
died .. .
With the Mass in Haddington road yesterday morning and the funeral in Inniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh’s two worlds will be symbolically linked. One would have wished to see him live longer, now that his generous-hearted wife had brought a little peace into his life, and his work had received official recognition; not from the Irish Government of course, but from the Arts Council of Great Britain. But the circle is complete, and, when he is laid into the Monaghan earth he made universal, there can be no words to mark the occasion but his own for his mother:
I do not think of you lying in the
Of a Monaghan graveyard: I see
You walking down a lane among
On your way to the station . .
He subscribed to anger, and rose
from his corner
To fling his words about,
Man and Scarecrow fought the
day that was left lo them,
Shambling and transverse.
A sudden silver shout was all
Then someone turned away.
And a child ran home -