Dundalk and sock? Patrick Kavanagh’s outrageous rhymes

Irritable vowels: The poet embraced off-kilter rhymes to ‘escape from respectability’

Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland

Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland

 

Patrick Kavanagh was one of the foremost Irish poets of the 20th century. He is often seen as a “rural” poet but most of his output was produced in the city. Certainly one of his best poems, The Great Hunger, gives a revealing insight into the harsher side of Irish rural life at a particular time, but what is probably his best known and most popular poem, On Raglan Road, takes its name from a Dublin street near where he lived.

Kavanagh liked to be different, and this also applied when it came to the poetic convention of rhyming. He said “outrageous” rhyming helped him escape from respectability. Some of the rhyming he indulged in certainly was not respectable.

In The Great Hunger, he rhymes “Dundalk” with “sock”, which maybe works if spoken in the accent of Kavanagh’s part of the country. “Butter” is rhymed with the Monaghan placename “Mucker” in Kerr’s Ass, a poem that tells nothing about the animal in the title and begins with the great expression, “We borrowed the loan of”. And the poem with the elaborate title On Looking into EV Rieu’s Homer has “ravaged” rhymed not very respectably with “cabbages”. (Kavanagh is harvesting cabbages as he reads tearfully Priam’s lament for his dead son Hector – the one who is ravaged.)

In Advent, “talking” is rhymed with “shocking”, as is “searching” with “lurching”, while in A Christmas Childhood, “ditch” is rhymed with “touch”. One of his late poems, the Petrarchan sonnet The Hospital, is a riot of outrageous rhyming: “ward” with “snored”, “bridge” with “pledge”, and “lorry” with “transitory”.

As well as outrageous rhyming, Kavanagh was fond of the odd outrageous neologism (such as “Niagariously” in Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal), and far-fetched comparisons (such as comparing the water falling over a canal lock to Niagara Falls in the same poem, or a Monaghan drumlin to the Matterhorn in Shancoduff, or three “whin” bushes on a hill to the Three Wise Men in a Christmas Childhood).

“Dung” features a lot in Kavanagh’s poetry as well, but that’s another story.

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