Kavanagh's lessons for simple living

The cosmopolitan life has slipped away from many of us in these straitened times

The cosmopolitan life has slipped away from many of us in these straitened times. But fear not – Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry provides pointers for making the most of meagre surroundings

THE COSMOPOLITAN life is nothing if not unoriginal. From city to city across the world, the modern elite of much-travelled professionals brand themselves identically: by their experiences (on holiday or in the ubiquitous “year out”); by what they own (Apple products or houses in “up-and-coming” districts); even by the kind of books they choose to let themselves be seen reading, and the kind of cafes in which they choose to read them. This is a life lived outwards. While not exactly shallow, it is extensive. The recession, of course, is an antidote to all that for many – and a harsh, unwelcome one. Yet this life is so tied up with our idea of being broad-minded and fulfilled that we scarcely countenance the alternative.

Denied his travel and his products, the cosmopolitan thinks life has stopped, when perhaps what is needed is to develop a talent for simplicity and for staying put, either out of necessity or because of a realisation that we have all “tasted and tested too much”. That quote is no accident – for Patrick Kavanagh could be the poet laureate of the post-Celtic Tiger age. It must be said that the forced poverty of Kavanagh’s life in meagre, squalid dwellings is something nobody should have to put up with. Nor should those robbed of security be asked to look on the bright side of bohemianism – Kavanagh would never have done so, and in fact dreamed all his life of a monthly pay cheque. But what he does have much to tell us about is the right kind of simplicity, and how to embrace it.


With the advent of carbon taxes and no alternative to fossil-fuelled air travel in sight, we might be approaching an era when, once more, we will have to put up with our immediate surroundings for far longer stretches. And while the 21st-century cosmopolitan might think that to stay put is to be bogged down, Kavanagh sees it a little differently.

He sees it as the opportunity for a life lived not outwards, extensively, but downwards, intensively. He makes the distinction between what he called the provincial and the parochial. The provincial has no mind of his own. He doesn’t trust his own eyes “until he has heard what the metropolis has to say on the subject”. The parochial, on the other hand, “never doubts the social and artistic validity” of his own place. “All great civilisations are based on parochialism,” says Kavanagh; the challenge is to try to make greatness wherever one finds oneself.

To be thus proud has its dangers, of course. The danger is one of Irish exceptionalism, something that was evident in the boom when, somehow, we were different. Somehow, our model was unique; somehow, we and we alone would have the soft landing. It is vital for those proud of the “parish” to be brave enough to have humility, to dispel the native bravado that thinks “the potato-patch is the ultimate”.


While the busy life might seem important, we usually will concede, at a distance, it is less important than it appears. Faced with a quieter, more private existence, the challenge is to do the opposite: to make seem important something that does not have status conferred by society. We should all, like Kavanagh, be able to say “I have lived in important places, times/ When great events were decided”, while talking “only” about “who owned/ That half a rood of rock”.

All our lives are epics, even if they seem small. Kavanagh's Epicis, after all, a sonnet. We can be Homers without Troy or Achilles. He tells us to "create an epic" out of: Girls in red blouses, / Steps up to houses, / Sunlight round gables. / Gossip's young fables / The life of the street.

“Material itself has no special value” for Kavanagh, but “it is what our imagination and our love do to it” that counts. After all, “Even Cabra can surprise”.


If Cabra is to surprise us, we have to know how to look at it. Wishing it were the Marais or Williamsburg will not cut it. For a long time, Kavanagh’s Dublin was as Wordsworth’s city, the “endless stream of moving men and moving things! . . . the quick dance/ Of colours, lights, and forms”.

To truly see, Wordsworth needed to step back. So too did Kavanagh, who, after years of messianic engagement with the urban scene, finally figured out how to be an “un-angry enumerator”.

He stepped outside the city's "quick dance" and began noticing and naming: Canal Bank Walk, though set in the city, is a list of individual, noticed objects: "a branch in the water"; "The bright stick trapped"; "an old seat"; "a beech"; "a lock"; "a barge". The poem affirms the inexhaustible variety of every place, ironically by ignoring the city's very blur, its mass of symbols and people, and instead selecting from it so that things in themselves can truly be seen. With such a formula, exotic is truly in the eye of the beholder.


For Kavanagh, the “bohemian jungle” lies on “the perimeter of Commerce”, and his entire Dublin life is a lesson in how to get the working life wrong. On the one hand, he suffered near destitution at times; on the other, he allowed work to embitter him. Getting caught up in his satires and excoriating journalism, he had “no repose”. Economic disaster has caused many of us to reassess our relationship with work. Kavanagh’s own disaster, lung cancer, and his convalescence, afforded him a similar chance for a new outlook. His real self he had lost to the “unfruitful prayer” of satire.

Kavanagh’s trick to finding “the right simplicity” was to tell himself in poetry that he would not miss what he did not have, divorcing the true self from worldly desire: “Luxury would ruin your sublime/ Imagination in no time”.

He reneges on the half-secret ambition for “A car, a big suburban house” and deems it far more important that he is one “capable of an intense love that is experience”. He cajoles himself to wake up and “compromise/ On the non-essential sides”. The message is simple: be happy with what you’ve got.


While it's all very well to look forward to the next rush, the next trip, we often overlook the importance of what we bring with us when we go places, or what we should be able to bring. Because all poetry is elegy, there is nothing all that remarkable about the beginning of Kerr's Ass: "We borrowed the loan of Kerr's big ass/ To go to Dundalk with butter". Kavanagh continues the poem with his usual noticing: "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 . . . "

What happens next is what arrests the reader: “In Ealing Broadway, London Town, I name their several names/ Until a world comes to life.”

Kavanagh, the poet in the metropolis, knows the value of being an individual, the sum of his own unique experiences and memories. This ability to imagine ourselves out of a situation implies an inner fortification against the vagaries that can be presented by any particular set of circumstances – absurd luck or failure in the present are beyond our control. But if you are as interesting and important internally as your surroundings, this does not matter so much.


Though during his convalescence from cancer in 1955 Kavanagh turned his lyric impulse towards extolling the virtues of a carefree, comic aesthetic, he was growing more cantankerous than ever. The gap between the boorish man and the sensitive poet was never wider. Stories of his rudeness abound, but neither was he able to take his own advice about savouring the simple things. In The Hospitalhe wrote beautifully on his new theme: "A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward/ Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row/ Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover's woe/ Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored/ But nothing whatever is by love debarred". And yet, when discharged from this very hospital, he turned down the offer from his friend and publisher John Ryan of a month in the expensive Merrion nursing home. Instead, he succeeded in getting Ryan to foot the bill for a week's luxury in the Royal Hibernian Hotel.

The annual Patrick Kavanagh weekend is on Friday Nov 27th-Sunday Nov 29th in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan. patrickkavanaghcountry.com