Patrick Kavanagh, first in his field

Kavanagh was a mentor to many and shared US Beat poets’ liberating use of the vernacular and rejection of conventional poetic language and social thought

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

Patrick Kavanagh’s value and importance as a vital mentor in Irish poetry has perhaps been underestimated. To the young poets who gathered around him in Dublin in the 1960s he transmitted a new message: the need to push the boundaries of Irish poetry, the necessity of renewing tradition rather than echoing it. That had been his own achievement.

In one of his Grafton Street haunts, McDaid’s pub, Kavanagh used to say to these poets, according to one of his acolytes, James Liddy: “Write about what’s in front of you, write about what’s on the table” or, as he put in one of his poems:

Irish poets open your eyes;
Even Cabra can surprise…..

Kavanagh set out to open the eyes of his readers with his long poem, The Great Hunger, considered by many as his greatest achievement. The poet announces its visionary ambitions in its first line:


Clay is the word and clay is the flesh.

John Montague nominated it as the best long poem since Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village and Kavanagh’s contemporary Austin Clarke described it as a manifesto of the poet’s indignation, his mood of disillusion.

In many of his lyric poems the community life of the parish is evoked and celebrated. The Great Hunger gives voice to a whole community in the person of one character who is a man of his time, Patrick Maguire who made a field his bride and considered himself “locked in a stable with pigs and cows forever”.

Unlike the The Hospital and Canal Bank sonnets and other lyrics of his poetic rebirth in the 1950s, The Great Hunger is not a work that brings to mind the word celebration yet has its moments of “profoundly simple, wondrous music (qualities the American Robert Creeley recognised in Kavanagh) among the many strident notes striking a rebellious blow against what Kavanagh witnessed and depicts with lyric ferocity in the poem – the claustrophobic Ireland of the immediate post-independence years.

In his Self Portrait he refers to it as a work that lacked “the nobility and repose of poetry” and declared that it contained “some queer and terrible things”. That self-judgment on the poem, his statement that it lacked the nobility of poetry, is quite wrong as time has shown.

Seamus Heaney, who praised its “psychic force” and described it as a “kind of elegy in a country farmyard”, reminds us of the question that Kavanagh asked himself at the start of The Great Hunger: “Is there some light of imagination in these dark clods”. Heaney declares, and quite emphatically, that the answer is a triumphant yes.

As for those “queer and terrible things”, the poet’s antennae were well focused and acutely sensitive to what was happening in the undergrowth of Irish society. The impoverishment of those times, material and spiritual, stands at the heart of Kavanagh’s discourse.

In his fine book-length study of the poem, Apocalypse of Clay (Currach Press ) Desmond Swan describes it as Kavanagh’s “journey into a post colonial heart of darkness in the country”.

The Turkish poet Oktay Rifat said that “it is the duty of the words in a language to make us visualise reality”. In The Great Hunger Kavanagh adheres to that duty with powerful results; the “psychic force” that Heaney saw in the poem is equally matched by its documentary force, and neither quality was given sufficient credit or credence on initial publication.

Here we have Ireland, ruled over by the trinity of the earth, the mother and the church. De Valera’s idealised Ireland – an Ireland that produced emotional cripples such as the poem’s protagonist, Patrick Maguire. An Ireland that sang dumb and by its silence, condoned, the abuse of authority, including the misuse of parental authority and the failure of true maternal instincts to overcome more selfish considerations, one of the afflictions suffered by Maguire and a major theme of the poem. Kavanagh looked well beyond his own local horizons in the poem which, as Swan points out, is “a cunningly disguised diatribe against the celibacy rule of the Catholic church” and is a poem of “protest and prophecy” in which the poet reaches deep into the Irish psyche, seeing what others at the time failed or refused to see – a poet’s diagnosis of a sickness masked by the pieties of the time.

The range and depth and significance of The Great Hunger is multi-layered: social, historical, philosophical and psychological. Whatever about Kavanagh’s repudiation of the poem, the validity of its raw imagery was utterly true to his vision.

It comes as no surprise that Kavanagh was an admirer of the American Beat poets (perhaps it could even be speculated that Ginsberg’s Howl was influenced by a reading of The Great Hunger?). The Beats’ reaction against conventional social thought and conventional poetic language, as well as their liberating use of the vernacular was also manifested in Kavanagh – that is what marks him out as the first major poet to significantly escape from Yeats’s presence to develop an individual style. No grandiosity.

Perhaps out of his complex contrariness he once said “I don’t believe in the virtue of place”. That denial was of course contradicted by his poetry of topographical reference and local knowledge. The “wiseness of local reference”, his trust in the parish, as poet and critic Maurice Harmon has pointed out, is pervasive and resounding in both the Monaghan and Dublin poems.

“Stony Grey Soil….” With just those three immortal words he managed to conjure not just an image of a place and its physical identity, but its very spirit. The poem may express accusations and frustrations, but that does not entirely camouflage a deep affection and affinity.

Heaney contended that we have conscious and unconscious knowledge of the places that have meaning for us, and that seems to be evident in this poem, once described by Kavangh as “the product of a mood” – a description that in a sense explains the power a place can have in the imagination and in memory, especially our starting places.

The genius of the poem is the word picture we are presented with in three perfectly chosen and quite ordinary words that lead us to an immediate recognition of the place, even if we have never been there. A similar recognition comes with that other product of a mood, On Raglan Road, a love poem of course but also one of the greatest and most evocative celebrations of a Dublin setting that induces in the reader or listener, when it is sung, a sense that they know the place intimately. The poet’s ear recognised the resonance, the tonality of the place name. Imagine the result if his site of encounter had been Morehampton Road, or if he attempted it as

In Ballsbridge on an autumn day I met her first and knew….

Perhaps because he was a poet who “knew nothing about cities” – his own words – he found ways of handling his “malignant Dublin” as he called it, ways that might not be available to the native poet.

When Kavanagh saw “the beauty of water and green grass and the magic of light”, he saw what the local poet might have missed when he or she looked to find and evoke the defining landmarks. The poet of the “stony grey soil” knew damn well there were important places among the streets broad and narrow.

That moment of epiphany when he recognised that he had “lived in important places” became the source of many of his touchstone poems.

Kavanagh recognised “the evocative poetry of place names”, their empowerment of a line or a whole poem, and he demonstrated how to allow them into the poem to illuminate that sense of place. Before Raglan Road, he first heard the “potentiality” in place names scattered around his stony grey soil:

Mullinahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco…

In Shancoduff, he again lends an added richness to the poem through references to specific sites and locales: Glassdrummond and the Big Forth of Rocksavage, as well as

The cattle drovers sheltering in Featherna Bush….

In Inniskeen Road, July Evening not only does he seize our attention by taking us straight to the parish in the title but he memorialises one of the parishioners, Billy Brennan and even confers significance on an old barn.

In his Self-Portrait he reminded us that after a poet learns to speak for himself he must speak on behalf of others, even if it is

the Duffy's shouting "Damn your soul"
and Old McCabe, stripped to the waist…..

or Maggie Byrne ….. prowling for dead branches.

These are not public names but the poet sees fit to preserve them in poetic memory. That act of going beyond depiction of the topographical, the natural environment and landscape but including the human presence was vital in his poetry.

He could transfigure his local neighbourhoods into a whole extended universe and did so in ways that were fresh and new in Irish poetry, often dramatising the intersection between the local and the universal:

It is summer and the eerie beat
Of madness in Europe trembles the
Wings of the butterflies along the canal.

His shift from rural to urban Dinnseanchais, from poems of his country home place to poems of his beloved canal banks and Dublin neighbourhoods, come from the same impulse – there is an organic unity between the best of them, the same lyric muse is speaking into his ear. The potentialities as he called them were there in both meadow and metropolis, but wherever it happened to be he always recognised that one of the true purposes of poetry is to "snatch out of time the passionate transitory".
Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor of The Irish Times