Patrick Kavanagh: no ‘peasant poet’ but a Monaghan modernist
Long read: Kavanagh was an Imagist-influenced, Auden-inspired, anti-Revivalist poet, whose materials were local but whose approach was essentially avant-garde
In his apprentice years as a farmer-poet, Patrick Kavanagh’s key influences were Ezra Pound and fellow “provincial” William Carlos Williams, then later WH Auden and The Bell. Photograph: Eric Luke
While the modernist movement in the visual arts, dance, film and music would seem to follow a clearly delineated path, the modernist project in literature is an altogether different matter: it swerves and backtracks, splits off into a myriad of friction-filled groups. As James Longenbach states in his essay, Modern Poetry, “reading the moderns, we need to remain open to their variousness, their duplicities, their contradictions”.
Hence, in this examination of the modernist traits in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, modernist literature is generally meant as being that particular body of experimental writing which emerges after 1910 (the year in which Virginia Woolf states in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown that “human character changed”) and is in decline by the end of the second World War.
Kavanagh, born in 1904, in the Monaghan village of Inniskeen, published his first poem, Address to an Old Wooden Gate, in the Dundalk Democrat in 1929, though he’d been an apprentice poet for some years before. This feature posits the view that in those apprentice years as a Monaghan-based farmer-poet, Kavanagh’s influences, crucial in his development as a writer, emanate from the first wave of modernism, specifically the Imagism of Ezra Pound and the American poet, William Carlos Williams – who Kavanagh resembles in many ways. The similarities between Kavanagh and Williams, both considered “provincials” by their peers, is also examined here, as is the influence of Auden on Kavanagh’s poetic, and the influence Kavanagh’s contact with The Bell editors had on the marked leap in style from the poet’s first Inniskeen phase to the next striking Dublin phase.
As John Redmond states in his essay, ‘All the Answers’: The influence of Auden on Kavanagh’s Poetic Development, “Kavanagh’s career can be considered in four stages”. In summary, these stages are: the poems prior to The Great Hunger (1942); The Great Hunger and the poems after 1942 – included in Kavanagh’s poetry collection, A Soul for Sale; the Come Dance with Kitty Stobling poems, which include the Canal Bank Walk poems (1960); and the poems of the period after 1960, most of which appear in Collected Poems (1964). The first three of these phases denote a varying, inconsistent, but unmistakably modernist sensibility. In his study of American modernist writers, A Homemade World, Hugh Kenner describes how modernism entered the bloodstream of the new age:
“You inherited it by reading magazines, and Harriet Monroe’s ‘Poetry’, and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review had been spreading its news fitfully in America since 1912 and 1917 respectively.”
Once poetry began to possess the young Kavanagh, he spent many evenings after working on his parents’ nine-acre farm studying the craft. For this he used old school texts and, after discovering The Irish Statesman (edited by AE) in RQ O’Neil’s shop in Dundalk, in 1925, he began to make regular trips to the town (six miles from Inniskeen), either to buy this publication or study it in Dundalk Library. Antoinette Quinn states in her seminal work, Kavanagh: A Biography, that during this apprentice period “[Kavanagh] pored over back copies of Poetry (Chicago).” Calls to Dundalk Library have revealed that it has never held these American journals, so perhaps Kavanagh was given these by AE, or by the playwright Paul Vincent Carroll, whom he befriended on one of his Dundalk visits. Despite the mystery of the source of such a key magazine (devoted as it was, initially, to Imagist poets) in terms of tracing Kavanagh’s early reading materials, it is clear that as a young man Kavanagh made a serious study of the poems and literary theories that stirred him, and duly applied these to his work:
“I read the work of Ezra Pound and Hopkins with delight. Walter Lowenfels, a poet who made queer verse about machinery, gave my imagination a lift forward. But it was in the American poets I was chiefly interested. Horace Holley, H.D., Gertrude Stein, and all the Cubists and Imagists, excited my clay-heavy mind. Gertrude Stein’s work was like whiskey to me; her strange rhythms broke up the cliché formation of my thought.”
Kavanagh’s early poems, divided into three groups by Antoinette Quinn in Born Again Romantic, though considered derivative, and largely neo-Romantic by some, nonetheless provide clear evidence of an applied study of Imagism, which, Quinn agrees, “offered a contrary inducement, enabling him to single out some appropriate scene or object and focus on it in isolation.” An example of Kavanagh’s adherence to the Imagist credo is the 1931 poem, Gold Watch:
On inner case
Sold by a guy in a New York store
With its detailed observation the poem is a fine example of William Carlos Williams’s aphorism, “no ideas but in things”, and also of Pound’s “direct treatment of the thing”. Gold Watch also follows Pound’s other Imagist tenet, which was to follow a loose musical phrasing when composing rather than a strict metre. Kavanagh uses this wholly Imagistic approach as a device, a tool, a means to become forensic; it is not altogether a permanent fixture in his early writing, he attempts other modes, but working out of the Imagist idiom produces his best early work. In Tinker;s Wife (1936), Pound’s and Williams’ influence is observed again, in particular, in the lack of commentary, where Kavanagh aims “not (at) realism but reality itself”.
She searched on the dunghill debris
This verse recalls Williams’s work from the late-twenties: “winter, winter/leather green leaves/spear-shaped/in the falling snow.”
In Inniskeen Road: July Evening (1936), Kavanagh’s own voice (developed and trained via Imagism) finally bursts forth. The action of the poem takes place in the present, hence a certain realism is achieved straight away; mundane things such as bicycles, stones and barns are mentioned, and Kavanagh’s trademark “naming” is in evidence also, ie the barn is “Billy Brennan’s”. There is also an added ingredient in this poem, it’s not all “no ideas but in things”, but has an awareness of audience, and from this point Kavanagh’s work begins to echo Auden. Here, the speaker asks that he be observed against a scene with which he has no part, hence a conflict, a drama is established, recalling Auden’s early style:
Consider if you will how lovers stand
In brief adherence, straining to preserve
Too long the suction of goodbye….
This similarity with Auden is marked in the second phase of Kavanagh’s work, particularly in The Great Hunger. Also present in Inniskeen Road: July Evening is what John Redmond refers to as “Kavanagh’s use of the crucial trope of panorama”, adding that “there is no more powerful trope in early Auden than that of panorama”.
The poet brings the reader quickly into the key moment of the scene, ie Inniskeen Road – on a July evening, where “the bicycles go by in twos and threes” – almost like a diary entry; he confers on the speaker “the strength and grandiose status of an omniscient eye”. Because Kavanagh’s panoramic scene is a rural one, the “details” are landscape items, picked out not for their Romantic, pastoral possibilities, but because they are what that omniscient eye finds are there. This device, whether borrowed from Auden or not, leads Kavanagh towards identifying his own materials – his own “local art”. (Clay, stones, the bog, rocks, potatoes, buckets, barrels, seeds, farming chemicals, markets, wheels, the black hills, the railway etc.) Kavanagh’s early relationship to his locality (and the materials there) resonates with Rod Townley’s description of William Carlos Williams’ relationship to his home town of Rutherford, New Jersey (and later the town of Paterson where he worked): “to Williams, the environment, like one’s body, is part of one’s identity” – and also with Hugh Kenner’s comments on Williams’s Spring and All, about which Kenner says “[it] seems to say that these quickenings and stirrings are ‘all along the road’’
While it is difficult to prove whether or not Kavanagh was directly influenced by Williams, whether he was a fan etc, it is quite plausible that Kavanagh’s poetic voice was formed by what he read in the little magazines, and The Irish Statesman, full as these publications were of the poetry and prose of Imagists such as Williams, and in which Imagistic poems were still appearing by the mid-1930s. The element that seems to be most common to both poets, however, is the notion of the “made” poem. Williams states:
“When a man makes a poem, makes it mind you, he takes words as he finds them, interrelated about him and composes them – without distortion which would mar their exact significances – into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardours that they may constitute a revelation in the speech he uses.”
Such thinking is not a million miles away from Kavanagh’s “sculptural” quest “to find a star-lovely art in a dark sod”. Perhaps due to his background as a cobbler and ploughman, Kavanagh has an unmistakably “made”, “carved-out” feel to his poetry. In Peasant there is the “endurable stone in the phantasmic land”, and in Plough Horses the plough has been transformed into “Phidias’s chisel”. In Spraying the Potatoes Kavanagh turns to “found objects”; he looks up briefly from stone and clay, and spies through “objective reality” a pedestrian power in “the barrels of blue potato spray”. Here, use of the plural, “barrels”, creates choreography; the barrels are arranged, staged – and consequently aestheticised. The poem is populated by a solitary figure, a sculpted, three-dimensional almost kinetic image of a man with a hired knapsack sprayer on his back, ready by the edge of the barrel for a refill, working up to hard, physical farm-work. The “axle-roll of a rut-locked cart” provides a clean unsentimental soundtrack (Auden too deploys soundscape in many of his poems), and the remembered smells are not of the “orchard roses” but of the work-orientated “lime and copper”.
Kavanagh, like Williams, is a hewer of poetry; he physically wrests it from his environment. In To the Man After The Harrow he imagines the plough as an instrument that brings life to inanimate nature. He asserts that there are rules and ways of handling this apparatus (the plough – and the act of composition), and that in order to achieve optimum results one should “leave the check-reins slack” because “destiny will not fulfill/Unless you let the harrow play.” In Poet he states: “And I carved images/In stone of Mind/ that terrified/Children and pale priests of the mass.” This referral to himself as a kind of Pygmalion figure recurs throughout Kavanagh’s work, as in Inniskeen Road: July Evening, in which the poet declares his ambiguous relationship to his ordinary materials: “I am king/Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.”
Of Williams’s poem The Red Wheelbarrow, Kenner states “the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings…that zone is what Williams in the 1920s started calling the Imagination.” For Williams, the imagination is where “all is to be reborn”, and it is to the Imagination (likewise capitalised) that Kavanagh turns as his audience in The Great Hunger – “Come with me, Imagination, into this Iron house” – so as to observe the life and times of Patrick Maguire, an everyman of thwarted hopes and dreams.
Apart from a similar approach to their work, and a close relationship to environment, these two poets both railed against a perceived “provincialism” from their peers. Charles Doyle states that many of Williams’s poems “have an undertow of anger and frustration”. Also, both poets cared more about new poetry than poetry. Williams, seeking after a new American idiom, saw TS Eliot’s The Waste Land as a betrayal, a falling back; likewise Kavanagh’s entire poetic trajectory is away from the Literary Revival. In his short book on Kavanagh, After Kavanagh: Patrick Kavanagh and the Discourse of Contemporary Irish Poetry, Michael O’Loughlin states that “Kavanagh was the first fully-fledged Irish poet in the English language – that is, an Irish poet whose relationship to nationality and to the English language was not problematic.” Hence, Kavanagh’s influences as a poet were not derived from the Revival, which he famously considered “a thorough-going English-bred lie”, but from the bigger European and American modernist movement, an aspect of his work which has not, arguably, received the attention it deserves.
In discussing the collection of essays, Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 30s, John Redmond claims that the authors’ (Alex Davis and Patricia Coughlan) exclusion of Kavanagh, “despite the obvious Modernist procedures of The Great Hunger”, is endemic of a tendency amongst critics “to perceive Kavanagh as having been ‘naïve’ and ‘uninfluenced’ while at the same time characterizing such others of the period as Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, and Thomas McGreevy as positively influenced and smartly up-to-date”, and thus distorting “a fair picture of the period”. Writing in the New Hibernia Review, the University of Liverpool lecturer does not in his thesis apply the term “peasant-poet” at any time to Kavanagh. (The term is clearly pejorative, loaded with – to modern sensibilities anyway – the politically incorrect classism of its day, and in Kavanagh’s particular case, acts as a rope with which to hang him – in that it disallows him the more sophisticated tag of “modernist”.)
Kavanagh made countless references in his poems and essays to Auden. In Untitled (Having read Spenser who could stop the Thames) he says:
Auden knows all the answers, and the question
Is where can we find a question to ask
We ring the changes on the emotions
Reweave and reweave the shoddy
Vary the tilt
Of the dead body –
Grey Liffey run less drearily with my guilt.
And in his essay, Auden and the Creative Mind (1951), on the subject of the ephemeral quality of creativity, Kavanagh states:
“Nobody writing today has this quality in more abundance than Auden…like all the great ones, (he) is all sensation, all pictures, action…part of genius is in his discovery in a world we all thought bankrupt of rich veins of gold.”
This (genius) quality of being able to nose out the miraculous in the everyday, is of course something Kavanagh saw as existing in himself in spades. Kavanagh regularly bigged up his ability to “tap into secrecies”, continually promoted the notion that “God is in the bits and pieces of everyday”.
Redmond is in no doubt that Kavanagh’s second phase of work, in particular The Great Hunger, relates to “the second wave of English Modernism associated with – indeed instigated by – WH Auden.” He demonstrates this with numerous examples of Auden’s influence, perhaps attributing more than he should of Kavanagh’s oeuvre to the British poet rather than to Kavanagh’s innate abilities. Nonetheless, it is astounding that The Great Hunger has rarely been seen by critics as a “smartly up-do-date” modernist work when it bears all the hallmarks of such. Antoinette Quinn refers to this long poem as a “rural sequel to Joyce’s Dubliners”. In stark contrast to Quinn’s assessment, Redmond states that the poem with “its agitation, crudity, lyricism and finger-wagging…(has) precisely such narrative excesses that Auden’s influence goes far to explain”. He claims that once The Great Hunger is viewed in such a light, it then becomes “possible to read Kavanagh’s career in a new way”.
Redmond’s choice of examples in the poem generally concern the dramatic shifting from “I” to a public “we”, its overall form of dramatic address, the pronounced awareness of an audience, a sense in it of the “guided tour” – and claims that these are all also Auden tropes. He compares Kavanagh’s: “Watch him, watch him, that man on a hill whose spirit/is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time” to Auden’s “We show you man caught in the trap of his terror, destroying himself” and “We would show you at first an English village: you shall choose its location”.
In his essay, Redmond comments on the “knowing tone” of section 13 of The Great Hunger
“That was how his life happened
No mad hooves galloping in the sky
But the weak, washy way of true tragedy –
A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.”
and reiterates Basil Payne’s view that these lines recall the idea of tragedy in Auden’s Musee Des Beaux Arts “where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ scratches its innocent behind on a tree”.
Antoinette Quinn explains the leap in style from Kavanagh’s early work to The Great Hunger as the result of Kavanagh’s move to Dublin and his contact with the staff of The Bell (Peadar O’Donnell, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain) – to which he contributed poems from 1941, and for which he later worked. This move, effectively allying Kavanagh to Dublin’s avant-garde, may well have acted as a cauldron-like pressure (along with the influence of Auden) on his poetry to now become more “realistic” and “modern”. The ethos of The Bell at the time was to encourage work that promoted “local art”, that employed everyday images, the
“symbols of a resurgent Ireland…the throbbing engines of the Shannon scheme or the Beet factories. This may be unpleasant; depressing; suggestive of a phase that other countries are sick of. There it is. We have to accept it…(the images) are significant because they are true to life.”
In such a stimulating environment, no doubt Kavanagh found he had to raise his game – and did. When The Bell was replaced by Envoy in December 1949, with its “cultural mission to present all that is outstanding in Irish Art”, the editor was Valentin Iremonger, a poet and diplomat with a particular interest in contemporary poetry, and who encouraged his avant-garde contributors. Quinn claims that Kavanagh’s famous preference for parochialism (over provincialism) “was an outgrowth of the documentary realism promoted by The Bell in 1940s”.
This Dublin period of Kavanagh’s career, however fraught with anxieties over libel trials and lack of income, had nonetheless an immense impact on his output, a nervous, oscillating-between-success-and-failure kind of impact, yes, but a rigour becomes apparent in his 1940s poetry, resulting in Kavanagh’s third and arguably most important phase: the Canal Bank Walk poems, included in the Come Dance with Kitty Stobling collection.
In his essay, From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, Kavanagh states:
“I have been thinking of making my grove on the banks of The Grand Canal near Baggot Street Bridge, where in recent days I rediscovered my roots. My hegira was to the Grand Canal bank where again I saw the beauty of water and green grass and the magic of light. It was the same emotion as I had known when I stood on a sharp slope in Monaghan. “
The poet may not be making a return to the matrix of Monaghan, or reclaiming the stony grey soil as his main material, but that part of him which reaches for the near and ordinary remains a constant, and he still wants to “make it new”. John Redmond claims that in this series of poems “passivity becomes part of the process of emptying out the poetic self, of concentrating on the poet’s own original voice, of returning to ‘I am’”. Kavanagh had been recuperating from his lung operation when he composed much of this work. There is a sense in Lines Written on a Canal Bank Seat that illness has silenced the booming-voiced self, enabling release of the poet’s “authentic” voice – which is child-like, and full of wonder:
“A swan goes by head low with many apologies
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! A barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.”
Redmond claims that it is only in this third phase that Kavanagh manages to shake off the influence of Auden (temporarily), thus finding his true voice. However, just as Kavanagh takes a backward glance at Inniskeen, he also remembers the earlier (Imagistic) way of working: the naming of things and places (Canal Bank Walk); direct treatment of the thing (“a couple kissing on an old seat”), “make it new” (“a new dress woven from green and blue things”). The desire for remembrance via “a canal-bank seat” rather than a “hero-courageous tomb” elevates the simple bench to a sturdy monument (the seat has been reborn). Once again, the banal has been ritualistically aestheticised.
Also, in both Canal Bank Walk and Lines Written on a Seat on The Grand Canal, Dublin, there are Auden-esque soundscapes: the water pouring through a relatively low-set lock “Niagariously roars”; a bird makes a “delirious beat”, the speaker wants to pray with “overflowing speech”. It is clear, however, that this phase of work, made possible from working out of a modernist idiom, is now the poet’s own; he has burst free from a movement Randall Jarrell believes is already finished by the late-forties. (Jarrell also considers Auden one of the first postmodern poets: “Auden at the beginning was oracular, bad at organization, neglectful of logic, full of astonishing or magical language, intent on his own world and his own forms; he has changed continuously toward organization, plainness, accessibility, objectivity, social responsibility.”) Kavanagh is as he wished to be (and as William Carlos Williams wished to be): “reborn”.
In his review of Come Dance with Kitty Stobling for The Observer, Al Alvarez states: “Come Dance with Kitty Stobling has what Auden’s latest so sadly lacks: that concentration which transforms outer and inner worlds into a single, compelling and fresh poetic whole.”
Alvarez also states that in his sonnets Kavanagh is “the most controlled, original and least pretentious Irish poet since Yeats”. It seems that via his early Imagism-influenced work, and his appreciation of Auden’s dramatic and accessible style, Kavanagh developed at a complete slant to the Romantic influences of the Revival. In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal Kavanagh states, “with a small society lacking intensity like this, one needs a coarse formula, if we are to have any body of writing”. Modernism provided for Kavanagh a means with which to change the trajectory, to “vary the tilt” of Irish poetry after Yeats.
It could be argued that after the poems of the late-fifties, Kavanagh wrote less from his Imagism/Auden kitty, the use of which had previously enabled him to engage with his materials fluently and objectively. In Blinking Blankness: Three Efforts, he seems to be declaring a wish for language itself to be his main material:
“Nature is not enough, I’ve used up lanes
waters that run in rivers or are stagnant;
but I have no message and the sins
of no red idea can make me pregnant.
so I sit tight to manufacture
a world word by word-machine-to-live-in structure –
that may in any garden be assembled.”
It is interesting to note that William Carlos Williams referred to a poem as “a small (or large) machine made out of words”. John Redmond considers that in his fourth and last phase, “Kavanagh returns to the position of the subject and, therefore [again], to the straightforward influence of Auden…he begins once more to make social statements of an unconvincing sort realizing bitterly that his poetry is in decline.”
What seems to remain from his modernist mode in this last phase of work is the dramatic “I am” (from Auden), though there is barely a trace of an Imagist aesthetic – certainly these poems are the opposite of “no ideas but in things”, although there is a sense of a probing “direct treatment” (usually of the self and problems of the self). Quinn refers to this period as the “poetry of predicament” and states that “their mode is comic realism; their scale is human”. These poems are markedly looser and darker than those from Kavanagh’s three earlier phases, and, like Redmond, critics generally perceive this period as a decline in powers. However, many of Kavanagh’s late poems are formal structures – with some wickedly playful strokes. Kavanagh, on his return from his tour of the US, in 1957, stated that the “American angle was locked on the English 30s” and that he had found himself, whilst there, turning to the 50s Beat poets, particularly Ferlingetti, of whom he said “his badness is authentic”.
Kavanagh’s next subject of “personal problems” emanates from his interest in this new American writing. About this Quinn states, “consciously or unconsciously, his attraction to beat verse, with its irreverent frankness about addiction to drugs or drink, may have influenced Kavanagh to write lighthearted rhymes about his own alcoholism.” It could be suggested that far from a decline in poetic powers then, this period of work shows Kavanagh being true to form, displaying an attempt to burst through artistic parameters and idioms, to find if not his true voice then a new voice (the question of course is, “what is a voice?”).
Like William Carlos Williams (who Rod Townley referred to as “the spiritual forerunner” of Jackson Pollock) he is still interested in new poetry not poetry. By the late 1950s, modernism no longer offers the new; it has for Kavanagh become as stale as the Revival. And there are now more radical murmurings in the arts, which a writer as sensitive as Kavanagh was to the avant-garde could not have ignored: the rise of the “Movement” poets in Britain (Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn), who wished to address everyday life in an everyday language (in established structures); the appearance of a new kitchen-sink drama on the stage; the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and the beginnings of Pop Art. Kavanagh would not have been oblivious to the shaking-up of the scene from these new artists:
“My love lies at the gates of foam
The last dear wreck of day
And William H. Burroughs collages the poem
As the curfew tolls the knell of Gray.”
It seems clear that the inclination to engage with poetry from outside the immediately-available Irish mode is evident from the start to the close of Kavanagh’s career. He looks consistently to Britain and the US, rather than to his own ethnicity – yet manages to create a very local art. To not attach that idiom, elements of which Kavanagh plundered for the creation of his own coarse formula in poetry, namely Modernism, in an appraisal of his career is to deprive him of his due. The key question is, of course, does such a “label” matter? In Kavanagh’s case, the answer is a resounding yes; it prevents a fatal placing in exactly that Romantic/Revivalist box the poet deplored, in which the best he can hope for is to be considered the corollary of John Clare, full of “natural” lyric ability. The case for Patrick Kavanagh, an Imagist-influenced, Auden-inspired, anti-Revivalist poet, a poet whose materials were local but whose approach was essentially avant-garde – at least appreciably different enough to have “summoned Anglo-Irish poetry out of a protracted Celtic twilight into the more confusing light of contemporary day” – is certainly worth exploring.
Jaki McCarrick is working on a thesis about the modernist procedures in Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry. She is also an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. Her debut story collection, The Scattering (Seren Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize and she was longlisted for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate