Foundation stone of Kavanagh's poetry is spirituality


It is remarkable how frequently homilists addressing congregations have recourse to quotations from the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. I myself have heard various snatches from his work on all kinds of liturgical occasions. Ironically enough these include passages from The Great Hunger, which is generally regarded as something of a polemic against the domination of the clergy in 1940s Ireland.

For example the line "God is in the bits and pieces of everyday" has by now become widely familiar. Often repeated too, is the evocative metaphorical passage: "Yet sometimes when the sun come through a gap/These men know God the Father in a tree/The Holy Spirit is the rising sap/And Christ will be the green leaves that will come/At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb."

Apart from The Great Hunger, lines from other Kavanagh poems make their way to the pulpit, from time to time. It seems indeed, that random phrases of "Kavanaghspeak" have by now achieved something like folkoric status among us. Patrick Kavanagh's writing, as a religious source no less, invites us to enquire why this should be.

He could never be regarded as a "kept Catholic" yet his work is replete with Christian insights. He communicates definite, personal versions of religious truths but always re-formed in the poet's unique expression. His statements of belief are fashioned, free of institutional warrants.

His personal exploration of the mystery of God and the sacred entices us to share it with him, precisely because it issues always from his fresh and unusual approach. It's never either forced, false or sentimental. It is invariably simple in its depth, devoid of advocacy, always honest, sparing in style and sometimes daring in its laconic matter-of-factness.

Once we accept the complexity and caprice of Kavanagh's mind we can savour the ambiguities and elusive features of his written lines, which by turns swagger and genuflect their way into religious terrain. It is perhaps surprising that references to faith, in one way or another, make their appearances in more than half of all his published poetry. These include treatment of all three of the major Christian themes, creation, incarnation and redemption. This has led Prof Brendan Kennelly to declare that "the foundation stone of all Kavanagh's work is concerned with man's dialogue with God".

Through Kavanagh's writing we discover a particular spiritual climate, a knack of presenting material objects as bespeaking God's handiwork and a sense of the transcendent mirrored in the physical realities of our environment. This poetic gift displays features which resemble what the Catholic tradition calls a sacramental attitude.

The sacramental perspective "sees" the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the historical. The Anglican scholar Archbishop Temple has written paradoxically: " One ground for the hope of Christianity lies in the fact that it is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions." This stresses the incarnational grounding of a faith tradition in which the physical, historical reality of Jesus Christ expresses the absolute sign of God in our world, the foundational sacrament of Christianity.

In corresponding vein Kavanagh writes in his poem Sensualist: "Realise the touch kingdom/Do not stray into the abstract temple of love/Is not the body the temple of the Holy Ghost/ And flesh eyes have glimpsed Truth."

Flowing from this reality is the Catholic penchant for establishing material substances as effective signs of transcendent realities. Kavanagh in many of his poems travels in the same sacramental direction.

He wrote: "There is only one Muse; the comic Muse. Great poetry is always comic in the profound sense. Comedy is abundance of life." (Collected Prose.) He emphasises the "comic vision" as being vitally important in writing and in life. This he proposes as a deeply sensed attitude to one's existence, which absolutely forbids taking ourselves too solemnly.

It has to do with the real seriousness which holds that we are made in God's image and no matter what befalls us, we remain intrinsically valuable, beloved by God, who is our beginning and our end. At its deepest level the sense of the comic rebuts those who would leave man all alone in the universe, unloved, unjustified, disconnected and despairing.

Within the armoury of this comic vision are stored for Kavanagh the weapons of insouciance, hope and laughter. It goes without saying that mortal man is prone to failure, right, left and centre; but only "failure of a kind". He/she is ultimately indestructible precisely because of his/her vulnerability - "undefeatable because of the beatable". Personal value endures, come what may. But it is the comic vision alone that offers a centre of gravity outside ourselves which in turn guarantees our personal survival. Kavanagh's writing and his religious tradition are in substantial if wary communion.

I hope he would be pleased to be in such demand for church occasions. I believe he would.

Father Tom Stack is parish priest at Milltown Co Dublin and author of No Earthly Estate: God and Patrick Kavanagh: An Anthology (Columba Press)