I have mixed feelings about Patrick Kavanagh.
He wrote some of the first poems I fell in love with – guided by my incredible English teacher the novelist Eamon McGrath, who knew Kavanagh. The Patrick Kavanagh Award named after him has long been Ireland’s top poetry prize and played an important role in encouraging my own writing. Unlike most competitions, it’s for a whole manuscript, rather than for single poem, and so assesses your competence to write consistently impressive, cohesive and original poetry collections. I came second in 2002 (judged by Vona Groarke) and then won it with an entirely different manuscript in 2005 (judged by Paula Meehan). This helped me immensely in terms of my profile and my confidence in my own writing. Thanks Paddy!
I love how he arose as a spontaneous outgrowth of farm-muck & bog, like a magic mushroom. His story proves, as has often been proved before, that poets are born not made, that you can’t become a poet. You either are one or you aren’t one and the question for the born poet is whether or not they can live up to the eloquent but demanding gift nature has provided.
It proves that all the posh schooling & phding in the world means absolutely nothing to the muse, who much prefers cowshit & dandelions and wipes her arse with PHD certificates.
No-one can deny the beauty of Kavanagh’s post-war sonnets & short lyrics, despite their underlying message that the poet should turn their face away from the human world & seek ecstatic communion with the Christian God (pantheistically filtered). That poets should say absolutely nothing about what is going on in the real, ungodly, here-now of our communal existence.
The unfortunate, undeniable fact is that Kavanagh was writing his mystical catholic poetry and strongly associated with the Institutional church at the time when it was running a concentration camp system in which thousands of women and children were being enslaved, abused, raped, murdered.
At just the time when anti-clericalism was needed – and provided by Kavanagh’s far braver peers Patrick Galvin and Liam O Flaherty – Holy Paddy Kavanagh was writing poems which Christian Brothers could comfortably teach inbetween the gang pedorape sessions common in such institutions at the time. That is very sad, in my view.
Like all canonical artists, Kavanagh has had numerous poor imitators since, & the political quietism plus jesuit mysticism formula of his late work has been a convenient model for subsequent generations of irish state-sponsored poets, (those shadow-clergy), to follow.
Kavanagh’s Holy Paddy/Patricia imitators in subsequent generations of Irish poetry, who were legion until recently but are now dying off or gone officially senile, are as likely to be Buddhist Holy Paddys & Patricias as Catholic ones – that’s fashion for you. In half-a-century they’ve written lots of poetry books, and hardly one memorable line of poetry between them.
Of course, we wouldn’t judge an act by the failure of its tribute bands to live up to it. So let’s not do that to Kavanagh either.
Kavanagh’s best work lies in the long, politically-charged, formally innovative poems done in the 30s, before alcohol & creeping old age turned him into a shivering dependant upon the likes of Archbishop Mcdaid, who sometimes paid for Kavanagh’s firewood, sausages, & stout & (see above) got what the clergy wanted from irish poetry in return.
Lough Derg, his greatest poem, is socialist & anti-clerical & far from the quietism that came after. Formally it anticipates the American beat poets, & is closer in shape & sentiment to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl than any other work I know of from the 1930s anywhere in english language poetry.
Kavanagh had the courage to write Lough Derg, but not to publish it. Under pressure from his cunningly conservative brother Peter, the poem was suppressed, & did not see light of day until 1971, in a small edition, and has not been reissued since, to my knowledge, & it is not available on the internet.
I have often said that post-1945 Anglo Irish & Hiberno English poetry is at least as remarkable for what it doesnt mention as for what it does. It is a tradition of intellectual & spiritual cowardice in many respects.
Kavanagh’s own career is a stark example of this – poems which, during the TB epidemic caused by unequal health care access, advised us to love the underfunded hospital & reconcile ourselves to the repressive humdrum of 1950s Ireland.
And I have had Kavanagh’s reactionary ‘Epic’ quoted at me by three seperate Aosdana poets over the years as part of advising me to quit being political in my poetry.
Kavanagh went from being in the 1930s the most radical & formally innovative english language poet we have ever had, to producing admittedly brilliant, (but, more pertinently – enchanting, alluring, codding) Bord Failte poetry in the 1950s. Drink & reliance on Bishops & Bureacrats will do that to you.
His legacy has not been good for official 26 county page poetry, which has long been a depoliticised zone occupied by a shadow-clergy operating a kind of pyramid scheme of grants, awards, appointments etc, sponsored by the state.
And latterly the entirely predictable emergence of a new wave of commodified, career-oriented slick productions from within the spoken word movement, jointly sponsored nowadays by slyly appropriating corporations and the braindead state – that is something to do with Kavanagh’s legacy too & what he taught the powerful about the usefulness of quietist poetry to the manipulators of culture under the oppressive, degrading conditions of capitalism.
So let’s celebrate Kavanagh for sure – he is a high water mark for hiberno-english poetry located outside of Dublin 4 – but let’s not imitate him & suppress the most radical things we have to say in return for a quiet life!