Pages of Phil Rogers MRCVS
Patrick Kavanagh (K) was born on a small farm in Inniskeen, on the borders of Monaghan, Armagh and Louth on October 21, 1904. He died after years of cancer and alcoholism in a Dublin Nursing Home on November 30, 1967. Now he is recognised as one of our major poets. The publishers and literati of the day were slow to publish his poems; many pieces were published one at a time, and many were rejected, often justifiably. He had to publish much of his work himself, or with the help of his brother, Peter. Though many of his poems were published posthumously, the quality and breadth of his work makes some of today's "experts" look pale indeed.
Ireland is a small country but she but has more poets per square mile than most. New poets, especially if we are amateur (part-time), have difficulty in finding publishers for our magna opera. Failure to be published is not always because the work is poor but because poetry, even by established poets, usually is published at a financial loss. The in-clique, poets on the inside track, often act as referees for publishers and as critics on radio, TV and newspapers. They have a major say on who will or will not be promulgated. But many of the in-clique would not be published unless they set up their own publishing house, or were it not for a back-door vanity-press. They fear being toppled off their rickety stools, a fact well known to K. We need not fear that, until we have a stool.
Unheard poets take heart! We will be heard someday. If K could make it, against heavy odds, we can too. "The trouble is that there are so few who would know a poem from a hole in the ground" (K's Self Portrait). Roused thoughts thrash about in frantic spasms of new verse and antique. Mind-seed spurts in a love-hate foam, seeps weakly into cold bog loam, to die, utterly forlorn of hope of ever being reborn from that barren ground. (R/LOST DWARF)
Comrades, let us write of noise and silence. Let us stick at it, find our own distinctive voices and be wary of changing our styles on the suggestion of "experts". Let us celebrate life and death, love and hate, joy and loneliness, courage and fear, beauty and ugliness, vitality and dreariness, importance and triviality, success and failure, the mundane and the divine. Let us write our own truths and embrace the pain that must follow.
K said: "...A poet has to have an audience, half a dozen or so". If the publishers remain aloof, we and a few friends, if no one else, will know that we wrote our guts out. Let that be enough. It's all there's going to be for most of us. Elsewhere, he said "To be a poet in Ireland and not have several books of poetry published is to be a soldier without a gun" (SACRED KEEPER 327). So what? We have a surfeit of guns and spilt blood in this land. Spade-handles, stones, slates, bricks, blocks, dust-bin lids, the weapons of the dispossessed, abound. But their use has changed little either. Let our weapons be words. Let them be our wands for change, where change is needed and for the conservation of all the humanity and generosity of Irish culture that is worth keeping intact.
Since graduation from the Veterinary College in 1964, I have been a full-time research worker in the Agricultural Institute, now TEAGASC. Confining my reading mainly to technical topics, largely excluding literature, I let my interest in "science" override my development as a full human being for 19 years after that.
In 1973, a group of "eccentric" friends who practice holistic medicine (acupuncture, homeopathy, hypnosis, detection of food allergy etc) introduced me to some "unscientific" but fascinating concepts, including oriental philosophy, divination and telepathic healing. I began to read more widely, returning to philosophy, psychology and the novel.
I hated poetry at school. I could not remember the lines. The classical poets and pieces chosen for study switched me off. As a result, I had not read poetry since my school days. That changed in 1983, when Kevin Kennelly informed me that my education needed serious revision. He lent me his collection of Brendan's works. I was shocked by their scope and imagery and realised that modern poetry could be a powerful means of communication.
As time was precious, I took the advice of my more artistic friends as to which poets to read initially. I skimmed Clarke, Deane, Durkin, Heaney, Kinsella and Whitman, and took a few canters through academic anthologies.
It was inevitable that I should attempt to write "poetry". As I had used scientific methods for more than 20 years, my style reflected my experience of writing technical articles. Science tries to document, quantify and use natural truths. It tries to simplify and correlate our sense of natural phenomena. Effective scientific writing is descriptive and direct. It tries to leave nothing to the reader's imagination.
I wrote a few pieces between 1983 and early 1985. In late 1985, I went to Japan and Taiwan. On my way back I visited Australia for the wedding of my brother Val and Jo Bray. The Muse shacked up with me in Sydney and, since then, she comes and goes more frequently.
Patrick Kavanagh (K) meant nothing to me until a friend became involved in the Committee to bring his papers back to Ireland. She introduced me to K's work. I bought THE COMPLETE POEMS after Christmas '87 and was dismayed to see how many concepts in my own verses, of which I had written more than 250 in the previous 4 years, had been covered by him 20-60 years before. He was dead, his work published. I was unknown, with just a few pieces in print and a pile of rejection slips to show for my work.
One piece, which I wrote in summer 1987 (PRIEST), is uncannily similar to K's CHRISTMAS CAROL 1941. Both poems questioned the reality of the Nativity for human behaviour and the profound implications for humanity if the story of the First Christmas was a lie. He wrote the poem during the War, when there was no sign of peace on the eastern horizon. He stole my best work before I was born (January 1942): I see the North star/ and the North Star sees me,/ but who sees the Star of Peace/ in the East cloudy?/ I see the donkey plod/ through the deep snow/ but where can the Mother of God/ in this storm go?/ I see the Three Wise Kings,/ they've lost their way,/ wandering around in rings/ day after day (CP79)
... Doubts/ flap in the cave of my skull./ What if the Magi went astray/ or dallied with Magdalene's dam/ or the Star was lost in haze/ or the donkey lame?/... Are we but children/ who need a bedtime story/ to mask the hell and heaven/ of nature's savagery and glory? (R/PRIEST)
Because of similarities between my work and his, I felt that I would be accused of plagiarism when my pieces shall have been published. The words and formats differed but many of my ideas were the same as his. (This might have been expected, as we both came from a rural background and moved to the urban/cosmopolitan).
I was annoyed with K at first, as his portrayal of Irish life and mentality was so different from my impressions of it. I decided to look more closely into his mind. I did not know him and had never met him. My way to try to understand him was mainly through his poetry (THE COMPLETE POEMS) and novels (THE GREEN FOOL; TARRY FLYNN). The exercise convinced me that K was a top class, if unorthodox poet.
After I had completed the first drafts, a friend lent me books on K's work by Garratt (1976), Kennelly (1973), Nemo (1979), O'Brien (1975), O'Loughlin (1985) and Warner (1973, 1981). Later, she lent me Peter Kavanagh's biographies of his brother: LAPPED FURROWS (1969), SACRED KEEPER (1979), PATRICK KAVANAGH: MAN AND POET (1987). These sources, apart from K's own works, Peter's compilation of letters and documents of the time and his commentaries reveal the power and the impotence of K's poetic genius.
After the first few drafts, I became interested in K's religious outlooks and in his ambivalence to paganism and Christianity. The role of the Irish-Roman Catholic Church (I-RCC) in Irish society was central to K's outlooks. Tom Inglis's MORAL MONOPOLY (1987) was most enlightening in that respect.
K's heroic human strengths and weaknesses can be divined from his own works but no commentator reveals them as forcefully as his brother, Peter, in LAPPED FURROWS, SACRED KEEPER and PATRICK KAVANAGH: MAN AND POET. These are open, honest records of K, the man. In places, they appear to make him a saint, the supreme responsibility of one whose main adopted role in life is to be his brother's keeper especially his Sacred Keeper. A critical reading of the same source material suggests conclusions, which differ in some respects from Peter's as to the quality of the poet and the man.
This is a personal commentary. One might call it impressions of the artist by a scientist of sorts. I am no scholar of literature and this does not pretend to be an academic work on Patrick Kavanagh. As stated above, I did not know K, the poet or the man and my personal memories of Irish life do not begin until after 1946 or so. Therefore, when I state that K was dour, chauvinistic, thirsty for drink and hungry for the company of young women etc, I do not know these statements to be true. Similarly, when I comment on Irish life pre-1946, it is through the eyes of others.
Therefore, my comments on K and his worlds are the sum of my impressions of his work. I support my impressions by citing from K's work and from books and articles written about him. I also comment on my worlds and cite some of my own verse, mainly unpublished, which relates to the themes under discussion.
References and page numbers are shown as (CP5), where 5 is the page number in the COMPLETE POEMS. References from his novel the GREEN FOOL are coded (GF). LAPPED FURROWS, MORAL MONOPOLY, SACRED KEEPER and PATRICK KAVANAGH: MAN AND POET are coded (LF), (MM), (SK) and (PK) respectively. Examples referenced as (R/TITLE), or (OTMH) (Off the Top of My Head), or which no have no reference, are my own.
K wanted to find his own truths. Mysticism, Man's dialogue with God, Man-in-the-world-and-why (SK266;Kennelly 1983) was the foundation stone of his work: At the foot of a Cross is the Utterness/ of humanity/ every atom of clay,/ every worn stone/ becomes your wish for beauty/ the world cannot own... (SK8). The insignificant, mysterious things of life and death are the source of all poetry (Kennelly 1983).
K was a beggar but rich in spirituality, a dour loner and a black comedian. He was said to have been a plagiarist (Garratt) but he was also a creative genius. He meditated constantly on the place of humanity in nature and on the conflict and similarities between the pagan and Christian ways. He was a visionary/mystic, a Catholic/pagan. The paradoxical riddles in K's life and work, his dualism (love/hate, joy/despair) and his undoubted consciousness of these suggest leanings towards the spirit of Zen Buddhism. He wrote poetry primarily for himself. He advised Peter: "I am writing to convince you of the importance of your point of view. Don't be corrupted by a public in your mind. Enjoy yourself and your observing" (LF141, 142). But, as happens to most prolific poets sooner or later, K wanted to reach a wide audience, to be accepted. In this, he failed in his lifetime, as much of his work was unknown, or was known only to the discriminating few. (Many of the established poets and literati rejected him):... "Soul", I prayed,/ "I have hawked you through the world/ of Church and State and meanest trade./... No more haggling with the world... "/ As I said these words he grew/ wings upon his back. Now I may ride him/ every land my imagination knew (CP151)
Thus, he came full circle, finally writing for himself again. Ironically, he gained popularity when he stopped trying to. Now he has many followers in Cavan/Monaghan and in other counties close to the border. Older people in those areas remember the hard times between 1929-1959. Even today, there is some hardship there. The weather and temperament of those areas have changed little. But K also has followers in urban areas, especially those with slums and high unemployment. The urban poor can identify in some ways with the rural poor. His ballad, RAGLAN ROAD, is sung today in urban and rural pubs.
Two factors raise K to literary sainthood. He might have rejected the title ("... surely you can/ see that I am an ordinary man" (CP259)) but he would have liked the gesture. These factors were:
(1) honesty and ability to criticise and laugh at himself and his ambivalent nature: he was the Green Fool; he admitted to an alter ego that was proud and dishonest (CP124)
(2) recognition that poetry, at its best, is a futile mental/spiritual self-gratification:... A poor child's Hail Mary/ is worth all the poems of all the poets (CP219)
... What good is Poetry..., electricity... a new child? (LF194)
On another level, poetry is a stimulating but lonely act of creation and recognition of human joy and need. There is usually nobody else around at the time with whom to share the orgasm: And in my dark, I pulse to Her the call:/ My Lady, come! I need Your witch's wand,/ Your breasts, Your lips, Your harlot's hand (R/MUSE AND THE VIRGIN POET). Even if the seed finds a womb, the new creation is born to the light of day and lives a while in the arms of its parent, it often dies the cruel death of starvation, simply for lack of vital feedback.
When she in dream to you is manifest/ be quiet. Do not speak. She comes but once/ and words do break her hold... (CP54)
No matter how beautiful the magnum opus is to its creator, the domestic life of a poet can have its ups and downs:... There's lots to do at home besides your traipsing off to dump your silly verse on hairy malcontents in dingy upper rooms of city-centre pubs, to ego-trip, sound off resounding nothings, flog your hobbyhorse again. I've piles of washing to be dried and two laid up with 'flu, children's spellings to be checked, the hoover stuffed with wool and I am overdue...
Every honest poet whose work is published wants to be read:... the friend/ of the spirit of the poet/... must now buy poems- or poets (CP219)
K's popularity has increased enormously since Peter, published the COMPLETE POEMS after Patrick's death. Many of his poems had not been published until then. Peter also tracked down and assembled the collection of K's papers, which are now in University College Dublin. Patrick's international recognition as a great poet has grown in recent years, due mainly to Peter's dogged work.
K's influence on those that have read or heard his work must have been powerful. His thirst to find and proclaim his truth and his unique portrayal of Irish life altered the one-sided approach of writers who concentrated on the pleasant, romantic aspects of reality and ignored the brutal, harsh aspects. Like Jesus (in the world but not of it), K was in the herd but not of it. The realism of modern Irish writing must be attributed in large measure to the stubborn Northern courage of this lonely maverick. His range of themes are massive lodes of bared ore, to be mined for gold, silver, arsenic and lead by our younger heads.
One of my regrets is that I did not discover K's diggings much earlier, one of my satisfactions is that I did not. His picking into many of the seams, which excite me, might have restrained my efforts to mine them for myself.
You were indeed a rare one,
a quare one, a crafty blackguard,
a plotting thief,
you stole from me the best of themes
before I was conceived.
I dowsed the hidden Irish streams for years
but I was 45 before I drank the gift
of your clean spring,
a heady crystal poitin
as potent as the third still run.
The first slug made me drunk
the next smashed me out for days
and now I'm hooked.
O self-watchful poet,
who lauded effort spent on poems,
you knew their vanity,
yet you scrawled enfevered-
had to- in pain, anger, fear,
love, despair and, most of all,
in helpless prayer but little outward laughter.
You could not flee the maternal pavlovian
conditioning of Catholic childhood and youth.
Adroitly scalpelling the wank of power by some,
you bandaged-up the frail humanity of others: peasants,
wise priests and gombeenmen, politicians, writers, women,
especially young temple worshippers
who dreamed in lust at the unsheathing, cut and thrust
of the priest-poet's pen. Is that to be my lot?
Ireland changes daily but some things not.
And bad bastards will say I stole from you
the best I wrote.
I must make tracks to bed.
Science is my jealous mistress;
she needs care and wooing too.
She kept me well away from you
until now, until now. But no more.