Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry is fascinating, universal and enthralling. I think the imagery is powerful and cinematic also. In my opinion there are four poems written by Kavangh which would be essential in a short anthology of his work. They are ‘Inishkeen Road: July Evening’, ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘Advent’ and ‘The Hospital’. These poems show Kavanagh’s development throughout his life and his amazing power of manipulation over the English language.
In these four poems Kavanagh deals with themes such as isolation, artistic frustration, anger, vulnerability, transformation, spirituality, love, disappointment and rebirth, Kavanagh also demonstrates a great understanding of words and imagery in these poems which are vivid and memorable. Patrick Kavangh’s earlier works such as ‘Inishkeen Road: July Evening’, demonstrate the poet’s sense of isolation and frustration. ‘Inishkeen Road’ is a particularly good example of this as it is about the difficult existence of the poet and his desire to attend the country dance in ‘Billy Brennan’s barn’.
I could understand the poet’s feelings here because as a teenager in Ireland today the main goal is to ‘fit in’ with ones peers. ‘I have what every poet hates in spite of solemn talk of contemplation’, I really admire the poet’s honesty here as he expresses his sense of isolation and the feeling that he is different from all the others in Co. Monaghan. The sibilance in the line ‘a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ is wonderfully evocative. I could empathise with Kavanagh here. He felt that he was missing the key to unlocking the meaning of ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’ and the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’.
This is a universal theme as it is something that all young people fear. Kavangh employs a wonderful and effective allusion in the third line of the second stanza, ‘Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight of being king and government and nation’. This is a fantastic image of a man stranded on an island completely alone and demonstrates beautifully how the poet felt at home in Monaghan. I find it truly amazing that Kavangh could create such evocative imagery of dreadful isolation at such an early stage of his career. It is also very moving that he expresses the fact that his exclusion was not voluntary but that he felt compelled to stay away.
He had to stay in his ‘mile of kingdom’ where he was ‘king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’. These final lines of the poem are crushingly, uncomfortable honest and convey his deep sense of frustration and isolation. ‘Inishkeen Road’ is a poem which is poignantly moving and an anthology of Kavanagh’s works would suffer without it. Taken from a purely aesthetic point of view, this poem is fantastic. From the perspective of the universal experience of suffering and loneliness it is astonishing. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of poetry but reading this poem was like listening to a friend in distress.
I was interest in the poet’s ability to discuss difficult personal issues such as heartbreak with such candour in ‘On Raglan Road’. This ballad tells the story of a failed love affair. The tone is one of loss and disappointment. This poem is a great example of pathetic fallacy. The poem is set ‘On Raglan Road on an Autumn day’ which suggests the love is transitory and will not last. The poet’s use of language here is remarkable, especially the use of symbolism to describe the woman he has fallen for, ‘her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue’.
Kavanagh uses her hair as a symbol for a ‘snare’ which is a trap used to catch animals. He sensed danger but ignored it, ‘I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way’. Love, a universal theme, is a wonderful emotion, and the poet captures the magic of love in the description of it as ‘the enchanted way’. However, Kavanagh’s poem moves to the season of winter in the second stanza and pathetic fallacy is apparent again. ‘On Grafton Street in November we tipped lightly along the ledge of a deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge’.
These lines are wonderfully symbolic of the balancing act that is love. The promises of love are worthless, and this is bitterly noted in the powerfully alliterative reference to the ‘worth of passion’s pledge’. These lines are engaging and stimulation. I recognise the frustration and disappointment that lie at the heart of a failing relationship. This is a universal theme which makes Kavanagh’s work accessible and thought provoking. However, it is the final stanza that shows Kavanagh’s raw pain and bitterness towards the woman. This final stanza is reflective and plaintive, ‘On a quiet street where old ghosts meet’.
The relationship is over and he has been left scared by it. ‘Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow’ is a brilliantly vivid image of the humiliation that Kavanagh felt. Indeed along side the beauty of the other stanzas there is an ugly bitterness shown in this last stanza when he describes her as ‘a creature made of clay’. This metaphor suggests that she is petty and is unable of deep feeling. The intensity of the feeling expressed in these lines is remarkable. ‘On Raglan Road’ along with ‘Inishkeen Road’ expresses Kavanagh’s unhappiness as a youth.
These poems are simple yet powerful and incredibly honest. However, Kavanagh’s poetry evolved from dark and bitter to light and joyous after he survived lung cancer. He has a spiritual awakening which is reflected in is later poetry in which he begins to appreciate the habitual and banal things of life. ‘The Hospital’ is a simple yet direct poem in which Kavanagh imbues the poem with a giddy joy and sense of anticipation. He celebrates the ordinary, banal and mundane things. ‘A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward of a chest hospital’.
This is a superb example of juxtaposition; one would never consider putting ‘love’ and a ‘functional ward’ in the same line. Yet Kavanagh really does love the sight of this ordinary ward because there was a chance he would never have seen it. ‘An art lover’s woe’ is reference to his old life when he wanted to be an intellectual and question everything, but he realises that this made him unhappy. He has become an idealist again, ‘nothing whatever is debarred’. He shows his appreciation for the banal with the use of hyperbole in the last line of the first stanza, ‘the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard’.
Kavanagh has deliberately chosen objects that are unpoetic and not aesthetically pleasing so that he can state his new outlook which allows him to find wonder and beauty anywhere. He celebrates the common and ordinary. The sestet opens with a declaration of the poet’s belief in the power of love. ‘This is what love does to things. ’ No matter how seemingly trivial a moment is, he will cherish and appreciate it. The poem is like a series of extremely powerful photographs. Each mundane object is described with such passion that it truly uplifted me when I read it.
This poem, I am unashamed to say, genuinely gave me a new perspective, and made me, albeit momentarily, view the world in a different way. Yet no anthology of Kavanagh’s poems would be complete without the intensely spiritual poem ‘Advent’. In this poem Kavanagh renounces the intellectual world and embraces the ordinary, where, he believes true wonder can be found. ‘And the newness that was in every stale thing when we looked at is as children; the spirit shocking wonder of a black slanting Ulster hill Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking Of an old fool’
The poet expresses his desire to return to the blissful innocence of childhood. The life of adults is difficult and over complicated where nobody notices the beauty that is found in the every day. I have to say that I agree with the poet here. Kavanagh’s marvellous use of language evokes the startling beauty of the world as viewed by a child. In the first stanza the poet’s desire to cleanse his soul through penance is expressed and the first seven lines of the poem take the form of an announcement. The poet states his intention to pursue this discipline of self-denial associated with Advent.
Intellectual and sensual pursuits are rejected. Kavanagh uses the image of fasting to express his belief that self denial will lead to spiritual enlightenment, ‘we have tested and tasted too much, Lover’. I was able to relate to the poet here as I am a Christian who would abstain from certain luxuries during the period of Lent and stick to things such as ‘dry black bread and sugarless tea’. Kavanagh does these things to ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’ and to capture the moments which are full of ‘spirit chocking wonder’. If there is a more owerful, brilliant, inexplicably beautiful line in poetry, I have yet to encounter it, Kavanagh’s poetry is interesting primarily because it deals with fundamental human themes, which makes it as fresh and as compelling now as then the poet first scratched out his thoughts so many years ago. I, as a teenager from the twenty-first century, did not expect to enjoy or relate to poems composed by a man from such a different time and place. These four poems, ‘Inishkeen Road: July Evening’, ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘The Hospital’ and ‘Advent’, would be vital in an anthology entitled ‘The Essential Kavanagh’.