Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?

000651cf-1500I’ve never ranked Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry very highly, ‘The Great Hunger’ aside. If I had to generate a fancy reason for why, rather than the simplistic sounding, ‘I don’t like this,’ it would be my consciousness of his biography, as I find him far more engaging as a representative of his era, than as a poet.

If you’ve never read Pat Walsh’s book Patrick Kavanagh and the Leader, for example, do, it gives a thorough account of future Taoiseach John A. Costello’s intensive cross-examination of the poet when he sued the Dublin publication, The Leader, for libelling him. The courtroom drama is begging to be adapted from the page after page of snappy, witty dialogue, with the poet and future Taoiseach arguing over where the irony in a particular line in Shelley resides. Yes, really, they debate this at length. Kavanagh gives as good as he gets I think, and it’s no wonder there were queues outside the courts for the days and days that the trial ran on for.

Notions of Ireland’s cultural stagnancy in the forties and fifties are being rolled back at this point, but there is something bleak that persists about Kavanagh’s generation, himself and Flann O’Brien sitting in Dublin pubs rife with backbiters and destined for varying shades of obscurity and penury.

The RTÉ documentary below complicates the picture we have of Kavanagh quite a bit, giving a detailed account of the years he spent in London, enmeshed in its cultural and artistic scene, which all seems quite a bit more vital and indeed, enjoyable for Kavanagh than his years spent in Dublin. There is a suggestion in the documentary that there are those who prefer Kavanagh in his current state, as a peasant, Dublin-canal poet, but whatever side you fall on interpretively, I think the consciousness of Kavanagh as more metropolitan than most people are aware, can only ameliorate, rather than diminish his reputation.

Listen also for Flann O’Brien’s advice for what to do if an author you’ve never read comes up in conversation.


7 responses to “Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?

  1. Like you, I have an ambivalent attitude (to say the least) towards PK. He could write, and the best of his poems are fine minor works, but the combination of the pinched little world he writes out of and the excessive status he has in the mainstream of Irish poetry since.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, I was wondering what your own view on him might be when I was drafting this. ‘Pinched’ is the word, and it is farcical how large he looms in the Irish curriculum. There are so many Irish poets, living and dead, who exceed him, imaginatively, formally, etc.


      • Compare, for instance, his Lough Derg with Denis Devlin’s poem of the same name. Why is Devlin almost entirely neglected while PK is treated as some kind of major figure?


  2. If I had to say, it would be Devlin’s “difficulty” versus Kavanagh. And perhaps some canonical, more public poets giving Kavanagh a seal of approval, which I am mystified by.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s it. But Devlin is not a difficult poet; he just refuses to ignore the complexity of the world, to reduce experience to a single dimension.

      And the canonical (Heaney for instance) poets are not so much giving PK their seal of approval as retrospectively calling on him to give legitimacy to their simple pieties.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hah, yeah, I didn’t want to name Heaney there but you’re right, on both counts; it’s so often the case that that which is categorised as obscure or difficult has just taken the task of grappling with experience with an awareness of its protean-ness, trying to open things up rather than only encapsulate them. You wouldn’t say Devlin was of the latter school.

        Liked by 1 person

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