Patrick Kavanagh, ‘From Monaghan to the Grand Canal’, in Collected Pruse (1967) - extract

Source: Mark Storey, ed., Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source Book, London: Routledge 1988, pp.189-97; first printed in Studies (Spring 1959), pp.29-36; rep. from Collected Pruse (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1967) [q.pp]; also in Antoinette Quinn, A Poet’s Country: Selected Prose of Patrick Kavanagh (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2001), pp.272-81. I have silently restored some sentences in her version which are missing from Storey’s [and poss. from Collected Pruse].

I have been thinking of making my grove on the banks of the Grand Canal near Baggot Street Bridge where in recent days I rediscovered my roots. My hegira was to the Grand Canal bank where again I saw the beauty of water and green grass and the magic of light. It was the same emotion as I had known when I stood on a sharp slope in Monaghan, where I imaginatively stand now, looking across to Slieve Gullion and South Armagh. An attractive landscape of small farms and a culture that hadn’t changed in a thousand years. A hundred yards away from me I could observe primitive husbandry where Paddy Nugent was threshing oats with a flail in a barn.
 Yes, indeed.

 But something disturbs my imagination.
 I am thinking of a term which was much in use in the early days of my life in Dublin. He has roots in the soil, they used to say. I was one of those who had an unchallenged right to claim roots in the soil, but I was an exception and the rooted in the soil theory gave birth to a vast amount of bogusry - in Ireland, writers like Michael McLaverty, and in England, H. E. Bates and indeed Thomas Hardy. Could any man be more remote from [189] the simple, elemental folk of Wessex than Hardy?
 Roots in the soil meant that you knew about people living close to nature, struggling for survival on the small farm, and you had a practical knowledge of animal breeding.
 But of course roots in the soil have nothing to do with these things. What are our roots? What is our material?
 Real roots lie in our capacity for love and its abandon. The material itself has no special value; it is what our imagination and our love does to it.
 Lying at the heart of love we wander through its infinities.
 The world that matters is the world that we have created, just as we create our friends. In making friends or a myth the material is sometimes of account. Some people will not stay made as friends; you mould them to your heart’s desire, and when you are absent they change their shape.
 Writers whose gimmick is roots in the soil produce a very violent article. The Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Envy, Anger, Gluttony and Sloth loom large in those novels. But real elementalism is a more tawdry thing, resentful, mean and ungenerous. The majority of men live at a very petty level.

 The society and place out of which I came was not unattractive. No man ever loved that landscape and even some of the people more than I. It was a barbaric society not appreciably different from an old-fashioned Dublin slum. Our manners were the same. But there was the landscape and the sense of continuity with a race that had come down the centuries.
 I loved that country very much in spite of its many defects, and I had no messianic impulse to leave it. Everything that I did as regards acting or doing something was done against my natural feelings. Perhaps it is that basically we realize that all action is vulgar, that only the contemplative matters.
 Watching the potato buds coming up, living the old pattern, what was there of spiritual values that could not be fitted into that context? And yet, having sown a couple of acres of barley in May, I walked off. I felt that I shouldn’t have done it, that I was acting by some untruthful principle that had been created. It is indeed that untruthful principle that besets all of us in most of our activities. We can be taught only what we know. When you try to teach someone something they have not experienced they do not hear.
 I think that coming from the society and background that I have come from was disadvantageous to me in some respects. [190]
 The worst respect was that one accepted as the final word in painting and letters the stuff that was being produced in Dublin. Another disadvantage was that the basic ingredients of the society in which I grew up were football and the smoky, sweaty dance hall. Football is not too bad but as the dance hall is one’s only contact with social life, it was tough on a man of sensibility. It was simply impossible to love a galvanized dance hall and the atmosphere both physical and moral which prevailed there. Literature could not be made out of that material as Carleton made literature out of the many thrilling dances which are to be found in his Traits and Stories. Earlier I did find some imaginative and comic material in dances given to celebrate a wedding. The ear caught many of those delectable idiocies that people produce when in a state of excitement.
 I remember a neighbour giving such a dance explaining that they weren’t going to have any intoxicating drink. ‘Their fill to eat and drink of currant bread and tay, and what more do they want?’ A phrase like that was sure to gain currency in that ironic country where there were many intelligent and amusing people.

 When I came to Dublin the dregs of the old Literary Revival were still stirrable. The Palace Bar was crowded with two or three dozen poets and their admirers. I do not wish now to be satirical about these men. I am speaking about them now as part of my literary pilgrimage. Here the Movement which I thought quite discredited was being talked about. When I came to Dublin, Yeats was dead. Yeats was a poet and he invented many writers. He invented Synge and Lady Gregory and he was largely responsible for F. R. Higgins. As George Moore wrote: ‘The Irish Literary Movement began with Yeats and returned to him.’
 During my early years in Dublin the virtue of being a peasant was much extolled. This peasant derived naturally from the roots in the soil theory. Knowing nothing better, I accepted it and flaunted my peasantry in their somewhat spivvier genealogies.
 Poor Higgins tried hard to play the peasant with bad poems about blackthorn sticks. The ballad was the peasant’s poetic form. I suffered sore at ballad-mongering sessions before I realized that this form of torture was no different from the self-expression of any bore from the golf bore to the architect and cricket bore. Ballad singing is all right for the singer, but will he ever stop and give the others an innings?
 I was the established peasant poet. Far from the poet being a [191] peasant - if there is such an article outside the Russian novel - he is the last word in sophistication. All his life’s activities are towards the final fusion of all crudeness into a pure flame. The keynote of the poetic mind is an extreme subtlety.
 All this stuff about roots in the soil, peasants and balladry was no doubt the degenerate family of the pre-Raphaelites, coupled, by the time I came to know them, with the left-wingery of the International Brigade of the Spanish Civil War. The magazine Ireland Today brought this element in and I cannot deny that I subscribed my quota of ‘working class’ jargon. Somebody recently embarrassed me by reminding me of a poem I had printed in Ireland Today about a servant boy. Oh my goodness! Well, we live and sometimes learn.
 With a small society lacking intensity like this, one needs a coarse formula, if we are to have any body of writing. And that is what we have had for the past fifty years.
 I cannot help saying that as far as I can see and as far as I have experienced, there has never been a tradition of poetry in Ireland. One can feel this lack of belief all the time.
 And now raising my eyes to the horizon I am again looking across the small fields of South Monaghan and South Armagh, and wondering did any of the Irish writers who claimed to bring realism instead of the old sentimentalities ever express the society that lies within my gaze, with the exception of my own small effort in Tarry Flynn?
 I am not suggesting that being true to life in a realist way is the highest function of a writer. As I have pointed out already the highest function is the pure flame from the material.
 The writers who wrote about Ireland in the new ‘truthful’ way proved to be no truer than the popular sentimentalizers such as Kickham and Canon Sheehan; they all seemed off-truth. This is not surprising, for most men who attempt to write about a particular society are deluded as to their qualifications for the job. For example, Mr Peadar O’Donnell has written novels about Donegal. It seems at once his country, but is it? Similarly there is a group who write about Galway and another about Cork and another about Kerry. Yet another school believe that in Dublin with its unique clichés and way of life is a ready-built band wagon on which to ride to literary success. Any critic whether from Dublin or Soho can see that this stuff is just noisy emptiness, completely unfunny.
 It took me many years to work myself free from that formula for [192] literature which laid all the stress on whether it was Irish or not. For twenty years I wrote according to the dispensation of this Irish school. The appraisers of the school all agreed that I had my roots in the soil, was one of the people and that I was an authentic voice. I wrote, for example, a terrible piece about

My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs;
I offered him to the Church, the buyers
Were little men who feared his unusual airs.

One can at once see the embarrassing impertinence and weakness of it, the dissolute character whining. But it was the perfect Irish formula and English publishers loved it. Nothing would satisfy them but to put it first in the book. There has always been a big market in England for the synthetic Irish thing. Even Shaw who was a bogus Irishman had to do a bit of clowning.
 Another villainous maw opened for things Irish-and-proud-of-it is the American literary market. The stuff that gets published as Irish in America is quite awful. One of the great, roaring successes of American publishing a couple of years ago was a novel by Brian Moore about some Irish girl who had a vast number of illegitimate children. In reviewing this book (and books of this kind) none leaned further back in referring to its compassion, its humour and its many other qualities than the Catholic papers. They seem terrified that they will be outdone in the liberal ethic race. A dreary dust of left-wingery, a formula which excludes all creative thought, lies over the vegetation. They feel, I suppose, that literary and thought politics, like all other politics, is the philosophy of the possible. What’s the use in being different if you can’t get your words printed? Still.
 In Ireland one is up against the fact that very few care for or understand the creative spirit. You can come across by being specifically Irish in manner and spirit, but when you attempt to offer them the real thing it’s no go.
 When I started to write what I believe is the real thing there was not much response, except possibly from Stephen Spender who described it as ‘violently beautiful’.
 Previously I had been concerned with Ireland and with my ego, both of which come together often enough. Imagine the dreadfulness of: [193]

It would never be summer always autumn
After a harvest always lost
When Drake was winning seas for England
We sailed in puddles of the past
Pursuing the ghost of Brendan’s mast.

M. J. MacManus, writing about this, described it as wonderful poetry but bad history. If a thing is untrue it cannot be good poetry. When the editors of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse wanted something of mine they worked on me for this poem, and in the end, owing to my need for money, I let the lines in. But how appallingly this poem accepts the myth of Ireland as a spiritual entity.
 Then one day as I was lying on the bank of the Grand Canal near Baggott [sic] Street Bridge having just been very ill in the hot summer of nineteen fifty-five, I commenced my poetic hegira. Without self-pity to look at things.

To look on is enough
In the business of love.

To let experience enter the soul. Not to be self-righteous. To have a point of view which is a man poised with a torch. Whoever wants to light a taper may; the torch-bearer does not mind. The light was a surprise over roofs and around gables, and the canal water was green stilly.

Commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by, head low with many apologies,
The bending light peeps through the eyes of bridges
And here! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O memorial me with no hero-courageous
Tomb but just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

This sonnet was inspired by two seats on the bank of the Canal here ‘Erected to the memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien’. [194]

The main thing is to be free
From self-necessity.

On the road of my hegira I began to reflect with astonishment how poor as technicians the Irish school of poets and novelists have been. Real technique is a spiritual quality, a condition of mind, or an ability to invoke a particular condition of mind. Lack of technique gives us shallowness: Colum’s

O men from the fields
Softly come through
Mary will fold him
In a mantle of blue.

A charming sentiment undoubtedly, but all on the surface. Technique is a method of being sincere. Technique is a method of getting at life. The slippery surface of the cliché - phrase and emotion - causes a light skidding blow.
 I discovered that the important thing above all was to avoid taking oneself sickly seriously. One of the good ways of getting out of this respectability is the judicious use of slang and of outrageous rhyming. Auden in a radio lecture a year or so ago mentioned this and made a special reference to Byron’s Don Juan. The new and outrageous rhymes are not to be confused with the slickeries of Ogden Nash. I draw attention to my rhyming of bridges with courageous.
 Another bad thing about the Irish school was its dreadful sadness and lack of comedy. People who are unsure of themselves cannot afford to break out into uproarious laughter or use a piece of slang. You may find a small number of readers who cotton on to the technique but large numbers of people will look with contempt at you and say what a pity it is that he lacks schooling. This can be depressing.
 To write lively verse or prose, to be involved with Comedy requires enormous physical and mental power. Energy, as Blake remarked is eternal delight’. The more energy is in a poem or prose work the more comic it is. Melville’s Moby Dick is a tremendous comedy, borne along to its end on the wings of its author’s outgiving faith in his characters. Melville loved everything on that ship. And what a great poet in prose he was! We laugh inwardly in our souls with Melville.
 Laughter is the most poetic thing in life, that is the right kind of loving laughter. When, after a lifetime of struggle, we produce [195] the quintessence of ourselves, it will be something gay and young.
 But to be undull is dangerous. Dullness as a cultural asset is most valuable. One remembers that old school friend meeting Johnson after many years and his saying rather sadly that he might have been a great success but ‘cheerfulness kept breaking in’.
 I have my own trouble with humour. A work that is inspired by the comic spirit has much to contend with, for a work that is inspired by the comic spirit has a sense of values, of courage and rectitude - and these qualities are hated immemorially.
 Why they should be hated is not difficult to understand. A ma in offering the small unique thing that is the most the greatest possess, eliminates completely the gassy fiction by which the majority live.
 The notion of being one of the people is part of the general myth of roots in the soil. Analysing the thing now I see or feel that I always had some sort of kink in me. It is this kink which makes a poet, I believe. As Colette observed, it is not what a poet writes that makes him one, but this other thing. ‘Rectitude’, Cocteau calls it.
 To have absolute rectitude in any field is to be an eccentric. You are not in step. Perhaps it is a form of pride and selfishness born of the realization that telling lies is a bore. In high company or low pub this rectitude is a constant quality with a poet. Being fated to live with this terrible tyrant of truth has often driven the possessed to violence, rage and, as in the case of Dylan Thomas, drink.
 I am not sure if this kink of rectitude is on the whole beneficial to the man possessed by it; it makes a poet of him, but is it really necessary? It is this kink which makes people say, ‘why are you so damned difficult? We are anxious to help you.’ And so on.
 A trouble with the poet is that he is not a professional writer in the usual sense. Most of his hours are spent living. He can gulp out all he has to say in a short time. After a lifetime of experience, as Rilke pointed out, we find just a few lines. It is because of the minute quantity of that poetic essence that is in the best men that I do not regret having developed late and very slowly. If you read about English poetry you will find that the poets spent most of their time in taverns - Ben Jonson at the Mermaid, Dryden in Will’s Coffee House. It takes a lot of living to produce a little experience. We remember Tennyson’s remark, quoted by Carlyle, ‘I am the greatest poet since Shakespeare; [196] unfortunately I have nothing to say.’
 The poet is a poet outside his writing as I have often argued. He creates an oral tradition. He does something to people. I am not sure that that something is always good, for it is a disruptive, anarchic mentality which he awakens - and if we pursue him far enough we will be inclined to agree with Plato that the poet is a menace.
 There is however not much danger of his menacing Dublin or, I imagine, Ireland generally.
 Voltaire said that doing a thing was the only reward worth while and Cézanne put that idea into practice when, having painted a picture, he left it behind him in a cottage or perhaps flung it into the bushes.
 It was a long journey for me from my Monaghan with my mind filled with the importance-of-writing-and-thinking-and-feeling-like-an-Irishman to the banks of the Grand Canal in nineteen fifty-five, the year of my hegira.

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