Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Poetry in Ireland To-Day’, in The Bell (April 1948), pp.36-43.

'Seán O’Faoláin suggested, and several other superficial critics supported him, that I was only interested in flat reality; that I had dung in my mouth, that I only understood the small farm. For everything outside that I had no understanding or love.
 Nothing could be farther from the truth. What I seek and love when I find is the whiskey of the imagination, not the bread and butter of "reality." This is the thing I seek in writing and this is the thing I most dreadfully miss in the verse that is being written in this country these days. The poems being written are like perfectly laid-out [37] corpses on a slab. They are perfectly shaped and perfectly dead. There is nothing you can say to the dead or about the dead. Life is everything. Life is what we love. The spark of life justifies the most indifferent body, makes it beautiful.
 One of the qualities I most admired about Yeats was his contempt for death however perfectly designed it might be. His anthology`of Modern Verse is not an authoritative anthology for schools but hardly a poem in it isn’t alive with imagination. It is a poet’s anthology.
 Is the standard of writing, particularly in verse low in this country?
 Was there ever a time when the standard was higher?
 What writing during the past ten years has had the spark of life in it? Let us seek out that which is alive and encourage it rather than engage in futile talk about the corpses.
 My answer to the first question is implied in what I have already said. Death has neither a high nor low standard.
 Was there ever a time when the spark of life was more vivid? There was, and the reason for this greater vitality can almost be summed up in one name, Yeats. One poem written each year can redeem a whole school writers from death. During the lifetime of Yeats that living poem appeared again and again; and as it flashed the dead bodies stirred with desire. I do not think that Yeats had a great deal of the stuff that endured in his verse, but he had creative magic which thrills the contemporary world. We are all good enough in the flesh, but spiritually we decay and die. We are all looking - those us who are conscious of life - for that rare thing, which vitalises the spirit. Where it comes from no man knows. Under its stimulus exciting lays, novels and poems appear. In its absence we all sit around in the dim room of mediocrity. I do not want to overbalance in praise of one man, there were other influences: Nationalism, and the faith thereof.
 Under the influence of Yeats and the nationalistic [37] impulse writers such as Seamus O’Kelly who under different conditions would not be much above the standard of Ireland’s Own and The Messenger became important. The impulse writers impulse writers such as Seamus O’Kelly who under different conditions would not be much above the standard of Ireland’s Own and The Messenger became important. The playwrights who are writing for the Abbey to-day are in fact little above the quality of these two journals.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shaw Taylor and Hugh Lane
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well set and excellent company.

 In a modern Irish anthology I find a verse writer adopting the Yeats manner and attitude - which is much worse than imitation of his literary style.

Among the living men one man is proving.
No one translated Rahilly only he. .

 One reads this with some sympathy for the writer. The impersonal dignity of Yeats and the familiarity of the other. Indeed, the imitators of Yeats are to be pitied rather than censured, as are all who walk the barren fields where the master reaped.
 My theme here, therefore, is that nearly all the literary activity which gave this country a name was due in some measure to Yeats. What is weak now is faith in the validity of literature.
 However, let me consider what verse written during the past ten years has had the spark of life. There have been published at least three anthologies and several sub-anthologies and a number of books by individuals have appeared, so that one has easy access to the material. My object would be to put together a small anthology of living pieces by living (physically) writers which might serve as a warm nesting place for something larger to come. But before attempting this it might be a good thing to [38] throw my eye over the literary scene as it appears to me. The republic of Irish letters which under Yeats had achieved some sort of unity - a clearly defined polarity of bad and good - has now split up into roughly three sections.
 There is the section which has its headquarters in London - O’Casey, McNeice, Day Lewis, Rodgers, Stephens, etc. - which has discarded the idea of nationalism as a basis. On the home front we have O’Connor, O’Faolain, the editor of The Bell and its writers trying to cater for the few adult readers; the third section is mainly under the protective brown robe of Father Senan O.F.M.Cap., whose Capuchin annual and its subsidiary The Irish Bookman cater for beginners, nationalistic sentimentalists, the popular-successful, and particularly for writers from the North. Dog doesn’t eat dog, yet one must remark that the quality of the writing in these two magazines is extremely poor. If one wants to look at death here is the place to find it, though I may add that the Irish Times book-page poem with the best of intentions scarcely rises above the quality of what appears in the two-mentioned magazines.
 Few things have been doing more harm to the cause of poetry than the ease with which mediocre verse can get printed and paid for. Having said so much I may now consider my own little anthology. Frank O’Connor’s re-creations from the Gaelic would make a good start. His version of the Midnight Court has vitality, and there are many vivid things:

[.] a strip of old mat and a bundle of straw
In a dirty old hut without a seat
And slime that slashes about your feet,
A carpet of weeds from floor to wall
And the hens inscribing their tracks on all.
The rafters in with a broken back
And the brown rain slashing through every crack.

 O’Connor has sharply visualised the subject and we are aware of the Place and Theme rather than the style, which [39] by its purpose is redeemed from being mere doggerel.
 The Bell anthology had a couple of things in it that were alive, even if a little precious. There was a poem by Rodgers about a house when the guests have departed, which I have unfortunately mislaid. This poem had the exciting fire in it. When, however, I began to look closer at this kind of excitement I could analyse it. It is fundamentally a verbal excitement. Rodgers has the trick but he has very little to say. A poet can make language an end in itself as some people make sex an end in itself. A little of this decadent point of view has a stimulating effect on on literature just as it has in real life. To be completely free from decadence is to be completely dead; but an ideal, a purpose, must be knocking around somewhere if the end is not to be utter dissolution, the empty hysteria of Finnegans Wake.
 Still, Rodgers is a genuinely alive poet as a recent poem of his in the New Statesman shows:

Late, late. But lift now the different fiddle and fill
The dancing bed with light and the bud room with thunder
Till the floors fall in and walls laugh under
The envious knockings of the neighbours, and over
  the sill
The daffodil day looks in.

 The magic in this, I realise, is technical, but it gets there just the same. A synthetic but intoxicating whiskey.
 There was a poem in The Bell anthology by Valentin Iremonger which gave promise of a talent which time has not fulfilled. I remember reading it in The Bell when it first appeared.

Somebody when I was young stole my toy horse,
The charm of my morning romps, my man’s delight.
For two days I grieved, holding my sorrow like
Between the bars of my sullen angry mind [40]
With my toy horse, urgent in the battle
Against the enemies of his Unreason’s land:
He was so happy, I gave him also
My vivid coloured crayons and my big glass

 There was a charming innocence of originality in this. Unfortunately this writer afterwards went to the dictionary out of which he manufactured literary verses. He also wrote "war poems" though he had no knowledge of war. But that was fashionable.
 Donagh MacDonagh has the humility of a man who knows. In style he is influenced by Yeats a good deal. His recently published book Hungry Grass is too literary, but there are a number of good things in it, especially adaptations of ballads.

 Going to Mass last Sunday my true love passed me by
I knew her mind was altered by the rolling of her eye;
And when I stood in God’s dark light my tongue could
   word no prayer
Knowing my saint had fled and left her reliquary.

 This poem appeared in the Irish Times book page, which MacDonagh edited; and this brings me to the Irish Times’ contribution to poetic patronage. With the exception of a few pieces by Yeats, Higgins and one or two others the Irish Times anthology is as dead as the authorised biography of Bonar Law -if there were such a biography. Wooden from beginning to end. Something with a vague touch of life is in a couple of poems by Geoffrey Taylor and there are poems by Peter Wells which have an interesting cadence quality. In Lament For Victory this poet writes:

Since all is fallen, now not even the flowers shall perish,
But the tired women shall come out on to the snow
  with crosses.

 Up in the North they are determined to produce a native culture or "lose a fall". There are Roy MacFadden and [ 41] John Hewitt, a group of whose poems appeared in a recent number of this journal, and which are as good a sample of his quality as anything. He has the material for the fire, the logs are piles high enough and solid but the light is missing [ftn.]. Perfect descriptions of nature are to be found here excellent verse which reminds one of Robert Frost.
 The worst and the best that can be said about them is that they are competent. But they tell us nothing about God. When Wordsworth or any genuine poet is ostensibly writing about - say - a daffodil, his real message is a a transcendent one. I saw a play by Mauriac at Lord Longford’s Gate Theatre. On the face it seemed to be about the love affairs of a few young people, but was in fact about God. Of Roy MacFadden’s verse much the same thing can be said: he had everything but the spark.
 That is about all there need be said about the present sad state of verse writing here. For a number of years the best poetry has been written in prose. I remember those early short stories of O’Flaherty’s - A lone star following the moon through the windy clouds and a ploughman leading his horse home. O’Faolain in A Midsummer Night’s Madness and O’Connor in his stories and O’Donnell, in Islanders and Daniel Corkery in much of his prose are all far truer poets than the majority of those who write in verse. Writing in verse is a cheap way of getting, oneself accepted as a poetic mind; when, as has so often happened, the verse writer is as dub, poetically, as a deal board.
 For poetry is not so much in words as in the attitude. It is a twist in the mind which can be recognised in any medium. The condition of Irish poetry is depressing just now. There is too much adulation for the well laid-out corpses on the slabs. Too many people are hugging death and getting angry at those of us who call upon them to come out into the living day. These are the optimists who create in me the most awful pessimism.
 Having written all this another question arises in my mind - the question as to whether it will be necessary to our native identity to carry on an artificial "Celtic Mode" or "Note" - now that the Gaelic language is dead. To carry on such an artificial language would be to be false if it did not arise naturally from life. It is not, as I have said before, language that denotes a man’s spiritual identity. Charles Lever with his Micky Frees and his "begorras" is much less an Irishman than T. C. Murray, whose Maurice Harte speaks cultured English. And I know numbers of people who have learned Gaelic and who are enthusiastic for that language who are strangers to everything we call the Spirit of Ireland.


1. Having read the last group of John Hewitt’s poems in The Bell I have changed my mind: he has the right blaze. [p.42.]

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