Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Irish Tradition’, in Collected Pruse (1967) - extract

Source: rep. in Mark Storey, ed., Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source Book, London: Routledge 1988, pp.197-200 [pag. as infra]. Orig. publ. as ‘A Goat Tethered outside the Bailey’, in The Bell (Sept. 1953), pp.27-33; rep. in Antoinette Quinn, A Poet's Country: Selected Prose of Patrick Kavanagh (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003), pp.238-42. (Some additions made from the later source.)

For a man in Ireland to have the label 'poet’ attached to him is little short of a calamity. Society, when it has established a man as a poet, has him cornered within narrow limits. If he looks like having too much scope in his little corner he will be still further narrowed by having an adjective in front of 'poet’ - such as Country poet, Catholic poet and so on. He becomes a sort of exhibit, not a man in and of the world. If he happens to be a dilettante without a passionate faith he will enjoy this position, but if he is a genuine poet it is an indignity and something much worse. Therefore, I announce here and now that I am speaking as a journalist. I have resigned from being a poet and I hope that my resignation will be accepted.
 In so far as the poet is thought of in Ireland, the idea is that he is either an uproarious, drunken clown, an inspired idiot, a silly school-girl type, or just plain dull. He is in no way to be taken seriously.
 The Irish ideal of a literary genius - weak, charming and a challenge to nobody - is in the image of that celebrated synthetic tramp, Padraig Ó Conaire, with his goat tethered outside the Bailey Restaurant. I find it hard to pass from this image without saying that Ó Conaire, choosing the disreputable life, is the direct opposite of my idea of the poetic genius. The poet does not seek [197] misfortune; the poet does not pursue experience - experience pursues him. The poet does not go searching for beauty or intensity; these things happen to him. But that is a long story.
 The logical collateral of these ideas regarding the poet is that poets are quite common in Ireland. They are never mentioned except in batches of a dozen or more. Fourteen hundred are reputed to have been present at the famous Assembly at Drumceat, and not so long ago, in one of the Irish papers, I saw a list of modern Gaelic geniuses, which for a moment deceived me into thinking it was the list of chief mourners at the funeral of some noted patriot or industrialist.
 It was a patriotic gesture, for patriotism does include belief in the importance of literature. For those of us who believe that the poetic spirit is of some value, this patriotic enthusiasm is a bad thing, for it sets up as admirable, from motives that are not pure, something that cannot possibly be the authentic thing. The authentic thing, if it happened to appear, would be crushed.
 Even allowing for unfavourable circumstances, it is remarkable that in a thousand years Ireland has not produced a major poet or, indeed, a good minor poet. There was no audience for the poet’s high dignity. I will return to this theme later but, in the meantime let us consider what a real poet is.
 The poetic view of life is a view based on a true sense of values and those values must be of their nature what are called unworldly. Furthermore, a man may be a poet in prose as well as in verse, or in merely talking to the people. To narrow the poetic spirit down to its expression in verse is equivalent to narrowing religion down to something that happens on Sundays.
 A good idea of the nature of the poet is to be found in E. V. Rieu’s introduction to his translation of the Four Gospels. He remarks of St. Luke: 'St Luke was a poet. I do not mean by this that he embroidered his narratives, but rather that he knew how to distil truth from fact.’ Rieu goes on to refer to Luke’s 'poetic insight into reality’ and to his realization of the part played by Woman in the revelation of the Divine Idea.
 That is the poetic mind.
 If I happened to meet a poet - and I have met poets - I would expect him to reveal his powers of insight and imagination even if he talked of poultry farming, ground rents or any other commonplace subject. Above all, I would expect to be excited and have my horizons of faith and hope widened by his ideas on the only subject that is of any real importance - Man-in-this-World-and-why. [198]
 He would reveal to me the gay, imaginative God who made the grass and the trees and the flowers, a God not terribly to be feared.
 It is a curious and ironical fact that for a man to show himself at all seriously concerned with the one thing that matters is to have himself looked upon as somewhat eccentric - unless, of course, he keeps that seriousness in an air-tight compartment. Society generally is suspicious of the imaginative sense of values because, as Professor Whitehead pointed out [in his Adventure of Ideas], of the anarchic nature of the speculative mind. Yet it cannot afford to be openly barbarous, and so you have the worship of false gods of the imagination - people who believe in what they call Art, art of the film, art of the ballet. But one must not allow oneself to be inhibited by too precise definition.
 Roughly, two classes of people abhor the imaginative sense of values. There is the sound businessman whose solid worth finds expression in the trivialities of the newspaper, and there is the literary mediocrity who must deny the existence of Parnassus if his little dust-heap of biographies and novels are to mean anything.
 The sound man of the world never reflects. Not to reflect is what is considered sanity. Yet, without this reflective centre man is a savage and will not be long in revealing his savagery if you touch the hollow beneath the conventional dress of respectability. And that touching or stripping of the hollow heart is what the poet willy-nilly does, and is the thing which makes him hated by the world. In every poet there is something of Christ writing the sins of the people in the dust.
 As I have said, one of the Irish ideas of the poet is of the uproarious clown. I have hardly ever heard an Irish admirer of Gaelic or of any poetry speaking of the poet that he didn’t give the impression that he thought it all a great joke.
 Another idea of the poet is of a man who at the drop of a hatpin would run off with another man’s wife. In the Gaelic mythology it is the priest’s housekeeper who gets abducted, and this gives rise to terrible heresy which rocks Christendom. Now, I do not say that some geniune poets have not lived the wild life, have not run off with the other men’s wives, but I do say that it is entirely contrary to the poetic nature. It is a bourgeois concept of rebelliousness.
 The note of the poetic mind is a moral one, and it is this moral quality which the world cannot stand, for it is a constant reproach [199] to inferior men - and inferior men, let me explain, are men who are committed to inferior things, who lack the courage to pronounce a judgement in defiance of their own petty vanity. The world loves the wild, uproarious fellow who is made in its own image and will (when it comes to the test) take him to its bosom and confer upon him all the wordly privileges. Display a touch of this kind of irresponsibility and you’re home and dried. The world knows it is not genuine.
 To some extent this view of the poet is mediocrity fighting back, trying to establish a corner in commonsense. As I suggested, it is not confined to Ireland.
 Chesteron met it and in his fascinating book, Orthodoxy, replied to the notion that there is some relationship between genius and insanity. Chesterton said: “The facts of history utterly contradict this view; most of the great poets have been not only sane but extremely businesslike, and if Shakespeare ever held horses it was because he was much the safest man to hold them.”
 Perhaps it may he said that I have been labouring this Irish idea of the poet too hard, that there does exist in this country a public which accepts all I have to say, a public which has goodwill and a sincere, moral point of view. The fact that I believe there is such a public is the reason I am saying these things; for we can only preach to [the] converted. In other words, the poet is himself no more than the voice of the people. It is the pressure of a people’s need for a voice which is his power.
 After all these high claims for the poet you might be pardoned for expecting him to utter high and stupendous truths. But that is not the way of truth. Truth is very disappointing; we expect it to come transfigured and are inclined to ignore it when it comes simple and humble.

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