Michael Allen, ‘Provincialism and recent Irish Poetry: The Importance of Patrick Kavanagh’, in Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, ed. Douglas Dunn (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet Press 1975), pp.23-36.


‘[…] Kavanagh’s initial reception in Dublin literary circles was kind enough; but in his view it was essentially patronizing, requiring that he should play the role of the unlettered peasant poet among the literati. He also discovered that the “famed Dublin literary conversation” seemed to him “tiresome drivel between journalists and civil servants”. In fact, what Kavanagh was offered by the genteel establishment when he came to Dublin was exactly what Hardy had been offered by the English establishment - a patronized role as a naïve peasant-pastoral writer. And like Hardy he refused to accept it. By what he said and what he wrote (The Collected Pruse with its anti-genteel title provides ample illustration as does Section IV of the Collected Poems ) he alienated himself from the Dublin literary establishment; and in his alienation he wildly and erratically assumed either that he should have stayed at home or that Dublin lacked the advantages of London (an opinion which could only alienate him further). On the one hand, he repeatedly and mournfully doubted the distinction upon which his migration had been based, wondering if he had missed “the big emotional gesture”, wasted in malignant Dublin what could have been his four glorious years in Monaghan. On the other hand, he would suggest that what he was missing in Dublin were the intellectual life, inquiring minds, adventurous publishers, aristocratic belief in the importance of poets, which were available in London. In the latter mood, while he was exaggerating the cultural advantages of London, he did put his finger on the attraction which a major publishing centre is bound to have for writers, and the way this conditioned an envious hostility in Dublin: there was hardly a book published in Ireland, he said, that hadn’t been rejected by every London publisher; and “the provincial mentality” was “to attack what it secretly worships”. [26]

One can see that two overlapping social situations (one involving the relationship between London and Dublin, the other that between Dublin and Monaghan) prompted that obsessive preoccupation with provincialism which dominates the Collected Pruse. (The occasional interest in Joycean cosmopolitanism there and in Section IV of the Poems is more theoretical since it never corresponded to a real possibility for Kavanagh.) His contradictory feelings on the subject were only fully resolved in the poetry (as we shall see); he resolved them polemically however by concluding that there were only two mentalities informing poetry: that of the provincial, who has “no mind of his own”, and who “does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis … has to say on any subject”; and the “parochial” mentality, that of the writer who “is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish”. This position is based on antagonism to urbane gentility as patently as Hardy’s was when he praised provincialism as “the essence of individuality”, characterized by the “crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done”. Kavanagh too wished to applaud a tendency outside metropolitan or cosmopolitan circles towards “individuality” (“no mind of his own”) and “enthusiasm” (“never in any doubt”). But he assumes that the word “provincial” is beyond reclamation from its pejorative implications; and so he concentrates his attention on the paradoxical purification of the word “parochial” from derogatory nuances. The “parochial” writer for Kavanagh (and Hardy and Faulkner obviously qualify) works with the intimately known rural society and landscape and is successful if these come alive and work in the realized artistic creation: the writer’s “parish” provides authenticity, and a self-dependent myth upon which the writer can build. He must, however, guard against the “bravado which takes pleasure in the notion that the potato patch is the ultimate” with “the right kind of sensitive courage and the right kind of sensitive humility”. We must ask a little later, in the light of Kavanagh’s own achievement, what he meant by this.

Yeats, writing about his own early novel, shows that he had learned from Irish regional fiction the aesthetic principle of “parochial” writing. He saw that it should focus on those who love their native places without perhaps, loving Ireland, exploiting the way that they make their native town into th’eir whole world. While John Sherman does not as a novel add distinction to this formula, Tarry Flynn , Kavanagh’s most sustained major achievement certainly does. But Yeats also acknowledged the strange double-bind of which the Irish writer’s preoccupation with provincialism is symptomatic when he said of such novels that their characters ‘do not travel and are shut off from England by the whole breadth of Ireland’. He could not help being aware of the further dimension with which the Arnoldian “frame” could trouble “parochial” writing. (p.27.)


After [ A Chosen Light], the cosmopolitan point-of-cantage as such disappears from [34] Montague’s poetry. And his next book, The Rough Field (1972) returns to rural Tyrone for its subject matter, reprinting several earlier poems in the search for some kind of new locally-rooted perspective.

How are we to explain this reversal? Kavanagh’s Come Dance with Kitty Stobling was published in 1960, his Collected Poems in 1964. And in 1966 Heaney was widely praised for his first book, Death of a Naturalist about which he said: “I have no need to write a poem to Patrick Kavanagh; I wrote Death of a Naturalist ”. But the possibility of being a “parochial” poet in Kavanagh’s sense was clearly there in Montague’s early poetry too. A selection of his poems appeared in an anthology Six Irish Poets in 1962; and the editor, Robin Skelton, praised in his introduction, the way Irish poetry could still base itself firmly on “natural resources ... the sense of belonging” and thereby gain a “real vitality’”. It was about this time, Montague says, that he began to plan The Rough Field.

Despite the affectionate re-creation of the locale, there is, throughout Montague’s book, a careful, ruefully hesitant poetic voice to be heard conceding, movingly, an alienation, a lack of ultimate direction, summed up in the refrain-line: “for all my circling, a failure to return”. One is reminded of the central preoccupation of Kavanagh’s later poetry, “return in departure”. But Montague is unable to achieve that kind of vitally ironic point-of-vantage, formally vindicated, which distinguishes Kavanagh’s best last poems. And the selfconscious attempt to construct an over-all viewpoint for the book, using historical quotations, woodcuts, and verse-reportage to universalize the poet’s local materials by reference to the “Ulster Crisis” is no substitute.

That it is intended to be a substitute, and to remind us in an underhand way of the poet’s cosmopolitanism is clear from the back cover: “… the New Road I describe runs through Normandy as well as Tyrone. And experience of agitations in Paris and Berkeley taught me that the violence of disputing factions is more than a local phenomenon.” One is reminded of Kavanagh’s primary stipulation for the “parochial” writer: that he should never show “any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish”. The importance of this stipulation, his definition implies, is that any concession to genteel cosmopolitanism in the context of such writing would devitalize the poetry. This would be my complaint about The Rough Field. Whether from the nature of his gifts or because of an accident of timing, Montague has not shown himself so far to be capable of following and profiting from Kavanagh’s achievement. Heaney, on the other hand, has never shown any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish.

In Heaney’s earlier poems the imaginative implications of the local society and terrain, viewed often with a childhood intensity, are [36] presented with subtlety and vigour, and with no hint of selfconscious humility. It is probably this essential confidence in the utility oof the re-created internally consistent region of his poems that he was admitting to have inherited from Kavanagh. But this is possibly not the whole of his debt. In his second and third books he too begins to embody in key poems a crucial relationship between poetic development and the motif of the journey away from roots. In “Bogland”, “The Wool Trade”, “Westering” and “The Tollund Man” he shows himself to have learned how to work with specific ironic vantage-points which may seem to illuminate, but are in fact illuminated by the “parochial” materials.

We are probably now in a position to see what Kavanagh meant by his injunction that the parochial writer should guard against the bravado that takes the potato patch for the ultimate with “the right kind of sensitive courage and the right kind of sensitive humility”. He did not mean that the writer should avoid technical influence from literary mainstreams; Auden is as important to the making of Kavanagh’s own later rhythms as Roethke and Hughes have been to the growth of Heaney’s poetic idiom. What he was advocating (for a particular kind of writer) was the delicate adjustment of social and poetic strategies to the changing pressures of the poet’s own most authentic experience. The aim was to remain free of the sapping and enervating currents of establishmentarian uniformity (which in Ireland still tended to keep alive the nineteenth-century tradition of genteel cosmopolitanism and its subordinate convention of nAve peasant pastoralism). Kavanagh was an innovator in Ireland as much by what he stood for as by what he wrote: the wastefulness, the false directions, the personal over-assertiveness which sometimes characterize his poetic career, also provide pointers to directions in which his successors need not move because he did. Heaney’s writing to some extent emerges from the same ambiguous concern with provincialism that we find in Kavanagh and Montague. But because of Kavanagh. he could begin from a position of strength. In his work the personal and intellectual underpinnings are entirely hidden, leaving us to respond to the way the local materials emerge into the constantly developing, fluid yet certain poetic point of view.


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