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The mystical imagination of Patrick Kavanagh

30 November, 1999

Una Agnew SSL looks at how Kavanagh, one of Ireland’s greatest 20th century poets, was able to uncover “the radiances of life”, though many of those who knew him as gruff and uncouth would have found that hard to believe.

Patrick Kavanagh was once invited to attend the launch of a cosmetic product in a top class Dublin hotel. The official representatives of the organisation addressed the assembled VIPs. They promoted their product eloquently, each competing with the next in ascending superlatives. A banquet had been prepared, the product displayed and a gala evening was in progress. Wine flowed in abundance. But Patrick Kavanagh’s poetic soul was by now outraged. He jumped up, awkwardly knocking over a glass of red wine and, to the embarrassment of all, shouted in a loud voice: ‘This is a load of ballyhoo,’ adding, ‘and there are honest men at this moment, footing turf up the bogs of Monaghan. You can keep your banquet; and as for your product, I know what you can do with it…’ He stalked out of the hotel to the acute embarrassment of the organisers and the VIPs.

Bad behaviour
It was incidents such as this, (and there are many of them), that gave the poet Patrick Kavanagh a bad name. People love to recount stories of his misdemeanours. They glory in his disdain for civilities and his ability to upset the status quo. In many ways he obscured the real agenda of his life. Yet he had a profound belief in poetry as ‘a mystical thing and a dangerous thing.’ Most of what concerned polite society was, in Kavanagh’s eyes, ‘ballyhoo’ or a ruder, earthier version of same!

The reason why the poet Patrick Kavanagh has been underestimated by the literary critics may lie in the fact that people were distracted by his external behaviour and then failed to confront the mystical dimension of his literary contribution. Nothing in Kavanagh’s person would reassure one of his mystical propensities. He cursed, used bad language, talked to himself, spat, drank too much, and, especially ifhe had an audience, offended the accepted laws of gentility.

But Patrick Kavanagh was making a statement in his public persona for those who over-value acceptable norms of civility. He had little regard for ‘high moral ground,’ suave talk or polished social behaviour. There was nothing polished about Kavanagh: his shoes were tied with binder twine and his toes were visible through the soles of his shoes, his coat was dirty and his hat, characteristically worn ‘on the Kildare side’ was battered and shapeless, a sodden, greasy reminder of too many winters and too many downpours.

Celebrating nature’s mysteries
Yet Kavanagh’s poetry exudes some exquisite instances of delicate lyrical beauty as well as some finely tuned cadences. Frequently, his ‘trucks of language overflow’ and ‘magic / At every turn of the living road is spilled.’ He gathers ‘bits of road’ that under his poetic hazel rod became ‘eternal lanes of joy.’ He celebrates the mystery of trees, dandelions, daisies, and even rejoices in ‘the weeds that grew / somewhere especially for you.’ Kavanagh deals in a magic that is fact mystical. When his work is subjected to academic scrutiny afforded by the ancient template provided by Evelyn Underhill, a distinct mystical movement emerges. This movement is the mystical path of Awakening, Purification, Illumination and Transformation. Once one acknowledges Kavanagh’s mystical agenda, the enterprise of evaluating his contribution changes.

The poet’s spiritual awakening occurs among the drumlin hills of Inniskeen and within sight of his mystical mountain, Slieve Gullion in south Armagh. Following in the footsteps of William Carleton, the Clogher writer, he observed closely the life of small-time farmers in south Monaghan. He is absorbed by local characters and the whole business of farming and related domestic chores. He critically assesses the influence of the local church of his time and observes in detail the roles played by the parish priest and curates and their influence on the lives of the people around him. He is otten humorously aware of the unchristian nature oflives ostensibly given over to meticulous religious observance. He has a keen sense for what is true and what is phoney and delights in exposing the latter. Struggling to escape from the fog of ignorance and mass-mindedness derived from unreflected religion, he seeks to distil an essence of faith and use it as a yardstick for his life. He succeeded in fashioning his own theology and in living it.

Territory of human spirit
Self-educated in his early adulthood, partly from school books and partly from literary writers introduced to him by ‘AE'(George Russell), he chose the literary models that best suited his temperament. Among them were Tennyson, Mangan, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Eliot and James Joyce. Kavanagh was genius enough to see from an early stage in his career what his heroes Melville, Eliot and Joyce were about in the field of literary enterprise. While ostensibly exploring the sea (Melville), the waste-land (Eliot) and the familiar streets of a city (Joyce), he knew they were ultimately exploring the territory of the human spirit. Kavanagh was dedicated to his landscape of clay which he explored thoroughly in The Great Hunger, in his novel Tarry Flynn and in his Shancoduff/ Inniskeen Lyrics. More than most, Kavanagh understood the awakening of the human spirit and his own growth in self-consciousness. Later in his life, he became more fully awakened to the real landscape of the human heart, the inland territory of the human soul. He called this inner land, ‘the placeless heaven that under all our noses’ (Auditors In).

Purified again and again by poverty, by his struggle for self-education, by the gigantic task of learning the trade of poetry in an environment which was frankly unsympathetic to the requirements of Parnassus, he embarked on a lonely poetic journey. He was intent on achieving his goal, without jeopardising the unyielding and sometimes awkward integrity of his immortal soul. Kavanagh sought to carve an identity for himself as a rural poet: the genuine article! He had no models. In the early tWentieth century, the Irish language was fast disappearing in this poetic territory of east Ulster. The era of Art McCooey and Peadar Ó Doirnin and Seamus Dall MacCuarta, his poetic predecessors, was over. Kavanagh, born of the soil with a love of words and a poetic turn of phrase, had to carve his own poetic diction, a diction suited to the subjects he chose. He did this in a manner aptly described by Seamus Heaney as ‘single-handed’ and ‘out of a literary nowhere.’

Worse still and relatively unappreciated till now, was the fact that he had to grow up with an impaired genealogy. His grandfather was absent since the birth of his son, James Kavanagh, who though given an approximation of his father’s name was deprived of his real identity. Patrick did not therefore know fully who he was. For the first time the lost facts about his paternal lineage have been made available. Instead of being a Kavanagh, he was descended from the historic Hymany tribe – the MacGeibheannaighs or Kevanys of Easkey, Co. Sligo. Because of the circumstances of his father’s birth, Patrick Kevany had been summarily banished from the Inniskeen area. He never returned. The school was closed as a result of the ‘scandal’ and the story told only in whispers and out of earshot of the Kavanagh family.

Shadows and light
Shame and guilt had separated the incorrectly named Kavanagh family from their rightful ancestry. Kavanagh suffered secretly from the loss of his lineage. His black hills had indeed never ‘seen the sun rising.’ What’s more, a ‘black-slanted Ulster hill’ is ever-present on his horizon. A distinctly minor tragic note permeates his most humorous writing while a sombreness of outlook overshadows his most radiant moments.

Despite all this Kavanagh was mystically illumined and frequently gives voice to moments of pure epiphany. Such instances occur ‘when the new moon hung by its little finger’ from the telegraph wires.’ In such a kairos moment, he ‘knew how God had happened.’ Kavanagh found in the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, a powerful metaphor for the poetic fire that sustained him. The Holy Ghost could take ‘the bedlam of the little hills’ and weave them into a song, a simple song.. .and he saw the Holy Spirit on the hills.’ Kavanagh had begun early in life by learning to trust the dance of the Holy Spirit in April, on the hills, fields and in the hedgerows of south Monaghan. Later he knew he had met his God there: ‘This was my God who made the stones and streams in April’. Salvation was present wherever he was present: ‘Something will be mine wherever I am’ was his mature conviction. He became capable of finding his God in unlikely places: ‘This was my God who wandered the unconscious streets of Dublin.’ Struggling against the oppressive religious mores of his times he found that, claustrophobic though his environment might be, the ‘little window’ of his cramped life ‘let in the stars.’

Kavanagh’s skill at uncovering the radiances of life is one of his greatest strengths. He finds the first ray of the Incarnate God ‘when Christ comes with a January flower’ and senses the completion of his life in ‘October’ when, sensing his harvest of poems near completion, he no longer needs ‘to puzzle out Eternity.’ The whole earth is his prayer now and all of it bathed in autumnal light and splendour. Latterly, he is at peace with his life and feels called to ‘praise, praise, praise / The way it happened and the way it was.’ There must be something of a saint in a man who was dealt a raw deal in life and yet can thank God for it all.

Beauty and messiness of life
Kavanagh was above all an inveterate subscriber to the Christian mystery of Incarnation. He really believed that Christ took on the human condition, not just its respectable bits, but all of it. He found God’s footprint in the lowliest places of earth. His own dishevelled appearance was a statement and a challenge. ‘In the sow’s rooting, where the hen scratches/ we dipped our finger in the pockets of God.’ The secret of Kavanagh’s spirituality was his total surrender to life in all its beauty and messiness. ‘We must be nothing’ he says, ‘that God may make us something…’ For years Kavanagh felt he was nothing and yet somehow he managed to embrace his life, assured in the belief that God can, in fact, make something grow out of ‘the dead clod of failure.’ Kavanagh’s God ‘does not take failure for an answer’ but grows out of seeming worthlessness ‘something to wear as a buttonhole in heaven’! His lifelong devotion to Eden gave him undying faith in the resurrection… and in the resurrection of the body at that!

This article first appeared in Spirituality (March-April, 1999), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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