Tuesday, August 02, 2011

`I Am No Judge of Poetry'

“…I have searched every shelf and combed every catalogue in quest of some of this Mr. Kavanagh’s work. I have skimmed through `The Utility of the Horse’, by Paul Kavanaugh; `What to do with your Pulsocaura’, by Pietro Kavana; `Yoga and Rheumatism’, by Pay Ka Vanna; `I Was Stalin’s Chamber Maid’, by Pamela Kay Vanagh, and a score of others by authors whose names approximate to that of the man whom I set out to vindicate. At the end of six hours’ research I was forced to give up.”

So writes Lir O’Connor of La Casita, Sallynoggin, Ireland, aka Brian O’Nolan, Brian Ó Nualláin, Flann O'Brien, Oscar Love, D.C. Barry, Paul Desmond, Miss (alas) Luna O’Connor, W.R. Lambkin, Whit Cassidy and Myles na gCopaleen, inter alia, in a letter to the Irish Times dated July 30,1940 (and now reposted by the newspaper). O’Brien is responding to “Spraying the Potatoes,” a poem by Patrick Kavanagh published in the same paper three days earlier. O’Brien was twenty-eight, a graduate of University College Dublin. He had published At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939 and completed a second novel, The Third Policeman, which went unpublished until a year after his death on April Fool’s Day 1966.

Already a serial pseudonymist, O’Brien was indulging the Irish taste for savagely learned play. Using various names, he and friends had been stirring the Dublin pot with parodic epistles to newspapers and magazines, and Kavanagh’s poem must have seemed an irresistible target. Technically and thematically, it’s a folksy, unwieldy contrivance of tetrameter spilling into pentameter, and first-person into third-. A rare handsome phrase, “The axle-roll / of a rut-locked cart,” is followed by the unreadable-without-laughing “We talked and our talk was a theme of kings, / A theme for strings.” At this distance even the title, “Spraying the Potatoes,” is funny.

Anthony Cronin glosses the affair in his biography of O’Brien, No Laughing Matter (1989). In another mock-serious letter, “F. O’Brien” understands Kavanagh’s poem to be about the role of chemistry in modern agriculture. O’Brien writes:

“I am no judge of poetry – the only poem I ever wrote was produced when I was body and soul in the gilded harness of Dame Laudanum – but I think Mr Kavanagh is on the right track here. Perhaps the Irish Times, timeless champion of our peasantry, will oblige us with a series in this strain covering such rural complexities as inflamed goat-udders, warble-pocked shorthorn, contagious abortion, non-ovoid oviducts and nervous disorders among the gentlemen who pay the rent.”

To his credit, Kavanagh either didn’t get the joke or did and was big enough to forgive O’Brien. They became friends of a sort, drinking companions, but something more lastingly important came of the shenanigans. The editor of the Irish Times, the wonderfully named R.M. Smyllie, invited O’Nolan/O’Brien to contribute a column to his newspaper. Thus was born Myles na gCopaleen’s “Cruiskeen Lawn,” first published Oct. 4, 1940. Volumes of selections from the column are titled The Best of Myles, The Hair of the Dogma, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn and Flann O'Brien at War: Myles na gCopaleen 1940-1945. One of Myles’ recurring features is the “Catechism of Cliché:

“What does it behove us to proclaim?

Our faith.

In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?


From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?

From the house-tops.

At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?

Now, more than ever.

What action must be taken in relation to our energies?

They must be directed.

In what unique manner?


In what direction?

Towards the solution of the pressing post-war problems which the armistice will bring.

How will the armistice bring these problems?

In its train.

By what is the train hauled?

A 2-4-2 compound job with poppet valves and Pacific-style steam chest.”


Anonymous said...

"Savagely learned play" -- nice description. I guess that might even cover the Keats and Chapman jokes, er, stories, which are among my favorites of his newspaper work.

zmkc said...

I wonder if 'savagely learned play' encompasses Elberry's wish to send you by catapult a 12-year-old German girl who is annoying him.