Friday, August 23, 2013

`Laconic Matter-of-Factness'

“The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings.
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity.”

A reader in Minnesota has sent me a copy of No Earthly Estate: The Religious Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (The Columba Press, Dublin, 2002), written by his cousin in Ireland, Father Tom Stack. He describes the book as an “appreciation of [Kavanagh’s] religiously inflected poems.” It opens with a forty-page essay by Stack followed by sixty poems, further commentary and notes. As a reader, I’ve pigeonholed Kavanagh (1904-1967) as a peasant poet, a studied primitive, a Liam O’Flaherty in verse and a butt to Flann O’Brien’s jokes. In his introduction, Stack asserts that 138 of Kavanagh’s 253 published poems “include explicitly religious themes, images or allusions.” The poet, Stack makes clear, is no pious proselytizer: 

“His is not confessional writing. His personal dialogue with God and the sacred entices us to share it with him, precisely because it issues always from his fresh and unusual approach. He clearly communicates a definite and personal version of Christian truths but always re-formed in the poet’s unique expression. It is neither false, forced nor sentimental. It is invariably simple in its depth, devoid of advocacy, always honest, sparing in style and sometimes daring in its laconic matter-of-factness.” 

I see that final quality most as I reread the poems. If Americans know anything about Kavanagh it is probably through his contentious friendship with Flann O’Brien or the song “On Raglan Road” (here performed by Van Morrison and The Chieftains). I sense he gets typecast as a professional Irishman, the sort of sentimental stage “Paddy” mocked with glee by O’Brien. Reading Stack’s essay/anthology does what good revisionist literary criticism and history always do – challenge the lazy assumptions. The passage above is from “The Self-Slaved,” mind-forg'd manacles a restatement of “mind-forg’d manacles.” The poem, against all modern wisdom, poses the self as an impediment to fulfillment, spiritual and otherwise: 

“…a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.” 

I also see on rereading Kavanagh his comic impulse, less savage than O’Brien’s, more celebrative and life-enhancing. In “Prelude” he writes, echoing Joyce: 

“Bring out a book as soon as you can
To let them see you’re a living man,
Whose comic spirit is untamed
Though sadness for a little claimed
The precedence; and tentative
You pulled your punch and wondered if
Old cunning Silence might not be
A better bet than poetry.” 

In a fashion that sounds very Irish to me, Father Stack writes of Kavanagh: “He helps us to see that the grossly human and the grandly sublime are repugnantly and wonderfully mixed within us.”

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