Saturday, December 05, 2015

`Record Love's Mystery without Claptrap'

“I suppose the wise man lives as if he is on day-release from death, seeing `all sorts of beautiful things’ wherever he might be. But man is made for wisdom as dormice are for coal-mining. Kavanagh was an alcoholic who quarrelled with almost everyone, and my best resolutions are those that are soonest broken.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised that Theodore Dalrymple is an appreciative reader of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967).  He resists overstating Kavanagh’s virtues as a poet but notes some of his charms. Though seldom entirely successful, his poems are studded with bits of rough-hewn wit. Kavanagh is human the way Dr. Johnson and Arthur Koestler (to cite other writers Dalrymple admires) are human – difficult, deeply flawed, contradictory. We’re all sinners together. Kavanagh breaks down history (not “History”) into its constituent parts; that is, the lives of individual men and women, the only category that finally counts. His longest and best-known poem,“The Great Hunger,” is the story of one man, Paddy Maguire, who, Kavanagh writes, “can neither be damned nor glorified: / The graveyard in which he will lie will be just a deep-drilled potato-field / Where the seeds get no chance to come through / To the fun of the sun.” And here is “Epic” (The Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh, 1964), in which all history is revealed as local history:

“I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting `Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
`Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.”

Kavanagh skirts bathos but pulls it off: “the Munich bother,” “A local row.” I heard in this the Irish gift for witty subversion, bringing the mighty low and laughing at their diminishment. Dalrymple quotes from Kavanagh’s “The Hospital,” though not its moving final lines:

“Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”

And this, the final lines of “To Hell with Commonsense”:

“And I have a feeling
That through the hole in reason’s ceiling
We can fly to knowledge
Without ever going to college.”

As Kavanagh did not. Born in County Monaghan in the north of Ireland, his father was a farmer and shoemaker. He left school at the age of thirteen. In Self Portrait, a brief prose memoir published by the Dolmen Press in 1964, Kavanagh writes:

“My childhood experience was the usual barbaric life of the Irish country poor. I have never seen poverty properly analysed. Poverty is a mental condition. You hear of men and women who have chosen poverty, but you cannot choose poverty. Poverty has nothing to do with eating your fill today; it is anxiety about what’s going to happen next week. The cliché poverty that you get in the working-class novel or play is a formula.”

Kavanagh was a contrary soul, and not always immune to the lures of sentimentality, self-dramatization and self-pity. His sometime friend Flann O’Brien ribbed him about these romantic tendencies. Kavanagh writes in Self Portrait“I fear that the mood I have been evoking may give the impression that what happened to me is important and that I am important. Nobody is important. Nobody is major. We get to our destiny in the end. I am not in the least bitter over all this. In fact I am always in danger of bursting out laughing.”

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