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Posts Tagged ‘patrick kavanagh’

Thank You Thank You 1211120 PS2

In the spring of 1985 I visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time. Four months earlier, my mother had died at the age of 82. Having lost my second parent, I was feeling vulnerable, perhaps more so than I realized. And Ireland itself was none too stable, being in the midst of a fierce sectarian conflict. Known to the Irish as the Troubles, that conflict was centered mostly in the North, in the cities of Belfast and Derry, but its presence could be felt in Monaghan, the rural border county where I had come to live and write.

I had applied and been accepted for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center (aka Annaghmakerrig), a workplace for artists and writers near the village of Newbliss. By way of preparation, I had read multiple histories of Ireland and immersed myself in Irish literature, particularly modern Irish poetry. Among the poets I became familiar with, none engaged my sympathies more than the “ploughman poet” Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who grew up on a farm near the village of Inniskeen (pronounced INNISH-keen), which is also in Co. Monaghan. Even before I had laid eyes on the low green drumlins and the furze-bordered tillage fields of the Monaghan landscape, I had experienced those features through Kavanagh’s verse and prose. As the bus from Dublin rolled through the countryside on its way into Monaghan town, what I saw through the window largely confirmed what I’d already imagined.

“My black hills have never seen the sun rising,” wrote Kavanagh, whose vision of his native ground is unfailingly vivid but deeply ambivalent. His early poems project a countryman’s intimacy with the “flocks of green potato stalks,” the “lime and copper smell / Of the spraying barrels,” and other physical objects in a subsistence farmer’s world. But they also project a loathing of the “stony grey soil of Monaghan,” which, he came to believe, had “clogged the feet of [his] boyhood” and “burgled the bank of [his] youth.”

That enduring inner conflict, which permeates his poems from first to last, undergirds his early sonnet “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” where he observes the bicycles going by “in twos and threes,” their riders headed for a dance in “Billy Brennan’s barn.” He notes the “half-talk code of mysteries” and the “wink-and-elbow language of delight,” but he also notes the unsettling quietude of Inniskeen Road and the absence of even “a footfall tapping secrecies of stone.”

The mood of loneliness conjured by those observations reaches its peak in the sonnet’s closing stanza:

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Likening himself to the marooned Scottish privateer whose plight inspired Robinson Crusoe, Kavanagh expresses both his sense of mastery over his surroundings and his acute sense of alienation. Both are suggested by the phrase “every blooming thing,” which conveys both its literal meaning and overtones of dismissal and disdain.

The place name Inniskeen means “peaceful island.” Having felt the power of Kavanagh’s sonnet, I was eager to visit that tiny village (population 370), where the poet and his wife are buried. So one afternoon, an artist friend and I drove over to the village and found our way to the local cemetery. There we came upon Patrick Kavanagh’s final resting place: a gravesite covered with rough slate stepping stones, at the head of which stood a plain wooden cross. A plaque bearing four of Kavanagh’s lines was fastened to the cross:

 And pray for him

Who walked apart

On the hills

Loving life’s miracles

Affecting as this memorial was, its impact was superseded by what we discovered, moments later, on a nearby wall. Twelve lines from one of Kavanagh’s poems, in the poet’s own handwriting, had been reproduced in a holograph and mounted on the wall:

We are not alone in our loneliness,

Others have been here and known

Griefs we thought our special own

Problems that we could not solve

Lovers that we could not have

Pleasures that we missed by inches . . .

I thank you and I say how proud

That I have been by fate allowed

To stand here having the joyful chance

To claim my inheritance

For most have died before

The opening of that holy door.

These lines are excerpted from Kavanagh’s poem “Thank You, Thank You,” which was published in the spring of 1963, four years before the poet’s death.

By all accounts, Patrick Kavanagh was not a good farmer. As one of his neighbors told me, he “paid no heed to his fields,” being too busy reading books. At the age of thirty-five Kavanagh left Monaghan for the literary lights of Dublin, where he became both a famous, influential poet and a notorious controversialist. In his last decade, however, having barely survived a life-threatening bout with lung cancer, he experienced a spiritual rebirth, adopting an attitude he called “not-caring.” That profound change of heart infuses his late poems with a tone of humility and, as the Kavanagh scholar Sr. Una Agnew has pointed out, with a pervasive mood of gratitude.

“Curious this,” wrote the poet in his Self-Portrait, “how I started off with the right simplicity . . . and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man and came back to where I started.” Coming back to that “right simplicity,” he also found his way back to one of the simplest but most powerful phrases in the English language. Little wonder that his lines, encountered on a sunny afternoon some thirty-five years ago, have found a home in my memory and indeed in my daily awareness.

______

Patrick Kavanagh, The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (Goldsmith, 1972), 349, 390.

Una Agnew SSL, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh (Columba, 1998), 239-240. “Blessing in a Christian context returns all reality to God in delight and mutual appreciation. It has taken Kavanagh a lifetime to achieve this sense of blessing. Gratitude is the mood which now characterizes his work . . .” (Agnew, 240).

Photo: Courtesy of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Special thanks to Rosaleen Kearney for her kind assistance.

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During the last few days of October, when Hurricane Sandy was threatening Western New York, state and local officials advised us as to the important documents we should take with us in the event of an evacuation: deeds, home-insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, and the like. In preparation, we should assemble those documents and place them in a waterproof envelope.

Sound advice, to be sure. But as I read that official list, I thought of a less than official item I would add to it: the file of documents I have kept for years under my father’s well-worn Bible. Contained in that file are notes, letters, and cards from friends and family, including letters from my deceased mother; birthday cards from my wife; holiday cards from my daughter-in-law; and a variety of notes from my son, some of them dating from his early childhood. Unlike the policies and passports, those documents are irreplaceable. And all were written by hand, which makes them all the more valuable.

That value, I might point out, is more than sentimental. It is historical and spiritual. The novelist Philip Hensher, author of The Missing Ink (Macmillan, 2012), has argued, with ample corroboration, that “we are at a moment when handwriting seems to be about to vanish from our lives,”* having been supplanted by the printed—and now the digital—word. If Hensher is right, we would do well to cherish whatever handwritten documents remain extant, irrespective of their author or content.  But even if we believe that handwriting, having survived for 5000 years, will always be with us, the act of writing by hand is worthy of renewed attention, if not of veneration. For in the handwritten word, it might be said, the authentic human self is concretely embodied. And the handwritten note or letter, however rough or polished, affords a depth of intimacy between writer and reader that print can only approximate. Little wonder that the world’s great spiritual traditions, Zen included, have accorded the handwritten word—or character—a place of honor, whether the handwritten text be the Torah, the Quran, the Heart Sutra, or the Book of Kells. (more…)

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One April morning, twenty-five years ago, I found myself speaking with an elderly Irish farmer in his newly ploughed field. At the time I was living in County Monaghan, a rural midland county on the border with Northern Ireland. Prior to coming to Ireland, I had been reading the poems of Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who grew up on a farm in Monaghan and felt confined by the “black hills” of his native landscape. At the age of thirty-four Kavanagh left the family farm for Dublin and went on to become the most influential Irish poet of his time. The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has acknowledged his debt to Kavanagh’s work.

“I knew Paddy,” the farmer told me, leaning on his spade. “His father was a shoemaker. His mother couldn’t read or write. His fields were up there, over that hill. Paddy kept his books in his fence—in between the stones. I’d see him reading there for hours at a time. He was not a good farmer, not good at all. He paid no heed to his fields.” As if to clinch the point, he drove his spade forcefully into the soil. (more…)

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