by Patrick Kavanagh
336pp, Allen Lane, £25
On the one hand, there is the first sentence of Patrick Kavanagh's "Author's Note" to the old 1964 Collected Poems: "I have never been much regarded by the English critics," a sentence he could fairly repeat if he were still alive. On the other, there is Paul Durcan who speaks for the Irish crowd when he declares that he doesn't "read" Patrick Kavanagh, he "believes" in him. This new Collected, edited and introduced by Antoinette Quinn, Kavanagh's biographer and best advocate, should help not only the English critics but the whole English-speaking crowd to read Kavanagh with new regard and maybe even to start believing in him.
Last year his centenary was celebrated in Ireland as if it were a national feast. Readings, concerts, television programmes, colloquia and confabulations of all sorts (not to mention the issue of a stamp) showed how thoroughly his work has entered "the second life of art". Eugenio Montale considered this second life the necessary end of the process, the culmination of "art's obscure pilgrimage through conscience and memory" into everyday circulation, and many of Kavanagh's poems have made that journey. Dark or radiant, fierce or fond, his best work added a unique strength and shine to post-Yeatsian Irish poetry. It had a transformative effect on the general culture and liberated the gifts of the poetic generations who came after him.
Kavanagh belongs all over the place, high and low, far and wide. A song like "On Raglan Road" is performed with equal relish by pop stars and traditional balladeers; the early lyrics about life in his native County Monaghan are favourites with students doing their Leaving Certificate examinations and with editors of anthologies; and his later "comic" poems where he endeavours "to play a true note on a slack string" look back to the "come all ye" ballads of his country background, while sounding all the while like an early warning of subversions to come from the school of New York and the beats of San Francisco - and also, of course, from his believer Durcan.
Kavanagh is a truly representative modern figure in that his subversiveness was turned upon himself: dissatisfaction, both spiritual and artistic, is what inspired his growth. The purity of inspiration in his early Monaghan lyrics is unquestionable and unfading, but when the success of these poems led to his being co-opted into what he might have called "the roots-in-the-soil racket" and being typecast as the peasant poet, Kavanagh rebelled.
First, he wrote his anti-pastoral masterpiece, The Great Hunger, a poem that throws up language as dark-webbed and cold-breathed as the clay the potato-digger kicks up in its opening lines; then he went on to tear into the literary establishment of Dublin in the 1940s, "the dregs of the old Literary Revival", lambasting the likes of FR Higgins and even turning on supporters such as Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain; and then, finally, in the 50s, he returned to lyric poetry and wrote sonnets about the recovery of health and the recovery of inspiration, but this time in urban Dublin rather than rural Monaghan. Suddenly, in the aftermath of an operation for lung cancer, the poet overwhelmed the negative circumstances with an effulgent subjectivity, writing "with over flowing speech", rediscovering the "unworn world" - unworn in that it had been neglected because of satire, his "unfruitful prayer", and unworn out because it was still there in all its abundance.
From the beginning, there was a conflict in Kavanagh between what Quinn calls his gift for love and his gift for satire, between his need to "snatch out of time the passionate transitory" and the need simply to lash out. He was forever seesawing between anger and equipoise, the anger brought on by the sight of artists of less talent and in his view less integrity flourishing while he suffered poverty and unfair neglect, the equipoise achieved in the writing of poems and prose works where, as he says, "a free moment appears brand new and spacious/Where I may live beyond the reach of desire."
For Kavanagh, the poetic quest involved the effort to re-enter this spacious, brand-new moment, the effort to win back into a state of radical innocence or veteran detachment. When he came to speak of his achievement in later days, he made it sound like an intermittently successful quest for paradise regained. What he loves most to dwell upon in his appreciations of other authors, and what readers love most to dwell with in his own writings, are those passages where the soul finds a repose in some kind of eternal present.
Such passages, it must be said, occur in Kavanagh's prose as well, in his novel Tarry Flynn, for example, in a description of an activity as banal as the dragging of a grass-choked drain. But from his earliest success in the sonnet "Inniskeen Road, July Evening", with its luminous, laddish notice of "every blooming thing", on through work of the 50s such as "Innocence" and "On Reading a Book of Common Wild Flowers", right down to the spontaneous opulence of the Canal Bank sonnets, the poems are where he finds and keeps a marvellous balance between his resolute down-to-earthness and his equally undeniable impulse to transcendence. Early and late, there is angelic strangeness in the language ("The axle noise of a rut-locked cart / Broke the burnt stick of noon in two") and in the revenant vision of things as familiar as the fields of his own farm:
But now I am back in her briary arms;
The dew of an Indian Summer morning lies
On the bleached potato stalks -
What age am I?
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
WB Yeats once said movingly that he had no house but friendship, but when Kavanagh looked back on his life, he could equally well have said that he had no house but poetry. In the building of it, however, he helped to remove whatever cultural cringe might have been left in Irish writing, not by vaunting the special Irishness of the insular experience, but by the example of his own exorbitant intelligence and creativity. His instruction and example helped us to see an essential difference between what he called the parochial and provincial mentalities ("All great civilizations are based on the parish"), but it is the spiritual force and imaginative buoyancy of his work that guarantee its staying power and travel worthiness.
Forty years after that first Collected, put together by John Montague with the co-operation of Kavanagh's publisher friends at MacGibbon & Kee, Quinn has given us a book that should jolt readers back to an awareness of this poet's place in the 20thcentury pantheon. It is a significantly extended, critically judicious, helpfully annotated edition of an indispensable oeuvre.
With its substantial introduction, its chronological arrangement and its inclusion of big wobblies such as the long poem of the early 40s "Lough Derg" and the 50s satire "The Wake of the Books", as well as small beauties such as "Consider the grass growing" - "Cool about the ankles like summer rivers" - it is a vindication of Kavanagh's indomitable faith in himself and in the art that made him so much more than himself: "Unlearnedly and unreasonably poetry is shaped / Awkwardly but alive in the unmeasured womb."
· Seamus Heaney's version of The Burial at Thebes is published by Faber.