One of the foremost Irish poets of the twentieth century
Patrick Kavanagh, the most influential Irish poet after WB Yeats, was born on October 21, 1904, in the townland of Mucker, Inniskeen parish, County Monaghan. That local address was important to a writer who would famously distinguish between the provincial (craven, imitative, in thrall to the metropolis) and the parochial, self-confidently and assuredly at home in a place where 'Gods make their own importance'.
The son of a small farmer and cobbler, Kavanagh's first readers thought they recognised in this 'ploughman poet' the authentic voice of an idealised Irish countryside, the backbone of Eamon de Valera's Free State:
Now leave the check-reins slack,
The seed is flying far to-day—
The seed like stars against the black
Eternity of April clay.
But Kavanagh himself was never comfortable in the role, and poetry itself was to blame: 'I could have been as happily unhappy as any countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast.'
Kavanagh shot to fame in 1942 when his epic poem 'The Great Hunger' first appeared, and the Gardai seized all copies on the order of the minister of justice for alleged obscenities. In this masterpiece, Kavanagh gave a great shout of refusal to any romanticising of the countryman's existence. Sexually frustrated, culturally deprived, the poem's hero Maguire struggles and ultimately surrenders to a futile existence on a small farm:
That was how his life happened.
No mad hooves galloping in the sky,
But the weak, washy way of true tragedy --
A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.
For Kavanagh's successors, 'The Great Hunger' was hugely influential: it is hard to imagine the work of Seamus Heaney without the earlier writer's permissive example. Yet Kavanagh disowned the (briefly banned) poem, saying: 'There is something wrong with a work of art, some kinetic vulgarity in it when it is visible to policemen.'
Cranky and carnaptious, he vented his spleen in satires and clumsy lampoons and an ill-advised libel case, and suffered the removal of a cancerous lung in 1955. Recovering, he wrote some of his most powerful poetry, such as the life-affirming Canal Bank Sonnets, whose long lines and sentences (try reading them aloud) resist the mortal shortness of breath and 'wallow in the habitual’:
This is what love does to things: the Rialto bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap...
Patrick Kavanagh died of pneumonia in Dublin on November 30, 1967, and is buried at Inniskeen.