By Christopher Ricks
Featured Image: Sunset, Oxford by George Elbert Burr 1899
Among the judgments of which I repent is the one that I passed, half a century ago, on Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967). The book: Come Dance with Kitty Stobling. The date: 13 December 1960. The journal: the Oxford Magazine. The brash paragraph by the reviewer:
Patrick Kavanagh’s Come Dance with Kitty Stobling says “to hell with all reasonable poems”, and asks “to pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech”. The result certainly overflows – “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God”. The style is essentially that of George Barker, and not at his best—a combination of the extravagant (“O the sensual throb / Of the explosive body, the tumultuous thighs!”) and the emptily abstract:
Name for the future
The everydays of nature
And without being analytic
Create a great epic.
Yet the new magazine X must have readers, and they will presumably read Mr. Kavanagh. What was I thinking? Or rather, Why was I not thinking? I’ve quoted the paragraph in full because it is all too easy, when invited to talk about a change of heart or of mind, to fake the past somewhat. Political rhetoric, of the I-too-used-to-be-against-the-death-penalty kind.
Four years later, I had to some degree opened my mind, and was mildly contrite (as well as mildly disingenuous) in the columns of the New Statesman (31 July 1964):
To my mind his later poems are on the whole less good than his early work, even though I admit to having considerably underrated Come Dance with Kitty Stobling—1960—when I first read it. The tone and intentions of these late poems can be misjudged:
O the sensual throb
Of the explosive body, the tumultuous thighs!
If one is not careful, one does take this as torrid and torrential; in context it is poignantly conscious of embracing nothing but a heated notion. For it is “Miss Universe” who comes down the lane—not she who wins prizes, but dear fecund Nature which rolls through all things. She is of course well worth loving, but the poem is tartly aware that she is no substitute. As with all the best of Mr Kavanagh’s poems, he has eaten sour grapes but his teeth are not set on edge.
In short, “Mr Kavanagh is a hit-and-miss poet, but then the hits really do split the wand.”
By 1999, I had come to wish to make further reparations. Editing The Oxford Book of English Verse would have seemed to be the chance to do right by the Irish poet. But my desire for a four-fold representation of Kavanagh was thwarted. For the Estate of Patrick Kavanagh and his brother Peter Kavanagh were at odds as to who had the right to be credited. Brotherly love, if that is exactly what it was, meant no Patrick Kavanagh. No “Come Dance with Kitty Stobling.” No “Epic.” Nothing from “The Great Hunger,” a large-scale poem that engages with so many different kinds of poverty, physical and emotional, that one is surprised—looking back as one finishes it—to see how truly and kindly it deals with them all. As I had come to acknowledge in the New Statesman, George Crabbe, another stern but humorous observer of peasant life, would have found a good deal to admire in such actuality and nakedness.
Life went on like that. One summer morning
Again through a hay-field on her way to the shop—
The grass was wet and over-leaned the path—
And Agnes held her skirts sensationally up,
And not because the grass was wet either.
A man was watching her, Patrick Maguire.
And finally, for The Oxford Book of English Verse, no “Sanctity”:
To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of Heaven.
Fortunately Patrick Kavanagh was no saint, but wise and humane. In tune with his unmisgiving poetry there is his indomitable Irishry. On one occasion at a party, there came over to our Patrick Kavanagh the other poet called Patrick Kavanagh (nearly thirty years his junior). He, P. J. Kavanagh, rattled engagingly on, about his name, the other’s name, the ludicrousness of any thought of there being any competition given the grand accomplishments of the older man, oh and the embarrassment of the whole thing for him the younger, and and and. Patrick Kavanagh: “Fuck off.”
Christopher Ricks has taught at Boston University since 1986.
Originally published in NOR 7