To Be Dead
To be dead is to stop believing in
The masterpieces we will begin tomorrow;
To be an exile is to be a coward,
To know that growth has stopped.
That whatever is done is the end;
Correct the proofs over and over,
Rewrite the old poems again and again,
Tell lies to yourself about your achievement:
Ten printed books on the shelves.
Though you know that no one loves you for
What you have done,
But for what you might do.
And you take up religion bitterly
Which you laughed at in your youth,
Well not actually laughed
But it wasn’t your kind of truth.
Death isn’t just a physical state; it can be psychological too. Often it takes a brush with mortality, a glimpse of oblivion, to realise the distinction between the two. Perhaps that’s the only similarity I have with Patrick Kavanagh for I certainly don’t have an ounce of his talent, although perhaps we also share a relative invisibility in artistic and literary circles – me justifiably, Kavanagh scandalously so.
It’s over 50 years since Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) died and he is relatively unknown in the UK. And yet in Ireland he’s practically a household name. An Irish newspaper, The Journal, polled its readers on the 50th anniversary of his death in 2017 as to whether they could recite a few lines of his poetry and the responses were:
Yes, a few lines = 3,771 (50%)
No, but I have read some = 1,467 (19.5%)
No, never read him = 1,188 (15.8%)
Yes, I can recite a full poem = 1,102 (14.6%)
And a few years earlier, in 2000, The Irish Times had asked readers to vote for their favourite Irish poems and Kavanagh had ten of his poems in the most popular 50, with only WB Yeats having more than this. I can’t imagine what the results might be of a similar poll of UK newspaper readers.
Patrick Kavanagh was a controversial figure in the Irish literary scene of the mid 20th century. Born in 1904, he only had an elementary education and left school at 12 to work on the family farm in Monaghan for the next 15 years, but despite his lack of schooling he was drawn to writing poetry. After a few were published in local papers he was encouraged by the editor of The Irish Statesman to keep writing, so in 1931 he left the family farm and walked the 50-odd miles to Dublin to become a writer. He had an elder brother working there as a teacher so it wasn’t a complete gamble, and while working as a journalist he had his first collection published in 1936. He had some success during the following years and published some of his best work at this time, but was dependent upon writing columns for various newspapers and casual work; in 1942 he published his epic poem The Great Hunger which is his most celebrated work.
Although he was considered by his contemporaries to be part of the “Irish literary revival” that had evolved after independence in 1922 and characterised as a “peasant poet” he was very critical of that movement and condemned its mawkish sentimentality. Often his columns were overly critical and he developed a reputation for being awkward and challenging. Coupled with a combination of poor health, excessive drinking and erratic behaviour his creative work diminished during the late 1940s, but by the early 1950s he’d started to write regularly for Envoy, a literary magazine, where he met a new generation of artists and writers, and then published his own magazine (Kavanagh’s Weekly: a Journal of Literature and Politics) with support from his brother who, by now, was established at Dublin University. However, he reached a low point in 1954 when he lost a libel case against a Dublin newspaper which had described him as an alcoholic sponger, and was diagnosed with lung cancer requiring a lung to be removed. It was while recuperating on the banks of the Dublin canal that he recovered his poetic muse and started to write again in a second creative wave.
Patrick Swift, a younger artist he knew through Envoy arranged for 19 of his new poems were published to great acclaim in a London literary magazine, and he went on to contribute regularly to Swift’s own publication, Z, an art magazine that championed the work of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Frank Auerbach as well as the writing of Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern. During the late 50s and early 60s he lived in London and published several more collections. He died in Dublin in 1967 shortly after marrying Katherine Moloney, his long-term companion.
There’s a memorial to Kavanagh near the canal where he recuperated and rediscovered his poetic mojo and there’s a gathering there on 17 March each year after the St Patrick’s Day march in Dublin. There’s also an annual festival celebrating his work and an annual prize in his name for the best unpublished collection by a new poet.