04 January 2012

Christmas Poems (21): Advent by Patrick Kavanagh

“ ...the newness that was in every stale thing/ When we looked at it as children” – an old gate and gate lodge on the Castle Leslie estate in Glaslough, Co Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Although there are some small January flowers in the garden this morning, the Christmas season appears to be hanging on, and I am reminded this morning [4 January 2012] of two poems by Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Advent’ and ‘A Christmas Childhood.’

I have chosen ‘Advent’ as my Christmas Poem this morning – not because I am looking back at last month’s Advent season, but because, despite its name, this poem, which speaks of “God’s breath in common statement,” draws on very common, everyday scenes in rural Ireland and strong images of these post-Christmas days in early January:

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching ....
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

A lake-side scene on the Castle Leslie estate in Glaslough, Co Monaghan ... Patrick Kavanagh found much of his inspiration in the rural life and landscapes of Co Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was born in Mucker, in the parish of Inniskeen in Co Monaghan. His father was a small farmer who supplemented his income by working also as a cobbler, and he grew up surrounded by the “stony-grey hills” that were the inspiration for so much of his poetry.

He left school at the age of 13, and immediately began working on the family farm, but continued in his own self-education. The first book he borrowed from the library in Dundalk was TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Later, as he began to write his own poetry, he would draw on images of the rural the life he shared with other local farmers buying and selling at fairs and marts, Sunday-mass going, the wakes, weddings and funerals, games of pitch-and-toss at the crossroads, local dances and football matches, and the traditions of a rural Irish Christmas.

His earliest poems were published in the local newspaper, Dundalk Democrat in1928. Three more poems were published by George Russell (Æ) in The Irish Statesman in 1929-1930.

In 1931, Kavanagh walked the fifty miles to Dublin to meet Æ, There he was introduced too to Frank O’Connor. His first collection of poetry, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published by Macmillan in 1936.

Soon after, he moved to London in search of literary work, but he returned to Ireland when he failed to make a living. An autobiography, The Green Fool, appeared in 1938 but was withdrawn after a libel action by Oliver St John Gogarty, who was awarded £100.

Kavanagh worked as a part-time journalist from 1942 to 1944, writing a gossip column for The Irish Press under the pseudonym of Piers Plowman, and later working as the film critic for The Irish Press. During those years, he also became close friends with the future British Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, who was then attached to the British Embassy in Dublin.

A long poem, ‘The Great Hunger,’ was published by Cyril Connolly in the London-based Horizon in 1942. His tragic description of the psychological and sexual frustrations of rural life was recognised as masterly by Frank O’Connor and George Yeats, who republished it in Dublin as a Cuala Press pamphlet. Many regard this poem as Kavanagh’s best, although its publication in Dublin attracted the attention of the police and censors. Later, Tom MacIntyre adapted The Great Hunger for the theatre and it was staged in Dublin by the Abbey Theatre in 1983.

‘Lough Derg’ was also written in 1942, but it was not published until 1971. A collection of verse, A Soul for Sale (1947), was followed by his novel Tarry Flynn (1948), which was said to be “not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century.” This too was briefly banned, but Tarry Flynn was dramatised later by PJ O’Connor and was staged by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and in Dundalk in 1967. Conall Morrison made a second dramatic adaptation of Tarry Flynn for the Abbey Theatre in 1997.

Kavanagh and his brother Peter, a university professor and also a writer, established a weekly paper, Kavanagh’s Weekly, which was edited by the poet. They called it a “journal of literature and politics” and it ran for 13 issues between 12 April and 5 July 1952. Patrick Kavanagh contributed most of the articles and poems, usually under pseudonyms.

In 1952, a Dublin paper, The Leader, published a profile that depicted Kavanagh as an alcoholic sponger, and he sued for libel. When the case came to trial in 1954, Kavanagh was harshly cross-examined by John A. Costello, defending The Leader, and he lost. The following year he was diagnosed with cancer and had a lung removed.

At this low point, Kavanagh experienced a sort of personal and poetic renewal. Recent Poems (1958) was followed by Come Dance with Kitty Stobling (1960). These two collections include some of his best-known shorter poems. His Collected Poems was followed by Collected Prose (1967).

He married Katherine Barry Moloney in April 1967 and they lived in Waterloo Road, Dublin, until he died on 30 November later that year.

When The Irish Times took a poll of “the nation’s favourite poems” in 2000, 10 of Kavanagh’s poems were listed in the first 50. His poem ‘Raglan Road,’ has been recorded by Luke Kelly and The Dubliners and many other artists, and it remains an ever-popular song.

However, at this time of the year I think of Kavanagh’s poem ‘A Christmas Childhood,’ in which he develops images from his childhood already recalled in The Green Fool, and now recalls “In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland” when he “was six Christmases of age.”

Its rustic realism recalls Tom Kettle’s war-time poetry and his

... dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
and for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

A rusty gate and an old shed on a farm in Co Monaghan ... there is a rustic realism in the poetry of Patrick Kavangh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There is an evocation of the stable birth in Bethlehem at an early stage in the poem when he talks about

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable ...

and of the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child when he recalls:

There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

His mother becomes an image Christ’s mother:

Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

There are echoes of TS Eliot’s “three trees against a low sky” in ‘Journey of the Magi’ as Kavanagh recalls how:

I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings

or of Eliot’s “Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” when he talks of how

I nicked six nicks on the door-post.

There is a more adult collection of reflections on Christmas and the Christmas season, however, in his poem ‘Advent,’ which is my selected poem this morning.

“We’ll hear it in ... the streets where the village boys are lurching” ... a street scene in the village of Glaslough, Co Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Advent, by Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

‘And Christ comes with a January flower’ – Patrick Kavanagh ... flowers in my garden in Knocklyon this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Tomorrow: ‘The Magi,’ by WB Yeats.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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