On the centenary of Patrick Kavanagh’s birth, Seamus Heaney recalls a formative meeting with his fellow poet a few months before his death, in 1967.
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There were reasons why I wasn’t eager to meet Patrick Kavanagh in person. Meeting him on the page had been a transformative experience. He entered my head the way the potato digger enters the field at the start of his poem The Great Hunger: kicking the dead weight of the familiar into life, putting the lumpiness of things into a spin. There was force and refreshment in equal measure, bag-apron realism and far-horizon vision. You were in the presence of something ferocious and purposeful, and your natural impulse was to cheer but also to stand back.
At the time, moreover, I was still very much a product of a degree course in Eng Lit, having graduated only a year or so earlier. Like most of my generation who studied the subject in those days, I was packed with the criticism of T. S. Eliot, and the large demands and costive style of the master had their effect. For all my at-homeness with Kavanagh’s work, maybe even because of it, I began a survey of Irish poetry (published in July 1963, in Hibernia) with the declaration that there were no major poets writing in Ireland.
This was asking for it, of course. Earlier in the year James Liddy had begun an editorial in his new magazine, Arena, with the declaration that Austin Clarke and Kavanagh were major poets, a flourish that brought out my inner Eliot. “One must remember,” I wrote, “that the stature of any Irish poet writing in English must be judged by his impact and relevance . . . wherever English is spoken. So far, Yeats has been our only poet to achieve this impact and relevance.”
In the weeks and years after this article appeared I learned that it had got a lot of backs up, so in the summer of 1967, when I was teaching at a summer course in Trinity, I was inclined to move warily in the environs of McDaids and the Bailey. But I still couldn’t stay away from the field of force. I was like any young scribbler in search of what Kavanagh had once left Monaghan to search for: “The City of Kings, / Where art, music, letters are the real things.” Which meant that one afternoon I ended up at the end of the counter downstairs in the Bailey, in the company of Richard Ryan, at a safe distance from a company over by the window with Kavanagh at the centre.
Richard was all for introducing me, but my instinct was still to stand back. By then I had probably forgotten the “major” rebuke, but I was mightily conscious that the appearance of my first book, the previous year, wouldn’t necessarily be a mark in my favour. It had been published by Faber, had been well enough received, and its author was now set up in an academic job, none of which was likely to impress Kavanagh: he had only recently declared that he had “never been much considered by the English critics”, and he had certainly never been much rewarded by the academy, but had suffered instead poverty and much punitive response in the contrary pursuit of his calling.
At one point Kavanagh rose to go the the Gents, which meant he had to go behind us at our end of the bar counter and out into the hallway. It also meant that he returned by the same route, and as he did he stopped, first to glower at and then to greet Richard. As Richard talked to him I kept my back to him, but at a certain stage this became simply unmannerly, so I turned and asked Kavanagh if he would like a drink. “No,” he said, so that was that. But then Richard went ahead and introduced me anyhow. “This man here’s down from Belfast, Paddy. Seamus Heaney. He published a book last year.” “Are you Heaney?” said Kavanagh, pronouncing it Haney, as they do in the country. “Well, I’ll have Scotch.” Which he did, and proceeded back to his company. It was like confirmation.
And next thing, of course, I went over and sat with him for a very short while, with the result that I nearly lost whatever credit I had just gained. I asked him what he thought of the poetry of Thomas Hardy. He immediately saw where the question was coming from and that I had to be given a lesson for my presumption. He ignored the question - which implied that as country poets who had moved from the local rural world to a literary urban milieu Hardy and he must have much in common - and answered emphatically: “Pope’s a good poet. Alexander Pope.”
It was his way of telling me that poetry was not autobiography but a transformation of autobiography, a transcendence of it even. That it is a matter not of record but of renovation, of amplifying the given into the unlooked-for, of snatching out of time “the passionate transitory”. And the truth of all that was made manifest again a few months later, when John Montague encouraged me to join him at the graveside in Inniskeen and read a Kavanagh poem. The man I had met at the counter was under ground, but the poet I had met on the page was more luminously present than ever. The question that he had asked himself at the start of The Great Hunger - “Is there some light of imagination in these dark clods?” - had been answered with a triumphant yes.
Twentieth-century Irish poetry had been amplified in scope and 20th- century Irish consciousness realigned. Kavanagh’s centenary is justly celebrated as a more or less national feast. He was, of course, a novelist and prose writer with an indefectible gift for discovering the mystical body of the world in the bits and pieces of every day, as well as being a cultural critic whose rebellious commentaries on Irish life and letters continue to be vivid and pertinent five decades after they were written.
But most of all he was a poet of pure spiritual force, to the extent that many of his lyrics now belong in the common mind as if they were prenatal possessions - even, perhaps, prenatal necessities. What’s more, “his impact and relevance” are to be felt “wherever English is spoken”.