If W.B. Yeats is Ireland’s most well-known and influential poet in its history, Patrick Kavanagh is likely its greatest poet since his death in 1939.
Kavanagh’s story starting from his humble beginnings as a poor, uneducated son of a shoemaker from a rural area of county Monaghan in the north of Ireland to one of the highest esteemed writers in all of Ireland is a remarkable one. He dropped out of school around the age of twelve or thirteen and then taught himself about literature. By his teenage years, he regularly wrote poetry for his own pleasure and enjoyment. In his mid-twenties he had succeeded in publishing poems in two non-literary periodicals, Irish Weekly Independent and the Dundalk Democrat.
Later, George Russell, editor of the Irish Statesman, rejected early submissions to the periodical, but took a special interest in Kavanagh, encouraging him to try again. After succeeding in publishing poetry in 1929 and 1930 to the Statesman, Kavanagh walked fifty miles to Dublin to meet Russell in person.
Kavanagh’s newfound relationship with Russell changed his life. Russell became a personal adviser to Kavanagh, giving him books by Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Browning. More importantly, the mentorship gave Kavanagh access to Dublin’s literary society, which catapulted his career as a poet and writer.
Within five years of coming to Dublin, Kavanagh had his first book of poetry published, Ploughman and Other Poems (1935), and just a few years later his first novel was published, The Green Fool (1938), which he later revealed was as much an autobiography as it was a novel.
In the years that followed, Kavanagh moved from social critic of both the rural landscape as well as the literary scene in Dublin, to later works focusing on acceptance of life as it is and celebrating its simple pleasures. This shift was a result of the failure of his journal, a failed libel suit, and a battle with lung cancer, which he overcame.
Late in his life, one of his enduring quotes about his work and personality, still speaks to the type of person he was and what his poetry conveys:
“Courage is nearly everything. Our pure impulses are always right.” – Patrick Kavanagh from “Self Portrait.”
To me as a writer, I think this quote highlights the need to trust yourself. It reminds me that the voice inside my head, my unhindered creative inspiration, needs to be given the highest position of authority on what matters, what has value, and what needs to be said when I write. Don’t let fear, doubt, or insecurity ever trump inspiration.
Biographer John Nemo wrote: “Kavanagh’s point of view evolved primarily from his response to life, which was emotional rather than intellectual. . . . In place of the logic that directs the creative vision of poets like T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, Kavanagh’s creative faculties rely on inspiration and intuition. Artistically, he reacts rather than acts. Unlike many modern poets, his poems are not assembled piecemeal like contemporary sculptures but are delivered whole from the creative womb.” (Nemo, John, Patrick Kavanagh, Twayne, 1979.)
On Raglan Road
On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.
I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
Poem by Patrick Kavanagh, first published in The Irish Press on October 3, 1946 under the title “Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away.”
“On Raglan Road” was later put to music by Luke Kelly of the Irish band, The Dubliners, which released the song as a B-side to “Scorn Not His Simplicity” in 1971.