Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

A Personal Response to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh by Jamie Tuohy

The following is an essay I’ve written on the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. I’ve written a very general personal response as opposed to answering a specific question (simply because there haven’t really been any). Patrick Kavanagh is one of my favourite poets and it’s very likely that he will be one of the four poets that will come up on the Leaving Cert English paper this year.

He was on the course last year and he didn’t come up and if memory serves me correctly he was also prescribed the year before and he appeared on the paper. Therefore, I would predict that he will be on this year’s paper – after all Yeats came up in both 2010 and 2011. If he comes up this year, it will undoubtedly be a specific question, rather than a general personal response, but Patrick Kavanagh is the master of ‘making the ordinary extraordinary’ and I would imagine all questions to be loosely based around this idea.

Whatever the question is, the following essay should give you an idea as to how to structure your answer and what to talk about – language, metaphors, metonyms etc…


Jamie Tuohy

Patrick Kavanagh is an innovator of poetry. His avant-garde style of writing transcends time and his ability to make the ordinary extraordinary is both captivating and awe inspiring. His poetry made such an impact on me because it is his unadulterated love and sheer dedication to his craft that allows each poem to come to life. His ability to create a simplicity of image makes his poems accessible to all. Whether Kavanagh is detailing his isolation in Inniskeen, his love of theGrand Canal, or commenting on the sexual oppression felt by a rural farmer constrained by social criticism, I felt I was present when each line was spoken and this is a testament to Kavanagh’s ingenuity as a poet.

Kavanagh’s honesty is conspicuous in each one of his poems as they are written under the liberty of innocence. In his poem “Inniskeen Road: July Evening”, Kavanagh manages to capture the atmosphere of that ‘July Evening’ by combining effective imagery with his own emotional feelings towards the night. In the opening lines he says, “the bicycles go by in twos and threes”. I immediately get the sense that Inniskeen is a close knit community as everyone is travelling to the dance together. However, the camaraderie among the locals does not extend to Kavanagh. In the closing lines he says, “I am king, of banks and stones and every blooming thing”. In my opinion, this is the most effective line of the whole poem. By holding this image of himself, he is setting himself apart from everyone else – his profession sets him a part. There are slight undercurrents of condescension within these words, as I feel that Kavanagh is saying he is different from everyone else by virtue of being a poet. Ultimately, however, this poem evokes sympathy in me for Kavanagh. There is a certain worthlessness to his self title, as his kingdom holds no people – he is isolated from society.

Evidently, Kavanagh had a strong sense of place and in “Shancoduff”, I see a different attitude in Kavanagh towards his homeland. Immediately he connects with the place by claiming ownership of the hills – “my black hills have never seen the sun rising”. He displays a sense of pride over the hills, praising them as being “incurious”. My favourite image is when Kavanagh compares the lowly hills of Shancoduff to the majestic beauty of the Alps – “they are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn”. This line inspires me to see things in a different light – through an artistic eye like Kavanagh. I too want to see the wonder in the mundane.

Kavanagh’s accessible language and clever use of language techniques play an intrinsic role in his poetry and in my opinion, it is displayed to perfection in “Canal Bank Walk” and “Lines Written on a Seat on theGrand Canal”. By employing techniques like alliteration and neologisms, Kavanagh captures my imagination and allows me to become enthralled by the words before me. In the opening like of “Canal Bank Walk”, Kavanagh opens with a neologism combined with alliteration when he says “leafy with love”. Through poetry Kavanagh is free to express himself and despite writing in the form of Shakespearean sonnet, his poetic licence gives him the liberty to remain unique. The repetition of the ‘l’ sound creates an image in my mind where things are in full bloom and it arouses our senses to explore and thus read on. Neologism features heavily in “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal”. Kavanagh says “where by a lock Niagarously roars”. Taking all his poems into consideration, this is my favourite neologism used by Kavanagh. I feel that his reverence, joy and love for the Grand Canal are all juxtaposed in this line. He is comparing the canal – a man made river, to the breathtaking natural beauty of Niagara Falls.

Kavanagh makes each poem accessible and relevant through the straight forward titles he chooses for them. “A Christmas Childhood” and “Advent” are the poems  to which I could best relate. The first poem deals with the innocence of a child where everything is new and wonderful, while the latter deals with how experience diminishes innocence and everything becomes habitual and mundane. “A Christmas Childhood” is a highly sentimental poem where Kavanagh remembers his childhood. He says “my father played the melodeon outside our gate; there were stars in the morning east that danced to his music”. This memory struck a particular relevance with me as my grandfather plays the melodeon. When I was young, I used to sit on the floor, mesmerised by the expansion and contraction of the instrument. Even though he could only play one tune, it didn’t matter to me – I was just amazed that he could produce a melody that gained my interest. In “A Christmas Childhood”, Kavanagh beautifully describes and celebrates the innocene of childhood, highlighting the appreciation and excitement of the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s a poem we can all relate, because as children, we all experienced the same delight as Kavanagh in the everyday world around us.

We lose this childhood innocence as we grow older and experience new things. In “Advent”, Kavanagh says “we have tested and tasted too much lover, through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder”. The Romantic idea of excess and the fact that we take things for granted when we become desensitised to them has not changed with the eras of English literature. “Advent” inspires me to see “the spirit shocking wonder” in the mudane and the ordinary. I believe that this poem epitomises the essence of innocence and encourages us all to taste the “dry black bread” and “sugarless tea” to regain what we have lost through cynicism. In the second stanza, Kavanagh brilliantly contrasts the views of an adult with those of a child by saying “and the newness that was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children”. This is a paradox, but encapsulates how wonderful childhood innocence is. The idea that something which an adult takes for granted is fascinating to a child, is both thought provoking and highly evocative. After reading “Advent”, I want to experience penance, forgiveness and grace “to charm back the luxury of a child’s soul”.

Despite the paradoxical title of “Epic”, Kavanagh’s fourteen line Petrarchan sonnet deals with the Duffy’s and the Mc Cabes – fighting over a “rood of rock” when a war beckons. This is the view I had about the quarrel until I read the last line – “Gods make their own importance”. Kavanagh is telling us that we have to fight for what is ours and make our own importance in history. I think that he is also reminding himself that poetry does not need grandiose inspiration – it can be created from the parochial. This further exemplifies Kavanagh’s ethos – the habitual and the ordinary make for great art and inspiration.

“The Great Hunger” is Kavanagh’s epic poem and it is undoubtedly my favourite by him. I find this poem effective because I see a bravery emerge in Kavanagh’s writing. He wasn’t afraid to comment on the taboo issue of sexual relations or challenge the Catholic hierarchy’s view of such activities. I admire Kavanagh for defying the sometimes idealistic view of what Ireland should be like, a view held by many of the other poets on my course, for example – Yeats. Yeats was a keen supporter of cultural nationalism and his work often promoted an unrealistic, over-spiritualized view of Ireland. Kavanagh rejected this in “The Great Hunger”. He distanced himself from Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival, as he felt that it was something which promoted an overly sentimental view of Ireland, and ignored  the real concerns of the Irish population. In “The Great Hunger”,  Kavanagh speaks about the lethargic life of Patrick Maguire who has led a solitary life of social, spiritual and sexual impoverishment. The intensity of Maguire’s hunger for this fulfilment is powerfully conveyed, as Kavanagh compares it to the Famine. There is a dominant sombre tone pervading the whole poem and after reading it, I feel an immense sense of sympathy for Patrick Maguire.

In the opening line of the poem, Kavanagh says, “clay is the word and clay is the flesh”. I feel that this line epitomises Patrick Maguire. He is defined only by the love he holds for his land – it is his religion. “Clay” is used as a metonym for Monaghan and I get the impression that it is barren and lifeless. I felt like I was a witness to Maguire’s loneliness, as Kavanagh repeatedly invites the reader into the poem by interjecting the inclusive pronoun “we”. In his head, Maguire feels lucky to have escaped the constraint of a wife and family, but his heart is filled with regret. The poem is dominated by his self delusion and I think that he is trying to convince himself that he has made the right decisions. The most heartbreaking line of the poem comes when the futility and emptiness of Maguire’s life is perceptible.  Kavanagh says, “he lives that his little fields may stay fertile when his own body is spread in the bottom of a ditch under two coulters crossed in Christ’s Name”. It seems rather fitting, yet poignant that Maguire would be buried in the very land that held him in impoverished servitude, but tragic that his resting place is marked by the symbol of the religion that so impeded his sexual and emotional fulfilment.

Kavanagh’s use of archetypal imagery adds to the heartbreak of this poem – as each leaf falls, Maguire is closer to death. I believe the last stanza is the most important in the poem as it is an amalgamation of Maguire’s life. Kavanagh says “come with me imagination”. The word ‘imagination’ is personified because it is the very thing that Maguire did not befriend. He lived his life through a lack of imagination and so he dies as he lived – “passively”. “The Great Hunger” is a wonderfully poignant and touching poem. It’s so appealing because of its seeming artlessness – it is accessible and enriched with colloquialisms, yet it is a beautifully crafted masterpiece that is highly sensual and evocative, containing a wealth of pathos and subtle brilliance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh because his poems are timeless and universal. Each poem gives the reader an insight into his imagination and allows us to experience the world through innocent eyes. His poetry is a celebration of the ordinary and familiar and a communication of the infinite wonder of the simple things in life. His poetry contains honest and truthful depictions of rural life, fantastic accounts of the wonders of a city and a plethora of thought provoking themes. The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh had such an effect on me because he wasn’t constrained by the views of an era. He was a libertarian of poetry, as he knew that is poetic licence knew no bounds!


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