I do like it when poets surprise one with an unconventional choice of material and make it work. I enjoy poems about stars and flowers and lost love as much as anyone, but I do take my hat off to a man who can work in wash basins, snoring and lorries, not to mention rhyming suntrap and claptrap, and still produce a lyrical, perfectly serious poem with a compelling message.
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.
This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.
There are probably few in my audience who have not already met this beautiful poem of unrequited love by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, either in its original form as a poem first published in 1954 under the title ‘Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away’, or else (with slightly altered wording) as a song first made popular by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, set to a traditional Irish air ‘The Dawning of the Day’, and subsequently covered by scores of folk artists. The poem was written for a young medical student Hilda Moriarty, but Kavanagh was 40 at the time as against her 22, and evidently the relationship foundered, or perhaps never really got going, because of that gap.
I have sometimes wondered if in line 12 Kavanagh really meant to capitalise May – when I first heard it, as a song, I took it as ‘clouds over fields of may’ i.e. fields of hawthorn blossom, which seemed to make sense as contrasting dark hair and white skin. But all versions seem to agree on the capitalisation.
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 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 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.
Another poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh whose work I delight in for its quirky originality and its wonderful inclusiveness.
Spraying The Potatoes
The barrels of blue potato-spray
Stood on a headland of July
Beside an orchard wall where roses
Were young girls hanging from the sky.
The flocks of green potato-stalks
Were blossom spread for sudden flight,
The Kerr’s Pinks in a frivelled blue,
The Arran Banners wearing white.
And over that potato-field
A hazy veil of woven sun.
Dandelions growing on headlands, showing
Their unloved hearts to everyone.
And I was there with the knapsack sprayer
On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating
Dead on a sunken briar leaf
Over a copper-poisoned ocean.
The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart
Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.
An old man came through a cornfield
Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.
He turned my way. ‘God further the work.’
He echoed an ancient farming prayer.
I thanked him. He eyed the potato-drills.
He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there.’
We talked and our talk was a theme of kings,
A theme for strings. He hunkered down
In the shade of the orchard wall. O roses
The old man dies in the young girl’s frown.
And poet lost to potato-fields,
Remembering the lime and copper smell
Of the spraying barrels he is not lost
Or till blossomed stalks cannot weave a spell.
Another of my favourite Patrick Kavanagh poems, that shows his extraordinary gift for the transmutation of the mundane.
We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass
To go to Dundalk with butter,
Brought him home the evening before the market
An exile that night in Mucker.
We heeled up the cart before the door,
We took the harness inside —
The straw-stuffed straddle, the broken breeching
With bits of bull-wire tied;
The winkers that had no choke-band,
The collar and the reins . . .
In Ealing Broadway, London Town
I name their several names
Until a world comes to life —
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.
Another of my favourite Patrick Kavanagh poems, that combines his sensuous delight in the physical world with a vision of some secret, immortal country parallel to it that haunts the Irish mind.
May I just mention that a selection of sixty of my own poems is now available from the Amazon Kindle store; see News page for more details.
On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went
With a pitchfork on my shoulder
Less for use than for devilment.
The threshing mill was set-up, I knew,
In Cassidy’s haggard last night,
And we owed them a day at the threshing
Since last year. O it was delight
To be paying bills of laughter
And chaffy gossip in kind
With work thrown in to ballast
The fantasy-soaring mind.
As I crossed the wooden bridge I wondered
As I looked into the drain
If ever a summer morning should find me
Shovelling up eels again.
And I thought of the wasps’ nest in the bank
And how I got chased one day
Leaving the drag and the scraw-knife behind,
How I covered my face with hay.
The wet leaves of the cocksfoot
Polished my boots as I
Went round by the glistening bog-holes
Lost in unthinking joy.
I’ll be carrying bags today, I mused,
The best job at the mill
With plenty of time to talk of our loves
As we wait for the bags to fill…
Maybe Mary might call round…
And then I came to the haggard gate,
And I knew as I entered that I had come
Through fields that were part of no earthly estate.
They laughed at one I loved –
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.
Ashamed of what I loved
I flung her from me and called her a ditch
Although she was smiling at me with violets.
But now I am back in her arms
The dew of an Indian summer morning lies
On bleached potato-stalks –
What age am I?
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
I know of no poet who can combine the visionary with the concrete, even the mundane, to the extent of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. He even managed to make a wonderful poem about the ward of a chest hospital. Here it is the factuality of those potato-stalks that balances the more obvious lyricism of violets and dew, and gives expression to the poet’s credo that ‘nothing whatever is by love debarred’.