To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.
by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)
You will not always be far away and pure
As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb
You will not always be a metaphysical signature
To all the poems I write. In my bleak room
This very year by gods will you may be
A woman innocent in her first sin
Having cast off immortality.
Of the never to be born. The violin
Is not more real than the music played upon it.
They told me this – the priests – but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God, to be inspired
This year O creature of the dream-vague face
You’ll come and be a thing in time and space.
by Patrick Kavanagh
And sometimes I am sorry when the grass
Is growing over the stones in quiet hollows
And the cocksfoot leans across the rutted cart-pass
That I am not the voice of country fellows
Who now are standing by some headland talking
Of turnips and potatoes or young corn
Of turf banks stripped for victory.
Here Peace is still hawking
His coloured combs and scarves and beads of horn.
Upon a headland by a whinny hedge
A hare sits looking down a leaf-lapped furrow
There’s an old plough upside-down on a weedy ridge
And someone is shouldering home a saddle-harrow.
Out of that childhood country what fools climb
To fight with tyrants Love and Life and Time?
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
This seems a fitting sonnet on the Monday after the conclusion of the Tour de France, particularly since a Welshman prevailed in the yellow jersey at the end. But this poem does not depict a race, quite the opposite. It depicts the kind of bike ride that is made magical by repetition, by fraternity with friends, having done it so many times, that the riders become Lord and master of the road upon which they glide along.
Kavanagh and Selkirk shared more than this understanding of self determination, they were both the sons of poor cobblers. Selkirk responded to his surroundings of childhood poverty in Scotland by famously becoming a privateer and seeking his fortune on the high seas. Kavanagh took a decidedly different route, apprenticing to his father and following in his footsteps, settling into a life of rural poverty and finding a sense of peace in the simplicity it provides. Kavanagh understood both poverty and the ignorance that can be its bitter fruit, the latter much more vexing, his lack of access to a quality education a torment to his bright mind that would be a source of both inspiration and drive in his writing to witness his community honestly.
I recognize the feeling in this poem, the sense of understanding of a stretch of land and your community of friends and neighbors that you call home that goes beyond familiarity, becoming a place where the dust is part of your bones. A place where you look around down the road and can anticipate the view before you round the bend, a stretch where you can bike or walk it in complete darkness, so complete is your knowledge of its ruts and turns.
That is one of the magical aspects of rural life, the fact that change happens more slowly, the landscape seemingly timeless from one year to the next, so that by degrees you become one with its firmament. Kavanagh understood another truth of rural poverty, that no matter how lean the soil and crop from which it sprouts, a man and woman will give everything to defend it if they call it home. And that deep-seated grudges can become longstanding epic generational disputes over a simple boundary line of property when two families claim it as their own or one family has gotten the better of another under trying circumstances.
by Partrick Kavanagh
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
FYI – A rood is 40 square rods of land or about a quarter of an acre.