Moya Cannon on “The Hospital” by Patrick Kavanagh, in Irish University Review [Special Poetry Issue], ed. Peter Denman (Sept. 2009)

[ Source:Source: The Free Library - online; accessed 08.07.2011.]

There is a sense in which Kavanagh’s work was always there and always mattered. My older brothers bought a record player in the mid-sixties and one of the earliest LPs which made its way into the house was a Claddagh Records recording of Almost Everything: Written and Spoken by Patrick Kavanagh. The record was probably bought for my mother. Her brother had introduced her to the work of Kavanagh. He had a deep interest in literature and had occasionally sent her issues of The Bell. She recalled his telling her at one point ‘There’s a wee farmer in Co. Monaghan who thinks he can write poetry’. He was, true to form, praising Kavanagh with faint damnation.

I was old enough to get some of the cranked-up Northern irony on the album, enjoying the bits about Kavanagh’s Weekly and ‘The Parochial and the Provincial’. There was also a recording, about the same time, of ‘Tarry Flynn’, sung in Clancy Brothers mode, a portrait of Kavanagh as a sort of rustic flaneur, soon bound for escape and glory:

Oh you’re a rascal Tarry Flynn,
you’re writin’ poetry instead of diggin’ drills,
strollin’ around the fields all day,
won’t you ever work, or won’t you ever stay.’

When I came to read Kavanagh in my late teens, it was to his most ironic, even acerbic, poems which I was drawn, poems like “The Paddiad” and “More Kicks than Pence”. Perhaps students are drawn to irony because they are at the stage of life when they absolutely need to strip away facades and question iconic values. There is a Kavanagh for all seasons, for all stages of life. The Kavanagh which now appeals most strongly to me is the Kavanagh of the late sonnets, particularly ‘October’ and “The Hospital”. I have chosen to focus on the latter with its strange dance of subtle irony and risky candour . It is also a wonderful example of his later technique, the technique which he explicates in one of his 1958 UCD lectures:

I began this series of lectures by calling them ‘Studies in the Technique of Poetry“ and I explained that the business of technique was to provide us with a means to reveal ourselves truthfully without being silly, mawkish, or in any way to speak that would make us unhappy. The purpose of technique is to enable us to detach our experience from ourselves and see it as a thing apart. (1)

The quirky first line, which starts so open-heartedly and then says ‘gotcha!’, sets the tone:

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. (2)

The grey on grey is like something borrowed from W. H. Auden or even Philip Larkin . This is anti-pastoral pushed just about as hard as it can without being risible. The ward is functional, the cubicles are square, the concrete plain. Furthermore, the hospital is a chest hospital, summoning up for his contemporary readers the fears which, for that generation, centred around tuberculosis.

In the subsequent line ‘not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored’ we are back on more familiar ground. This is the Kavanagh we know - ever ready to entertain and to relieve boredom by wringing a joke (preferably at someone else’s expense) out of any given situation. We have almost forgotten the opening statement which ushered us into this grey theatre, bleak as any Beckett set, when Kavanagh rounds upon us with that most daringly candid of couplets: But nothing whatever is by love debarred, The common and banal her heat can know.

It is the ‘scrupulous meanness’ of the previous three-and-a-half lines which allows him the credit to strike such a rich chord, to issue such a tender statement as ‘But nothing whatever is by love debarred’. Without the reductionist imagery which preceded it, the line would have come across as sentimental or banal. He almost parries such possible criticism in the following line: ‘the common and banal her heat can know’. He then scurries into retreat mode:

The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

The downbeat atmosphere of the first line is totally subverted by the expansiveness of that inexhaustible adventure - which somehow grinds to a halt in the gravel. Who said that a successful poem is a series of small surprises? Reading “The Hospital” is like trying to follow a hare - there are so many witty turns of direction, shifts of tenor and of mood. Kavanagh is playing with his reader here in what must be one of his most serious poems. He abandons us for a moment in the desert of the stony yard and then comes back to disarm us with the candour of the folloing lines:

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 the shed that was a suntrap.

Again we have a large, open-hearted statement, followed by a retreat to the Rialto Bridge, the bridge at the back of St James’s Hospital where the South Circular Road crossed a disused railway line. There might or might not be resonances of Shylock’s declaration in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, ‘many a time and oft / In the Rialto you have rated me’. (3) If so, there is no lingering at all on the grander Venetian Bridge, rather the poet returns to a vulnerable iron gate and a seat at the back of a shed. He then allows the sun to shine once again on the banal, and how warmly! Here, there is something about the way in which love and light are allowed to fall on the ordinary and transfigure it which is reminiscent of a Cezanne painting, or even of Rilke writing about a Cezanne painting: Here, all of reality is on his side [...] the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat?

By doggedly bearing witness to the grey concrete ordinariness of things, Kavanagh gains our trust and we believe him when he comes back with the extravagant trumpet call of the last three lines:

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.

Quite apart from the audacity of the content of the statement, the last two lines are lent enormous power by the poetic devices employed-the insistent rhythm; the off-beat alliteration of ‘must’ and ‘mystery’; the assonances of ‘must’ and ‘love’ and of all those wide ‘a’ sounds, ‘claptrap’, ‘snatch’, ‘passionate’, and ‘transitory’ which somehow sweep us with them in their openness. It is difficult to explain how the rhythmic repetition of particular vowel sounds can evoke a mood in us - it is akin to the way a particular key in music can evoke a mood.

This is the same Kavanagh who wrote in ‘Advent’ of

[...] the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill.

Again, here, the purposeful rhythm, the alliteration of ‘spirit-shocking’ and ‘slanting’ and the assonances of ‘black’ and ‘slanting’; of ‘wonder’ and ‘Ulster’, the lulling music of all those Ts in the last line, allied with the lucidity of his vision and the utter candour of his statement, are part of the alchemy which Kavanagh, at his best, can work.

It is difficult here not to be reminded of the young Ezra Pound’s claim that there are three ‘kinds of poetry’, or that language can be ‘charged’ in three different ways, ‘by means of Melopoeia, wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning, by Panopoeia, which is a casting of images upon the visual imagination and by Logopoeia, ‘the dance of the intellect among words’. (5) Poetry is at its most satisfying when all of these elements come into play, as they do in texts like ‘Advent’ or “The Hospital” where the music and the imagery conspire to persuade us of the argument. ‘Advent’ related to the period of traditional fasting before Christmas which, like all good deprivation therapy, gave people a great appetite for the pleasures of life. Given his personal and economic circumstances, it is not apparent that Patrick Kavanagh was in great need of such therapy. It would seem, however, that his period in hospital in Spring 1955, when he feared for his life, gave him an equivalent heightened sense of the preciousness of life and of the commonplace. Illumining the commonplace - a jug, a chair, a pair of boots - and ‘making it new’ to the viewer has always been at the core of the artistic process. As Andrew Wyeth puts it:

The commonplace is the thing, but it’s hard to find. Then if you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal. (6)

This was something of which Kavanagh had always been sensible. In the somewhat messianic “After Forty Years of Age”, he had written that it is the duty of the artist

To smelt in passion
The commonplaces of life.

In the later ‘is’, in the next line, the role of the artist is somehow less obviously transformative, more that of a witness:

The important thing is not
To imagine one ought
Have something to say,
A raison d’etre, a plot for the play,
The only true teaching
Subsists in watching
Things moving or just colour
Without comment from the scholar.
To look on is enough
In the business of love.

This comes very close, of course, to Keats’s ‘Negative Capability [...] that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ (7) It is reminiscent, too, of Cezanne’s injunction ‘Right now a moment is fleeting by! Capture its reality in paint!’ (As with Cezanne, the epiphanic luminosity of the artistic work frequently stood in stark contrast to the crankiness of the artist’s personality).

“The Hospital” is a supreme example of just ‘looking on’. Kavanagh himself wrote in his essay ‘Suffering and Literature’ of this period of his life:

I got very ill. But some may say that it is hard to kill a bad weed. When I was in hospital and the rumours of my early demise were floating - they floated back to me - a couple of patriotic chaps decided to do me proud in death. They would have me waked in state in the City Hall. Lying in state it would be called. But there were good people too, every sort of kindness has been showered on me by good people. For such love the only possible repayment seemed, at the time I was sick, to die. Anything else would have looked like cheating. However I did that little bit of cheating and afterwards went on to accept all goodness, generosity, love as it came my way. (8)

Among the unanswered questions relating to art is how a conflicted, contrary artist can produce work which achieves perfect balance and yet can continue, to all appearance, to be almost as conflicted and contrary as ever. Perhaps, as readers, and as conflicted, contrary beings ourselves, the only suitable response to this conundrum is to adopt the position of ‘negative capability’ and to leave the last word to Kavanagh. In his 1962 Self-Portrait he wrote:

There are two kinds of simplicity, the simplicity of going away and the simplicity of return. The last is the ultimate in sophistication. In the final simplicity we don’t care whether we appear foolish or not. We talk of things that earlier would embarrass. We are satisfied with being ourselves, however small.’ (9)


“The Hospital” is included in Patrick Kavanagh’s Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (London: Longmans, 1960); Collected Poems (London and New York : MacGibbon and Kee, 1964); Selected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (London: Penguin, 1996); Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (London: Allen Lang 2004). It is to be found in the following anthologies: Contemporary Irish Poetry, New and Revised Edition, edited by Anthony Bradley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); The Faber Book of Irish Verse, edited by John Montague (London: Faber and Faber, 1974); Irish Poetry after Yeats, edited by Maurice Harmon (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1979); The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. III, edited by Seamus Deane et al. (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991); Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty (Belfast: Blackstaff, 2003).

1.) Peter Kavanagh, Patrick Kavanagh, 1904-1967: A Life Chronicle (NY: The Peter Kavanagh Hand Press, 2000), p.312.
2.) “The Hospital”, Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (London: Martin, Brian and O Keeffe Ltd, 1972), p.153.
3.) William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.105-6, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
4.) Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cezanne, edited by Clara Rilke (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988), p.29.
5.) Ezra Pound, The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.25.
6.) Andrew Wyeth, The Helga Pictures (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1987), p.154.
7.) [Keats’s letter to his brothers dated Sunday, 21 December 1817.]
8.) Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Pruse (London: Martin, Brian, and O’Keefe), p.277.
9.) Peter Kavanagh, Patrick Kavanagh, 1904-1967: A Life Chronicle, p.344.

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