A statue of Patrick Kavanagh in Dublin. The irony of a solitary, contemplative statue of a poet who criticized such solitude is striking. (Infomatique/Flickr/CC-A-SA)
Patrick Kavanagh has long been one of my favorite poets. But I wasn’t introduced to him until I took Kevin Murphy’s Irish Literature class at Ithaca College. I’ll have more to say about Dr. Murphy later; for the moment, I’ll stipulate that he was one of a small handful of teachers who truly impacted my life.
Back to Kavanagh. There are several poems by him I really enjoy. “Shancoduff” and “Spraying the Potatoes” are standard works. “Pursuit of an Ideal” has always been an under-appreciated favorite of mine. And of course “The Great Hunger” is the standard for anyone trying to understand the twisted conflicts of rural Irish society. Be sure to set aside an hour or so for reading that one.
But my favorite poem by Kavanagh was the first poem of his I ever read. It was actually the first poem to appear in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” tells the story of a writer who finds himself on the outside looking in.
As the poem opens, the speaker describes a perhaps stereotypical rural scene:
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Pretty standard stuff, and you don’t have to be Irish to appreciate this. Anyone who’s either lived or can project themselves into a small town knows those times when everyone’s on their way to the same event. It might as well be a middle-school dance, with a pack of giggling tweens texting each other about who likes likes who.
But then there’s a turn. Without warning, in the next line the scene jumps forward:
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.
Where is everyone? At the dance, of course. We knew that. But where’s our speaker? Alone on the road. Everyone else is at the dance having a good time. But not him.
And he’s not too happy about this:
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.
It’s the word “blooming” in the final line that gets me. Both an acknowledgment of the creative powers that come from isolation and a expletive spat out in disgust as he recognizes what solitude’s brought him, it’s one of the great lines of poetry.
There’s so much in this poem I like. The allusion to Alexander Selkirk, for example. I also love how it’s a twist on sonnet form. I tend to use this poem when teaching poetry to point out that not all sonnets need follow one of the “approved” styles. And other that pointing out how Kavanagh enjambs so many lines to keep the poem moving, I wish I had the skill to explain why the poem’s meter is so cool. That’s never been my strong point.
And these days, as I think a lot about writing, and the sort of life a writer needs to lead, Kavanagh’s poem provokes reflection.
I always wonder, when reading this poem, why the speaker wasn’t in the barn to begin with. Was he not invited? I doubt that. Somehow it’s hard to imagine Billy Brennan set up a rope line and hired a bouncer to keep out the little people.
Perhaps he was shy. Nervous around the ladies. Certainly that theme’s picked up in Kavanagh’s other work.
Or more likely the speaker fell into the trap of thinking writers must stand apart from the community to be effective.
Isolation isn’t a good thing. Sure, your thoughts may bloom, but to what end?
Writers need to be part of the dance. If you’re not in the barn, there’s only so much you can write about. Sure it’s good and necessary to occasionally step outside and look in. But then one ought eventually to go back inside.
Blog writers and poets have perhaps at least one thing in common: our primary audience may be our peers. When no one else is paying attention, we’re there. We need each other to stay sane.
So we build our own barns online to dance in. And this is good, because we challenge, support and applaud each other, when a lot of the world couldn’t care less about the songs we’re dancing to.
It’s a big barn, with a lot of dancers. But it’s not the only dance in town.
Kavanagh’s poem reminds us all to find that middle road between engagement and solitude.