On Kavanagh, Hughes, Burra and Sisson

A correspondence on haiku and then sonnets led me to dip into Don Paterson’s 1999 anthology 101 Sonnets (Faber). I was pleased to find Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening included. It’s the only poem I’ve ever ‘borrowed’ from – I used the equally punning phrase ‘blooming sun’ in the first poem, concerning a herd of cows in County Down, which I had published, in Poetry Ireland Review, appropriately, in 1987.

I bought a copy of, and was greatly affected by, Kavanagh’s Collected Poems in my first year at university, in 1985/86. That was around the time that Tom MacIntyre’s play adaptation of Kavanagh’s masterpiece, ‘The Great Hunger’, was finishing a triumphant run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which had revived interest in a poet whose posthumous reputation had, it seems, not been as high as it ought to have been, despite advocacy from the likes of Heaney and Montague. (The play incidentally reminds me of Paul Durcan’s poem, ‘What Shall I Wear, Darling, to The Great Hunger?’ which I saw him read at Coleraine in, I think, 1990.)

Paterson’s verdict on Kavanagh’s sonnet is brief but mostly spot-on:

This is about as good as it gets – effortless rhymes, effortless accommodation of natural speech to the form – and that lovely pun on ‘blooming’. Fine witty poem on the predicament of the provincial aesthete.

The Predicament of the Provincial Aesthete sounds rather like the title of an Angus Wilson novel.

I like the way that the first half of the octet is packed full of an energy and activity which is deliberately lacking from the second half, as if the ‘mile of road’ could be in a Beckett play or a Jack B. Yeats painting. The three phrases which stand out from the octet – ‘the half-talk of mysteries’, ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’ and (‘not / A footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ – are perfect: economical yet conveying some sort of magic in the air.

The turn of the poem is a large one: whereas the octet is entirely observation of the all-seeing narrator, the sestet moves into the personal. Poems which talk about poetry are often dull as ditch-water, but here the comparison with the model for Robinson Crusoe leads the reader, this one at least, to consider whether Kavanagh was doing more than a sketch of ‘the predicament of the provincial aesthete’. Do these six lines, especially the couplet, not give a sense, again, that a poet anywhere is as isolated as Selkirk was, and, like an old-time traveller or tramp, ‘king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’? That would do for me.

Somehow thought of ‘the provincial aesthete’ led my mind to Ted Hughes and, specifically, his 1979 collection Moortown which contains several of his mythopoeic sequences, including ‘Prometheus On His Crag’, but also perhaps the oddest poem within his oeuvre, ’Orts’, part 5 of which, ‘In the M5 restaurant’, is extraordinary stuff. It’s a scrawled excoriation of the sub-standard fare at a motorway service station in 1970s England, wrapped around an environmentalist warning about the primacy of the car. As a whole, it’s a rather Existentialist take on the poet’s life on the road:

Our sad coats assemble at the counter

The tyre face pasty
The neon of plaster flesh
With little inexplicable eyes
Holding a dish with two buns

Symbolic food
Eaten by symbolic faces
Symbolic eating movements

The road drumming in the wall

The road going nowhere and everywhere

My freedom evidently
Is to feed my life
Into a carburettor

Petroleum has burned away
But a still-throbbing column
Of carbon-monoxide and lead.

I attempt a firmer embodiment
With illusory coffee
And a gluey quasi-pie.

I can’t be alone in finding the last stanza hilarious – the poet-as-food-critic, disgusted by the horror he finds before him. In my experience. It’s tempting, naturally, to suggest that very little has changed in the intervening forty or fifty years.

It’s reminiscent for me of the peculiar, equally stark Environmentalist-ish paintings which Edward Burra produced in his last decade or so. His widowed sister Ann would drive him all over England and Wales and what he saw from the passenger seat would feed into ominous-looking landscapes, in which hills and mountains are rendered in grey and black, and petrol tankers and lorries dominate the undulating roads. It’s a vision absolutely in parallel to Hughes’s despair at a soulless England. What on earth would either or both of them make of the state of the nation today, now that government, more than ever, is in thrall to big business with next-to-no though of the consequences beyond unpublished impact assessments made by put-upon civil servants? C.H. Sisson’s epitaph, born of his own bitter experience and included in his 1961 collection The London Zoo, will suffice:

On a Civil Servant

Here lies a civil servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.

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