28 April 2009

Seamus Heaney on Patrick Kavanagh

[from the essay "The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh" from Seamus Heaney's The Government of the Tongue, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988]

. . . the later regenerated poet in Kavanagh does not paint at all, but draws.

Painting, after all, involves one in a more laboured relationship with a subject -- or at least in a more conscious and immersed relationship with a medium -- than drawing does. Drawing is closer to the pure moment of perception. The blanknesses which the line travels through in a drawing are not evidence of any incapacity on the artist's part to fill them in. They attest rather to an absolute and all-absorbing need within the line itself to keep on the move. And it is exactly that self-propulsion and airy career of drawing, that mood of buoyancy, that sense of sufficiency in the discovery of a direction rather than any sense of anxiety about the need for a destination, it is this kind of certitude and nonchalance which distinguishes the best of Kavanagh's later work also.

This then is truly creative writing. It does arise from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, but the overflow is not a reactive response to some stimulus in the world out there. Instead, it is a spurt of abundance from a source within and it spills over to irrigate the world beyond the self. This is what Kavanagh is talking about in the poem "Prelude," when he abjures satire which is a reactive art, an "unfruitful prayer," and embraces instead the deeper, autonomous and ecstatic art of love itself:

But satire is unfruitful prayer,
Only wild shoots of pity there,
And you must go inland and be
Lost in compassion's ecstasy,
Where suffering soars in a summer air --
The millstone has become a star.

When I read those lines in 1963, I took to their rhythm and was grateful for their skilful way with an octosyllabic metre. But I was too much in love with poetry that painted the world in a thick linguistic pigment to relish fully the line-drawing that was inscribing itself so lightly and freely here. I was still more susceptible to the heavy tarpaulin of the verse of The Great Hunger than to the rinsed streamers that fly in the clear subjective breeze of "Prelude."

I have learned to value this poetry of inner freedom very highly. It is an example of self-conquest, a style discovered to express this poet's unique response to his universal ordinariness, a way of re-establishing the authenticity of personal experience and surviving as a credible being. . . .

The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987

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