THE poetry of both Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney is inspired by the everyday life of their local rural communities. The drumlin farmland of south Monaghan is as central to the poetry of Kavanagh as are Mossbawn, Broagh and Anahorish in that of Heaney.
Heaney's 'omphalos', the centre of his world, is symbolised by the ‘helmeted pump’ in the yard with its slung bucket and procession of neighbours drawing water. In a similar way, the family setting in Kavanagh’s home on Christmas morning is foundational for an exploration of Kavanagh’s ‘childhood country’: ‘My father played the melodeon /my mother milked the cows’ and ‘three whin bushes rode across the horizon – the Three Wise Kings’.
Poetry rooted in homeland, remembered in detail and fired by the imagination transforms simple objects such as ‘wafer-ice on the potholes’ or bread baking on a ‘reddening stove’, into literature that endures. Both poets are imbued by the truth of Kavanagh’s statement that "on the stem of memory imagination blossoms".
Both writers come from large families and relatively bookless backgrounds. The Heaneys had nine children, the Kavanaghs 10. Patrick, born in 1904, was the first son. Patrick became head of the household in 1929 when his father died.
Heaney, born in 1939 was the first-born, the early ‘white-haired boy’ and scholarship winner of the Heaney home. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and become a renowned professor of English in world-class universities.
Kavanagh left school at 14, and although he continued to be self-educated, the scholarly gap between the two writers is enormous; Heaney the classical, literary scholar, Kavanagh with only schoolbook education to his name, yet with a lyrical gift that is unsurpassed.
Writing as a way of life was a complete break with tradition for both families. Each poet struggles to accept his lot as a writer. Heaney’s stubborn resolve to write rather than dig, made famous in his poem Digging, matches Kavanagh’s cryptic advice To The Man After The Harrow, (himself of course), whom he exhorts to believe against the odds (and sneering neighbours), that the cultivation of words will realise a harvest of Genesis proportions.
Ultimately both poets see writing as a vocation. Kavanagh struggles from the beginning, bereft of someone to mentor him in the trade of poetry, deprived also of the love of a woman to support him in his calling. Heaney is blessed with both. He has, from the beginning, a coterie of fellow poets around him, a quality marriage and a family life difficult to match. Kavanagh is a solitary soul. In his native Inniskeen, ‘he can take part, but he cannot belong’. (Self-Portrait).
Land was important in the lives of both poets. Both families owned small subsistence farms. The Heaneys owned Mossbawn and the Broagh farm and in 1954 they inherited another farm from a Scullion uncle, The Wood, near Bellaghy. Although the land quality might be considered ‘as poor as Lazarus’, these bog lands and marshes provide a rich reserve of inspiration for Heaney.
The Kavanaghs, on the other hand, came from a dispossessed background; their ancestors had lost their land though inability to pay the rent during the 19th century agrarian disputes. James Kavanagh was a cobbler by trade, though he and his wife cherished the idea of one day owning a farm. The acquisition of Shancoduff farm, a poor, north-facing holding, that ‘the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken’, was a red-letter day for the family, to be immortalised in Kavanagh’s sonnet Shancoduff. This ‘triangular hill’ he recognises as ‘love’s doorway to life’ (Innocence)
Heaney’s introduction to Kavanagh in 1962 came thanks to a loan of A Soul for Sale (1947) from Michael McLaverty, headteacher at St Thomas’s Intermediate School in Ballymurphy. Reading Kavanagh for the first time was a revelation to Heaney who marvelled that the world of ploughing, churning, blackberry picking, turf-cutting etc could become the stuff of poetry.
Heaney’s inspiration to date had come from Hopkins, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, and the great giants of English Literature.
Reading Kavanagh’s masterpiece The Great Hunger and contemplating the fate of Paddy Maguire, who never emerged out of ‘the fog of unconsciousness’, gave Heaney the permission he needed ‘to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life’.
By 24, Heaney was invited to submit a manuscript of his work to the prestigious Faber and Faber publishers in London. At 24 Kavanagh was still learning to plough the ‘Stony grey soil of Monaghan’ and wondering if there were ‘some light of imagination in these wet clods’ (The Great Hunger).
But in his own time, Kavanagh, through perseverance, exile and hardship, brings home his own poetic harvest. Heaney’s assessment of Kavanagh’s later poems, such as Auditors In, Epic, Prelude and the Canal Bank poems, can be equally applied to his own: Mossbawn Sunlight, Clearances and Squarings. Absences now become presences, and love, ‘deep planted and long gone’ evolves into ‘a bright nowhere’.
Heaney notices that when the later Kavanagh writes of places such as Ballyrush and Gortin, they have become ‘luminous spaces within his mind’. They exist no longer as ‘documentary geography’ but as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force’ – ‘The placeless Heaven that’s under all our noses’ (Auditors In).
Heaney will, of course, be remembered internationally for his chorus-lines from The Cure of Troy, where hope and history rhyme. The Troubles had drawn widespread attention to his work. To date, Kavanagh lacks the international exposure he deserves, although he has been quoted by President Obama and Russell Crowe on occasion.
Together Kavanagh and Heaney, along with their literary progeny, have created a rich legacy of Irish poetry that celebrates our landscape, heritage and culture and confirms us in our sense of belonging to the earth.
:: Dr Una Agnew is professor emerita of Spirituality of the Milltown Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Spirituality, Dublin. 'The Placeless Heaven’: Kavanagh and Heaney', which will include a children's workshop and Lyric theatre performance of The Great Hunger, takes place at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, Co Derry, on Saturday October 7. Tickets and details at seamusheaneyhome.com.