Friday, September 16, 2016

Poems I Journey With 8

Back in the good old days we had to learn many poems off by heart as learning by rote was still in the ascendant in the mid-seventies of the last century. Ireland has given birth to legions of poets, and the author I am celebrating here tonight, one Patrick Kavanagh remarked that at any one time our country could boast of a standing army of some 10,000 poets. W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and Austin Clarke were the four major Irish poets we studied at school. Tonight I want to discuss Patrick Kavanagh's great poem "Stony Grey Soil" which we studied for our Leaving Certificate.

Patrick Kavanagh

Stony Grey Soil
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.

You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

You told me the plough was immortal!
O green-life-conquering plough!
The mandril stained, your coulter blunted
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.

You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of cowards' brood,
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch,
You fed me on swinish food

You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!

Lost the long hours of pleasure
All the women that love young men.
O can I still stroke the monster's back
Or write with unpoisoned pen

His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant's prayer.

Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco -
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.


Rare colour photo of Patrick Kavanagh
We all at one time or another have a love-hate relationship with the city,  town, village, townland or countryside where we were born.  We are never happy with our progress in life and we often blame our native place for the singular lack of opportunity it offered us as young people.  We also, of course, blame our family of origin which is naturally enough specifically rooted in our birthplace.  When I studied the Irish Gaelic language we were told that the great Irish Gaelic poet Seán Ó Ríordáin had a propensity to compose compound words or "chomhfhocail" as we called them in that language.  Kavanagh uses a similar technique in his poems by using his own compound or hyphenated words, viz., "clod-conceived," "thick-tongued" and "green-life-conquering." I especially liked, as a youngster studying this poem, Kavanagh's use of the literary devices of personification (where his Monaghan farm home is addressed directly as a person) and apostrophe (addressing someone or something that is simply not there in front of one). Also "Stony Grey Soil" is written in a form somewhat akin to that of the ballad as the poem contains stanzas of four lines each even though Kavanagh does not stick rigidly to the rhyming schemes of the traditional ballad.

However, for me the strongest feature of this poem, as of virtually all of Kavanagh's poetry, is the strength or force of his simple and direct imagery. Such strong imagery is evidenced practically in very line and indeed in the very title which occurs as a repeated line that has the effect of a chorus of lament.  A list of images is always easy to make in any poem by our author: "stony-grey soil," "gay child of my passion," "clod-conceived," "clogged," "stumble,"  "stride of Apollo," the named parts of the plough, "lea-field" and so on.  I shall not bore the reader with listing them for the whole poem as he or she can easily do that for themselves.

This poem is steeped in regret for his lost opportunities as a poet and as a human being since as a young man he dedicated himself to the land rather than to his métier as a poet or as a lover or suitor for young women.  The poem then becomes a lament for his predicament, that is, having wasted his youth.  That sentiment is stated very strongly and bitterly in the following lines packed with clear imagery:

O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!

I also particularly love the traditional format and nature of this poem.  It was long a tradition in Irish Gaelic poems to list off the names of townlands and towns as in the tradition of the "dindshenchus" as is exemplified in the final stanza.

Again, there are references to religion, God, but not the Church as in the following five lines:

Or write with unpoisoned pen
His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant's prayer.

It is the "peasant's prayer" or natural or instinctive spirituality that appeals to Kavanagh. That is at once Pagan Celtic as well as Catholic or Christian.  Then there is the paradox that exists at the very heart of life, namely "dark fields" that might suggest something profoundly ungrounding and unnerving like the "dark night of the soul" and yet it is placed side by side with "the gay flight of his lyric" that somehow was caught up in a peasant's prayer rather than a poet's book of promise.

Finally the line "Dead loves that were born for me" is distinctly depressing and profoundly disturbing.  That the ballad format is used for this poem is also good as it is able to carry the lament and regret from his misspent youth and the lost opportunities he might have had, had he been luckier in life. 

No comments:

Post a Comment