Monday, November 13, 2006

It's been a good weekend for verse.

Malcolm, a day late, came upon Adam Phillips in The Observer reviewing James Fenton’s anthology The New Faber Book of Love Poems (and, Malcolm notes, just twelve quid on Amazon). Inevitably Phillips covered some of the ground of Fenton's own essay on same-sex love poetry in Saturday's Guardian.

Now Malcolm has no intention of reviewing reviews. What he particularly liked was the box at the end of Phillips' piece, using Paddy Kavanagh's On Raglan Road, in its pristine state, as an example of the love-poem.

Almost the last word on this lyric came from Paul Durcan (no mean performer himself) in the May 1988 issue of Magill (on line here), and worth an extended quotation:

The day I arrived back from Canada - Saturday March 19 - was the day Ireland reached its nadir. After twenty years mucking around in the depths of our own nadir, we finally got there, just before noon on Saturday March 19. I was half-asleep - having got off the jumbo from New York at 8.15 am. But strangely enough - strangely - it was on the evening of the same day that Van Morrison from East Belfast climbed up on an open air stage outside the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. And not only that but he chose to collaborate with Mícheal ó Súilleabháin, a traditional musician par excellence who, precisely because he is a truly traditional artist, is more avant-garde than the avant-garde.

And not only again but - and this is the cake beneath the icing - their finale was On Raglan Road.

Van Morrison's rendition of Patrick Kavanagh's "On Raglan Road" is fitting because it brings together the two finest poets in Ireland in my lifetime. No other Irish poets - writing either in verse or in music - have come within a Honda's roar of Kavanagh and Morrison.

Both Northernerssolid ground boys. Both primarily jazzmen, bluesmen, sean nós. Both concerned with the mystic—how to live with it, by it, in it; how to transform it; how to reveal it. Both troubadours. Both very ordinary blokes. Both drumlin men—rolling hills men. Both loners. Both comedians. Both lovepoets. Both Kerouac freaks. Both storytellers. Both obsessed with the Hegira—from Monaghan to the Grand Canal, from East Belfast to Caledonia. Both originals, not imitators. Both first-time cats, not copycats. Both crazy. Both sane as sane can be. Both fascinated by at once their own Englishness and their own Irishness. Both obsessed with the audience and with the primacy of audience in any act or occasion of song or art. Both fascinated by the USA. Both Zen Buddhists. Both in love with namesplacenames as well as personal names:Cypress Avenue, Inniskeen Road; San Anselmo, Islington; Boffyflow and Spike, Shancoduff; The Eternal Kansas City, The Rowley Mile; Madame George, Kitty Stobling; Jackie Wilson, Father Mat; O Solo Mio by McGimpsey, John Betjeman on Drumcondra Road.

Any of that need explaining? You're on your own, says Malcolm (who demands a certain degree of intellectual sweat in his readership), except that 19 March, 1988, was the occasion of the
Corporals killings by the Provos.

But, Malcolm argues, is it wholly Kavanagh's Raglan Road? Surely, in its continuing existence it owes as much to Luke Kelly. And, what that, Malcolm begins his story.

Kavanagh wrote the poem in 1946, and its original title was Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away. It was inspired by an unrequited love for Hilda Moriarty, then a medical student at UCD (and half Kavanagh's age). She appears, explicitly, in A Ballad:

O cruel are the women of Dublin's fair city,
They smile out of cars and are gone in a flash ...

I know one in Baggot Street, a medical student
Unless I am greatly mistaken is she
Her smile plays a tune on my trembling psyche
At thirty yards range, but she passes me by
In a frost that would make Casanova be prudent.
She later married Donagh O'Malley, "The School Man", and one the few Fianna Fáil TD's who earn Malcolm grudging respect (though not for his wretched plan to merge TCD and UCD).

Kavanagh met Luke Kelly just the once (according to Kelly in a RTÉ interview, which used to be available on line). The meeting, naturally, was in a pub. Kelly said it was The Bailey on Duke Street, before its tarting-up, a short stagger between Kavanagh's usual McDaid's (in Harry Street) and Kelly's habitual O'Donoghue's (on Merrion Row):

I was sitting in a pub in Dublin, The Bailey, and as you know in the old days —it's changed a bit now—it was known as a literary pub, an artistic pub. I happened to be sitting there in the same company with Patrick Kavanagh and one or two other poets, and someone asked him to recite a poem, which he did, and then someone asked me to sing a song which I did. Being in the presence of the great man I was very nervous. Then he leaned over to me and said in that sepulchral voice of his—he could hardly get his voice out, he was very old ... it was just the year before he died —and he said 'You should sing my song,' and I said 'What's that, Mr Kavanagh?' and he said 'Raglan Road''. So he gave me permission. I got permission from the man himself.
Kelly gave the song some pace: nobody has done it better. Others now seek to claim part of it.

Although Raglan Road continues to flourish, Malcolm believes it is not Kavanagh's best poem. Malcolm, forced to chose one, would opt for Epic:
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
The date, 1938, is often included in the title, which means it was written just before Kavanagh left Monaghan for Dublin. And "Munich bother", however much of a meiosis it was then, has gained in power subsequently.

The essential trick, here and elsewhere in Kavanagh, is parochialism and place. We can look for various antecedents for this: Joyce had Buck Mulligan's omphalos (which was also adopted as a key word by Famous Seamus for his Preoccupations, Selected Prose 1968-1978), or we can go back into the dim and distant Celtic twilight to dinnseanchas, poems as tight as haikus which tried to relate a place to its spiritual and legendary context. Kavanagh's ambition is to go "over the fields to the City of Kings". Instead:
Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco -
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.
From the beginning, on the Inniskeen Road: July Evening of 1936, Kavanagh's place was as circumscribed as a navel, as the island of Alexander Selkirk (as he draws from William Cowper):

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.

What makes Malcolm careful of Raglan Road is not just that is become another Oirish pub-ballad. It is more that it has become like Monument Valley, a one-size-fits-everyone, all-purpose cliché on which to hang a sentiment, or by which to sell something. It is sufficiently commonplace to be Raglan Road™ Irish Pub and Restaurant at Walt Disney World, for goodness sake! Malcolm loathes sanitising: he knew Raglan Road, Dublin, D4, in the Sixties, for it intersected Elgin Road where he had a basement flat. It was, even then, upwardly-mobile, but still gritty.

As should be Kavanagh's ballad: not a dirge before last orders. Quite properly, they put Paddy (albeit tidied up) on a bench by the canal, not on a pedestal.


The Bailey (once full of ruggger buggers) is now a "scrubbed-up-quite-nicely" wine and coffee bar. O'Donaghue's has become the name for a small chain of tourist hotels. Even McDaid's, once the epitome of the unhygienic, has built toilets upstairs. And Malcolm? --

I walk in Islington Green,
Finest landscape you ever seen;
I'm as happy as I've ever been.
And that's by poor, dead Paddy, too.

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