Just over a decade before his death in 1967, the poet Patrick Kavanagh – a man equally at home in the fields of Monaghan and the pubs of Dublin – visited America for the first time. In the Kavanagh Archive at UCD Special Collections the poet’s two late transatlantic trips can be traced through letters and interviews, giving insight into the highs and lows of this controversial writer’s career. The first trip took place in the mid-1950s, courtesy of John and Dede Farrelly, American friends who were concluding a year’s stay in Dublin and were happy to support the poet’s longstanding wish to visit New York. By this time Kavanagh’s star was in the ascendant. After a decade of ill health and intermittent publication, British magazine Nimbus brought out nineteen of his poems in 1956. Kavanagh ‘is not an Irish poet’, declared its editor David Wright, ‘he is the Irish poet’.
Buoyed up by this endorsement, Kavanagh arrived in New York just before Christmas 1956. He found the energy of the city captivating, and enjoyed the hospitality of the Farrellys, in whose apartment he met Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, as well as the influential publisher and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. This experience confirmed Kavanagh’s view that the poet was a citizen of the world, and makes clear his creative affinities with the rebels of mid-century American literature.
Almost ten years passed before the poet took his second trip across the Atlantic. By this time his reputation has been further enhanced by the publication of Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960), a volume enthusiastically received by poets and critics alike. On the centenary of the birth of W. B. Yeats, Kavanagh was invited to Northwestern University to participate in a symposium on the poet’s work. Kavanagh was happy to take advantage of a generously funded visit to Chicago, but not so keen to expend his energy extolling the virtues of Yeats. Chicago itself proved a disappointment. He found it more provincial than New York and, in the absence of generous friends, far less convivial. None of this encouraged Kavanagh to moderate his opinions, and his participation in the symposium was deliberately provocative. He repeatedly voiced reservations about Yeats. He denied that there was any such thing as an Irish literary tradition, or an American one for that matter. He excoriated the ‘pretention and bawling lecturology’ of American literary culture, provoking the ire of audience members and trading insults with them until the discussion had to be called to a halt.
In an interview with the poet, recorded during this US trip, such controversial attitudes can be seen to the full. Everything, it seemed, was ‘thrash’ – including all modern American literature (with the honourable exception of the Beats). Kavanagh was especially critical of poets who were on the side of the ‘Establishment’. What would an American writer have to do to put himself outside the Establishment? ‘They would have to be original’, he concluded, ‘and to have a comic attitude to life’. Here Kavanagh might have been describing himself, but these attributes were ones he would take many years to recognize:
‘Curious this, how I had started off with the right simplicity, indifferent to crude reason and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man, and came back to where I started’ (Self-Portrait).
It is his alertness to this process, and to the continued importance of originality, that makes his work live long in the imagination of readers.
- This guest blog was kindly contributed by Dr Lucy Collins Associate Professor of English, Co-founder, Irish Poetry Reading Archive, UCD School of English, Drama and Film
Images from the Kavanagh Archive, UCD Special Collections are reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
John Goodby, Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Stillness into History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Seamus Heaney, ‘From Monaghan to the Grand Canal: The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh.’ Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber, 1980. 115-130.
Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems. London: Martin Brian & O’Keeffe, 1972.
Patrick Kavanagh, Self-Portrait. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1964.
Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2003.