Maura O'Connell on Patrick Kavanagh
The Irish-Nashville folk singer on an early poetic inspiration.
when I was doing my Inter Cert I had a wonderful teacher called Harry Hughes, and the first poem we studied with him was Patrick Kavanagh's 'Stony Grey Soil'. It was so elemental . . . steaming hills of dung and the like . . . that I was kind of surprised and thought it was kind of funny at first.
But then I realised it was all about feel, and texture, and reality, and earthiness, and it was that that really sparked my interest in poetry.
Up until then, poetry was something that you recited, not something you really felt. But Kavanagh's poetry was very real;
I've always liked the way I feel when I read his poetry. It has a very visual earthiness.
And it lets you feel your own emotions through the writing, which takes a remarkable talent.
One of the first poems that really blew my mind as an adult was Kavanagh's 'My Room'. It's about his bedroom with its low roof and simple furniture and holy pictures on the wall . . . seemingly very barren . . . and it ends with the lines 'My room is a musty attic, but its little window lets in the stars'. All the houses in Ennis where I grew up were very old with thick walls and small rooms and very little furniture, and holy pictures all over the place, but we had a skylight, and when you looked out you saw the stars.
I find Kavanagh's poetry very soothing.
There's a certain dourness to some of it, but I think it's to do with the nature of the time he was living, and the fact that he was always . . . like any great poet . . . in almost complete penury, and that he was not really taken seriously in his own time.
I've lived in the US for over 20 years and to some extent Kavanagh can connect me back with Ireland. But what was really inspirational was the universality of the way he wrote. He wrote from a very elemental place, not necessarily from an Irish place.
He was a great man for writing about unrequited love, and he was great for the appreciation of place . . . any place which inspires you and somehow represents you.
Great poetry, like great song, is about joy and about loss, but mostly, in my experience, about loss.
When my mother died suddenly in 1988 I got great solace from Kavanagh's poem 'In Memory of My Mother': "I do not think of you lying in the wet clay of a Monaghan graveyard; I see you walking down a lane among the poplars on your way to the station."
It was reading poetry at school as much as anything else that really influenced my singing ability, my ability to get inside the Bwords of a song and be entranced as much by the poetry within it as by whether it's got a good beat or melody. My love of poetry really contributed to my ability to find a song that will resonate with the audience.
I'm glad I never met Kavanagh . . . you hear stories about him sitting in McDaid's being a cantankerous old sod . . . he was very bitter towards the end. But I think his outward personality probably didn't represent his true soul. And I think it's very interesting that someone can present something in one way and feel it in another way.