The poet can help us declutter to prepare for the coming of Christ, writes Sr Una Agnew SSL
When Patrick Kavanagh leaves home to go to live in Dublin in 1939, he does so in the belief that, relieved of the constant constraints of farming, he will be free to pursue his writing ambition. He will also, he hopes, have an opportunity in Dublin to meet with established poets and writers. This dream, he soon learns, is an illusion. Too many writers in competition with each other trying to eke out a living in the city, and in war-time, means, that he is often ignored or written off as a blow-in peasant poet. Secretly, however, many envy him the lyrical genius that is already evident in Ploughman and Other Poems (1936).
He lands himself in Dublin with a very limited formal education, he tries his hand at journalism, and occasional newspaper articles even film-reviews but he survives mostly on the financial support of his brother Peter, who is now a qualified teacher in Westland Row Christian Brothers school.
Despite an initial sense of freedom to write, Kavanagh’s feels himself an exile in Dublin and feeling more and more the loss of the familiar landmarks of home. He tries to gain recognition among Dublin writers and journalists by frequenting the Dublin pubs especially the Palace Bar where writers and journalists at that time seemed to congregate.
There was a strong drink culture pertaining to writing. He wasn’t a heavy drinker when he lived in Inniskeen; an occasional bottle of porter was all he could afford. But, soon he succumbed to some extent at least and became victim of this drink culture.
City life was now taking its toll and he knew it. He missed the quieter rhythms of farming life. There are too many distractions, too much time spent drinking, vainly seeking the attention of women and fighting for his rights as a poet. The poet in him who walked the hills of Inniskeen, “loving life’s miracles”, who had sat alone in his little 10x12room above the kitchen allowed “its little window lets in the stars” was now bombarded by too much. He, the lover of whins and bogholes, even the weeds and grass that fed his creativity, was losing something important to his raison d’etre as a poet. He was losing his capacity for wonder and awe which we know is the beginning of a sense of the Transcendent in life which we as Christian name as God.
The poem Advent is a sequence of two sonnets. In it, Patrick Kavanagh confronts his dilemma and at a very opportune moment, at the onset of Advent. Brought up in a deeply-religious family, he knows that Advent is a time of purification, fasting and preparation for the coming of Christ. He stops to reflect and to take himself to task on squandering some of his real poetic resources. He addresses himself in a forthright way, almost chastising himself with the words: “We have tested and tasted too much, lover”. For all his awkward overtures to beautiful women on Grafton Street and Raglan Road, the authentic lover in himself is being suffocated. Kavanagh often talks to himself, to his many selves! He also takes himself in hand by writing. At this point in time, he is in urgent need of purification in his deepest soul. He needs radical simplification of lifestyle to counteract the bombardment of his soul by the ‘too much’ of everything he has recently begun to experience.
Using a double sonnet format, he addresses his loss of innocence and wonder and in a second movement, sets out to restore his soul to readiness for an authentic celebration of Christ’s coming.
Entering the solitude of his “Advent-darkened room”, he craves again the memory of “a black-slanted Ulster hill”, his own Shancoduff, his triangular hill, that could restore renewal to his soul. He thinks also perhaps of his little room over the kitchen so that could restore him to the wonder of little things. Kavanagh was particularly fond of restricted vision, probably derived from the cramped space of his family home, yet whose little window “lets in the stars”.
So far, the city has been making too great assault on his senses and starving the real lover in himself, whose soul’s desire craves solitude, simplicity and an almost a monk-like austerity. He says in another poem, that envisions him in his little room over the kitchen: “I am like a monk in a grey cell/copying out my soul’s queer miracle”. His poetry he knew was the precious outcome of “The luxury of a child’s soul…” For Kavanagh, this is not childishness, but a quality of openness, receptivity, open-mouthed curiosity – a quality of wonder. Wonder, he knows, is the beginning of philosophy. It leads to awe which evokes awareness of God’s presence in the universe.
Kavanagh knows that he has to embark on some cleansing ritual. He mentions the traditional “dry black bread and sugarless tea” of the Advent fast long ago…Kavanagh did not need this, he was so poor he often had to borrow a shilling to buy bread pretending it was for the gas metre. But he desperately wanted to find his own way, his own poet’s practice of becoming alert to the newness in everything…to be re-awakened to the wonder of the world and the people around him. He wants all of us to join with him in discovering this mystery of newness, to put to rout boredom, any sense of the staleness of things or a know-it-all mentality that robs us of the wonder of seeing things, as if, for the first time….
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill,
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool, will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
What is noticeable in this first part of the poem Advent, is the poet’s deliberate visualisation of an icon of peace, tranquillity and innocence. His memory calls up for him a powerful icon of innocence, “the spirit-shocking /Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill”. Kavanagh had fallen in love with a hill which he knew was “Love’s doorway to Life”. “On the stem of memory imagination blossoms”. Remembering will be the key to reawakening. He recalls a neighbour’s banal conversation, “the tedious talking of an old fool”…yet he longs to hear it once more. He is nostalgic for his childlike wonder at whins bushes, bog-holes, he once explored as he said himself, “lost in unthinking joy” and old Stables, that evoked for him something of the mystery of Eternal Time, a forceful reminder of the Christmas story.
So, how does Kavanagh’s Advent get himself back on track? He pictures for himself a time and place where he could dwell in his imagination and where his vision was clear and unspoilt. The simple icon which he places before his imagination is the triangular hill of Shancoduff in the shade of the big Forth of Rocksavage.
Let us pause at this point and try to visualise our image, what will be our Advent icon, that brings peace and helps us to detox in this lead up to Christmas freed from the pressures of ‘Black Fridays’ and ‘Cyber Mondays’ and all the hurry and excessive fuss that can smother out the real meaning of Advent and Christmas! What image of peace and calm restores in us to “the luxury of a child’s soul”. It may be a quiet place of prayer, a walk along the seashore or a window that lets in our star, even a spot in our back garden where the birds come to feed…somewhere we can shed our worries, cares and busy-ness and find our soul. Let us find this place and rest there for a few moments.
Second Stanza of Advent: Visualising the Difference
Every spiritual practise makes a difference. It makes an adjustment, however slight to the quality of our lives, even if we only practice it for five minutes every day. The second half of Advent is at pains to visualise, in detail, the change that will take place when a personal problem is acknowledged, the need expressed and taken in hand. The poem Advent provides us with a template of how Kavanagh managed his life at this juncture. He was complex in his character yet it was “on his hand, the humble trade of versing which could easily, restore his equanimity”. He places great store in the hope that by writing, he can make it happen.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among simple, decent men, too,
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges,
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.
Kavanagh makes a deliberate return to the practise of wondering at everyday things. We, too, can find our small daily wonders. It is not likely we will be present at a country churning but we have our own rituals where arguments occur about who empties the dishwasher or puts out the bins. The renewed consciousness envisioned by Kavanagh will restrain our judgementalism; free us from our favourite self-righteous perch on the high moral ground, where we feel confident we know what is bes for everyone. This high moral ground, often despised by Kavanagh, is not necessarily the friend of authentic Christian spirituality. Better be aware rather, of our own vulnerabilities, and allow ourselves be moved to compassion of heart that seeks to find good in everyone. In this renewed state of mind Kavanagh see the value of what others might call menial work, “men who barrow dung in gardens under trees”. No one is to be omitted from the largesse of Christ’s coming. With hospitality of heart as his ideal he celebrates the “ordinary plenty” of everyday and declares himself rich, now that he has “thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages/Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour”. A radical cleansing, we feel, has taken place in the poet, which we as Advent people only hope to emulate.
He asks in particular, that we refrain from trying to analyse our new-found wonder. It is especially unhelpful to attempt to fathom “the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges”. Only someone who has stood still near a hedgerow and listened to seepage of raindrops through a hedge, will understand what the poet means. ‘Strangeness’ for Kavanagh means mystery, and even the most casual greeting spoken in passing can carry something of the breath of God.
To reach this state of spiritual richness, we wonder what is it we need to throw in the dust-bin this Advent? It could be a grudge, a hurt, an unhealthy practice. There is an area of life that each of us can resolves to declutter!
Both agendas set out by this poem Advent, which Kavanagh has set for himself have been addressed. They are applicable to all of us. First there is the letting go of too much, our excess baggage, our need for detox, and secondly a renewal of vision, understanding and gratitude. These require discipline, purpose and visualisation of positive alternatives. Kavanagh is skilled in opening up positive alternatives to “the too much” of life. There are infinite possibilities of renewal that lie within the potentialities of our graced selves if we take time to find them. We need to treasure our personal Advent icon, whatever it is, that will quiet our souls and help us to wait upon Mystery in the true spirit of Advent.
The sonnet structure, along with the asceticism proper to Advent season, inspired the poet to renew himself in spirit. Can we too aim at discovering our own Advent transformation and as a result, find a rekindling of wonder in little things, gratitude “for the ordinary plenty” in a world where many are starving? We hope too, that our efforts to wait in hope for Ghrist’s coming, may be crowned by the expectancy of epiphany, a renewal of hope when Christ comes with “a January flower”.
This is adapted from an advent reflection given by Sr Una as part of the Presentation Brothers’ ‘Monday at the Monastery’ event in Glasthule on November 27.