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This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

The Passionate Transitory Vona Groarke
‘A true note on a dead slack string’ was how Patrick Kavanagh described poetry, but it all depends, I daresay, on what you mean by ‘true’. Poetry has an uneasy relationship with sincerity: too much, we say the poem is navel-gazing; the poet, self-obsessed. We decide that we find nothing there relevant or helpful to the lives the rest of us are trying, hard, to negotiate. Too little, and we think the poem glossy and insubstantial, with not sufficient purchase in one life to tell the truth of life.

(There’s often a performative element to sincerity: watch it watching itself from the wings, appraising its own authenticity, in parentheses.)

It’s a delicate balancing act. As poets, we seldom want a poem to be relevant to only ourselves: we thrive on the possibility that if we make it well enough, a reader will be pleased to recognize herself in the poem we made of something in our lives. But we also know that trying too hard to appeal can knock a poem off balance, if it has no core.

(I’m generalising. I may have already lost your interest. That ‘we’ is so impersonal you may already have concluded I have no investment in this argument. And if I don’t, why should you? Let me try, therefore, to rein it in.)

A certain kind of poem has a bourgeois dislike of the exposed emotion, throwing upon it layers of tea towels, jackets, tablecloths, blankets - whatever is to hand to cover it up, for heaven’s sake; for decency. We know such poems: they come in familiar packaging – narrative poems (if they have historical subject-matter, then so much the better); anecdotes, puns, ballads about current affairs, ditties, song lyrics, ‘comic verse’. There’s a received quality to them, always; a formula down into which is dropped the kind of personal inflection that is, we know, really nothing of the sort.

(Oh yes, I’m being judgmental. These I call ‘folk poems’, tied up in the tight ribbons of locked-down quatrains and full rhyme with a customs declaration on the brown paper of their packaging: ‘No dangerous substance here’.)

These kinds of poems get read out on the radio, occasionally, by jokey, likable hosts, but their natural habitat is probably the deaths column of local newspapers where they are paid for, by the word, in the hope that they honour the deceased and say something about the grief of the bereaved that needs to be said in something other than the language of everyday. Which may be why most memorial verses are written in rhyme. There’s a formal neatness to it that might be said to dignify the occasion of a death; but also a way of squaring off the rawest feeling behind the four bars of a quatrain, and the turned lock of a full rhyme.

We will suspect, reading them, that there is feeling at the nub of them, sincere grief, but that feeling is muffled in borrowed form and ready-to-wear sentiment. The point of these verses is to be about grief, but not so much that we might think them actually written out of the feeling of grief at its most extreme. Form and language tame the feeling, like a bested dog. Instead is a simulacrum of feeling; a one-size-fits-all ‘sincerity’ without any personal investment and, therefore, without any risk.

(Why am I picking on these verses, that do no harm to anyone and maybe some good to a few?)

When it comes down to it, everyday language doesn’t always seem equal to the task of conveying what’s keenly felt or fiercely experienced: there’s a gap, sometimes, (a chasm?) between experience and our wherewithal to describe it.  Then we have two choices, really: firstly, tame the experience, dial it down or push it aside so either it doesn’t need to be translated into language at all, or the language of everyday is adequate to the job of its conveyance. Alternatively, we can up our language game, find better words; braver, more passionate, sturdier, more elegant, more eye- and ear-catching words. What’s needed, in that case, is a box of words put up on a high shelf and taken down only for special occasions. That’s the box with the ‘poem words’, we might tell ourselves. And whenever life spills over the rim of the ordinary, we’ll know exactly what to do. Up go the arms, down comes the box, in goes the hand, and out comes a fistful of only the most excellent words to be sifted down to the page, where they will settle into the likeness of a poem.

(The problem with a notional box is that it’s never quite where you think you left it. I can reach now, for all I’m worth, and not put my hand to it.)

That fancy language does not make a poem is known to anyone who has tried to write one. Plain language neither, though its shorthand sometimes knows how to cover ground more efficiently. The task is to personalise our language, somehow, without sacrificing meaning to neology. We need to be original, yes, but not too original.

(In poetry, but in prose also, we push to discover and play with new form. It might not work but that’s ok: the effort, the curiosity has value. Wouldn’t you say?)

And we need to be sincere –or at least appear to be- without sacrificing style – more so in a poem than in life. In life we get away with all kinds of worn-down phrases, so long as we can accompany them with a true look in our eyes. Language is a two-way mirror and anyone saying ‘I love you’ likely cares not a whit for all the times it’s been said before.

(Can you see, for the sake of it, the true look in my eye now?)

Sincerity, rightly deployed, can pierce the surface of a poem, as it can sometimes do the ordinary business of a life. We have come to expect it of poetry. I blame the strategic disclosures of the Confessionalist style but really it’s a useful, tried and trusted trope whenever the lyric ‘I’ feels the weight of the poem’s formal scaffolding, and threatens to buckle or warp. It could be that the artifice of poetic form dominates the voice; or it could be that the choices made for the poem begin to squeeze it into positions uncomfortable; or that the poem’s voice begins to adopt a tone that has moved so far from the poet’s own, that she begins to feel at sea. A remedial repositioning is deemed necessary. Out goes rhetoric; out goes the play of irony and the glitter of metaphor. The poem is reined in; the language toned down; the pyrotechnics of style held back while the trump card of, ‘Oh, but look - it’s true’ is played as a winning move.

(If you can believe it. If you’re prepared to.)

I’m inclined now to whittle sincerity down into three poetry strands of expression: grief and desire, of course, but also something less obvious and less pindown-able; something I think of as kicking in when the poet intensely engages with something outside herself, such that her inner self retunes to it and both inner and outer worlds are in perfect and enthusiastic equilibrium.

(Can equilibrium be enthusiastic? What should I call it: Epiphany? Too big. Connection? Too small. In-sync sincerity? Oh, come on now! Language fails me. This isn’t good. Do I need to straighten my thinking, refine my argument?)

Grief, we expect to be sincere, at least to some extent. The expression of it may not be original, but we will believe it to be true in direct proportion to the simplicity of its expression. In the famous final stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways’, for example, the effect is deflationary:

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

The quietness of the final phrase is a stylistic choice, of course, as is the slight shift in register from the first two lines of the quatrain to the understated, almost whispered, declaration of the second. It moves us, for a finish, because it strikes us as entirely sincere. Initially, we’re unlikely to question how the effect of that sincerity has been wrought but if we keep re-reading the poem, we’re unlikely not to notice that it is an affect as delicately-wrought and finely-tuned as any successful poetic affect will be.

(But am I moved? Or just curious enough to want to remove the cover and look inside the machine of the thing?

The bathetic cadence of the final couplet is striking because of the contrast with the tone of the more self-consciously literary opening lines (‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove’), with their ballad metre and stylised language (‘dwelt’, for example, when ‘lived’ would have been perfectly adequate). The poem positions itself initially on a slightly higher rung of the Poetry Ladder than where it chooses to end, and that contrast between art and truth is what makes the final couplet so apparently sincere and so inherently affecting.

(Does it seem too disingenuous, I wonder, to position sincerity inside a frame of artifice?)

Come at from a different angle, the point of a poem might be to oppose or undermine that artifice, to strike straight for that true note, no matter how slack or taut the string. I’m thinking now of the glosses written by monks in the margins of ninth-century illuminated manuscripts, that are all (apparent) spontaneity and immediacy. Here’s one (translated from Irish by Thomas Kinsella):

How lovely it is today!
The sunlight breaks and flickers
on the margins of my book.

It has the quality of something overheard. The scribe, tired of copying Latin grammar, perhaps, looks up from his desk in the scriptorium, notices the world outside, and jots his noticing down on the vellum that is his copybook.

(Which, of course, is how I write too. In my copybook.)

The scribe’s task is not to be original, particularly – his work is copying. There is no place there for the personal, one would think. But that’s not what happens: his noticing, his attention paid is like a stab in the arm, cutting through artifice and craft; personalising what is otherwise a gorgeous exercise in technical mastery. It’s an outward glimpse that flicks to a glimpse of an inner world, being experienced immediately and through the senses, and with such urgency that it begs a record because it is at such moments of sheer sensation that we feel most human, and who amongst us cares to squander that feeling of intense vitality?

(I, for one, hoard them and dote on them, nightly, like Silas Marner with his gold coins.)

What cares the scribe if his jottings down will get him in trouble later for the cheek of them, set against the holy word? For him, it’s a short line from feeling to the record of it; after all he is a scribe, so he inscribes his impulse on the expensive vellum, with the expensive ink. It is what he has to hand on which to put down what we all wish to put down, the fact that once, if only for a single and piercing moment, he felt himself, sensuously, to be very much alive.

(Which is the point of writing, surely? If not, then what is?)

Here, from across five centuries, is another such utterance, one I read as offering one of those rare moments when a reader can not only understand what’s being said, but can actually feel the feeling of the poem.

O Western Wind, when wilt thou blow
        That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
        And I in my bed again!

The words were written, set to music, in a 1530 partbook, but may be much older than that. It may be a fragment of a longer Middle English poem, the rest of which has gone the way of the scribe’s unrecorded responses to what mattered less to him.

(I really hope not. Let it be complete in itself, perfect as it is.)

‘O Western Wind’ is by Anon. That helps. If we could fix a face and a build to its poet, I suspect it would seem less immediately forceful: we’d read it as his utterance, or hers. But in floating (almost) free of an historical physical frame, it seems to offer us a space in which to easily paste our own image. And it’s only a very little jump from there to a full occupation of the poem, spoken in our own voice and representing our own longing, our own loneliness.

It’s an ephemeral poem, in the sense that it articulates a single feeling, of a single moment, doing so in a way that impresses us with its ringing authenticity. I don’t read these four lines and suspect the poet started off with the rhyming end words, with poetic strategy rather than sincere feeling, and simply took it from there.

(Does any poet believe a poem to have started once those formal decisions have been made?)

I don’t read it thinking the poem has got in the way of that feeling, or has compromised or exaggerated it. What hits home here is the emotional content, and the mechanism of its conveyance – the quatrain’s metre and b-b rhyme, its two punctuation marks (question and exclamation), the urgency of its monosyllabic thrust, its ‘w’ alliteration to push the poem off, the doubling of that ‘rain’ in line 2, the unusual adjective (which is also the only adjective in the poem, apart from ‘Western’, which is really part proper-noun – all seems secondary to the urgency and depth of feeling there. I notice these technical aspects of the poem, of course I do, but I perceive them to be only a kind of light scaffold to support the real business of the poem, which is its unadorned, undisguised sincerity.

(I’ve made the poem climb the scaffold of craft. There it is now, on the viewing platform, where I have already positioned myself to look it in the eye.)

Although music is provided in that 1530 version, I hope never to meet the poem that way: I don’t want it mediated or accompanied. Leave it be, I say. Leave it pure and leave it stark: as such, it has already done what any poem may hope to do – it has made me both admire and feel. Head and heart, both implicated.

(Nothing like the knife-edge of desire to cut through to the quick of us!)

I first read the poem as a kind of promissory note on the poet’s next encounter with her lover. It’s a poem designed to be a charm to make that encounter happen; to make her desire come good.

Now I’m not so sure. The western wind is not a northern wind: its storms are of an altogether tamer variety.  I realise now that the me reading those first two lines had been primed by poetry to expect every wind to be a gale, and every gale to be a tempest, and every tempest to be a metaphor for romantic intensity. I read the poem as if it were a second cousin, twice-removed, to Emily Dickinson’s ‘Wild nights, wild nights’ or to Ted Hughes’ ‘This house has been far out at sea all night’. Put ‘wind’ and ‘blow’ in a line of poetry, and I was a reader to hear it immediately roar about my ears as if I were wandering out on the moors, haunted and bereft.

(But this essay is not about me.)

But that’s not right, is it? The wind from the west is a clement wind: as winds go, it’s inoffensive. The rain will be only small rain: no self-respecting bough would bother to bend for its desultory airs. You could uphold an umbrella in a west wind, no bother. You could even, were you so inclined, chance a tightrope walk.

What’s asked for in the poem is not the wind to cause impassioned ructions in a scene of implacable calm. What’s asked for is a wind to relieve not dullness, but heat. The setting is summer, parched and crinkly, not uproarious wintertime. Even small rain will be welcome: better than nothing, it will bring light relief. Or none. I don’t believe the speaker is likely to lie with his or her lover anytime soon. The parched place may be, eventually, relieved by rain, but the other parchment, on which is written the anguish of loss, is harder to get to lie down.

(Oh, see me arranging my argument! I smooth, as rain might do, the jagged edge.)

By the time I encountered this poem I was old enough to recognise in drought a workmanlike metaphor for all kinds of lack, but especially of the sexual kind against which Patrick Kavanagh railed. The line that connects the first two lines with the second is a tripwire of sexual desire. It’s not just a homely domesticity that’s invoked, or the niceness of being comfortable in bed while a storm (of any kind) has its way with outside the house; it’s not a nice poem in that way. It’s a kind of howl of loneliness, of sexual frustration, that cuts through the intervening five centuries (at least) since its composition, to strike us with its naked sincerity.

But sincerity is not a sustainable condition: it does better with the puncturing instant than any longer time-frame. Even within the fourteen lines of a sonnet, it’s possible to watch a poem slip in and out of an apparently fine-tuned honesty, like the dial on an old valve radio, sliding into signal and growing in volume as it warms to the voices its finds.

(Being also a way to live: silence brushing over voices, seeking itself out again.)

Patrick Kavanagh’s poetic voice slips and slides this way. ‘The Hospital’, for example, kicks off with a stark avowal – he’s telling a story in his first three lines, and he’s colouring it in. In line three, the narrative impulse stalls: the poem shifts from narrative to descriptive register and the first false note of the poem is sounded in the phrase, ‘an art lover’s woe’, a phrase with a whiff of the phony built-in, there to plump up the rhyme with, on the previous line, ‘row’. The dial has slipped over a station, and it’s a pity, because it was playing a good song.

Tricky, of course, to get every line shipshape in a Petrarchan sonnet, all the rhymes locked in, the argument argued, the register sustained. And interesting too, to watch a sonnet strain after the smoothing of so much. With Kavanagh’s sonnets, a slack line often follows a taut one, as in lines five and six here:

But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.

He very nearly had it, until that ‘heat’ which seems to me to be a ‘poeticism’, there to fill out the metre, there because in Kavanagh the strains of poet and Poet tend to be locked in constant duel. In this case, the signals of literal and figurative cross: he’s used an abstract noun (‘love’), and now he has either to climb back down from it, or to intensify. Unfortunately, he chooses the latter, diminishing a very powerful statement with an insincerity too far.

(Does anything sound less genuine than sincerity going a smidgen too far?)

He uses the Volta to recover, to find sure footing again in the material, real world. And it’s lovely, the sestet: sure-footed placename and close observation opening out, unforced and elegant, to a final couplet that carries the whole weight of the poem as if it were lights as sticks.

In the best of Kavanagh, he nails it, just like that. ‘Epic’, for example, doesn’t waver. The dial rests on the sweet spot it finds between Inniskeen, Munich and Ancient Greece. The proper nouns are a kind of ballast to holds the poem secure.

It’s when he looks up into the stony grey sky that the problem sometimes occurs. That’s when we see his language strain under the charge of having to be poetry.

(We know that strain; at least, I do. We buckle under it every time we want a phrase to turn a corner and find itself somewhere between the cul de sac of experience and the thoroughfare of style. Clumsy metaphor, I’m aware. I’m buckling, you might say.)

The sincere moment in a poem is exactly when we least feel the poet’s acknowledged formal responsibility. The language seems charged only with urgency, and barely at all with considerations of poetry. ‘Get it down quick’, you can almost hear the monk say to himself. ‘Get it down quick’ says Anon too, but he has more time on his hands and no one breathing down his neck in the Scriptorium, so he has a little more leisure and head-space to apply poetry to urgency, and to craft impulse.

Wordsworth, our man in the scriptorium, Anon – they know the value of the ‘passionate transitory’.  They have found the compelling balance between their own experience and what might be thought of as our answering one. And they have applied just the right amount of poetry to confer on it a kind of completeness and self-containment that makes it memorable (in every sense of the word). Recorded without claptrap, in language that welds craft to experience, we feel the heat of their sincerity and we can’t help but warm to it.

(If we do.)

The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins - an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh

This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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