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This article is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

The Poetry of P.J. Kavanagh Alan Wall

'...to hoard and stroke the past till Now is gone,
to forget the past is now or not at all.'
                                              P.J. Kavanagh, 'Christmas Holiday'

Forgetting is inimical to poetry. The muse appears in many shapes but she is always remembrance-obsessed. This becomes apparent to us at specific cultural moments, for example the Great War. The real poets there insisted on remembering and this very act of anamnesis set them at odds automatically with the rhetoric of propaganda. Propaganda is socially functional precisely because it remembers selectively - it has designs upon us rather than sharing designs with us. It is, in David Jones' sense, utile. Poetry though is inutile, for it is committed to making for its own sake, remembering for its own sake. It is, as David Jones again had it, an intransitive activity.

Insofar as we are the consciousness of the past, we are the past. It was only ever conscious of itself as present. It lives on in us and we are dialectically entangled in it, able to fathom the meaning of ourselves only from the meanings we ascribe to what preceded us. Perhaps Santayana's famous statement was not entirely accurate: those who cannot remember the past are condemned not to repeat, but to invent it. All murderous regimes from the Third Reich to Kampuchea have at the top of their agenda the obliteration of remembrance, for nothing threatens the hygiene of terror's republic more menacingly than true recollection. ...


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