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This review is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

PORTRAITS, PLACES AND GHOSTS P.J. Kavanagh, Presences: New and Selected Poems (Chatto & Windus) £4.95 pb.

When Louis MacNeice died, Auden said he had been the poet of his generation with least to be ashamed of. P.J. Kavanagh is only in mid-career, but I think the same can usefully be said of him. All the same, he is not confined, even to the degree that MacNeice was, to ordinary or common sense merits. He is not just critically acceptable, but in every poem he writes he has something new and particular to say, which is always on the surface interesting enough to detain a reader, but then the mysterious art takes over, because the poems go on detonating in the depths of one's mind, through many, many rereadings. They turn out to be even more memorable than they looked at first sight. Yet they have no trick of the ear in common: they attain the ideal formulated by Yeats as a young man, that every poem should be a law unto itself, and any amount of finish or polish should serve only to reveal that law.

Every lyric shape in these poems is in some way a fresh departure, to which the reader must become accustomed, but I do not think he is a difficult poet in the sense in which Eliot thought modern poetry had to be difficult, though he is so I suppose in the sense in which everything genuine and truly modern is difficult because it makes fresh demands and offers fresh harmonies. He has a lyric gift as fine ...


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