Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Irish Poets Open Your Eyes’ can be seen as the speaker ‘having a go’ at his contemporaries; urging them to climb down off their pedestals and live and walk and have fun with the ordinary people of Ireland. He rhymes off activities to do and places to go that they would deem ‘unworthy’, but by abstaining from these he feels they are missing the vitality of the city and the valuable human connection with their fellow man.
Irish Poet Open Your Eyes
Antoinette Quinn, in her introduction to his Collected Poems, says of his diverse style:
…..any one poem might encompass a variety of tones and moods from the condemnatory to the consoling, the cheeky to the celebratory. His vocabulary ranges from the racy and demotic to the abstruse; literary allusions jostle with everyday idioms; agricultural, suburban and biblical images mingle with those drawn from banking, the boxing ring, the betting shop, the pub, the race-track.
The poem is set out in five stanzas with a trochaic tetrameter rhythm (eight beats per line). I say trochaic as opposed to iambic because it seems to me that the stress is upon the first syllable. This lends the poem a more emphatic air and the form effectively mirrors the content since the tone is hectoring throughout. He urges Irish Poets to ‘open [their] eyes’ and take in the everyday and each stanza beings in the same way, with an imperative to shake them out of their reluctance to participate in these affairs.
The AA BB rhyme scheme is regular throughout with the exception of stanza two where the rhyme in the first two lines could be described as slant. I feel the simple rhyme scheme also conveys his message very succinctly. It’s as though he’s saying “Don’t over-complicate matters! No fussy rhyme schemes for me, I’ll make my point clearly, no doubt about that.”
You can read the whole poem here.
Analysis of Irish Poets Open Your Eyes
Irish poets open your eyes
Shelbourne Park and crooked men.
The speaker gets straight to the point, as he urges the Irish poets to ‘open [their] eyes’ and come back down from their self-exalted positions and join in some activities typically enjoyed by their compatriots. He suggests that they begin their reintegration with the everyday by visiting Cabra, a suburb in the North of the city, and then a wee trip to the races in Shelbourne Park, where maybe they’ll get lucky if they don’t get swindled by some ‘crooked men’. (Kavanagh, I imagine, would reckon these writers would probably be eaten alive at such a place, and I suspect this would have given him some satisfaction.)
Could you ever pray at all
Freed your Freudian distress?
Another trait of Irish writers at this time was a move away from traditional religion, as they would have eschewed the teachings of the all-powerful Catholic Church. They’d have been far too intellectual for any of that religious intolerance and mumbo-jumbo. But I can just hear Kavanagh saying: “Will you just get in there and have a good auld pray; I’m sick to the back teeth of this Freudian nonsense of hating your father and fancying your ma. You think the Church spouts nonsense? Catch yerselves on!”
Obviously, I’m being facetious but there’s a beauty in these lines. I love the soft assonance of the internal rhyme of ‘breath’ and ‘simpleness’. It’s as if the speaker is echoing the book of Deuteronomy when God urges “Choose life”; climb off your pedestals and join the masses, come and see what you’re missing.
The proliferation of ‘f’ sounds in the fourth line is gently fricative, as he remonstrates with them to stop over-intellectualizing everything. Freud’s theories obviously didn’t hold much sway for Kavanagh.
Enter in and be a part
Superdance away your care.
I love the speaker’s use of personification in line two: ‘the world’s frustrated heart’. There’s a sense of us all being in the trenches; life is hard, man, but let’s muddle through it together, there’s beauty to be found. Instead of theorising alone in an empty room, he suggests they take their angst to the golf course and perhaps find some answers or if not, at least respite, in the open air. He makes effective use of the imagery of the golf ball sailing through the air taking one’s problems with it, and the use of alliteration with ‘drive’ and ‘despair’ conveys the force of the motion. He has also used some wordplay, as even me, with my non-existent knowledge of golfing terminology, knows that one of the clubs is known as a ‘driver’.
After the golfing, he suggests a wee jig might go some way to restoring equilibrium. He was fond of a dance, was Kavanagh, as was the later Irish playwright Brian Friel, whose play Dancing at Lughnasa is almost testimony to its transcendental power to elevate one from the everyday. The strong, firm rhymes in this stanza show how strongly Kavanagh feels. Just for a few minutes, he seems to be saying, let the music and its rhythm transport you away from your troubles.
Part – ‘Same time, same place’ – and go.
He gets to the important stuff here, and breaks the meter to make this instruction stand out above all the rest. In perhaps Kavanagh’s most famous poem, The Great Hunger, he tells the sorry tale of a young man who keenly misses living his life without a wife. This, Kavanagh says is what life’s about, find a companion and marry her. You wouldn’t need to be expecting much wooing here, it’s a chaste kiss in an alleyway, not the Ritz, but at least he’ll be back, no empty promises here. Even the verbal exchange is unfussy, there is no whispering ‘sweet nothings’, just the direct instruction to turn up next time. But, dear readers, never underestimate reliability in relationships, they won’t last long without it.
Learn repose on Boredom’s bed,
Deep, anonymous, unread,
Finally he asks them to sit still a moment, to rest their wrestling consciences from worldly concerns and take their noses out of the latest philosophy books or stop opening up the history books and reinventing Irish myths for a modern audience. Just be still and plumb your own depths he suggests, by being ‘Deep, anonymous, unread’. Then perhaps some inspiration may come, and its fruits may be lasting, thus ‘endure’.
About Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was born in County Monaghan, which straddles the border with the north of Ireland. His family were farmers and were poor, and he was one of ten children. He left school at aged thirteen to work on the farm but pursued his love of literature with a dogged determination. He rued his denial of a formal education, and felt that his lack of opportunity to continue his studies hindered his progression in the literary world. His access to literature was so restricted by his poverty and rural isolation that he had not even heard of James Joyce or W.B. Yeats until 1925. However, on coming to Dublin and meeting fellow writers, he was disappointed when many of these ‘men of letters’ failed to live up to his expectations. He was to remain always on the fringes of academic society, despite the acclaim which many of his poems received. He was a difficult, argumentative sort of a fellow; traits which were exacerbated when he ‘took to the drink’. Irish people, if riled, will often ‘take to the drink’, which seldom ends well. However, while recovering from a lung transplant in 1955 he had something of an epiphany, and this brush with death gave him a renewed appreciation of life and he wrote some his most beautiful poetry, notably ‘Canal Bank Walk‘.
During his lifetime his work as a poet was undervalued, but his work, when considered as a whole, covers an immense range and pushed the boundaries of its time. Seamus Heaney, another Irish poet from a farming background, drew inspiration from his oeuvre, as he took poetry back to the ordinary people, where it could be appreciated by everyone, from school children, farmers or those in academia.
Quinn, Antoinette, ed. Patrick Kavanagh Selected Poems. London: Penguin Classics, 1996.