Kavanagh, P(atrick) J(oseph Gregory)

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KAVANAGH, P(atrick) J(oseph Gregory)

Nationality: British. Born: Worthing, Sussex, 6 January 1931. Education: Douai School; Lycée Jaccard, Lausanne; Merton College, Oxford, M.A. Military Service: National Service, 1949–51. Family: Married 1) Sally Philipps in 1956 (died 1958); 2) Catherine Ward in 1965; two sons. Career: Assistant floor manager, BBC Television, 1954; lecturer, British Institute, Barcelona, 1954–55, and University of Indonesia, Jakarta; staff member, British Council, 1957–59; actor, 1959–70; columnist, Spectator, London, 1983–96. Since 1996 columnist, Times Literary Supplement, London. Awards: Richard Hillary memorial prize, 1966; Guardian fiction prize, 1969; Cholmondely prize, 1992. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1986. Address: c/o A.D. Peters, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 OXF, England.



One and One. London, Heinemann, 1960.

On the Way to the Depot. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1967.

About Time. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1970.

Edward Thomas in Heaven. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1974.

Life before Death. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1979.

Real Sky. Andoversford, Berkshire, Whittington Press, 1980.

Selected Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1982.

Presences: New and Selected Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

An Enchantment. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.

Collected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.


Television Plays: William Cowper Lived Here (documentary), 1971; Journey Through Summer (documentary), 1973; Paradise in a Dream (documentary), 1981; Scarf Jack, from his own story, 1981.


A Song and Dance. London, Chatto and Windus, 1968.

A Happy Man. London, Chatto and Windus, 1972.

People and Weather. London, Calder, 1978; New York, Riverrun, 1980.

Only by Mistake. London, Calder, and New York, Riverrun, 1986.


The Perfect Stranger (autobiography). London, Chatto and Windus, 1966; Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 1988.

Scarf Jack (for children). London, Bodley Head, 1978; as The Irish Captain, New York, Doubleday, 1979.

Rebel for Good (for children). London, Bodley Head, 1980.

People and Places: Essays 1975–1987. Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.

Finding Connections (travel). London, Century Hutchinson, 1990.

A Book of Consolations. London, Harper Collins, 1992.

Voices in Ireland, a Literary Companion. London, John Murray, 1994.

Editor, Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982; New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Editor, with James Michie, The Oxford Book of Short Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Editor, The Bodley Head G.K. Chesterton. London, Bodley Head, 1985; as The Essential Chesterton, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Editor, Selected Poems of Ivor Gurney. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.


Critical Studies: By Philip Gross, in Poetry Review, 83(2), summer 1993; by Robert Kee, in The Spectator (London), 273(8665), 6 August 1994.

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P.J. Kavanagh's rhythms are dangerously close to prose at times; nor is he strict enough with the logic of his syntax. In the excellent and otherwise evocative poem "The Temperance Billiards Room" there is some atrociously impacted versifying halfway through that quite ruins the piece. A simple example of carelessness and lack of attention to the actualities of meaning can be seen in a couple of lines from "Birthday," from his early collection On the Way to the Depot:

   Who's got there before you waving like mad
   And calling hello like a wartime railway station?

The insertion of the monosyllabic "on" before "a wartime" would have avoided the obvious criticism that railway stations, whether in wartime or not, do not call out greetings. It is no use for a poet to answer, "Well, you know what I mean," for the syntactical logic of a poem must be impeccable.

That cavil past, Kavanagh is an interesting poet with a fine eye for detail and an engaging personal voice. Though his syntax can be a mess sometimes, even to the point of obscurity, he is mostly an accessible poet. He gives one the feeling of a nice, slightly lugubrious nature pushing ever hopefully through this slough of despond that is life. One knows that he is aware of all of the temptations and pitfalls, as we all are, but he unostentatiously buttonholes the reader into joining in the struggle with him. His real niceness, his greatness of spirit even, shows in a quietly dogged determination to eschew self-pity and to endeavor to celebrate. While he cannot sing like a Keats or a Dylan Thomas (he cannot sing his praises, only think them), there is a warm, quiet, ruminative tone underpinning a great many of his poems, summed up best in a single line from one of his most memorable: "I think often of the time I was perfectly happy." Indeed, the title of this poem, "Perfection Isn't like a Perfect Story," somehow captures the philosophical tone of this hopeful pragmatist among poets. In an age of so much dismal poetry the sanity of a poet like Kavanagh, who always keeps both sides of the coin as much in view as possible, is much needed.

Metaphysically speaking, Kavanagh's poetry, which tries sometimes too hard to be au courant, exists in an anxious no-man's-land between belief and nonbelief. As a man with Irish ancestry ("Ancestor-hunting: an interest as sudden /As middle-age …"—"Borris House, Co. Carlow"), somewhere at the back of his mind there looms the presence of Saint Peter's, with all its centuries of creed and devotion. Like most modern poets, however, he finds it very difficult to live anymore within a handed-down faith. Yet the wanting of God and the craving for the angelic orders are always there. The impulse sometimes produces a half-facetious, slightly silly poem, like "Consolations," which does nothing to increase our, or his, sense of the real presence of God. But then, as it were, out of the blue comes a poem of breathtakingly simple seriousness, unmannered and true, like "Real Sky." This is a Blakean poem in which "eternity loves time, I hear it blow," and through the poem we do too. It is a poem of singular and simple beauty in which divinity is as much in its invisible rhythms as in its images or saying:

   And I remember briefly how they feel,
   My bones supported by the wind's round hand.
   A life-long love affair—I wooed the real;
   At last I see the real world exposed,
   And real sky come plucking for my hand.

This is better than a hundred wooden psalms praising conventional belief because it is a kind of proof, proof of the eternal real. It is good metaphysical poetry, and though such is rare in any poet's career, when it appears it is the best and most important kind of poetry. Its presence here and there in Kavanagh's oeuvre amply justifies Christopher Hope's comment on the poems that "they begin and end with God, though they deal with affectionate relish with the human journey that spans these poles."

The increasing subtlety of both Kavanagh's mind and its conception of his personal quest for understanding (and perhaps solid faith in) the world, wherein he feels so much "a sojourner," becomes even more apparent in the 1991 volume An Enchantment. His gritty praise of nature is still strong, but the grudging intrusion of philosophical ideas, hedged with irony, continues and often brilliantly:

   God without image (your masterstroke) our feeding, our
   starvation, in whom I believe as I believe in air
   stacked with potency queuing to come in,
   cleanse our VDUs, our personal screens
   foxed beyond reading with traffic of images.

In an interview Clive Wilmer described Kavanagh as "a nature poet," albeit a "modernised" one like Edward Thomas. But in the same interview Kavanagh himself enlarged that perception when he said, "I feel that there is another world and we have a connection with it … a language that is just out of earshot." Some sense of "another world" and its language comes ever nearer in his later poems.

Because Kavanagh became interested in the sad, mad, and unbearably tragic case of the poet Ivor Gurney, his own work was influenced by that writer's rugged, sometimes tortured convolutions. Kavanagh not only edited the Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, but he also wrote a great and moving tribute to the poet that no report on Kavanagh's own work can, or should, ignore. The tribute shows Kavanagh at his most controlled and moving and reveals the sympathy he is capable of for another's "hurt as great as any man /Has had." It also underlines, as the best exemplum, what Martin Dodsworth justly observed of Kavanagh's work, that it presents "the vulnerable human face of poetry, domestic, unaffected, equal to its human occasions." This is about as solid an achievement as any poet in these times of confusion and insincerity can hope for.

—William Oxley

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Kavanagh, P(atrick) J(oseph Gregory)

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