Anyone who went to school in Ireland between 1969 and 2000 will recognise the above as the opening of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’. And why? Because it was in Soundings.
Soundings (subtitled ‘Leaving Certificate Poetry/Interim Anthology’) is a school book that has acquired an almost mythic status among Irish people of a certain generation and literary bent. You can’t find it on second-hand copies on Amazon – maybe because the people who have kept it don’t want to give it away? But many a shelf still has a yellowing copy whose spine is held together with sellotape and whose pages are palimpsests, with the original poem almost obliterated by painstaking pencil comments, often from several siblings who have shared a copy (and whose level of interest/application can be gauged by the frequency and nature of comments).
I don’t know who Augustine Martin is/was but he took a directive and detailed approach. Lots of his questions were more than a little rhetorical (‘Read a passage aloud. How appropriate to the thought and mood are the slow lapsing rhymes and the long lines?’ I’m guessing very?)and he didn’t pull his punches with his young readers (one of his questions on Advent is ‘In what sense can luxury be predicated of a child’s soul?’) Considering it was published at the end of the swinging sixties, Soundings took a very canonical approach, going through from Chaucer and Milton to Keats and Tennyson to TS Eliot. And what is wrong with that?
So many of the poems I love I first met in Soundings, especially Hopkins and Hardy. I particularly like the 20th century Irish poetry: Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Thomas Kinsella (though I always felt not even the teacher really knew what was going on in ‘Another September’). Even though we were bashed over the head with these particular poems, I retain a fondness for them and for the general vibe of choosing great classics and scrutinising them closely. I have no idea what Leaving Certificate kids read today – but I’m willing to bet it isn’t a patch on Soundings.
Here, courtesy of F’s copy of Soundings, is the Kavanagh poem in full:
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.
My perspective on the sentiment of this poem has changed somewhat over the years – trading ‘pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’ for ‘dry black bread and sugarless tea’ seems less appealing somehow. But there’s no denying its beauty and power. I love that incantory repetition of ‘searching, burning, churning, lurching’ in the last stanza, and the philosophy (very typical of Kavanagh) of that line ‘Wherever life pours ordinary plenty’. It’s an interesting reminder that the time before Christmas is meant to be a time of fasting and reflection – penance, even. Which doesn’t seem such a bad idea at the moment considering my post below …