My wife surprised me yesterday with an anthology of poetry called Lifelines. We have all of the volumes in this series each of which is compiled by Wesley College students to raise money for good causes. The idea is simple, they invite writers, poets, actors, politicians and so on to select their favourite poem and write a note on what makes it special for them. Over the years they have raised tens of thousands of euros.
And the best thing is, the anthologies and the commentaries are terrific.
So it was with some excitement that I sat down to read it last night, though I never got further than the first contribution, which was a poem from my youth – Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ – a poem that I haven’t read in years. Looking back to then from the perspective of today, life seemed much less complicated and this poem made a lot less sense.
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffeys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel —
"Here is the march along these iron stones".
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
I love the idea of naming a 14 line sonnet ‘Epic’. I love the Duffeys and McCabe’s life or death struggle over a half rood of rock, and how Kavanagh sets this dispute against the awfulness of ‘the Munich bother’ – the Second World War. Right here is the notion that the local parishes of Ballyrush or Gortin (small towns in rural Monaghan) are the microcosm of the world. That a person need not stray too far from the local to encounter danger, passion, violence, jealousy, lust or pulse-raising adventure such as old McCabe, seen stepping the plot, ‘defying blue cast-steel’.
Out of such apparently small things are great things made. From such local rows, great art emerges through the eye and imagination of the god/poet who observes. From such small beginnings as an argument about a field, can wars begin. So-called gods can make their own importance and 70 million die.
How then should we live in this world?
How do I live authentically in my local place, with the small dramas of my life set against the world shaking events in Pakistan or in Kenya? How do I live with the complexity of paying attention where I am, without being absorbed wholly by the stuff of my personal circle.
Is it at least living in the knowledge that ‘I am my brother and sister’s keeper’?
I guess that if nobody is there to pay attention to the minutae of peoples’ lives then the gods of the world will make important the things that matter to them. In Kavanagh’s case, without him being there to notice Duffey and McCabe their encounter would pass unnoticed, casting no shadow in the strong light of WWII.
It’s not that there is an equivalence between these simultaneous events, rather it is the poet’s task to preserve the ultimate significance of individuals who fade away when the world’s gods do their thing.
So maybe one of the tasks of the Christian is to be present in the world and to notice the local in the midst of the universal. There is an incarnational dimension to this kind of living. The Word becomes flesh in a very local place, his travelling distance limited by the distance he could walk in a day. So he couldn’t stop wars or feed every hungry person or right every injustice. But he could model a new way of living and being in the world so that when he left it and sent his spirit and established a new community there would be those whose sense of what was important was shaped by an alternative vision.
What a wonderful poem and what a great poet was the irascible, spiky, and colorful Kavanagh.