I'd never had a problem with analysing poetry when I had to; perhaps this explains a lot of my previous antipathy towards it. I distinctly remember deciding at university – at which I studied Creative Writing and English Literature, Joint Honours – that one needed to favour prose or poetry, and I was a prose man if there ever was one. Such binaries seem gauche and laughable now, but I think my holding of poetry at arm's length was the result of seeing it as a little puzzle to be decoded. I liked poetry analysis not because I liked poetry, but because poems were small, and I'd picked up a few tricks for finding seemingly meaningful poetic choices and saying ostensibly meaningful things about them.
One of my lecturers – very much himself a poetry man – was determined to get me to see poetry differently. He showed me a lot of poetry, most of which would get at best no reaction from me and at best scorn. Then one day he showed me The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry and asked me to go away and read Kavanagh's 'The Hospital'.
Before I did, I read the prologue, which was drawn from Tendencies in Modern Poetry , a discussion between poets F R Higgins and Louis MacNeice. What stood out to me was this, from Higgins:
Present-day Irish poets are believers – heretical believers, maybe – but they have the spiritual buoyancy of a belief in something. The sort of belief I see in Ireland is a belief emanating from life, from nature, from revealed religion, and from the nation. A sort of dream that produces a sense of magic.
I'd been a devout Catholic boy, raised in a very devout Irish Catholic household, and had broken rather acrimoniously from the Church at 16. Since then, I'd been wary of anything remotely 'spiritual'. This extended to anything too Romantic, or emotional, as though a hardening of the heart was the only way to keep myself on my new Materialist path. And yet, here was Higgins, suggesting that one could still believe in some sort of magic, something transcendental and yet undefinable, some sort of immanence just beyond the skirmishes of thought. To this day I cannot say what the realisation was fully, because it was a realisation beyond words. But it was as if in that moment I'd found my poetry – a poetry that reached for the metaphysical, even if it didn't believe in it. Such a contradiction quickened my heart then, as it does now.
That week, I read a lot of the poetry in that collection. Three poets stood out to me: Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon. Kavanagh's 'The Hospital' was the first I read, on my lecturer's advice. Tomorrow, I will post about why it has stayed with me as one of my favourite poems since my naïve university days; for now, you can read it for yourself:
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins - an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.
This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.