Atomic Essay #14 – ‘the passionate transitory’

I thought that this would be an easy post to write. Kavanagh's 'The Hospital' is one of my favourite poems; it should have been an easy task to write an analysis of it.

Atomic Essay #14 – ‘the passionate transitory’
Photo by Adhy Savala / Unsplash
I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.
–– John Constable

I thought that this would be an easy post to write. Kavanagh's 'The Hospital' is one of my favourite poems; it should have been an easy task to write an analysis of it. Yet I felt a good deal of pressure in the attempt. Perhaps it was to do with a fear that I wouldn't do the poem justice, but what I found more striking was how hard it was to put into words exactly why I love the poem. What follows, then, is not particularly granular, but rather an attempt to explain on some level how the poem resonates with me. There is no agenda beyond that. Here is the poem; following it are some thoughts about it.

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.

This poem revels in describing the 'common' and 'banal'. It starts by doing just that, taking pains to compound just how unmemorable and dull the hospital is. And yet, this starts a tension one feels beating throughout the whole poem. This tension comes foregrounding the hospital within the poem, making it the subject of the poem. One would imagine such a place to only ever have the status of object – it is a place where things happen, and things happen to it, but it never acts, and it is not important other than as a container or location. And yet, right from the title, Kavanagh begins to transubstantiate it. The title's directness gives way to the opening declaration, played clearly and plainly, that the speaker fell in love with the ward of the hospital. I loved the jarring nature of the opening for its playfulness as I do now – there's a glinting wink to the language – this was the first time I'd read a poem (if recollection serves me right) that was this happy. I wanted a better word, but 'happy' will do, because that's the tone. The poem is warm and bright. That opening playfulness already elevates the hospital to something greater than its brutalism before Kavanagh more explicitly tells us that this is what he's up to. By the time we get to the final line of the first stanza, the word 'inexhaustible' breathlessly sings off the page. Kavanagh has made beauty where it seemed to have no business being.

I love this poem for how explicit it is about its message. One of the things that's quite hard about writing an 'analysis' of this poem is that there's not much to decode. When I first read it, that's what I thought poetry was – a code to be cracked. Sure, one can delve into choices Kavanagh makes on a micro level if one wishes to – and this isn't a bad idea – but for me the beauty is in the crystal clarity of its message. Love can get anywhere and everywhere. And love's presence in the world is all a matter of seeing. Naming things – the act of noticing, slowing down, really seeing – is 'the love-act'. That's poetry. Poetry is the naming of things; by naming them in poetry the poet transubstantiates them. They are the same in appearance, but now their essence has changed.

Perhaps this is why I still love this poem. I remember when my daughter was born I was asked how it felt to be a father. I replied that I was experiencing a new kind of love, one that had been locked up within me, as though it could only be unlocked by having a child. Naming her was a love-act, and my pledge. To start to love we need to see. That's what loving someone is: really seeing them. And the poetry comes when we try to name things in an effort to make sense of that love. On some level, poetry – language – always fails us, though our metaphors strain valiantly nevertheless. 'The Hospital', for me, is one of those poems that almost gets there, that almost captures what love is.

Kavanagh, after all, isn't interested in 'claptrap' – if he's going to write poetry about 'love's mystery', he's going to do it as explicitly and as clearly as possible. His poem is a 'snatch[ing]' of a moment that could otherwise be forgotten. This is what writing is: it is the effort we make to record a moment beyond the moment itself. It's not like taking a photograph or video recording; when we write we record the moment through the glass of ourselves. We leave bits of ourselves in the spaces between the letters and words. We write to remember who we were when we thought and felt and did. Because that way we can stop time, if only for a moment. When we look back, it's the moments that mattered, and they're often moments we didn't expect to stay with us.