Thoughts: Collected Poems by PJ Kavanagh

Every time I read poetry I say this, but I still feel the need to repeat it. Poetry is not really my medium, and I’m never sure if I’m reading it right. One at a time or one after the other? Read in rhythm or as naturally as possible? Pause at the end of lines or not? I suppose I also don’t feel like I’ve read enough poetry in my time to be able to make valid comparisons, or for my judgements to have the sort of reliability I hope my non-fiction and fiction “reviews” do. They’re very much for myself; I don’t think I’d feel confident in recommending or not a book of poetry to someone else, at least someone I didn’t know well.

But I’ve read more poetry in the last few years that I pretty much ever have, so maybe I’ll get better at it? I don’t want to be one of those people who says “I don’t know about art but I know what I like”, but I think knowing what I like will be a good start.

I really enjoy reading volumes of Collected Poems, which is something I’ve started doing since I decided authors/poets who get obituaries in the Guardian go on the list. I didn’t realise “collected poems” were generally whole bodies of work – I just thought they sounded like good representative places to start someone’s oeuvre. Sometimes they are the whole oeuvre (though not this one, which was published before his last book)!

But I like it, actually. Most poets change their style throughout their lives, and I might find one volume to be wonderful and another meh. This way I get to see the whole picture instead of risking that I choose a volume that isn’t my style and forever judging the poet. And the best part is that you can get the feel of the whole shape of a life, if a poet is prolific enough and lets you in, and so it is with PJ Kavanagh. His poetry is incredibly dense and difficult – I read most of the poems twice to really get them into my head – but when I got them, I got them.

He wrote a lot about nature, often in winter, family, death, ageing. War is never really far away. His poetry was more what I think of as “traditional” poetry, about moments or places or things, tied to more abstract concepts. He played with rhyme throughout the whole book, but moreso in the beginning, and he wrote a lot in iambic rhythms too, falling out of it in the middle and coming back again at the end. And through it all you see him leave the army behind, settle in the country, marry, have children, take care of ageing parents.

His sons grow up almost before your eyes, their lives woven through the poems as babies, toddlers, schoolboys. As a whole, it’s just incredibly lovely.

The style is almost formal, the vocabulary huge and gorgeous, but Kavanagh winks at the reader from time to time. He’s aware of the melancholy of his tone and how it differs from the majority of his life, which he says himself has been full of happiness (The Old Notebook).

Of course there were poems I didn’t understand at all (there always are, in every collection) and who’s to say I got the right end of the stick when reading the ones I liked anyway? Sometimes it feels better not to talk about it, just to understand whatever you understood and not care if it was intended or not because the understanding is so sweet.

So, some favourites (mostly for my own benefit later):
St Thomas More
Merton Garden
Opened and Fastened
A Single Tree
For Saint Cecelia
The Old Notebook

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