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March 10, 2022


#ReadingIrelandMonth22 Patrick Kavanagh

by NancyElin


Patrick Kavanagh A Biography by Antoinette Quinn by Antoinette Quinn (no photo)

Finish date: 08 March 2022
Genre: Biography
Rating: B
Review: Patrick Kavanagh: biography (ISBN: 978-0717136438)


Bad news: If you really want to enjoy this book…you’ll have to invest in a 2e book The Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh . There are so many reference to Kavanagh’s poetry you will have read both books simultaneously.

Bad news: Life is hard and Kavanaugh was 50 yr. old and a middle-aged pauper. He was constantly searching for a a handout, a good meal regular paying job, couch surfing by friends. This was described in detail. It made the book excessively long. IMO it could have been reduced to a few facts.

Bad news: A complete chapter (14) about Kavanagh’s film commentary for his column in The Standard…was that necessary…really?


Good news: First chapters are a good description of life in Ireland 1910s the usual barbaric life of the Irish country poor. “Yet in his heart he knew …despite the lack of outward affection, the beatings and the daily tirades of complaint…he was caught in a net of love…” (pg 51). The last 5 chapters were impressive. I was exhausted after reading this extremely well researched biography. Ms. Quinn is THE Patrick Kavanagh specialist!

Good news: We read how Kavanagh uses fiction: pastoral (smooth Georgian poetry) —> Dirty realism —> social criticism —> self-liberation writing his masterpiece The Great Hunger (1942). The strongest point of this book is the analysis of his poems.

Good news: Ch 10: Excellent explanation of the poem The Great Hunger . Kavanagh belonged to serf class and adopted the role of peasant spokesman. The Great Hunger is his anti-establishment masterpiece. I’d would never have grasped the metaphors, narration or the revelation what really destroyed Ireland’s rural life.


Always look for irony:

In 1955 Kavanagh underwent surgery to remove cancerous lung. The two months Kavanagh spent in the Railto Hospital “…as among the happiest of his life.” (pg 489). He was feeling safe and secure, protected from unpaid bills.

Kavanagh plagued by debts all his life ended up in his last years marrying a bookkeeper!


Personal: If I was asked to describe Kavanagh in 3 words: talented, tormented, ingrate. He was not an easy person to get along with! I’m impressed how diligently Kavanagh studied the great poets. Just reading all the time and he acquired a complete knowledge of English/Irish poetry….as if he had attended an Irish university. New Rule: Try to read the biography of the great poets before I read their poems. Knowing what the man has been through….makes all the difference how you read his poems. Kavanagh could lob a barrage of insults tempered by occasional compliments. Where did that anger come from?…read the biography.


Book recommendation: James Wright: A life in Poetry American poet 1927-1980. This book was unforgettable!. Perhaps you’ve never heard of JW…it is really worth your reading time!
James Wright A Life in Poetry by Jonathan Blunk by Jonathan Blunk (no photo)

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 10 2022

    I read this many years ago when I was studying Kavanagh at University and found it really illuminating and incredibly useful in getting my head around the poetry.

    • Mar 10 2022

      Yes, this book is essential reading if one wants to learn what PK is saying between the lines of poetry. One of the most striking things is how PK’s poetry evolved in its subject matter. I never really considered that element of poetry writing. So much to learn from this book…as was also the case of Helen Vendler’s book about Seamus Heaney. (ISBN: ‎ 978-0674002050) Seamus Heaney Thanks for your comments!

  2. Mar 14 2022

    Read this back in 2020 and found it very well researched. Had a copy of his collected poems beside as I went, his formative years really helped me understand a lot of his works.

    • Mar 14 2022

      I agree! You have to have the poems with you when reading this book. Kavanagh was such a complex personality. Thanks for you comments!


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