24 February 2017 Susannah

Poem of the Month, March 2017 – Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin

I’ve been preparing for my literary tour of Ireland in May and have enjoyed learning more about Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967). Kavanagh was born a countryman, in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, but he left the farm and moved to Dublin. In his later years, when he had a serious alcohol problem, he liked to walk by the Grand Canal, or just sit watching the water.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Erected to the Memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

 

Patrick Kavanagh statue along the Grand Canal in Dublin

Patrick Kavanagh statue along the Grand Canal in Dublin

Kavanagh has now been thus commemorated by a statue in the spot where he liked to sit (on a seat erected to the memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien). The statue was unveiled by Mary Robinson in June, 1991. On the South Bank of the canal there is also a wood and granite seat that was erected in honour of Kavanagh soon after his death. There are often readings of his poems at both places on St Patrick’s Day.

Kavanagh wrote several poems with this Grand Canal setting, all written after he had undergone a major operation and lost one lung, so his thoughts must have turned to death more than usual. The Canal Bank poems are a reminder to be less hurried. In his essay Man and Poet Kavanagh wrote: ‘We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable’.

Patrick Kavanagh by Patrick Swift

Patrick Kavanagh by Patrick Swift

This is a sonnet about how one would like to be remembered after death (the words “commemorate me” are repeated three times in the poem, an indication of their importance). The sub-title is important. We are not told who Mrs Dermot O’Brien is, yet the seat remembers her and she was obviously someone who also loved the view of the canal. Kavanagh knows that he has fame as a poet and so will be honoured in some way when he has gone, but he does not want “a hero-courageous Tomb”. He’d prefer a simple seat, where people can sit and enjoy the same view that has given him pleasure. It is unusual for a poet to write about an urban, man-made environment in this way, but Kavanagh finds beauty in the barges, in the fantastic light “through the eyes of bridges”. Finding wonder in the ordinary is a common theme in Kavanagh’s poetry. The first lines use tranquil words – green, water, still, summer. He then connects the little Dublin canal lock with Niagara Falls, making a new word ‘niagarously’ to do so. He wants to show that this patch of water can be a stupendous experience, just as seeing Niagara is. He mentions “Parnassian islands”, connecting the canal with Mt Parnassus, a site associated with Apollo and the home of the Muses: thus he connects the Canal with the home of poetic inspiration. The poet then starts to look outwards, seeing the swans, the barge, and he transforms ordinary commerce into something mysterious and strange. He draws the reader in to see what he is seeing. The last line, by the use of the word ‘just’ emphasises the ordinary scene that he has just rendered extraordinary.

The tone of the poem is friendly – he addresses the reader as ‘Brother’, suggesting a feeling of kinship, though he could also be addressing Nature, indicating his sense of being at one with nature.

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

 


  Susannah Fullerton’s Literary Dublin
   YouTube: Peter Duval Smith Interviews Patrick Kavanagh
   Poetry Foundation: Patrick Kavanagh

 

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Featured image credit- The Grand Canal in Dublin, By Kaihsu Tai – Kaihsu Tai, CC BY-SA 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043364
Body image credit- Patrick Kavanagh statue along the Grand Canal in Dublin. By Peierls – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19246835
Body image credit- Patrick Kavanagh by Patrick Swift, http://painterpatrickswift.blogspot.com/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26041116

Comments (12)

  1. Helen Gentle

    Thank you, Susannah, for introducing me to Patrick Kavanagh. What stunning images. Reading it in bed in Sydney, I was transported to the canalside in Dublin. There is simply not enough poetry in our lives.
    Helen

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad I have introduced you to a new poet. I love some of his poems but the canalside one is fabulous.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I will take you to see the statue, Malvina, and you can get a photo taken of you sitting next to Patrick Kavanagh on his seat.

  2. Penny Lane

    Susannah, thank you for sharing this lovely poem. I keep rereading it for the language and imagery.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a lovely poem. I am excited about seeing the statue when I go to Ireland in May.

  3. Mary Dwyer

    Love this poem. Reminds me of ‘Leisure’, “What is life if full of care,
    We have no time to stand band stare?”…..

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, same message in both poems – that we do sometimes need to slow down. I don’t seem to very good at listening to that message! Glad you loved the poem.

  4. Gordon wright

    Thank you Susannah for the introduction to Kavanagh. I am in an enforced state of inactivity, virtual sentence of home detention for a while, sometimes bored and frustrated ( thank God for books and real letters!) and Kavanagh’s words have pulled me up sharply and reminded me that time to think, reflect, enjoy is pure gold. I have made a mental note to seek out that seat by the Grand Canal one day in the future, to commune with apologetic swans and to dream of Parnassians Islands !

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You’ve made my day, Gordon, thinking that I have improved your enforced inactivity. Thank you! I hope, ins spite of your having reading and reflection time, that it does not last too much longer. And I hope you get to see the statue on the Grand Canal in Dublin and can sit next to Kavanagh and thank him (at least his statue) for the pleasure his poem has given you.

  5. Bridget Collins

    Love how he evokes the essence of the place and the sense of peace eternal that it brings to his heart seeming to lift him to another dimension while emphasising his humanity and the power of his imagination. I love that spot too, has very happy memories for me!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is a lovely spot, isn’t it. He really gives a strong sense of place and watching life go by as he sits and thinks.

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