‘I want to express, without frightening the horses, that there is something about,’ said P J Kavanagh in an interview with Christopher Howse in 2004. New Selected Poems, covering sixty years’ work, is a seriously beautiful collection, his earlier lolloping conversational poems giving place to equally conversational yet rather terser meditations, born of intensity, silence and isolation.
Although Kavanagh has fought, travelled, acted and played other bit parts in the world of affairs, his life and poetry have been centred on Gloucestershire, that rough, farmed, hilly county. His observation is acute – he shares with Geoffrey Grigson the ability to convince us of the value of his attention – but the observations speak of a mysterium. They tell of more than themselves, however difficult that mysterium is to interpret – and how short our time is to give that attention, as expressed in ‘Intimations of Unreality’: ‘Stay, Light! There is something you showed then that I missed!/Well then come, Dark! In your tunnel I’ll be more watchful’. ‘Eclogue’, a dialogue between the personae of countryman and metropolitan doppelgänger, offers a slant justification of the contemplative rather than the active life: ‘I didn’t choose a role, the role chose me./Perhaps there should be one man in a field/Standing absurd in a duffle coat watching a tree’. Three hundred years ago Stephen Switzer wrote of the eye ‘lost in that inexpressible somewhat to be found in the Beauty of Nature, in a Rude Coppice or amidst the Irregular Turnings of a wild Corn Field’. Kavanagh’s ‘something about’ is kissing-cousin to the ‘inexpressible somewhat’. The vigorous, suggestive physicality of his explorations of grief and wonder is the heartening stuff of the best poetry; pretty good for the man whose father heartened a nation by writing the glorious nonsense of It’s That Man Again.