Auden, Barrett-Browning, Cope, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Gallagher, Heaney, Ibsen, Jamie, Kinnell, Larkin, Mahon, Neruda, Owen, Plath, Qabbani, Rossetti, St Vincent Millay, Thomas, Updike, Vaughan, Wordsworth, Xenokleides, Yeats, Zephaniah. Who is your favourite? Feel free to reach beyond the 26 I’ve offered you; I was just playing the alphabet game, and, in doing so, left out many of those I like best.
‘A House’, were a Dublin band from the 1980s and 1990s and, as I was creating my alphabetic list of poets, I remembered one of the band’s biggest hits, a song called ‘Endless Art’. It’s a spoken song, delivered in a confident south Dublin drawl by lead singer, Dave Couse, to a clashing drum beat and long strummed out chords from an electric guitar. Couse lists the names of artists (painters, writers, composers, poets) through the ages in an authoritative but sombre roll call. The names are tied together like the longest string of sausages you’ve ever seen; occasionally he knots in their dates of birth and death, but always he moves quickly to the next. Names tumble in a vocal representation of how artists spark off each other, hand the torch on to the next in line, keeping the flame alive. There is no stopping to linger and consider as he moves swiftly from Behan to Donne to Hemingway to Orwell to Tennyson. Then there is the refrain:“all dead, yet still alive, in endless time, endless art.”
Back to who my favourite is. Usually I can’t choose. Or I can – for a moment, an hour, a day – but I flit from Rumi to Rich, Hardy to Hewitt, (all dead, yet still alive). I’m unfaithful, like the song: ‘when I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.’ Insert ‘poem’ for ‘girl’. For today (and maybe tomorrow) I have no hesitation in selecting a favourite, sealed in endless time: ‘Advent’. Patrick Kavanagah, dead this fifty years, takes us walking in rural Ireland, through the fields of his own County Monaghan to “the yard gate”where we can smell and hear and see“the whins / And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.”
Today, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, when Advent begins, when we’re supposed to slow down, wait, prepare, there is no contest. Why wouldn’t it be my favourite?
Advent, by Patrick Kavanagh
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.