Dear fellow poetry-drinkers,
The first round of the Essay Competition was a tough one. I wish I could buy everyone an unlimited amount of word-booze and praise. However, instead, I will simply keep having Essay Competitions and hope, eventually, everyone will win something!
This round was especially hard to judge and I decided to have a runner-up. Ms. Anna Warrington’s fine essay deserves to be enjoyed and read. And she will receive a book of contemporary poetry of her choice, purchased by Drunk Poems and sent to her door (which happens to be in Germany!) Below, please read her intoxicating essay.
A ‘Great Hunger’ and Thirst – Patrick Kavanagh.
So where was I? The first time I was ever drunk? Ah yes. A happy memory. I was young of course, and intoxicated in the worst of all places: school. It wasn’t the time or the place, I knew, but there was nothing I could do about it. One long swig of ‘The Great Hunger’ by Patrick Kavanagh and I was pie-eyed. The words were treacle-coloured whisky, the strong and peaty kind that makes your eyes water. Kavanagh spoke of earth and existence, ‘clay is the word and clay is the flesh’, in a way that brought me, swaying, to stand with his man Maguire at the edge of the old world, looking out on the blurred contours of existence. Let’s go back again now, in our minds, and see if after our walk we won’t buy the man a drink.
Maguire is one of the ‘mechanised scarecrows’ that are stuck, a foot deep, into the boggy farmland of Ireland. Soaked half and half in the heady brews of religion and porter, he is one of the pub storytellers, singers and sots of tradition, so bound up in the language and culture of the land that to him it is inescapable. As a young man his life feels like drunken freedom; he is at one with the earth and somehow beyond time or humanity:
The drills slipped by and the days slipped by
And he trembled his head away and ran free from the world’s halter,
And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland
When he laughed over pints of porter
Of how he came free from every net spread
In the gaps of experience.
There is such heady joy in the image of the man broken free, unconfined by the constraints of convention, religion, morality or responsibility. He, like us, is elated by his own aliveness, with words conveying the feeling of the wind against bare skin, of momentary weightlessness and inhibition. But he, like us, has had a strong draught of language, and the hangover is inevitable.
In Kavanagh’s epic landscape the span of a man’s life is the blink of an eye, and perhaps his lens is the bottom of an empty pint glass. Drunk as we are, we know already what is to come for the drinker and dreamer. The poet invites us to step back and ponder Maguire and his companions before we too drain our glasses:
If we watch them for an hour is there anything we can prove
Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book
It seems like a futile task all of a sudden. The elation of the first pint has become something more morose, more earnest as the linguistic alcohol takes hold. Life itself is mortal, and we know it. In this contradictory world religion is a ‘Book of Death’ demonising fleshly human experience. Instead of allowing us to drown in the opiate imagery like laudanum, Kavanagh conjures instead a world of brutal, vital detail, and in it we see everything that the pious-minded Maguire has avoided in the ‘gaps of experience':
Here crows gabble over worms and frogs
And the gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges, luckily.
Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?
Or why do we stand here shivering?
On the farmland life is a scramble for survival, gulls narrowly escape random death or harm while the worm and frogs are doomed to sustain others. We, with our intoxicated eyes, see the dirty beauty of nature, its ruthlessness. It is a glorious dance of wild-eyed, honey-tongued abandon. There is no pity here, only luck occasionally. The heady moment isn’t everlasting. Time betrays us and the blood cools. We shiver in the cold. Why did we bother to come at all? For Maguire, in the fug of drunken words, the dance of sex and survival lured him in. Now all he can see is a road to sin. ‘He could not walk/ The easy road to destiny. He dreamt/ The innocence of young brambles to hooked treachery.’
So he rejects his fleshly humanity, a decision that draws him towards a different kind of spiritual perdition:
Lost in the passion that never needs a wife
The pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows.
As if sober and repentant in the morning, Maguire allows the lustful vision of a life of women and children, of love and warmth, to subside. In his repentant, hung-over heart he has made his mother’s advice not to wed a virtue. Instead, he has poured his physicality into the ‘wet clods’ of soil, the inanimate land that will coldly embrace him at his final end. In his mind there is something noble in this gesture of renunciation at first, but it is a self-deception that cannot last:
He looks, towards his house and haggard. ‘O God if I had been wiser!’
But now a crumpled leaf from the whitethorn bushes
Darts like a frightened robin, and the fence
Shows the green of after-grass through a little window,
And he knows that his own heart is calling his mother a liar
God’s truth is life – even the grotesque shapes of his foulest fire.
Wisdom finds its way to Maguire. In the blink of an eye the bottom of his glass has distorted the young man’s face forever. With the passing of time he has become a ‘haggard’ old man, a ‘crumpled leaf’ waiting for the winds of fate. The ‘after-grass’ of the future outside the window is ironically green, though his own summer has passed.
The bitter, smoky taste of whisky words remain. Maguire recognises the lie his life has been, sees his heart wasted through inaction, the drought of his unkissed lips and the twisted shape of his untouched body. ‘O God if I had been wiser!’ he exclaims, realising how much he has lost, how foolish and deluded he has been. But the fiery aftertaste of his words are cleansing. He learns, too late for himself, but perhaps just in time for the intoxicated reader: ‘God’s truth is life – even the grotesque shapes of his foulest fire’. I’ll drink to that Maguire. I’ll drink to that.