Never Mind the Poetry
Patrick Galvin 1927-2011
I was saddened to hear of the death of the distinguished Irish poet Patrick Galvin on 10th May. He was eighty-three. Born in 1927 in Cork (John Montague was a near contemporary) Galvin belonged to the first generation of Irish poets who felt at home in the twentieth-century. Yeats cast a long shadow over that poetry but both Patricks – Galvin and Kavanagh – manged to take what they needed from the great poet and forge distinctive poetic identities of their own. Like Austin Clarke before him, Galvin possessed an interest in form, a musical ear, and firm belief in the power of poetry to perfom a function in society – a sense of the inteaction between the public nature of both poetry and politics. Galvin was a committed socialist and was never afraid to let his political convictions show in his writing. a dramatist too (he wrote eight plays, the best-known of which, The Last Burning dealt with withcraft) it was as a poet that he will be, and would have wished to have been remembered. I first came across his poetry in 1980 with the publication of his Man on the Porch and was immediately struck by the individuality of his voice – the disarming, almost conversational quality it possessed while leaving the reader in no doubt that it was poetry that was being read.
Galvin’s death has occassioned an extraordinary outpouring of tributes from fellow poets and others who were influenced and touched during their lives by this remarkable talent. The Irish poet Theo Dorgan described Galvin as his ‘boyhood hero’ admiring him for his radical politics and the honesty and authenticity of his poetry. Galvin lived in England for much of his life, joined the RAF in 1943 (disillusioned with Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War), and later became a prominet figure in the literary world of London. His first substantial collection, Heart of Grace was published in 1957, followed quickly by the brilliant Christ in London three years later. Other collections followed, culminating in his New and Selected Poems which was published by Cork University Press in 1996 and remains a landmark in his career. Much of the tension that gives an edge to Galvin’s poetry arises from the fact that his mother was a Rebublican and his father a supporter of the Irish Free State; a tension that surfaces too in his autobiographical memoir, Song for a Poor Boy.As well as concentrating on his own poetry, Galvin edited Irish Songs of Resistance 1778-1922.
Although Patrck Galvin’s life was dedicated to poetry he never had any illusions as to what sort of life that might be. In Advice to a Poet he presents the conflict between poetry and the pressure to live an ordinary, ‘productive’ life:
‘Be a chaffeur, my father said
And never mind the poetry.
That’s all very well for the rich
They can afford it.’
‘Besides that’, his father says ‘there’s nothing in verse’ while ‘poets and lovers are doomed to hell’. After each of the statements made by his father, all equally discouraging and disparaging of the poet’s status in society, Galvin replies in his own voice ‘I’d still like to be a poet’ until the phrase iteslf becomes something of a manefesto. Poetry, Galvin knew, is born of opposition – political or personal or (as Yeats would have said) out of the ‘arguments with ourselves’. His father’s question ‘What is the sense of writing poetry?’ is shown to be irrelevant. It is easy to see why a generation of younger Irish poets have been effected by the example of this fine poet. Hearing of Galvin’s death, the Cork poet, Thomas McCarthy spoke of his as a ‘great watchtower and gatekeeper’ for Irish poetry. He was certainly that. Many poets paid their last respects at Connolly Hall where Patrick Galvin reposed on 12th May – the date, appropriately, of the anniversary of the execution of the 1916 rebel James Connolly. He was cremated at the Island Cemetry at Rangaskiddy. Patrick Galvin felt that poets should learn to expect both opposition and rejection and his Advice to a Poet finds a language in which to articulate that conviction. It was good advice when it was published in 1979. It still is.