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Kavanagh poem: the cancer ward

Tuesday, 28 November, 2017

On Thursday here, we’ll celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the satirist Jonathan Swift and on the same day we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. That’s why our posts this week commemorate these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. Yesterday, we had a joke by Swift; today, we have a poem by Kavanagh and it is read here by the great man himself.

Background: In March 1955, Kavanagh underwent surgery for lung cancer at the Rialto Hospital in Dublin. As the weather improved, he spent much of his time convalescing on the banks of the Grand Canal and composing verse.

The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins — an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


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