Biased biography only distorts image of complex Irish poet

Sacred Keeper: A Biography of Patrick Kavanagh, by Peter Kavanagh. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation. 403 pp. $18 (cloth). $12.95 (paper). The story of Patrick Kavanagh -- Irish peasant, poet, and polemicist -- consists of a series of paradoxes.

A rough, uneducated country man, Kavanagh became, in the 1940s and '50s, a prominent, controversial figure in literary Dublin and eventually won a reputation among more than a few critics as the most important Irish poet writing after Yeats.

Probably the most romantic of modern Irish poets (``the purpose of art,'' he said, ``is to project man imaginatively into the Other World''), he also seems, at times, a thorough realist; his best-known work, a long poem entitled ``The Great Hunger,'' attempted to demolish the romanticized image of the Irish peasant manufactured by Yeats and his followers. And while he was very much an Irish poet, he also believed that ``national characteristics are superficial qualities and are not the stuff with which the poet deals.''

All this would seem to be challenging grist for the mill of an ambitious biographer. But ``Sacred Keeper,'' the work of the poet's admiring younger brother Peter, is not the book that Kavanagh's readers, looking for a clarifying, definitive image of the man, might have hoped for.

The book's failings have more than a little to do with the author's motives. ``When I write about Patrick Kavanagh,'' he says in the opening paragraph, ``I write as a partisan, as his alter ego, almost as his evangelist.'' Peter presents himself too often as the awestruck worshiper, and the numerous gaps in his story testify to a bias more inclined to repress than reveal the inside information that he could be expected to be privy to.

There is relatively little, for example, about Kavanagh's childhood, and nothing substantive about his startling notion of being reborn as a poet in 1955 (at the age of 50) after he survived, against considerable odds, the removal of a cancerous lung.

Nonetheless, ``Sacred Keeper'' does bring together many of the poet's documents which offer glimpses of varying intensity into the complex life of this man who could move so easily between muted, meditative lyrics celebrating a Wordsworthian faith in nature and strident satires directed against his literary enemies. And if the book does little more than inspire a reading, or rereading, of those remarkable poems, it has accomplished much.

Gregory A. Schirmer teaches at the University of Mississippi.

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