He justifies this role with one very simple, unassailable statement: “Nobody knew him except me.”
Kavanagh the younger, who has lived in the U.S. since the 1950s, is his brother’s greatest champion, guardian and protector. A professor of modern poetry for many years, he now lives in New York City, a place that, he says, is the “only civilized city I have ever found.”
At 87, his conversation is peppered with pronouncements on poetry and his brother’s legacy. They are strongly worded, but just as strenuously defended.
“There are no poets in Ireland,” he said, speaking in his apartment in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, who works in television.
“Yeats almost makes it [as a poet] by the force of his rhetoric,” Kavanagh continued. “But he was always forcing the issue — shouting. And he had this goddamned Kathleen ni Houlihan carry-on. Did you ever hear the like?”
Second only to Kavanagh’s life work of guarding Patrick’s legacy is his search for poets who transcend what he says is mere verse writing and achieve “a cry of holy faith, poetry at its most sublime manifestation.”
Few Irish poets ever attained this, Kavanagh said. Even his brother Patrick, he said, did not reach those heights on every occasion.
It comes as little surprise that Kavanagh’s biography of his poet brother is called “Sacred Keeper.”
“We were partners in everything he did,” he explained. “I was his primary reader for everything he ever wrote.”
Of two of Patrick Kavanagh’s greatest works, “Lough Derg” and “The Great Hunger,” Kavanagh said, “They are more inclined to represent me. That is not Patrick Kavanagh.”
When the editors of the Oxford Book of English Verse asked Kavanagh if they could include these two poems in their next edition, he refused. Peter Kavanagh owns the U.S. copyright to his brother’s works, but not the copyright back in Ireland, a significant factor in his struggle to control his brother’s poetic legacy.
“I refused, because those poems did not arise from a personal impulse,” he said. “Would he have written them had I not suggested it? No.”
“They are great examples of epic writing,” Kavanagh added, pausing, as he sometimes does before delivering a significant remark, “but they are not the essential Patrick Kavanagh.”
The essential Patrick Kavanagh may never be known, both in spite of his brother’s efforts and because of them. In 1987, a Books Ireland reviewer of “Sacred Keeper” scathingly remarked about Peter Kavanagh’s role: “Peter has discovered one of the great truths of Irish public relations: that a keeper’s, or minder’s, sacredness is assured if his public pronouncements are made as adjacent as possible to a great man’s grave.”
This much is known: the poet was born on a small farm in Inniskeen, on the borders of Monaghan, Armagh and Louth on Oct. 21, 1904. Peter was born almost 13 years later, in 1916. Patrick died on Nov. 30, 1967 in Dublin.
It is established fact that during his life this self-educated man was largely ignored and spurned by Ireland’s literary establishment. This is clearly a hurt that Peter Kavanagh still feels, and perhaps it explains his strict custodianship of his brother’s poetry and life. Patrick Kavanagh’s life was often unhappy. In his later years, he suffered from alcoholism and, ultimately, cancer. It was not until after his death that full due was paid in Ireland to his genius.
Peter Kavanagh has denounced the various ways in which Ireland now esteems the poet from Inniskeen. In the town itself, there is a Patrick Kavanagh Center and an annual Patrick Kavanagh festival in November. He has never attended it, although he owns the family home and visits the town often.
“They have three days there,” he said of the festival. “They blather. I have never been invited. I don’t object to it, but it’s the pits.”
He added: “They lay waste to the land.”
There are few Irish poets more closely associated with that land, the rolling drumlins of south Monaghan, than Kavanagh. Yet when asked, his brother insisted that Inniskeen had little to do with his development as a poet.
“Nothing to do with it,” he said. “Zero. Poetry arises out of the soul. Poetry for him was a sacred act.” He paused, then quoted his brother: “‘I, who have not sown, I too by God’s grace have come to harvest.’ “
“This is total Catholicism,” he continued. “At the Inniskeen center last year, Bishop Comiskey was the celebrant of the Mass. He compared Patrick to St. Therese.” This was a moment that Kavanagh clearly appreciated greatly: he reset Comiskey’s homily and printed 25 commemorative copies.
Resetting has been an essential aspect of his work with regard to Patrick’s brother. Much of the poetry was left by the poet in disarray, and his brother said that he had rewritten some of it when he was ordering the works for publication in the U.S.
By this, he says, he means that he brought together poems that were often written on several different pieces of paper, left incomplete, and completed perhaps several years after they were started.
Since his brother’s death, Kavanagh has published “everything” that he believes Patrick wrote, including many years of letters between the two brothers.
It is in publication that Peter Kavanagh ran into his copyright problem.
“About seven months before he died, Patrick married a woman,” he said deliberately. “She turned out to be a problem. She knew nothing about him.”
He paused again, then made what is his ultimate argument for his guardianship of Patrick Kavanagh the poet: “Nobody knows him except me. I was to be the sacred keeper of his sacred conscience.”
When he continued publishing the poetry and correspondence, Patrick’s widow, who owned the rights in Ireland, sued.
“I refused to recognize these people,” Kavanagh said of the widow, now deceased, and her backers. The copyright passed to a group of trustees: “Not a Kavanagh amongst them,” he added contemptuously.
At the Patrick Kavanagh Center in Inniskeen, Rosalyn Kearney confirmed the copyright controversy.
“There was a family dispute,” she said, speaking on the telephone from the center. “We have permission to use Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry.”
Even a successful lawsuit might not have stopped Peter Kavanagh from his goal of publishing the carefully selected and edited poetry of his brother. So seriously did he take the mission that he built his own printing press, a design of which hangs on his apartment wall. On a facing wall, there is a map of Inniskeen, which Peter Kavanagh also made.
It is marked with simple notations: “Mother born here.” “Father apprenticed here.” “There were stepping stones across a stream.” The village itself virtually spills over the clearly marked border with County Louth.
Peter Kavanagh’s own life has been just as tumultuous as his great struggle for Patrick.
For many years, he lived at 250 East 30th St., an apartment that he said he loved.
His next project may be a book about the apartment — he fought eviction for many years, as several landlords tried to make way for a new development.
“Twenty years I fought it,” he said. “On three occasions, they tried to burn us out. Fires were set. The Falls Road had nothing on this. So the book would be about the place and about rent control in New York.”
His landlord adversaries had no idea who they were up against. When the trouble started, Kavanagh spent hours in the library and researched the minutia of New York City housing legislation.
He finally had to move — but only a few blocks, to Park Avenue. From there, in his fifth floor apartment, he continues to write and commemorate Patrick’s legacy.
In 1994, when President Mary Robinson dedicated the Kavanagh Center in Inniskeen, she said in her speech: “Let us remember him as he deserves to he remembered: not as an ornament to our literature — although he certainly is that — but as a poet who is still living among us, through his powerful and challenging poems and the force of his artistic conscience.”
There can be no doubt that just as powerful as the poems themselves has been the defending hand of Peter Kavanagh.