Thursday, 9 April 2009

Tea with the Kavanaghs

When one is working so closely with the primary source material, as I am in the reorganisation, cataloguing and transcriptions of the Gurney archive, one can sometimes lose sight of published sources. There have been occasions on which I have come across a poem that I am sure is published, only to find that, when cross referenced with various sources, it is a poem that I have come to recognise solely through my acquaintance with it in the manuscripts and typescripts of the collection. More to the point, in working with the original source materials one can become so wrapped up in one's own emerging ideas about Gurney and his work, one's reading focussing on contextual rather than direct commentary, that one forgets about the work of other commentators on Gurney's work.

Yesterday I went with one of my archive colleagues, Rebecca Shorter, to collect a box of papers relating to P.J. Kavanagh's work on Gurney, which he had decided to give to the archive. Kavanagh, with the help of his wife, Kate, edited the 1982 'Collected Poems', reissued in a revised edition by Carcanet/Fyfield Books in 2004, and a number of the papers in the newly donated accession relate to the production of this volume (correspondence, proofs etc). The collection also contains scripts to radio talks and correspondence with researchers working on dissertations on Gurney.

We collected the papers from the Kavanaghs' home in Gloucestershire, and whilst there we talked for a while over our respective cups of coffee or tea, speaking in the main (rather predictably) of Gurney: the poetry, the archive, reception of his work, their work on the edition et al. Numerous points emerged that were particularly interesting, such as the fact that the misnomer that is the original 'Collected Poems' was given at the insistence of the publisher, who argued that they weren't misleading the public in that title, since, in lacking the definite article it didn't purport to being THE Collected Poems. Also, both Kate and P.J. Kavanagh mentioned their particular interest in the late poetry of 1926, echoing my own interest in that work, which, as I've said before on this blog (26 April 2008), seems to lose sight of his more parochial/personal interests and achieve a timeless universality. The other thing that struck home in our conversation was P.J. Kavanagh's statement that 'nobody reads the editorial commentary'. Rather embarrassedly this brought home the realisation that I hadn't read his introduction to the Collected Poems since beginning work on the poetry.

Over a late brunch this morning at Doveston's (the best cafe in Lichfield city centre!) I read Kavanagh's introduction and found that much of that of which we had spoken of was there. However, the enthusiasm for the 1926 poetry is given a bit of a dampener in the introduction, it being noted as a remarkable oeuvre, but essentially 'bloodless' in content. I can see where this is coming from, but think it rather depends upon the context of his work. Certainly, when compared with some of Gurney's earlier work it could appear to be bloodless, because, I believe, Gurney's poetry (in part) can be so bloodSOME; so very full of body and of striking imagery and language, particularly in comparison with many of his contemporaries and forebears. There is perhaps a little less 'blood' in some of the 1926 poetry, but it is still very present; still so very full of life and colour, and, in parts, of drama. Its allusions turn from the more immediate drama of the First World War and his the predicament of his own incarceration to more classical ideas, no less dramatic in essence but perhaps more discreet in statement.

The other point upon which we agreed - and one first pointed out to me by Anthony Boden - is, for me, the true tragedy of Gurney: the fact that his work has been overshadowed by his labeling as a 'Mad' poet and composer. This is by far the most journalistically 'newsworthy' part of Gurney's life, but, although significant in the tragedy of his final isolation from the world, should not be dwelt upon. This is another point I found to be well made in Kavanagh's introduction to the Collected Poems. Gurney's asylum work shows a remarkable lucidity, much of the time - in fact Gurney should be seen as all the stronger an artist for the fact that he was at Dartford producing some of his best poetry, in spite of his predicament. One can't ignore this aspect of his life, but it should not become the principal facet of his reception. What must it be like to come afresh to Gurney's work without knowing anything of his life? I have, with Gurney, been increasingly of the opinion that his work should be considered away from the minutiae of his life. The opinion of Ruskin that knowledge of the person behind a work of art and the circumstance and intention of their creation is irrelevant - the Intentional Fallacy - is a matter in which I have often thought him to be wrong. However, in Gurney's case there is a lot to be said for it. Let his work be judged neutrally, on its own terms.

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