“Inniskeen Road: July Evening” by Patrick Kavanagh is the first sonnet we’ve seen in the Countdown. There won’t be many; the sonnet is alive and well, but it hasn’t been a predominant verse form in modern English poetry since the early 19th century.
The trick for 20th-century masters of the sonnet (and Kavanagh was one of the greatest) is to observe formal constraints while writing a natural-sounding language. There’s almost nothing in “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” that the poem’s speaker (a rural Irishman of the mid-20th century) mightn’t have said in his everyday speech.
The setting of the sonnet is not literary (a dance in a barn, an uninvited poet). The references in the poem are not recherché. “Alexander Selkirk,” the only unfamiliar name in the poem, is a pretty plain allusion. Selkirk was the castaway who became the model for Robinson Crusoe. He stands here for isolation, in a very direct way. (We call this kind of figure of speech “metonymy,” where an example or a directly connected item stands for something else; it’s the opposite of “metaphor,” where an unlike thing stands for something else. Selkirk is a metonym for being cut off from other people.)
Sonnets like this one fall into a four-part pattern, with 10/11-syllable lines rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The pattern gives the poet a chance to craft three long sentences (or short paragraphs), each with a vivid idea, and then to round the poem off with a climax in the final two-line couplet. There’s usually a break in subject or idea between the CDCD and EFEF quatrains, as here where the speaker, who’s been describing a social situation, suddenly uses the word “I” for the first time and reveals that he’s been excluded from the party.
There’s irony here. A noisy party is no place for poets, yet all the poet wants is to be part of the fun and forget about his lonely calling for once. But there’s also mystery (a word that appears in the poem’s third line). Why is the poet uninvited? Why isn’t he asked in to participate in the clannish, clubbish, exciting (and dimly, sexually provocative) dance?
We don’t come close to knowing. As so often, a great poem works its magic by virtue of the things it leaves out.