Patrick Kavanagh’s sonnet “Canal Bank Walk” is, by my reckoning, the greatest sonnet written in English in the past 200 years. It was written after Kavanagh, not at all an old man (about 50, the same age I am now) was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove a lung. He recovered from his illness and its treatment by walking along the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin, pausing to sit on the benches there from time to time.
“Canal Bank Walk” is no more than that in its conception – not even that, because the speaker doesn’t refer to any of the specifics of Kavanagh’s life. The poem’s situation might be that of anyone who needs to “grow with nature again”: any of us, actually.
The poem uses a variable number of syllables in each line, with about five strong stresses in each: it is one of the most confident free variations on the sonnet form that I’ve ever read. And that free variation “enacts” the meaning of the poem. It is about growing free of constraints. It is about vitality overcoming decay, as Emily Dickinson might have put it, and it is astonishingly alive.
The ending of the poem, to me, sums up poetry and in fact the academic humanities. “Arguments that cannot be proven” rarely convince scientists, mathematicians, or philosophers. Nor do they convince the many positivists among us, people who want everything to be measurable and answerable. (For instance, how can I prove that this is exactly the 17th-best short poem in the modern English language?) But human life, both physical and spiritual, exists at its fullest in such “green and blue things.”
Wallace Stevens was the greatest poet/lawyer in American literary history – not that he has a lot of competition. He was exceptionally successful at both professions. You can read more about Wallace Stevens’s life here. Most of his great poems are either a little too long for the Countdown, or a great deal too long for it. But here and there, he wrote masterpieces in a shorter form. “A Postcard from the Volcano” is perhaps his greatest short poem, and one of his most accessible.
“Postcard” takes the long view. A very long view. Dwelling on the past might seem morbid, so Stevens dwells instead on the future. He imagines future children as ignorant of their past as we are ignorant of today’s past. We have seen, in Larkin’s “Arundel Tomb”, that the relics of the long dead can have an inscrutable quality. Stevens looks in the other direction, at those who will look at us when we’re as long dead as the earl and countess in Larkin’s poem.
It’s not just that these future children will be puzzled by our remains or our artifacts, of course. “With our bones / We left much more”: we will leave our language as well as the shape we’ve given the world. And that language, that culture, in fact, will be more persistent than bone, or canvas or film, or brick and mortar.
We are custodians of language. It’s there before us, we use it for a while, and then we pass it along to others who will watch over it in their turn. But we change it somewhat on our watch. Poets change it more than others: or, at least, what they say of things becomes more a part of those things than the ordinary person’s saying.