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.”