P J Kavanagh (1931 – 2015) was the author of eight books of poems, an essayist and travel-writer, a novelist, and editor of the poems of Ivor Gurney; he received the Cholmondely Award for Poetry, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Richard Hillary Prize for his memoir The Perfect Stranger. In addition to this literary career, he was an actor, lecturer, journalist and broadcaster, all after serving in the Army during the Korean War, where he was wounded in action.

His poetry, while it can deal with more unusual experiences – commandeering a paper house while in Korea in ‘The Spring’, or simply the “hawthorn explosion” in ‘Whitsun’ – is keener to deal with what is human, a word he stresses in his introduction to the reading. A bittersweet awareness of his children growing up informs ‘A Single Tree’, for example; several others are founded on the experience of bereavement, and range from heartbroken to envisioning his late wife, in ‘A Ghost Replies’, persuading him to mourn less singlemindedly.

There is also a religious urge that suffuses Kavanagh’s poetry, such as ‘Thanks’, where a questioning mind examines gratitude as it is given. In ‘Dome’, this quizzical attention is brought to bear on the poet himself, and what it is to be human, to be this particular human, in a world that is “not homely but it is my home.”

It is difficult to better his own description of his style in ‘Beyond Decoration’: “Beyond decoration, humble, in plain rhyme, / As clear as I could, and as truthful”. Even when he achieves tricky rhyming structures, such as the cinquains with the same rhyme over all five lines in ‘One’, he does so without drawing attention overmuch to it. John Bayley describes this skill as “the impression of talk”, and calls Kavanagh “a real craftsman at this difficult form.” As this might suggest, he reads without ostentation on this recording, his delivery allowing the natural cadences of his writing to seem almost effortless.

His recording was made on 9 December 2004 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by PJ Kavanagh

Something About - PJ Kavanagh
Beyond Decoration - PJ Kavanagh
Slow as Grass - PJ Kavanagh
Perfection Isn’t Like A Perfect Story - PJ Kavanagh
The Clapham Elephants - PJ Kavanagh
PJ Kavanagh in the Poetry Store

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Books by PJ Kavanagh


Richard Hillary Memorial for 'The Perfect Stranger'

Prize website

Guardian Fiction Prize for 'A Song and Dance'

Prize website

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