The Listener

Gerald Dawe

The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, by Dennis O’Driscoll, Gallery Press, 472 pp, €17.50, ISBN: 978-1852355647

It must have been in the early 1980s that I first met Dennis O’Driscoll, possibly after he published his first poetry collection, Kist (1982), and before the follow-up collection, Hidden Extras (1987). Dennis contributed to a review I was editing in Galway called Krino. The review was launched ‑ by Stephen Rea ‑ in Buswell’s Hotel in Dublin and I have a recollection of meeting him there as well. We were both browsers at the Eblana bookshop in Grafton Street and attended Poetry Ireland events in the early days. While he was impeccably diligent I was less so, but when our paths crossed I was always mightily impressed by Dennis’s utter conviction about how much poetry mattered. He was at the hub of an extraordinary nexus of contacts worldwide and though never a dropper of names ‑ his prudential care on that score went way beyond the call of duty ‑ he simply seemed to know everyone who published poetry of the first rank ‑ Les Murray, Miłosz, Holub ‑ you name them, he knew them. I was impressed, indeed a little overawed.

When I started a commuting life at the end of the 1980s between Corrandulla in Co Galway and Trinity, a tentative but lasting friendship developed. He kindly took me to lunch ‑ a relatively rare event, lunch, for relatively speaking young men, not the pub ‑ and his almost pastoral interest and slightly formal care took me by surprise until his self-deprecating irony showed its hand and we shared a relaxed and pleasant few hours before he headed off to his civil service office and I for Heuston station and the journey west.

From those early encounters in the 1980s Dennis rose without the static of egotism or jagged self-importance through the literary firmament in Ireland and Britain and latterly North America. The graciousness he deployed to all, how he was engaged so completely in what his great mentor and friend Michael Hamburger dubbed (relaying Eliot’s phrase) the mug’s game, while holding down a full-time job, was a cause for wonder. The fact that Dennis could also produce so much is truly exceptional when set alongside his extraordinary capacity to read poetry with such energy and comprehensiveness.

In what would be a life cut short – he died in 2012 at the age of fifty-eight ‑ there are nine collections to his name including New and Selected Poems (2004) and Dear Life (2012), as well as Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings (2001) and the highly regarded biographical and critical portrait Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (2008); he was also editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006). He was given awards in due recognition of this singular achievement – the Lannan, EM Forster, O’Shaughnessy and, for his final collection, the Irish Times Poetry Now Award; the cover of The Outnumbered Poet, his final collection of critical and autobiographical essay, displays the Poetry Book Society Special Commendation.

Dennis was married to the poet Julie O’Callaghan and worked for almost forty years as a civil servant. He was always ahead of his time and many poets, myself included, will testify to his uncanny ability to send confirming, consolidating, consoling notes, postcards and letters as well as making phone calls, as books of one’s own were about to appear or had just appeared. Or a poem was spotted in an out of the way journal; or broadcast on radio; or a review. You name it, Dennis had it under observation and had some revealing angle, an insight or query, a suggestion that always kept the light on. It was a remarkable skill that left me, and many more, wondering on occasion how many Dennis O’Driscolls there actually were to have such time and such an ability to read, digest and always have something worthwhile to say.

It was Dennis who, one windy late afternoon at the corner of Dawson and Nassau streets, put the idea in my head of gathering various bits and pieces of literary journalism, which became how’s the Poetry Going? (1991), the first such writing I had ever considered publishing; it was Dennis who shored up my resolve in the early 1990s to make a second anthology of younger Irish poets to follow on from the initial attempt in 1982. It was Dennis who produced much of the cultural reciprocation of his generation “in the south” to what was happening north of the border and he played an even hand when things got fraught over critical recognition both inside and outside the literary community here and elsewhere. His diplomacy had a masterful air to it so little wonder then that these skills could be deployed in seeing the best in a poet’s work rather than the easier game of highlighting the weaknesses.

All these traits are manifest in The Outnumbered Poet ‑ intelligence, wit, playfulness, but above all an utterly convincing example of the poet’s own conviction of the central importance of poetry and what it can do even as its central authority shifts and is realigned under the substantial technological and ideological changes of taste and understanding in mainstream culture. The Outnumbered Poet proclaims with ample proof and felicitous critical force that poetry, because it is an art form, is a form of resistance to sloppy thinking and easy sentiment: “When more poetry books than ever are being published, critical judgement should be cultivated and encouraged, rather than ‑ through uncritical blurbs ‑ deflected, even supplanted.”

As evidence of this cultivation, read O’Driscoll’s impressive exploration of the poetry of Michael Hartnett. At almost one hundred pages, it is the most impressive assessment of this wonderful poet. There is the restitution to public view of the neglected Scottish poet Alasdair MacLean; the smart and uncomplicated triangulation which takes into view the achievement of Seamus Heaney; the insider guide to the poetry of bureaucracy that shows Thomas Kinsella in the necessary light of an earlier time and day. The Outnumbered Poet can also turn the tables on a number of poets in their landing places on stage.

In the title essay on poets and poetry, O’Driscoll’s “humorosity” breaks free as he paints a lasting study of what gives on the reading circuit before the poet steps in front of his or her audience to read poetry aloud. This is a piece, first delivered at the Poetry Now festival in Dun Laoghaire in 2003, in which O’Driscoll is having fun, but there is a steely point to it too:

Another potential flashpoint, raising tension to World Heavy-weight levels, emerges during the pre-reading sparring session when two or more poets, scheduled to share the programme, size each other up. For some reason ... poets seem convinced that the most important reader is invariably saved till last. This leads to all kinds of unseemly poetic jousts and feints and tantrums, which can reverberate for years like a rights-of-way dispute among neighbours or opposing sides taken in a civil war. Elizabeth Bishop’s request that she be allowed to read first, so that she could relax and enjoy the performance of her co-reader James Merrill, is far from typical.

In three parts ‑ autobiographical, poets and poetry and Seamus Heaney ‑ The Outnumbered Poet bears the weight of one man’s witness to the literary world to which he was so much committed. “Library of Adventure”, one of the finest pieces in the book, makes clear that Dennis O’Driscoll’s engagement began at a very early age as his telling words celebrate “the arresting of time” that comes from reading, “allowing us to live other lives in other times ‑ the imaginative and emotional enlargement of our own lives”:

The alternative lives I imagined were ones I could identify with. This preference for what I regarded as “realistic” books would lead me to poets like Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Douglas Dunn, poets whose collections I bought from my first teenage packets. I related to wardrobes more than witches, lions more than hobbits.

Dennis O’Driscoll will be remembered and read as one of the foremost writers of his generation ‑ a clear-sighted poet and balanced critic who believed in what he was doing for its own sake.

Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published by Gallery Press in 2012. He has also published Conversations: Poets & Poetry (Lagan Press 2011). He is professor of English at Trinity College Dublin.
27/01/2013

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