Self-portrait of an artist whose love of poetry was all-consuming
I was intrigued, moved, charmed, made thoughtful and almost entirely persuaded by the cumulative power of Dennis O’Driscoll’s essays
Dennis O’Driscoll: affectionately known as the only poet in Ireland with a job. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays
Dennis O’Driscoll was an extraordinary presence in Irish poetry for nearly 40 years. He seemed to have read everything ever published by the plenum of living poets, and most of what had been written before he was born; so diligent was he at attending readings in Dublin that he became an eidetic figure, “seen” in the audience by many even when he had not been present.
Pale, monkish and deadpan, with a gaze that seemed always focused on the middle distance, he was courteous, thoughtful, often hilarious and never short of an opinion. His interest in poets and poetry was all-consuming – impossible to encounter Dennis on the street or after some event without hearing about a new collection he had been reading, some article in a journal that he thought might be of interest to you.
What saved him from being a bore or a mere obsessive was the unmistakable integrity of his interest: poetry, and by extension poets, drew his considerable powers of attention almost to the exclusion of all else.
I say “almost” because so frequently did he lament his indentured status that Dennis was affectionately known to his contemporaries as the only poet in Ireland with a job; he took his duties as a senior Revenue official very seriously, was highly regarded in the service and indeed drew a great deal of his own poetry from a careful attentiveness to the daily minutiae of the working life.
The subtitle of this posthumously published collection of his prose reflections is Critical and Autobiographical Essays . There are indeed a small number of explicitly autobiographical essays here, but in truth the autobiography extends into and animates by its subtle pervasiveness those other essays that make up the bulk of the book: his reflections on poetry and the poetry business, his encounters with poets he has met, read and cherished.
Taken all in all, it is the self-portrait of a very particular sensibility, carefully and modestly present to itself, certainly, but in large part devoted generously to poets and poems that engaged his informed and informing attention.
In the doling-out of life details he is characteristically reticent and literary. Born in Thurles but utterly uninterested in hurling, he was a bookish child, as familiar with Pears’ Cyclopaedia as with the Rupert Bear annual, rapidly progressing, soon at the rate of two books a day, to weightier volumes. Those many people who found Dennis intimidatingly well read may take comfort from knowing how highly (for a time) he rated Enid Blyton. Equally, if they are alert, they will learn that for him, as it should be for us, the activity of reading can usefully be thought of as a constant self-surpassing, an unremitting pursuit of the challenge to expand and deepen delighted attention, a doubling of the world. The Library of Adventure here is a compelling apologia for the art of reading that should be made compulsory, if not in schools then certainly in teacher-training colleges, not least for its arresting opening sentence: “I was a fast reader who became a slow reader.”
Part one of this book is entitled In Person , and moves between the suburban melancholy of middle-aged time present (including a heartbreakingly prescient meditation on his local cemetery) and the backlit nimbus of a solitary but reasonably happy childhood. That childhood sensibility carries delicately into part two, into the world of work, and rapidly takes on the lineaments of an informed, adult, sceptical presence to self.
In this middle section, by far the longest component of the book, O’Driscoll is sometimes the invisible, note-taking civil servant, sometimes an actor, in the scene unfolding before our eyes. His acute critic’s eye is, to our profit, directed towards the work of authors as diverse as Billy Collins, Richard Tillinghast, Kay Boyle, Douglas Dunn, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Les Murray and Thomas Kinsella, in erudite and discursive close readings. He also treats us to the sustained comedy of a treatise on blurb-writing, entitled Blurbonic Plagu e , and to an equally exasperated but finally affectionate extended look at poetry readings. We are offered, too, his mordant recollections of memorable poetry readings, and reminiscences of dining for Ireland with Czeslaw Milosz, Allen Ginsberg and RS Thomas, among others.
The short final section of the book consists of three meditations on the life and work of Seamus Heaney, all animated by the author’s evident love and respect for the writer and the poems.
A certain unsease
I was intrigued, moved, charmed, made thoughtful and almost entirely persuaded by the cumulative power of this book. Remarkably erudite, almost casually well informed, each separate essay carries a charge of learning or witness, or both, that is informative and seductive in itself; yet, putting the book down and sitting back, I was forced to confront a certain unease in myself, a reluctance to grant full assent.
There is a quality of tart honesty to O’Driscoll’s evaluations of poets and their poems that I find attractive, but there is also a note I find uncongenial, a particular finality of judgment couched in the civil servant’s skilled, silky deployment of modesty. Frankly enough, he says he can feel no empathy with Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath, but one is given to understand that the fault is, somehow, theirs. That Milosz finds Philip Larkin uncongenial is, just about, forgiven him – but he is, clearly, wrong in his estimation of that poet’s worth.
Such casual and unexamined confidence in one’s own judgments, a confidence that allows of no doubt, no acknowledgment that another view might conceivably be more just, even better informed, is a Janus-faced gamble: on the one hand it solicits the reinforcing comfort of an elicited agreement, on the other hand it risks undermining the whole enterprise when it is met by instructed disagreement in detail.
Dennis, in person and in print, was noticeably given to confiding judgment with a certain steely diffidence. If he chose to blunt his pronouncements with a ritual recital of “now, that’s only my opinion”, one was nevertheless given to understand, as one often is in this book, that authority has spoken.
If this was endearing in person, no more than an instance of the enduring human comedy, it is slightly less endearing in print, and there is a danger that the colder-eyed reader of this many-virtued book might fall out of sympathy with the author as a result. That would be a pity, the more so as I suspect that O’Driscoll himself was aware, or becoming aware, that arriving at no certain conclusion, refraining from anticipating the long judgment of history, might be perhaps the better way.
As evidence of this I offer his magisterial and inconclusive consideration of Michael Hartnett, at 80 pages by far the longest essay in this fascinating collection and perhaps the best thing yet written on that troubled and marvellous poet.
The crowning achievement of a fascinating book, often incisive, sympathetic and acute, sometimes jarringly wrong or off the point, nevertheless always engaging and engaged, it is perhaps the one essay where the intuitive and gifted poet in O’Driscoll wins out, by a very narrow margin, over the critic-observer and his proclivity for pronouncing judgment.
Theo Dorgan’s new poetry collection, Wayfaring Stranger , will appear later this year.