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.”