Departure of O'Driscoll leaves us all the poorer
Civility, a word all too infrequently used, or indeed required nowadays to describe anyone, certainly applies to the Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll whose loss as an artist is almost as great as the personal tragedy of his passing.
His abrupt death on Christmas Eve put a premature end not only to his life but to a compelling and subtly persuasive body of work. His calm, measured poetic voice with its inspired observation and laconic understanding of human nature made him the lyric equivalent of William Trevor. O’Driscoll’s poetry saw to the heart of the ordinary, that most defining element of human existence.
“Life is too short to sleep through./ Stay up late, wait until the sea of traffic ebbs,/until noise has drained from the world/like blood from the cheeks of the full moon.” (From Vigil, in Foreseeable Futures: New and Selected Poems, 2004)
The first time I met him I didn’t know he was a poet. My dog Bilbo jumped up on him, leaving paw prints on his coat. O’Driscoll smiled and said in the quiet way of his, “That’s what dogs do.” Gracious and kindly; wise and gentle, he was that rare creature: an intellectual whose learning was matched by an astute intelligence both refined and intuitive.
The eight collections, which include Quality Time (1997), Weather Permitting (1999), Exemplary Damages (2002), Reality Check (2007) and Dear Life published earlier this year, all testify to O’Driscoll’s status as the Irish Philip Larkin, yet O’Driscoll’s art was that bit wider, his self- awareness more ironic, his humanity more forgiving.
Many of his poems are master classes in domestic realism. He responded to the rare moment, alert to “A winter dawn, struggling to shake off/ the blacker aspects of the night . . .” (From the long sequence, Skywriting, in Reality Check).
Readers of fiction are drawn to him because his work is a milder, more reflective form of domestic realism than Raymond Carver’s, while O’Driscoll was by far the better poet. He was also the greater champion of poetry. His art often waited as he celebrated the work of other poets.
Born the generation after the towering trio of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, it was O’Driscoll who meticulously set out to investigate Heaney’s lyric impulse in Stepping Stones (2008), a biography based on questions O’Driscoll put to him, including what the Nobel laureate had “learned from poetry”.