Sharp observer who drew on his working life


Dennis O’Driscoll would surely appreciate the sense of irony that lies in his naming his final and quite elegiac collection Dear Life. The ordinary and everyday routines, what we like to call the mundane, were the fabric of his poems.

For Dennis, poetry was to be found in the supermarket aisle and in the recycle bin. The middle-class blues of the new estate and the rituals of the office were among his preoccupations. He was a keen-eyed observer of life at its most fragile – its “last chill breath”.

The American critic Adam Kirsch once said that he was “the poet after Larkin who has made the most of his day job, both as a subject for verse and as part of his poetic identity”.

In one of our conversations, he referred to it as his calling card, but that poetic identity fits into much wider frames of reference. He was a poet who spoke for his age – and often in anti-poetic language.

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has said of Poland’s Zbigniew Herbert that his “poems show that most of our beliefs, convictions and social concepts are in bad taste”. Dennis approached his poems with something of the same intent and purpose.

If Larkin was part of his literary parentage, he was also particularly drawn to the poets of eastern Europe’s tragic past – especially Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska and Miroslav Holub.

Under their influence, he brought fresh perspectives to those matters of life and death, and did so with a distinctive and mordant wit.

While serving time and the working life are enshrined in his poetry and he sang the praises of the “labour saving devices”, there was a spiritual integrity to his writing; a lyrical tenderness in Nocturne and Roads Not Taken.

To many fellow poets he was a much-loved mentor, as well as being one of poetry’s true champions and certainly its most prodigious archivist.

In a short poem, Memoir, he writes: “It has been/ absolutely/ fascinating/ being me./A unique/privilege./Now my whole life/lies ahead of you./No thanks/at all are/called for, /I assure you./The pleasure /is all mine.”