The guardian of poetry
Poetry: A substantial collection of life-enhancing poems by Dennis O'Driscoll, which are not only true but funny, writes Bernard O'Donoghue.
Many of the reviewers of Dennis O'Driscoll's first collection, Kist, in 1982 singled out for praise the wonderfully sympathetic poem 'Someone', a catalogue of people with ordinary lives who are unknowingly starting their last day: "someone today is leaving home on business/ saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege". It is appropriate that this is now the first poem in his Selected Poems because it contains in prophetic seed the themes which were to mark O'Driscoll's poems over the following decades when he became not only Ireland's leading guardian of poetry but increasingly recognized as one of its foremost poets.
His distinctive themes are well known and recognised. The early deaths of his parents left him at the age of 20 responsible for younger siblings, with an understandably tragic view of life. As the grieving son walked behind the hearse in 'Kist', he noted unforgettably how
my own face in its glass
takes on the wrinkled grain
of coffin wood.
But from the first his poems managed to express this elegiac view of things in a life-enhancing spirit. They are not depressing because they are so faithful to the events they describe, and O'Driscoll is mostly praised for his keenly observant fidelity to the everyday. However this is not a matter of photographic reproduction of normality. He has developed a poetic language which combines subtlety with clarity, and through it he exposes the extraordinary within the ordinary. This language draws with brilliant wit on his work as a civil servant since he was 16 (he is now 50, improbably enough). Never has the day job served the poetic cause better: the titles of his volumes draw on the official vocabulary of the various departments he has worked in. Death duties and customs and excise are a wonderful resource. To recite those volume -titles is a poem in itself: Hidden Extras, Weather Permitting, Long Story Short, The Bottom Line, Quality Time, Exemplary Damages, and Foreseeable Futures (the last the title for the new poems here which are added to selections from the previous volumes).
O'Driscoll shares with Beckett the capacity to present the deathly through humour. These poems are life-enhancing not only because they are true but also because they are funny. This quality is most evident in the sequence which is reproduced in full here, The Bottom Line (1994): 50 11-line poems, all woven out of the language of business and bureaucracy. And, even if it is not his most substantial subject, the sequence is his most original and sharpest achievement: to write, like Pope, about dullness without being dull. Writers of the first significance always contribute something to literary language which it did not possess before, and no-one but O'Driscoll could have written this :
It is the wider picture I rake over in my
how gearing can improve; whether to draw
the blind on loss-making subsidiaries
and let the liquidator worry about debts.
But, if the dazzling wit of The Bottom Line was what enhanced O'Driscoll's popularity, the poems of the following volume, Quality Time (1997), strengthen an aspiration towards more challenging depths. 'Water' puts the familiar linguistic exactness to metaphysical use:
Water clings to its neutrality,
changes state at boiling point,
finds the level at which
tensions cool, limbs relax.
The languages of physics, politics and personal relations are integrated with unaffected ease. The sequence 'Wind', a kind of fantasia based on Death in Venice, sustains this philosophical attentiveness at length. And the later volumes have added a remarkable lyricism to his repertoire, in poems like 'Hay Barn' and 'Life Cycle', his evocative elegy for George Mackay Brown.
Who are O'Driscoll's inspirations? His capacity to revivify cliché recalls MacNeice and Beckett; often his observant "Martianism" remains faithful to the school of Craig Raine. He can sound like a more charitable Betjeman ('undo the crested tie, / change into fawn slacks and turtle-neck') or, more often, like the "supposedly fouled-up Philip Larkin". But he has a kinder outlook than either of the last two. He is increasingly his own man, working to his own formula: he winds up a poem on the spring of an idea that keeps it running through instance after instance. This Selected is far from self-indulgent: there are early poems (like 'Thalidomide') whose omission here I regret. But this only shows how substantial a book this Special Recommendation of the Poetry Book Society is. And it is enjoyable in a way that large books of poems rarely are.
Bernard O'Donoghue teaches English at Wadham College, Oxford. His latest book of poems is Outliving (Chatto, 2003).
New and Selected Poems. Dennis O'Driscoll, Anvil Press Poetry, 270pp. £11.95