Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dennis O'Driscoll

I was asked to talk about Dennis O'Driscoll in a tribute to him at the Barrow River Arts Festival last Sunday. His brother, Declan, read from his autobiographical essay on his home town, Thurles, and Marcella Riordan read a selection of his poems.

It's a strange experience to be here speaking about Dennis because I can still hardly fathom the fact that he's no longer with us. I still expect to bump into him, to carry on the conversation with him – the one ongoing conversation about poetry that we'd been having on and off for thirty odd years. It seems like a moment since we stood and chatted in Hodges Figgis in Dublin. He was buying presents, concentrating hard and looking a little lost in the non-poetry section of the shop, on his way to a poetry launch. He'd been to visit some of his beloved art galleries in the afternoon. Bookshop, galleries, poetry launch: a typical urban routine. The things that mattered. What did we talk about? Poetry, of course. We never really talked about anything else. What we were reading, what we were working on. I chanced an inquiry about his health but he swatted it aside, as always.

I suppose in one way I couldn't say that I knew Dennis well. He was an intensely private man, and he had a lot of charming strategies to protect that privacy. Charm and privacy went hand in hand. I knew him as a poet, an artist, I knew him as a companion on the road to the strange destination that poetry is, and as with all companions, they're so much part of the road, the journey, you think they'll always be there.

As long as I've been writing, I've been aware of Dennis. When I was about twenty I remember going to see him give a talk on eastern European poetry. In his beard and tweeds, he struck me as a distinguished, slightly Dostoyevskian figure, yet he was no more than a few years older than me. He was by then a regular critic for Hibernia, sharp, unsentimental, interested in what was going on outside this small island. A little later I became aware of the early books Kist and Hidden Damages. Later,  Dennis often dismissed his first book as callow but I've long learned never to trust poets on their own work, and Dennis' early work is full of fine things – some of which I know we'll year today.

We often say that someone has a powerful presence yet find it hard to pinpoint the focus or the pulse of that presence. In Dennis's case a number of related things came together. There was his own work: the powerful, uncompromising poems, the essays and reviews, there was the personal presence: the encouraging word or postcard, the never exhausted fund of praise, the sense that whatever poetry was produced in the world he was somehow its first audience.

Most of all, maybe, it was the sense of the seriousness of the challenge of poetry, and of the absolute dedication it required. Dennis really did seem to eat, sleep, drink poetry. I think of Julie's wonderful poem 'Bookworm':


Opening a cabinet
under the kitchen sink,
I'm surprised to find
you leaning against a water pipe
reading Myth and Ted Hughes.

I'm drying the dishes now
and look out the window
to see you raking mud
with the T.L.S. on the handle
reading 'The Laureate of Ambiguity'.

How can you concentrate, I wonder,
carpet-sweeping a woven rug,
polishing a door knob,
with a book in your other hand
reading 'Language, you terrible surrounder…'

Even when you're sleeping
your dreams are literary:
walking up a steep dark staircase,
books, like bats, were flying at your head.
Reading the titles out loud saved you.

As I point the car towards work
you sit beside me with American Poetry Review.
Everyone is tired, waiting in a traffic jam;
I brake and honk and swear,
but you are reading 'Words are everywhere.'
Those are great images of Dennis, busy about the business of the world but busy too smuggling poetry into that world.

Few poets have that absolute dedication. It was the clear sense of a life spent reading and thinking about poems as well as writing them, a life spent immersed in the possibilities of poetry. I still find myself thinking, when I come across an interesting poet, I wonder what Dennis would think of that? I wonder if he knows so and so?


I look at his Christmas card still on the table, the big blue copperplate with its cheery wishes for Enda, Freya and myself. I'm sure we all know the stories of when he wrote to her as a small boy, Enid Blyton had responded by admiring his handwriting. He was proud of this, as of the letter he'd received from W.H. Auden. The handwriting has something childlike about it – as if it had been definitively formed in a childhood classroom and stuck happily. No-one's letters were so instantly recognisable on the mat. We did sometimes exchange emails – indeed, I've been rereading them – but mostly these correspondences were initiated by me, a journeyman keyboardist rather than a true correspondent. He was nineteenth century in his devotion to fountain pen and paper, the enduring, authentic record of a mind.

The desk I work at has a small collection of his letters close at hand, not filed properly but scattered on the surface, hidden under a chaos of papers, bills, printouts of work in progress. Whenever a book came out the surest sign of its arrival in the world was the note from Dennis. For me as for many, it was one of the highlights of publication. I think he saw encouragement as a necessary reinforcement  of the slender institution of poetry. The way he saw it, it was part of his responsibility to send a signal back to the poet that the message had been received.

There isn't much of a poetry community. Poets, for the most part, work in the dark, and keep other poets at arms length. Yet at some fundamental level poetry is a collective enterprise in the sense that poems are for someone, or in the sense that we all read as well as write poetry and therefore implicate ourselves in a poetic entity greater than our own particular contribution. Dennis's devotion was to the great stream of poetry that runs continuously through cultures and time, and his own particular vein of poetry flowed from that. He quietly consumed every book, every journal and magazine of consequence – David Wheatley once said that asking Dennis if he'd read something was like asking Matt Talbot if he'd said his prayers that morning – ransacking them for our edification in his 'Poetry Pickings' columns for Poetry Ireland Review which were later collected and published by Bloodaxe. For many readers this was the first thing they turned to in the Review. They linked us to the intense self-interrogations in which poets – and this I think something all artists do – examined their impulses and inspirations; they reminded up of the high stakes that poetry involved. And Dennis is as present is these selected words of others – you can see the pencil lighting on them as he reads – as he is in his own writings. His last column came during my own editorship of the Review. Here are some of his 'pickings' from the summer of 2007:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
'Poetry is destined to "change life", as Rimbaud said, and not to produce writings which withdraw from the field of existence.  It ought to help us to love the snow that falls, not to incline to lock us up again in our rooms.'
- Yves Bonnefoy, The Age, 28 July 2007
'If you have nothing to say, a sonnet will make that clear; there's no hiding in a sonnet.  It's an open window.'
- Mark Jarman, The Writer's Chronicle, February 2007
'I take…paeans with a grain of salt.  I trust more the voice at 3 a.m. who whispers to me that my poems are not so hot.'
- Charles Simic, B92, 9 August 2007
 'Poetry is an art of beginnings and ends.  You want middles, read novels.  You want happy endings, read cookbooks.'
- Dean Young, Embryoyo, 2007

At the centre of all of this was Dennis's own work. I don't want to lose sight of that, because everything flowed from that. Sometimes when we remember someone we think of the particular connection we had with them, and it's easy to get lost in the personal memory. But I remember Aidan Mathews saying that when writers die their work begins, and one great consolation of Dennis' death is that the work remains to speak for itself, and that work is more various and surprising than he sometimes is given credit for.

From the very beginning Dennis established an unmistakable voice, an unmistakable style and an unmistakable tonal range. He just didn't sound like anyone else. The world of his work, that he vigorously attends to, is almost defiantly ordinary and downplayed – life with the volume turned town – yet never so closely attended to, the antennae always poised, waiting. . . It's the world of the supermarket, the suburb, the office, the bus journey, the life of time served and duties fulfilled, the life, often of diminished expectation. No other poet that I can think of has made the experience of work  'the hidden pain of offices', so central to the poems – in other words a decision to make the most ordinary, banal realities yield their revelation, but there's also the centrality of work in the poetic life, not so much the Larkin idea of the toad work squatting on the life but of work as a necessary bedrock, the alternative life which grounds  the imagination and provides it with practical nourishment.

Dennis  described himself as being of  'the back of the envelope school' and there's a pride in that, in poetry as a kind of necessary smuggling. It's a poetry impatient with disguise, with the impulse to prettify as even the titles of his collections suggest: Hidden Extras, The Bottom Line, Weather Permitting, Exemplary Damages, Foreseeable Futures, Reality Check, Dear Life.

Part of the reality check is a distrust of rhetoric. 'Poetry is a high-visibility art in Ireland,' he said once, 'in our rapidly-secularized society, it has become a kind of ersatz religion, supplying the elevated ceremonial language without the divisive doctrines; the confession without the penance; the absolution without the contrition.' In other words, there's  a lot of guff around, and part of the mission of Dennis's work was to supply a corrective to that, to be as exact and exacting as possible. But if his gaze can be merciless, but it is also compassionate.

If the clock of mortality ticks like a bomb under the poems,  for all the unillusioned take on the world, there's a rich vein of mordant humour throughout the work; wit in fact is often the engine of the poems, and a lot of the wit comes from the ironic mismatch of applying the language of bureaucratic efficiency to the hopes and dreams of life.

When we hear the poems today you'll see the kind of variety I mean: his keen eye for an image in 'Wings' - 'like tumbling masonry pigeons flock from a chimney' –, that sense of being locked inescapably in time in 'Time-sharing' as 'we blurt past farms and cottages/those whose era we share/are staring from net curtains.', the idea of love as having someone you can ask to turn the immersion on', the memories of childhood and family where everything translates into feeling, 'the plates the dead have eaten from before us,/the layers of wallpaper that still pattern memory,', the mockery of pretension of 'The Next Poem'.

The poet's job is to "follow the prompts,", Dennis has said,  'to shape the amorphous sounds, rhythms, images, or phrases by which the first stirrings of a potential poem are recognized, and which arrive unbidden like internal voicemails or text messages.' Sometimes the finished poem may even prove 'permanent and pensionable.'

'If you ever leave your job, you will stop writing', an office colleague told Dennis when he retired. How wrong he is proved by the poems he went on to write in Dear Life. When it came out I told him it was  his finest book to date, a true concentration of all his defining concerns but with a burning energy and power that fairly startles and compels, and I still believe that to be case. But I go back to all of the work.

Sometimes on an occasion like this it's as easy to bury a writer in a sort of general blanket of praise and in that to miss the particular print of their work – there's a poem by Eugenio Montale where he talks about the particular unique presence of someone who is lost, 'il gesto d'una/vita che non è altra ma se stessa' (the gesture of a life that is not another but itself). What's hardest to get and what will most remain is the particular gesture that was Dennis O'Driscoll's, the particular unmissable quality that speaks to us from very line he wrote, that carried all his depth of feeling, his weight of experience, his exultation and unconsoled look at the world.

I'd like to finish with a few lines I wrote for him, remembering poets we were both very taken with – some of whose lines make their way into the poem.

A room for you where poetry comes, voices looping
in the dark: Holub Miłosz Hölderlin Brecht
the door wide open for miraculous draughts
the rivers washing through us to where they began
the glacier roar of the white Himalayas
amusing themselves in their icy solitude
and the misery of lost poets parading
in darkness looking for the arms of the gods.
The slow spin of the reel to reel
catches the gravelly voice, the reedy voice, the thunder
down the mountain voice and all the questions after
but uncatchable now your own: the mike brings 
not you but the poems shaking themselves loose
drifting up the stairs and in till the room is filled with them.

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