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Dennis O’Driscoll (1954-2012): An Appreciation

Until recently, Dennis O’Driscoll was among the few living poets I most wanted to meet. He was also the only such poet whose writings I barely knew. Yet shortly after his sudden death on December 24, 2012 (a week shy of his 59th birthday), I resolved to fill this gap in the coming year.

I won’t lack for opportunity: 2013 will see the release of his second collection of essays, The Outnumbered Poet, his edited volume of writings by the late poet/critic/translator Michael Hamburger, and U.S. publication (by Copper Canyon Press) of his final book of poems, Dear Life. But then I have no good reason for failing previously to have dipped into one of his already published collections. After all, I made a point of reading O’Driscoll’s critical prose whenever I came across it. I might have known that readers of his poems often attributed to them the same hallmarks I detected in his essays and reviews: dry wit, plain style, and a clear eye for the numinous.

O’Driscoll was born in County Tipperary, near the south of Ireland, and he lived in a Dublin suburb. But the best of even the Northern Irish poets, all better known than O’Driscoll on this side of the Atlantic, appear to have seen him as their equal. His funeral was attended not only by the President of Ireland but also by Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, and Seamus Heaney. The latter is the subject of the only O’Driscoll book I currently own: Stepping Stones, a series of interviews with the Nobel laureate.  In his eulogy, Heaney described the book as a collaboration, a book Heaney “needed to write, but one that, without Dennis as interviewer, might never have gotten written.” Stepping Stones is thorough and entertaining, but one wistfully re-reads the preface, where O’Driscoll writes that instead of conducting the interviews through the mail (because of Heaney’s “relentless” itinerary), his initial plan had been to tape several days of conversations with the poet, and then transcribe them. The result might well have approximated, if not a Life of Johnson, then perhaps Coleridgean table talk. There would have been more spontaneity, a call-and-response flavor, and chromatic shifts of perspective through O’Driscoll’s subtle lens.

It should be remembered that Johnson immortalized Boswell as much as the reverse. In a similar vein, Heaney may be said to have summed up his interviewer exactly, not with the funeral speech, but with a line from his poem-tribute to Philip Larkin: “a nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.” And this was the aspect of O’Driscoll that so appealed to my imagination when I first read about him. Departing from the norm of an academic career, which was just opening up to poets of his generation when O’Driscoll began writing, he chose to remain employed in Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service for nearly 40  years.

Speaking to Mark Thwaite for the blog ReadySteadyBook, O’Driscoll complained: “Literary people who know of my Customs connection tend to flatteringly invoke names like Chaucer and Melville. Alas, one does not become a Melville any more than one becomes a Bartleby simply by working in a Customs House.” Yet precisely because they appear so rarely in print, non-teaching poets attract comparisons with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, each of whose dual careers were, in their own way, equally demanding. (In attendance at O’Driscoll’s funeral was Thomas Lynch, the Michigan-based poet who has written extensively about his day job as an undertaker.) But what about poets in government? Especially abroad, there’s a rich history of poets working in cultural agencies and the foreign service; in the U.S., we’ve had the examples of Archibald MacLeish and Dana Gioia. Often they are politically appointed figures, and many have made lasting contributions to their respective branches, departments, or agencies. It’s somewhat (but not much) rarer to hear about an award-winning poet employed in the rank-and-file of civil service, but it’s positively refreshing to find one in an agency that has nothing to do with arts or culture. The most accomplished poet now working in U.S. government may well be Michael J. Astrue (A.M. Juster), Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (However, I’d welcome knowing of other candidates–especially among women poets in government.)

Interviewed by Elizabeth MacDonald for Poetry Ireland Review, O’Driscoll explained that in the 1990s he was asked on more than one occasion to join the Irish department of arts and culture then being established. He declined. His reluctance to become a state-sponsored arts official may have sprung from the same impulse that steered him clear of writing workshops and English departments at universities. In another comment to Thwaite, O’Driscoll said: “Would-be literary Samsons should be wary of enrolling in a hairdressing school.” Readers of Contemporary Poetry Review will recognize that sentiment as shared by many contributors to this site, including its founding editor. Appropriately, in the same interview, O’Driscoll professed enjoying CPR. It’s just too bad he was never interviewed in its pages.