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Dennis O’Driscoll (1954-2012)

It is with deep sadness that we in Poetry Ireland have learned of Dennis O’Driscoll’s sudden passing on Christmas Eve and we wish to extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Julie O’Callaghan, his family, and his extensive network of friends, which he gathered from all walks of life.

Dennis will be remembered as one of the most significant poets of his generation and his work as a critic was second to none. He was a walking encyclopaedia on everything pertaining to poets and poetry in Ireland, not just confining himself to Irish poetry but to international poetries also. His authority and knowledge were often called upon, and he was always supportive and willing to share his repository of learning. He was in the words of Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘Ireland’s leading guardian of poetry’.

Born in Thurles, County Tipperary in 1954 he began work as a civil servant at the age of 16, in the office of the Revenue Commissioners the internal revenue and customs service. While working with the Commission he studied Law at UCD. Over the years he rose to the position of Senior Civil Servant, taking early retirement a few years ago. He took his work seriously and in turn the language of the office, the workplace and bureaucracy in general, often informed and fed into the language and preoccupations of his own poetry.

His first book of poetry Kist was published thirty years ago by The Dolmen Press and was followed by a further eight award-winning collections, including a New and Selected Poems in 2004 and Dear Life his ninth collection published by Anvil Press earlier this year (2012). Many of his books were Poetry Book Society Recommendations or Commendations and two were short-listed for the Irish Times Poetry Prize.

O’Driscoll’s poetry has often been compared to Philip Larkin’s but while O’Driscoll was a huge admirer of Larkin, his work is more tender, more playful and ultimately more liberal. O’Driscoll, like Larkin concerned himself with ordinary lives and their hopes, ambitions and disappointments. He lends his transformative vision to everyday ‘bread and butter’ routines and the insidious forces that imperil them. His droll and quizzical eye apprehends his subjects and his styles could swing from the richly sensuous to the mercilessly mordant. Many of his poems have already achieved the status of classics.

His association with Poetry Ireland was a long and fruitful one. He was one of the earlier editors of Poetry Ireland Review and a contributor of poetry, critical essays and for many years his regular Pickings and Choosings column. In this quarterly column, he extracted quotes and pronouncements about poetry and poets from the most banal and astonishing sources. The column reflected on Dennis’s omnivorous reading and no journal was too small or insignificant as Dennis subscribed to everything. Pickings and Choosings had the distinction of being the first pages people turned to in Poetry Ireland Review. The quotations were collected and an edition was published by Poetry Ireland and edited by Tony Curtis. An expanded edition was later published as The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006) with an American counterpart.

As one of our leading critics, Dennis had been publishing reviews and essays for many years in a variety of journals from Harvard Review to theTLS and a selection of these were gathered for his widely acclaimed book of criticism, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (The Gallery Press, 2001), the book also contained autobiographical essays, essays on the craft, on poets he was passionate about and in some cases had become personal friends with, poets like Miroslav Holub and Czeslaw Milosz.

O’Driscoll’s criticism was always refreshing and invariably informed by primary reading and avoided, in his own words, ‘aesthetics and theories’ and also technical and prosodic analysis believing that such analysis bores and stultifies more than it stimulates. A further selections of essays, entitled, The Outnumbered Poet is planned for publication in 2013 by The Gallery Press.

In the same year that O’Driscoll’s selected criticism was published, in 2001, he began a series of dialogues with Seamus Heaney, some of these dialogues were in public, recorded and via correspondence but over the next six years they grew and were gathered and published as Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 2008). Dennis was determined to be a prompter rather than interrogator and the result is a rare meeting of minds, a definitive text on Heaney’s work and life and in essence a new template of how a creative life can be put on record.

For his work as both a poet and critic, Dennis O’Driscoll had over the years been garlanded with many awards and honours, among them a Lannan Literary Award, the E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies in Minnesota. He was a member of Aosdána and was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by University College, Dublin.

Dennis had a great talent for friendship and was renowned for his friendship to poets, taking as much interest in an emerging or unpublished poet as he would with major writers. On randomly encountering a fellow poet he could always cite their last published poem and to their surprise, briefly summarise it and invariably praise it. He was, he once cheerfully agreed, a train-spotter of poetry.

Considerate to a fault, remembering birthdays, weddings or simply ‘occasions’ with a prompt and always ingeniously apt postcard. There was something old world about Dennis in the best possible way and he will be sadly missed as, a friend of poets, a poet and someone who in Joyce’s words ‘kept the records’.

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