The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry was established in 1997 to honor outstanding Irish poets. Since then, the Center for Irish Studies has invited and celebrated many world-renowned poets with the support of the St. Thomas and Twin Cities communities.
The Center for Irish Studies was established by the award’s namesake, Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, a long-respected member of the St. Thomas family and the son of one of the university’s most generous benefactors, I.A. O’Shaughnessy. St. Thomas proudly pays tribute to the O’Shaughnessy family in many forms across campus, including this award.
Previous winners of the O’Shaughnessy Award are (listed in chronological order): Eavan Boland, John F. Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, Moya Cannon, Frank Orsmby, Thomas McCarthy, Michael Coady, Kerry Hardie, Dennis O’Driscoll, Seán Lysaght, Pat Boran, Mary O’Malley, Theo Dorgan, Leanne O’Sullivan, Gerard Smyth, Leontia Flynn and Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Paula Meehan.
Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry
to Eavan Boland Thursday, March 20, 1997
University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis Campus
By honoring Eavan Boland this evening, we borrow for a moment her preeminence not only among the most accomplished of Irish poets now writing, but also among the most distinguished of women poets – from Jane Cooper to Louise Glück in North America, from Akhmatova to Szymborska in the new Europe.
Until the publication of her work by Ontario Review Press in 1980, Boland’s poetry was little known in the United States. That book, Introducing Eavan Boland, collected the most metamorphic of her collections: The War Horse (1975) and In Her Own Image (1980). In those poems, Boland found the “new territory” she had sought in 1967 in her first published collection. And in those poems are the foundations for the fine explorations, the renewing articulations of her 1987 volume The Journey.
In these poems Boland has claimed for women in the new Ireland an empathic, moral and articulate energy that has renewed and nurtured the writing of so many of Ireland’s younger poets. As she asserts in Object Lessons: “All good poetry depends on an ethical relation between imagination and image,” for “Images are not ornaments; they are truths.”
Distinctively, Boland’s writing has employed all the classical resources of the Irish and English canons to renovate nationality and domesticity. Her poem “An Old Steel Engraving” represents Boland’s generosity to that past and her delicacy of manner to the spirit of it:
we have found
the country of our malediction where
nothing can move until we find the word,
nothing can stir until we say this is
what happened and is happening….
By making herself so passionately present in Irish traditions, Boland has forever enhanced their scope of moral feeling.
American readers know Boland’s poetry best through her 1990 selected poems titled Outside History and her 1996 collected poems called An Origin Like Water. And they and European readers know a little of her critical scope from her 1995 memoir and essay Object Lessons, published just after her 1994 collection In a Time of Violence.
Irish readers know, of course, her long, instructive, and continuing service as a critic for The Irish Times since the 1960s. In that way, too, Boland has helped shape and reshape Ireland’s once tardy and now tigerish literary culture.
And, like most critics and many poets, Boland has become a teacher in the regular ways at Irish universities and at those abroad, and now at Stanford University in California.
But, as best befits a poet, the irregular ways count more, and in these ways Boland has not walked away from her nation. Irish poets are zealous stewards of their traditions, but few have practiced such insistent mentorship via the workshop as has Eavan Boland. Her care for the Cork Women’s Poetry Circle since 1979 is but one example of this. In years to come, the accomplishments of a whole generation of Irish women writers may justly be credited to Boland’s own achievement.
For three decades in Ireland and abroad, Eavan Boland’s care throughout her writing has been, in her words, to “compel … some recognitions” of others, of the less fortunately voiced. For that, for her charismatic craft, for the fine endurance of her art, we now have the honor of thanking Eavan Boland with the first poetry award of the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies.
Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to John F. Deane April 30, 1998 University of St. Thomas
We gather this spring evening to offer praise and thanks for the writing of John F. Deane and, particularly, to honor the achievement of Christ, with Urban Fox – the eighth of his ten collections since 1977.
Including a translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Dream of the Rood” and an eleven-part American pilgrimage, those thirty-eight poems in Christ, with Urban Fox test in a rich variety of forms the ordinariness of our lives – whether we live in Dublin or Belfast, Paris or Prague, Boston or Athens, Georgia.
The assaying of Deane’s lines reveals a classically Christian imagination that can renew in our world images of the Passion. More often than mere skill allows, the same lines attain that “inscape” so feared and desired by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
And it is fearless dedication to the arts of the poem, the auras of the book, the promises of publishing that characterize John Deane’s life in the world. He proposed that dedication as a sort of credo in an essay and a poem, both titled “In Dedication.” The essay concludes: “Our age is hungering for truth, honesty, concentration, integrity. For dedication.”The close of the poem, though, opens with this view:
Curlews scatter now on a winter field, their calls
small alleluias of survival….
In every collection, from High Sacrifice of 1981 through The Stylized City a decade later, Deane’s working of a great variety of line and genre serves his readers with a “small alleluia.”
Much weighs against this, for Deane’s writing spans the two decades past. These, we know, were two decades of great change and trial in Ireland – from the Hunger Strikes to the latest accord; and in Europe – from Solidarity to the advent of the Euro. Tellingly, it is to Europe more than America or Britain that Deane has looked for the sustaining model of a life dedicated to Ireland’s literatures.
The now prospering organization known as Poetry Ireland, and its elegant journal, were founded in 1978 and nurtured by John F. Deane. Likewise, Deane continues with Dedalus Press, one of the heirs of the Dolmen Press tradition begin by Liam Miller. Like Liam Killer, Deane both conserves a tradition – the writing of Thomas Kinsella and Dennis Devlin, to take two examples – and fosters the new, as the entries in any Dedalus catalog will show.
Deane has, of course, been translated. A selection titled L’ombre du photographe appeared in 1996. More often he has been the translator, rendering into English the Romanian of Sorescu, the Swedish of Transtromer, the French of Rancourt. And since 1996 he has commuted to Luxembourg, where he serves as general secretary of the European Academy of Poetry.
Though Deane has lately published stories and novels, it is to the poems that his readers must return. It is to their patient but struggling apperception of the createdness of Irish life that Deane returns his readers – to every drama of foxy presence in the new suburb or in each trailing excursion to an Atlantic headland.
In Christ, with Urban Fox, a poem of French extraction suggests the necessity that yields the reward of Deane’s poetry: “I was born /on an island off an island off an island/ off the western limits of Europe….” That pedigree of isolation provides us with the reward of Deane’s dedication – a necessary, undistracted concentration on the grit of presence, the grain of our afflictions, and finally a yielding to the choir of “small alleluias.”
For more than two decades John F. Deane has helped to lead Irish writing to its present prominence in our narrowing world by feeling and saying anew the durable promises of Ireland’s Christianness.
For that unsettling assurance, for the constant care of his difficult art, for the enterprise of his dedication, we now share the privilege of thanking John F. Deane with the second Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry given by the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies.
On May 6, 1999, Peter Sirr received the third annual Poetry Award of the Center for Irish Studies. The following citation was read on that occasion:
This May evening we leave behind the distracting traffic of our lives to pause and to welcome the renewal of the season by celebrating the accomplishment of the poet Peter Sirr. Editor of Graph, an expert reviewer for The Irish Times, and director of the Irish Writer's Centre at the top of Dublin's O'Connell Street, Sirr has helped lead a new generation of Irish writers into European prominence in this last decade of the twentieth century.
More particularly, this evening the Center for Irish Studies of the University of St. Thomas has the privilege of presenting the third Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award to Peter Sirr in recognition not only of his service to Irish writing and writers, but also of the challenge, grace, and increasing accomplishment of his poetry since the publication in 1984 of Marginal Zones, the first of his four collections. In doing so, we give thanks for Peter Sirr's art, and for the rich traditions of Irish writing, and also for the prescient generosity of Lawrence O'Shaughnessy.
Closing Sirr's 1995 collection The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, we look back at these new lines and over these pages leavened with allusion. Sirr ends his Ledger with a loose, elegant, often Romantic recollection of a lost lover and lost loving -- modestly titled only "A Journal," perhaps one written in a small account book. And the very first page of that book poses a luxuriant catalogue of ancient cures borrowed from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Looking for one of those cures, for heart's ease, Sirr's lines tend here to shy away from Irish allusion. Rather than recall the traditional "sad love songs" or even Fionn MacCumhaill's happy hymn "May Day," Sirr remembers other song, as in "Listening to Bulgarian Music."
Acknowledging that his poems can begin, for example, by imagining the travels of itinerant Jewish merchants in the same Middle Ages, Sirr's welcome art has come to distinguish a new generation of Irish poets whose urbanities have a clearly European aspect. And in 1991 Sirr proposed those same urbanities in his third collection Ways of Falling.
This poetry declines the habit and ease of dwelling apart in Irishness. Here is a poetry that sets aside the usual costumes and disguises of the Irish drama--the insecurities of the parish, rote worries about identity, hand-wringing about the Northern "Troubles" and the Southern "Celtic Tiger."
But Sirr does not set aside one durable, Irish theme: the fable of the exile. And the exile is not a Free State Columcille or even a Joycean artist, but a figure whose voice surprises us with Romantic aspiration -- a figure more like a Shelley. Likewise, in the 1987 collection Talk, Talk, Sirr reinvented an Irish genre in the lines of his closing elegies to his father.
In that same collection Sirr set his purpose by proposing the task of every poem in this ordinary, yet insistent phrase: "in your own words." It sounds simple. Such an injunction is easy to repeat. But it is an injunction hard to live up to in the hurly-burly of contemporary Ireland's many voices. And it is equally hard to live up to amidst the oratory and carousing of poetic traditions as deep, vital, and charged as Ireland's are.
In the phrases and lines of Sirr's recent poems European allusions equal Irish ones, and the Irish ones usually refrain from praising the past. More often, they point up the deep debts of suburban life, the unpayable liens of the family upon the individual, and the promissory notes of loss in the moment of desire. As in the closing sequence of The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, Sirr's speakers move through the small ironies, through the promises of human sentience and feeling, and into momentary realms of, in Sirr's phrase, "re-knowing."
And "re-knowing" appears by turns in those leisurely, impassioned entries in "A Journal." In this rendition of a lost affair, there is no traditional and trusting ascent to Platonic certainties. Likewise, Sirr permits no easy cynicism or sentiment when his lost lover addresses himself and his reader to a European evening--rather than a Celtic Twilight--when the night comes out with a gentler light, not true, but reaching us like a history we can trust, like a history of forgiveness.
For the story of forgiveness in each poem, for the surprising trust that many of the poems earn, for that reach of a gentler and fictive light, we have the honor of presenting to Peter Sirr the third Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry given by the Center for Irish Studies of the University of St. Thomas.
Here on Archbishop John Ireland's campus halfaway round the globe from County Galway, we gather not for the customary March observances of things Irish--no parading or pub-crawling tonight--but for a feast--a feast both literal and literary. We gather in honor of the Irish poet Louis de Paor, the language of his originality, and particularly his seventh collection of poems Cork and Other Poems.
Published just last year, Cork and Other Poems is the third of de Paor's bilingual books after Sentences in Earth and Stone of 1996 and Speckled Weather of 1993. Each of those collections offers de Paor's own English--what he terms his "forgery"--of the original Gaelic poem. Each collection gives a welcome to English, and not a farewell to it.Because each of his lines pronounces by turns de Paor's devotion to the familial, the intimate, and the sum of Irish heritance, each reader receives what such other poets in Modern Irish as Máire Mhac an tSaoi or the late Míchéal hAirtnéide have so generously passed on to those willing to listen. De Paor's poem "Gaeilgeoirí" raised that question early on:
Cad leis go rabhamar ag súil?
Go mbeadh tincéiri chun lóin
in Áras an Uachtaráin?
Go n-éistfi linn?
+ + +
What did we expect?
That tinkers could drop in
for a spot of lunch
at Áras an Uachtaráin?
That people would actually listen to us?
The answer, this night, is a plain "Yes." Remarkably, de Paor's Irish and his English forgeries have come to us in St. Paul and London--or Boston and even Dublin--all the way from Australia. Speckled Weather / Aimsir Bhreicneach came first, marking off from the outside de Paor's maturity in 1993. This is hardly an accident. It comes, of course, from an essential Irish circumstance--the necessity to emigrate. Goban Cre is Cloch / Sentences of Earth and Stone voices that diasporic heritage in a long poem titled "Oileán na Marbh" or "The Island of the Dead." Whether in English or Irish, those lines keep all of de Paor's later poems mindful of the penitential durance of emigration, and not solely because Australia served as a British penal colony for decades. Visiting the plots of those prisoners, de Paor declares:
Better to wear a
cowl to hide the shame of
man made nothing, to cover
+ + +
Ba chuíúla dar liom
cochall a chaitheamh
gan uirísleacht an duine...
The hallmark qualities of Speckled Weather and Sentences of Earth and Stone underscore the real presence of every line in Cork and Other Poems.
De Paor's title reminds us that he received the Sean O Riordain prize of the 1988 and then the 1992 Oireachtas. De Paor was born in Cork and educated there. His study of the Galway writer Máirtín Uí Cadhain and his anthology Leabhar Sheain Ui Thuma pay tribute to the poet and scholar Seán Ó Tuama. Like the poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill or Thomas McCarthy, de Paor comes of a remarkable generation tutored by Seán Lucy, John Montague, and Ó Tuama himself at University College, Cork.
In Cork and Other Poems, local and national events speak bitterly and passionately. Early and Bardic lines pose their sweet and sour against our contemporary lives. Most importantly, though, de Paor keeps to simple freedom with metaphor that suddenly and rewardingly complicate a living moment. That is why the father-and-son scene, a family scene, of "Heredity/ Oidhreacht" surprises us in its closure.
...ta fiacail ar sceabha
i ndrad mo mhic
gleas chomh hard
le niamh an phearla
ar a ghaire neamhfhoirfe
+ + +
..there's a tooth askew
in my son's mouth,
bright as a pearl
in his perfectly crooked smile.
One of the traditional tasks of the poet's language is to skew our perceptions and expectations, to make our straight ways of understanding crooked, to set our ordinary feelings ar sceabha.
Whether forgeries in English or playfully forged in Irish, Louis de Paor's poems renew the powers of Irish to set askew the presumptions and usual preferences of English as we find it in Ireland and Britain, in the Americas, in Australia.
It is in recognition of those powers that we celebrate the accomplishment of Louis de Paor by awarding him the fourth Lawrence M. O'Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry.
On March 29, 2001, Moya Cannon received the fifth annual poetry award of the Center for Irish Studies. The award bears the name of the Center's distinguished benefactor, Lawrence M. O'Shaughnessy of St. Paul. It was presented in private ceremonies at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul.
Here at the welcome end of a hard winter, we gather at the University of St. Thomas to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Center for Irish Studies with the giving of the fifth O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to the Donegal-born poet Moya Cannon.
Generously supported by Lawrence M. O'Shaughnessy since its start in 1996, this internationally noted award has gone to Eavan Boland, John F. Deane, Peter Sirr, and Louis de Paor. Writing and publishing extensively in English and Irish, each of these poets shares two traits. Each possesses an untiring sensitivity to the contemporary impress of language in a rapidly changing, contemporary Ireland. Nourished by that sensitivity, each raises a voice that clearly claims the best attentions of any reader. Published several times over in the 1990s, Moya Cannon's two collections--Oar and The Parchment Boat--display those hallmark traits with insisting tact.
In both collections, Moya Cannon's lines wear her biography and her considerable learning lightly, though Oar begins with an epigraph from Homer and The Parchment Boat with one from Goethe. Cannon's childhood life in Donegal and her teaching life in Galway do provide the imagery of circumstantial settings. The uncanniness of Cannon's percipience comes not so much from trouble and the "Troubles" as from persistent and almost exilic sense of being hosted on the landscapes and in the languages of Ireland North and West.
Through the seas of living a daily life, the title metaphor of The Parchment Boat moves propelled onward by the choices of our speaking--by the oars of language. Cannon's reader hears this "or" most often in the startling, but understated terminations of the poems. This happens in "Thalassa." There Cannon poses an elemental alternative to our decisions "to go home," and we are led "down again / by the grey, agitated sea"--not "to," but "by." A world of meanings lies in that difference. Or, following "Thalassa," Cannon invests a "fading language" with the capacity to invent the oldest of emotions: "when someone, in anguish / made a new and mortal sound / that lived until now. . . ." That is how "'Taom'" ends. The poem's Gaelic title denotes both a paroxysm of passion and an emptying out. The voyage of intimate sensation of making language finds its best expression in Cannon's "No Sense in Talking." There, Cannon poses the sense of talking "the old dirty languages" of the stripped-down and primal worlds of Homer or of the poet of the Táin--the tongues that "still hold / touch in the ear / lick in the ear / secrets for everybody?"
To hold or clip a line unexpectedly, to pare the common syntax into unanticipated alternatives, to scrape away the usual flourishes--these elements of craft sustain Cannon's hard-won trust in language--the very trust that causes us to listen so attentively. Characteristically, they also delineate the urgency of her themes, not all of which are elemental or mythic. That craft makes possible
Cannon's "Narrow Gatherings," one of the finest extant poems on the "Troubles" in the North. Cannon's poem views an Orange parade in the seaside resort of Portrush. It closes with a view of an Orange fife-and-drum band turning down the seaside promenande:
come the marching children,
growing smaller and smaller
in their uniforms.
Detailed, specific, affecting, Cannon's lines make every word count. And they avoid costuming themselves in the usual moral certainties.
Going beyond the choices of Oar, in The Parchment Boat Cannon summons the angel of simultaneity in a poem titled "Driving through Light in West Limerick." We find the premise of the poem in a question from Oar, where Cannon does not "know whether / sacred objects and images tend to cluster / around a constant light. . . ." Surprised while driving round a low hill out into the Burren, Cannon summons both a sensation of light and the sense of enlightenment commanded by memories of both a Quattrocento icon of a saint and elevation out of the twentieth-century underground in London. Effortlessly weaving together allusions to Dante, Blake, and Yeats, Cannon's poem answers the close of "Narrow Gatherings" with a bright moment that is rapture.
Cannon both conserves and extends the themes and art of Oar in The Parchment Boat. Her landscapes alter a little from Dublin to Ontario to Galway, but her use of them does not. Her pronouns slip into the plural, but the vision she shares remains singular. Language and the search for a "less brutal grammar" still falls at the center of each poem, as does the urge to renew--by way of an implied pun--what our words had better mean. Note the humor that starts the end of "Milk":
This is kindness
which in all our human time
has refused to learn propriety,
which still knows nothing,
but the depth of kinship,
the depth of thirst.
Exacting of language and demanding of attention, Cannon's art is hard to practice. The poems are slow to accumulate on the page, especially the printed page. That is not simply the cost of an engaged and busy life whose details the poems themselves often eschew. Rather, Cannon's admirable tactical economies of expression enrich her reader's experience by declining conventional chances to exploit aesthetically our experience of Ireland's languages and landscapes. So it is in recognition of that spare fidelity to nuance of language and perception that we honor the accomplishment of Moya Cannon by inviting her into the company of Louis de Paor, Peter Sirr, John F. Deane, and Eavan Boland with the giving this evening of the fifth Lawrence M. O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.
Citation read at the presentation of theLawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Frank Ormsby, March 7, 2002
Here in Minnesota on this March evening -- at the ragged end of a Northern winter, and looking about for some early glimmerings of our own Northern spring – we gather with members of the O’Shaughnessy family and with other distinguished guests to welcome the poet Frank Ormsby. Tonight, he joins the company of Eavan Boland. John F. Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, and Moya Cannon as the recipient of the annual O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry presented by the University of St Thomas Center for Irish Studies.
For more than a quarter of a century, Belfast’s Frank Ormsby has labored on behalf of the written word, and his generous stewardship of the poetry of others forms no small part of his achievement. As a teacher and as Head of English at the venerable Royal Belfast Academical Institution, he has helped to create a new generation of readers. As the editor of the literary journal The Honest Ulsterman from 1969 to 1989 -- years that spanned the worst of the Ulster conflict -- he provided the creative writers of Ireland with an essential forum. As a guest editor of Poetry Ireland Review and as an influential anthologist of four collections – among them A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles and The Long Embrace: Irish Love Poetry of the Twentieth Century -- his ear and his judgments have helped to define the canon of Irish poetry in the past three decades, and to assert – with a distinctly North of Ireland insistence -- that insularity has no lasting place in that tradition: to insist that Irish poetry look outward, to the world and the age, and to give readers new tools and new visions for doing the same.
But, gracious as he has been to other poets, it is Frank Ormsby’s own work that we gather to honor tonight, and which has earned his place on the list of O’Shaughnessy honorees.
His first collection, A Store of Candles, appeared in 1977. These poems evoke in almost photographic detail the small farms of his childhood, his school days in Enniskillen, and the countryside and country folk of rural Ulster. Reading these poems today, we realize how easy it would have been for Ormsby to have settled for the purely local. But he allowed himself no ostrich-like retreat into the familiar and parochial, and reading these poems today, we also realize that an uneasiness about the world percolates below their placid surface -- as in the opening poem of the collection, “The Practical Farms”:
Harmless for now the ladder’s makeshift rung,
Weedkiller in lemonade bottles.
or in the incident reported in “Old Man on a Country Bus,” superficially about an anxious farmer who
… cannot shake free
Of fears that after all his pesterings
Of peaked officials, depot office-girls,
He has caught the wrong bus.
The unreliable map, the incomplete chart: these images recur throughout Ormsby’s poems, and in time, we realize that this old man intuits correctly. It is not just he, but his entire century, that has somehow “caught the wrong bus.”
In another poem, “Moving In,” newlyweds taking up residence in their first house realize “The first act of love in a new house/Is not private….” -- for even in the most concealed of moments, “ …. You cannot ignore / The world at the window.” And the world at the window comes rushing in to the closing poems of A Store of Candles, which reconstruct that time when the Second World War bore down on Northern Ireland, and the mossy Fermanagh countryside became a home to landing strips and air-raid shelters, for searchlights that would report “The skies are empty now/but for how long?”
Ormsby clearly stated the range and ambition of his poetic concerns in his second volume, which appeared in 1986 -- an inventive collection in which he refracts his experience of life in Ulster of the “Troubles” through a series of thirty-six short poems that give the book its title, A Northern Spring. Conceived of as a sort of photo-album of the war, the sequence is written chiefly in the voices of American soldiers for whom Ulster was a way-station en route to the great hemorrhage of the Normandy invasion.
These are not always pretty poems, nor could they be; like Wilfred Owens’s poems of the Great War, they wearily carry the weight of nightmare. “A Northern Spring” presents war in its irony, cruelty, and capriciousness. Occasionally, too, it gives us glimpses of the human impulse to bring healing, as when soldiers come across maimed civilians and offer:
First words, first rites, the work of consolation,
Calvados and chocolate on their scorching tongues.
Written out of the backdrop of political violence in the North, Ormsby’s reclamation of the Second World War evokes the still-charged memories of the Somme and the Ulster Sacrifice in an earlier war; the “Northern Spring” of his imagination reminds us that history, and especially recent history, has always been a narrative of dislocation, an unending search for new homes after loss. A Northern Spring closes with meditative poems in which the author reflects that Ireland has, indeed, always been a place that welcomed the refugee – among them Jewish emigrants from Lublin, one of whose grandchildren became Lord Mayor of Belfast – and, in recognizing the displacement that we have all endured, he makes a leap of empathy with the first settlers in the Lagan valley and the Vietnamese boat-people of Portadown.
In 1995, his third collection, The Ghost Train, appeared from The Gallery Press. In this volume, Ormsby continues his poetic exploration of the boundaries between the global and the personal. These new poems chart the pressure of forgotten or half-forgotten history, the legacy of ruin, the strangeness of a world that has simultaneously grown both bigger and smaller – a tension made vivid in his poem “Geography,” in which a Donegal man chats by satellite with a stranded Soviet cosmonaut. The space traveler looks down to find that
… Georgia is Donegal
and Donegal the coast of Estonia, where he too re-shapes
his place on the planet, the geography of home.
In The Ghost Train, Frank Ormsby allows us to enter his own geography of home as his poems grow more intimate, familial: poems that tell of his marriage to Karen, their honeymoon in Paris, and a series of poems involving the worried journey of a pregnancy, some of them spoken to his yet-unborn daughter Helen. These poems reprise the album-like structure of “A Northern Spring,” but in a manner that turns the lens around. In these family snapshots, a child being carried into Belfast of the “Troubles” becomes an emblem of both the fragility and the persistence of human hope. The Ghost Train closes at the birth of his daughter:
The place knows nothing of you and is home.
Indifferent skies look on while August warms
the middle air. We wrap you in your name.
Peace is the way you settle in our arms.
And we are reminded in this tender, endlessly repeated but always new moment of arrival, of the line with which Frank Ormsby closed his first collection, when he called forth “a store of candles for when the light fails.”
Tonight, we honor Frank Ormsby’s generosity of spirit; the craft of his poetry; his deep humanity; his resolute claiming of the moral authority of imagination and of memory -- gifts that in his poetry, have sought to exorcise the darkest chapters of the century just past; gifts that have given his readers, across dark times, their own store of candles. We are honored now to share the privilege of thanking him with the 2002 Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.2003 Thomas McCarthy, Cork
On March 13, 2003, Thomas McCarthy received the seventh annual poetry award of the Center for Irish Studies. The following citation was read on that occasion:
This March evening we take time together, away from the anxieties raised by the bellicose temper of our day and the duress of a snowy season, to honor the artistic accomplishments of the poet Thomas McCarthy and the generous ethos of his writing life. In accepting the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award, McCarthy joins Eavan Boland, John F Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, Moya Cannon, and Frank Ormsby. Like these past winners of the award, McCarthy has come to hold a place central in Ireland’s flourishing literary culture. In honoring Thomas McCarthy, we recognize as well the long tradition of writing that has come from Cork City and environs, and from the South of Ireland. Removed from the scarring angers of Ulster, and standing apart both from the panting cosmopolitanism of Dublin and the ideology-haunted West, the South is another Ireland. And although the South has for decades animated and balanced Irish letters in both Irish and English, it remains an Ireland almost “hidden” from cultural view. As surely as Seamus Heaney is the poet of the North, so Thomas McCarthy is a poet of the South.
Tonight, we commend in particular McCarthy’s sixth collection, his 1999 gathering of new and selected poems titled Mr. Dineen’s Careful Parade. By displaying McCarthy’s thoughtful treatment of those themes that have always preoccupied poets, this retrospective collection also views telling moments in the inner life of Ireland’s South. In these poems, McCarthy evokes his Waterfoird childhood, his love for his wife and children, and the enduring presence of such larger-than-life figures as his Irish-speaking grandmother, Frank O’Connor, and even André Gide.
Woven through Mr. Dineen’s Careful Parade, however, are poems that clearly show what McCarthy’s contribution to Irish letters has been: McCarthy has held the lens of poetry over Ireland’s real political life. From the unpromising stiff of local party plots and parish policies, Thomas McCarthy has made poems distinct in form, voice, humor—and in moral vision. The First Convention, McCarthy’s first collection of 1977, poses political themes that later culminate in The Non-Aligned Storyteller of 1984. In that book’s title poem, a provincial photographer looks back over decades of photographs and negatives only to discover that he has almost unwittingly pictured the human problem of Irish politics—the failure of moral conviction. But he makes that connection only when he remembers his wife’s words:
‘If they only had strength,’ she used to say, when
They were building anew, shedding bloody days.
McCarthy has made himself master of an unfashionable melancholy—a long sadness, one sometimes Victorian in its regrets. And that is why McCarthy’s second book The Sorrow Garden caught the mod of so many readers in 1980, the anguished year of the Hunger Strikes. An extended elegy to the lives of his mother and father, The Sorrow Garden shows forth the unseen poetry of Irish lives in the South, as in “The Poet of the Mountains,” where he writes of an elderly, Gaelic-speaking countrywoman that
She would lie awake
and listen to the mountains for her own sake.
She would listen to the linen wind at night
As it flapped the wet clothes.
In each of his collections, McCarthy remains ever mindful of the national metonymy of local life—the parish, the village, the associations that reflect the larger story of Ireland in the twentieth century. His 1989 collection Seven Winters in Paris centers on five sad poems about trains, beginning with “The Emigration Trains, 1945,” which presents a young Irishman drawn into the working world of Britain at war: “I thought I would spend two years away / But in the end, the two became twenty.” The last poem, “San Clemente Station, 1978,” completes McCarthy’s historical humor by recalling his own first trip through the United States, one that ends suddenly with an epiphany of adulthood.
A similarly expansive historical humor appears again in the nine parts of McCarthy’s audacious poem, “Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels.” Each part carries an old-fashioned Dewey Decimal number. Each part captures a moment on McCarthy’s other life as a full-time librarian in Cork City Public Library. Standing in the dusty stacks, renumbering well-worn but now disused tilters, the poet meditates on Ireland’s nineteenth-century story with sorrow, puzzlement and outrage:
Binding threads hang from this damaged book
As corpses hung, featherlike
From the unpainted gibbet in the nineteenth century.
Seven Winter in Paris caringly extends McCarthy’s range beyond the parishes of Cappoquin, where he was raised, and the heights of Montenotte, where he now lives. In the poems on this book, the mental traveler is emigré, artist, and loving tourist. Like Ireland itself, McCarthy’s allusiveness becomes European, as in “Thinking of my Father in the Musée Picasso”:
It breaks my heart to think of your failures
for you were not a bad man, just hopeless.
the lost Party, those lethal social forces
that broke your will broke others less poor
and as in its companion poem, “Picasso’s “Composition au Papillon’” and the wit of its last rhyme:
In Paris, at fifty-one, you could play God
with cloth, string, a thumb-tack. Truth is
we are all born to an artless, provincial stench.
If we are lucky, Picasso, we die French.
In McCarthy’s adventurous 1996 collection The Lost Province, the span of his poetry’s forms and techniques opens yet again, as in the sequence “Declan, Scientist,” which experiments with parody, science fiction, and a time-warp back to the Ireland of St. Patrick. In itself, this is another sterling mark of the poet. McCarthy remains vitally restless with his craft band, at the same time, confident of his themes. These poems often come to rest on photographs and movies and allude to nation, family, children, love—particularly so in the powerful, broadly moving lines of “November,” addressed to the poet’s wife:
The night was seed-filled,
and hot as any night in adolescence.
The deep tannin of love still holds.
Only poetry itself is ever autumnal,
wanting to drag in and store too much.
To the rewarding accomplishments of his poetry must be added McCarthy’s recently completed trilogy of novels about the Glenville family—Without Power, Asya and Christine, and the forthcoming volume Without Memory. In them, romance, melodrama, and the constant comedy of political manners all attest to McCarthy’s sometimes loving and often bitter engagement with the intimate political world of the South and de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Party.
Likewise, the guiding memoirs and revealing essays of Gardens of Remembrance of 1998 show forth McCarthy’s old-fashioned humanist virtues—virtues everywhere under siege. His essays on other poets—like the late Seán Dunne, Eavan Boland, abed Austin Clarke—persuade us of McCarthy’s deeply held critical affections. McCarthy’s grand cause is not the South, but the cause of literature in the South. As librarian in the central library of the city of Cork, as a founder of the Triskel Arts Center there, and as editors by turns of the Cork Review and Poetry Ireland, he has served that cause well for twenty-five years. And it is no surprise that he now serves a central administrator of Cork’s preparations to become the European Community’s “Capital of Culture” in 2005.
It is in celebration of the real and reassuring presences of his poems—their sympathetic sense of history, their love of humor, their thoughtful evocations of human virtues and human frailties—that the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas now makes Thomas McCarthy the recipient of the seventh Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.
Citation read at the presentation of The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry
to Michael Coady, April 1, 2004
On this spring evening, we gather to welcome the poet Michael Coady to the University of St. Thomas and to the campus that Kilkenny’s John Ireland founded nearly twelve decades ago. More specifically, we welcome our guest into the company of O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award honorees: Eavan Boland, John F. Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, Moya Cannon, Frank Ormsby, and Thomas McCarthy – names that have since 1996 borne witness to the abundant talents of Irish poetry in our time.
Our guest this evening is a man of many parts: a teacher, a local historian, a photographer, a genealogist, a journalist, a memoirist, a trombone player – and, of course, a poet. It is Michael Coady, the poet, who has given us four books of thoughtful, distinctive verse: Two For a Woman, Three for a Man (1980); Oven Lane (1987); All Souls (1997), and One Another (2003).
Coady’s first book won the 1979 Patrick Kavanagh Award. Looking back a quarter-century later, a reader will be struck by the ways in which these early lines announce themes that preoccupy Coady throughout his career: the dignity of humble lives; thankfulness; and the enigmas of human nature and human destinies.
In these poems, too, we sense Michael Coady’s love of passing things, of
pub talk and small-town gossip, and especially of music, that most ephemeral yet indestructible art. What Coady best loves, however, are the links that bind our lives together: a poet who knows both the richness of community and the sorrow of its breaking.
Oven Lane, Coady’s second collection, probed more deeply its author’s intuition that we live in a great web of time and circumstance. These poems help us to understand that part of a poet’s job is simply to appreciate creation, to catalog “the music of what happens,” or -- most distinctly in Coady’s vision -- the music of a past that never quite goes away. “I love the abandon /of abandoned things,” he writes. “I love the openness / of things no longer viable / I sense their shameless/ slow unbuttoning… ”
Oven Lane also begins Coady’s reflection on the role that America has played in his own life. An unadmitted wound has followed his family for generations, dating back to the day when his own great-grandfather abandoned his child and disappeared into the slums of Philadelphia. Coady’s healing of this family trauma begins in a poem called “The Letter”: “if there can be some / redemption in the word / then let this telling reach / across the silence/of a hundred years / in Oven Lane.” In time, Coady would turn this reckoning across generations into a luminous essay titled “The Use of Memory.” In other poems, Coady tells of his sometimes awkward visit to Connecticut, to meet cousins and to revisit the sites where his father had once worked in a typewriter factory:
Fifty years on
he’s nine Septembers dead
and a tourist in sunshine
by highway 84
is photographing a factory
which is no longer there
assembling the parts
of the mundane mystery
Michael Coady writes out of a fundamental sense of life’s abundance. Someone else’s country can be his country as well; absence becomes just another form of presence; and in many of the ways that matter most, the dead are not really dead.
In 1997, Coady extended the range of his work by publishing All Souls– an ambitious, multigenre volume bearing witness to the author’s sense that life is too varied to be contained simply in verse. The poems of All Souls are interleaved with fictional vignettes, memoir, essays, and even documentation and photographs.
In reading this collection we fully realize that Coady cherishes the spoken word – for instance, in a catalog poem titled “Things They Say (Besides
Their Prayers)” which gathers together a series of aphorisms and quips. These phrases may strike us as no more than idle words lost into the wind; at the same time, they bear pungency of epitaphs. The long title poem at the center of All Souls brilliantly asserts Michael Coady’s conviction that, under the eyes of eternity, no human voices are lost. “All Souls” records a simple night walking home after the close of a pub:
Then I’m on my own and heading toward
the town clock salmon swimming above
the West Gate that’s seen every soul who ever
set foot in this place for a thousand years
As the poet walks, he grows acutely aware of the vanished faces and voices that surround him, and declares that “… on this grounded night I meet them all.” When he crosses the stone bridge in the center of his village he is, of course, crossing another sort of bridge -- one that links the living and the dead. The poet conjures and names a litany of departed citizens:
For Garret Russell the basket-maker
and Jim Hayney the boatman
for Mary Sullivan the midwife
and Thady Meehan the porter
And so on, down through centuries. Finally, the poet reaches his own home, where he looks in on his sleeping children and, as he slips into bed, his wife asks, “Were there many below in the town?” We know that the town below
swarms with presences. And we know, too, that every human community -- even this unremarkable village asleep in the Irish dark -- in some way prefigures the communion of saints.
Like All Souls, Coady’s most recent book carries a communitarian title: One Another. This volume, too, knits together many forms, and, indeed many languages; there are prose entries in both Irish and Welsh. Coady’s playful side spills into these pages in a suite of poems about jazz, and, especially, in a mischievous send-up of academic jargon called “The Carrick Nine.”
But there is another voice in these pages. The author of One Another is a man now retired from school-teaching, one recovering from bypass surgery, one who has already lost many friends and family – a man who in his wisdom has grown more aware of both his own frailty and of his own good fortune. Stopping by a country graveyard in Ardmore, Coady gazes at two Victorian stone angels and reflects upon “the heart of the thing”:
set aside from the main road,
the elemental grace
and constancy of stone,
marking the mystery
of flesh and blood and bone
for it comforts me always to know
of the angels there in winter dusk …
“It comforts me to know….” In so many ways, One Another proves to be a book about our search for solace. The collection’s first poem concerns the ways we put grief behind us, the slow, awkward, communal process of finding a new sort of normalcy. Coady calls this “the beginning of forgetting,” reminding us that “it is remembrance / that allows us / little by little / to forget.” And One Another closes with a long poem, “Munster Aisling,” narrating the author’s return from the hospital where he has undergone open-heart surgery. He returns to the small town in which he has lived all his life, and names it with the Irish word for “harbor”:
Here is my cuan,
where I began and where I live
this settlement of souls at the tide-head of the river
all its living or lost hearts in place and time
under the abiding breast of Slievenamon
This is, in the end, the voice of a poet at home in the world. For having made the intimacy of his world a shared intimacy; for having listened so attentively to humble voices, past and present; and for having given us a poetry of gratitude, tonight we have the honor of presenting the Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Michael Coady, of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary.
On April 7, 2005, the University of St Thomas Center for Irish Studies presented the ninth O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award to Kerry Hardie, in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion:
Beginning nine years ago with Eavan Boland, the O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry presented by the University of St. Thomas has come to be regarded as the preeminent North American honor for Irish poets and their poetry. The poets so far honored range far in their concerns and their artistry, but all are notable not only for their works but also for their dedication to the writing life in Ireland. For the past decade, each award has renewed our sense of Ireland's ever more richly layered literary tradition.
More than that, each award has confirmed our own, and Ireland’s, fidelity to the craft and wisdom of letters. In this new century, everywhere the arts are challenged by commerce, by politics, and by diversion. Yet, by affirming the art of poetry and accomplishment of the poet, each O’Shaughnessy award recognizes that the painful realities of sudden economic and social transformation--in Ireland and elsewhere--may be addressed with assurance and grace. Kerry Hardie’s three collections from Gallery Press in County Meath—A Furious Place, Cry for the Hot Belly, and The Sky Didn’t Fall—span the decades of Ireland’s transformation since the late 1980s.
What we come together to celebrate on this April night is the threefold way in which Kerry Hardie has dedicated the strong and mystery-making line of poetry to the intimacies of human community, to the almost unnoticed edges of the natural world, and to the ever-more insistent claims of the spirit.
Our guest this evening started her writing life as a journalist in Northern Ireland in the watershed years of the 1980s. Her experience of living and writing in the midst of Europe’s longest-running conflict may explain why Hardie’s writing life guardedly returns, again and again, to poems consecrated to her self-selected community—one set apart from party, sect, and nation. To borrow from Emily Dickinson, in those poems the “Soul selects her own Society.” And in those poems Hardie records moments of intimately revealed conversation with other poets, with friends, with family, whose names recur in the poems and in the dedications to the poems.
Each of Hardie’s collections turns to the mourning of the extended Irish elegy, and markedly so in The Sky Didn’t Fall, as the title suggests. Here, the meditative heartbreak of mourning gathers in that listening community in complex, then simplifying, and then assuring ways.
Quiet there. December light.
The long box stretched before the altar.
Your arm about me and mine about you.
In this other sense—not of naming, but of giving—Hardie’s unvarnished, plain-spoken lines show dedication. They insist on what the theologian Bonhöffer called “costly grace”--the difficult charity of giving up of limited resources of self to others.
Born in Singapore, raised and educated in Northern Ireland, and often resident in England and Scotland in her journalist years, Kerry Hardie now keeps her home-place in a corner of the rich and legend-laden county of Kilkenny. Beginning with A Furious Place, in each of her collections Hardie gives certain place to local observation. Setting down the mystery of flowers weathering the thin Irish light or, as in “May,” just about to bloom:
The yellow flare of furze on the near hill.
and the first cream splatters of blossom
high on the thorns where the day rests longest.
To her acclaimed 2002 novel A Winter Marriage Hardie brought similar gifts of patient description and discovering insight.
Yet, for all her rootedness in the countryside of Kilkenny, many of Hardie’s poems have their eye on the edges of Ireland--Connemara and Kerry, Monaghan, and Derry—and certainly not on the metropolitan center.The garden's edge, or the river's edge, of emotional and moral experience claims her attention, as in "Late Spring.” There, in the water meadow lies the pattern for some of Hardie’s most intense, surprising, and cruelly vital poems.
The pike is in the meadow by the river.
He makes furious rushes. You can see his path gouged
upwards into the flatness of the flood.
And in these lines the reader encounters a second sort of dedication that comes of necessarily living life “slow,” as the American poet Floyd Skloot said, owing to chronic illness. Whether long or clipped short, Hardie's lines consecrate with words the edge where we all encounter feeling and exhaustion, loss and passion.
Notably, in her three collections Hardie has written her way toward a close with poems shining with a third sense of dedication—not devotion, exactly, but an affirmation of spiritual possibility. That dedication rewards the reader with difficulty and drama in “She Goes with her Brother to the Place of their Forebears.” The poem closes with brother and sister drinking from a holy well—the former willingly, the latter resistingly:
I drink with defiance
And you drink without it. No one is watching, but God,
And He doesn’t care, except for the heart’s intention.
That fierce impatience turns into something else in Cry for the Hot Belly, which winds through two extended elegies and arrives at resolution in “What’s Left.” Here, the garden untended becomes the Eden desired, and at the doorway to it the poet rededicates her life:
I know more or less
How to live through my life now.
But I want to know how to live what’s left
With my eyes open and my hands open
Plain-spoken, easy to hear, but hard to listen to and accept, such lines let us know why Hardie so often returns to the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi. Hardie turns to legends of seventh-century Irish saints toward the end of The Sky Didn’t Fall, dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father. In “Saint Fursey’s Song,” Hardie re-creates the saint’s farewell to monastic Ireland and closes it with a parable:
And farewell to all who dwell in this land,
Do not fear for us, for our souls are safe,
And what are our bodies but little sod houses
Putting shelter round fire and round love?
Generously, Hardie rounds off the poem in fortunate humor by letting St. Fursey finish his parable with this assurance:
What harm then if the house should crumble?
Fire and love cannot crumble,
fire and love will burn always
in one house or another
lighting windows in the darkest night.
For their trust in the capacities of intimate speech, for the solace of her poetry’s challenging assurances, and for the extraordinary ways in which her poems evince the three-fold dedication latent in all our lives, we now have the privilege of presenting to Kerry Hardie the ninth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry given by the Center for Irish Studies of the University of St. Thomas.
Anniversaries, like poems, offer us both welcome moments to focus our thoughts and needed occasion to reflect. Tonight, we mark a milestone anniversary for the University of St Thomas and for the Center for Irish Studies, as we have the privilege of gathering here for the tenth time to bestow the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry on Dennis O’Driscoll. Tonight we recognize his accomplishment, stretching from the early poems of Kist in 1982 to the New and Selected Poems of 2004—and we welcome him into the distinguished company of Irish poets who, beginning the Eavan Boland in 1996, are O’Shaughnessy honorees.
Born in the provincial town of Thurles in 1954, and now living in suburban Dublin, Dennis O’Driscoll’s service to Irish poetry spans the turn of the twentieth century into the twenty-first. His Ireland is one both blessed and beset by European modernity, an affluent, commuting Ireland – one in which a room is more likely to be illuminated by the blue glow of the lap-top than by the Sacred Heart image on the wall. His high reputation as a man of letters is founded on the patience and humility of his untiring commentaries on contemporary poetry. The essays collected in 2001’s Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams discern, not just the ways of verse-craft, but also the waywardness of our present-day lives: always, O’Driscoll takes aim at the hyped-up transience of the moment.
A poet’s service—Dennis O’Driscoll’s service—to the poetry of any nation consists chiefly in setting before us hopeful marvels of craft and consideration. O’Driscoll provides such marvels in each new collection, at every other turn of the page. Reading his New and Selected Poems, we find invented and inventive examples of meter and line that give to plain talk great powers of subtlety, insinuation, and—ultimately--reassurance.
His breakthrough came in the 1994 sequence of fifty near-sonnets titled The Bottom Line. There, O’Driscoll makes poems out the unpoetic stuff of the commercial life of Celtic Tiger Ireland. His lines give voice to the inner lives of “ people at the other end / Of telephone extensions when you ring, / The ones who put a good face on the firm …” As surely as Ireland’s revolutionary and pastoral past provided themes to other writers, today’s Republic of Ireland provides O’Driscoll with his telling ethical theme: the spiritual cost of modernity.
In Ireland today, as elsewhere, it is the usually the world of work that frames our lives. A lifelong Irish civil servant, O’Driscoll’s practical intimacy with the world of customs regulations, policy meetings, and bureaucratic competition in Dublin’s Stamp Duty Office provides authority for his satiric recognitions, as in these lines: “A life of small disappointments, hardly meriting/ Asperity or rage, an e-mail cc-ed / to the wrong address…” In “Delegates,” O’Driscoll captures the uprootedness of contemporary Irish striving by coldly distinguishing mundane air travel from spiritual uplift:
We are in transit between airport lounges.
It is Tuesday in one jurisdiction, Monday in another.
We cannot be tied down, we are on the run like fugitives,
Sheltered by date lines and time zones, escaping tax
Regulation, weather alerts, dodging the present tense.
By calling attention to “the present tense,” O’Driscoll displays one of his signature talents: a gift for opening up disquieting levels of association that lie just below our daily speech. In O’Driscoll’s often amusing, sometimes mordant lines, we hear his wariness about accepting the assuaging ways of consumerism, status, and technology. We hear him insist that we look beyond the suave reassurances of consumer goods and governmental projections. And we notice, too, that in so many poems O’Driscoll prefers to use the pronoun “we”—a preference that weaves the reader into his satire, and into his unease.
A fine example comes in a recent poem, “Brothers at Sea.” On an overcast day on a chilly Irish beach, self-conscious that they lack “an adult alibi / to match childhood’s spade and bucket,” two brothers nervously acknowledge the “fussing, fretting waves.” They sit in the car park and watch as
A shivering family gets into the swim.
Grasping for some final payback
We stare as if anticipating revelation.
As if waiting for some explanation to sink in
The very suspension of this ending, the necessary pause, shows the advance of O’Driscoll’s later poems. He knows—and we realize—that no revelation will come glittering in on the waves: rather, the explanation should come from within and wait to be pondered after the poem. Better yet, a moral vision may rise from within us, to be projected upon our world. Dennis O’Driscoll is a deeply ethical poet. His critique of our transient, commercial preoccupations presumes a reader who may be made mindful of the virtues yet to be exercised in our daily lives.
In presenting the tenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy award to Dennis O’Driscoll, we honor his ever-convincing capacity to believe in the power of image and line. We honor the credit he places in the power of a sigh of phrase, the play of unexamined cliché. And-- after the lyric is over and the satire is done—we honor most of all the trust that Dennis O’Driscoll displays that the thoughtful moment of a poem will serve our need to reflect.
Citation read at the presentation of The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry
to Seán Lysaght, April 12, 2007
Each Spring, the University of St Thomas is privileged to welcome to its classrooms and lecture halls—and to its table—a distinguished Irish poet, on whom we confer an award unique in North America. The list of O’Shaughnessy honorees beginning with Eavan Boland in 1997 and now spanning more than a decade, is itself a powerful statement of Ireland’s enduring literary vitality. We especially thank Mr. O’Shaughnessy for being with us tonight, and of course for his generosity that makes possible this celebration.
Our honoree this evening is Seán Lysaght, an artist whose poetry is inseparable from his engagement with Ireland’s natural surroundings. Lysaght’s poems abound with alert perceptions of Ireland’s west, where he makes his home-- its mountains, bogs, and beaches, its flora, and its birdlife. We will understand his work best (and, he reminds us, will understand our own lives best ) if we remember that it rests on the bedrock of the natural world. Still, to call him merely an “environmental” writer would be to underestimate his many achievements -- his years of teaching, his essays, his scholarship, and his four collections of poetry. For our guest, to speak of Ireland is always and necessarily to speak of the world.
Born in 1957, Lysaght came of age as Ireland began to turn away from isolation. The skies of his childhood included not only birds, but also transatlantic jets coming and going from Shannon Airport, as he reminds us in the poem “Limerick,” where stones skipped on the estuary morph into overseas flights. And like many of his generation, he has played his part in Ireland’s latter-day diaspora, having traveled widely and lived in Switzerland and Germany.
Perhaps it is a bit ironic, then, that the breakthrough book for this cosmopolitan, contemporary author-- his 1991 collection, The Clare Island Survey-- would be precisely about a primitive island. In this inventive volume, Lysaght writes a poem about each of the 28 species of birds that the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger identified there nearly a century ago. In these spare poems, he puts both the scientific and the subjective, the personal and the universal, into free play:
But, stronger than regret
One evening love rose in us and robbed us of breath.
You knew then those shearwaters
that the storm spends, and wrecks far inland.
In his next collection, Lysaght chose the figure of the scarecrow to give the book both its title and its shaping metaphor. A gift for selecting the powerful line and the potent image is embodied in Lysaght’s scarecrows – “A broom handle harpooned / deep among the flowering potatoes ”—which come to us out of an elemental folklore that speaks to human dividedness. His scarecrows stand both in nature and apart from it—guarding us, but both haunted and haunting. And in his poem “Catching Blackbirds,” the author himself shares in the scarecrows’ nature: “So I walk in again, with small straws / on my clothes to tell where I’ve been.”
It is, of course, the poet’s charge to tell us where we have been, or where we are; and there are times when Lysaght reminds us that we reside in a natural world existing well beyond our word-craft. In an early poem he writes that, “Before the first words in Ireland / there were sparse, post-glacial trees / and northern birds.” Elsewhere, he presents “… an otter on the outer islet / that lives out of sight. / He licks his paws undisturbed / / and goes unrecorded.”
Yet a poet’s work is precisely, in Lysaght’s own phrase, “the husbandry of words,” and this poet cherishes his words, in lines that fit the speaking voice. Erris, his fourth collection, finds Seán Lysaght’s work growing more formal. Skilled at the sonnet, he is also likely borrow from continental and Classical sources. Yet, like the scarecrow, the poet stays rooted in his particular place.
Not surprisingly, then, he often evokes the submerged language of the land, in Gaelic placenames and nature-lore. History is always near: in “Golden Eagle,” he speaks of “… the great desert of Erris // where the last ones / flew into extinction a lifetime ago / above gillies and starvelings,” a reference to Ireland’s tragic famine. In Lysaght’s ever-more mythic imagination, the present and the past speak to one another, including the Greek past, as in “Achill”:
Tradition has it that Achilles rested here
In a small cottage after his Trojan labours.
No one knows exactly where. The sea-breezes scour
The open land and eradicate the memory
Of how he stood before his glamorous trireme
With his hero’s crest.
Then, he put on his pampooties
As he went to help the local men unloading.
Here, in evoking the Iliad on a remote Irish island, and in other narrative poems, Seán Lysaght displays his own stewardship of the lengthy tradition of story-spinning in Irish poetry. “To Connacht,” in the second part of Erris masterfully weaves together story, personality, and place.
Tonight, we thank our guest for a literary achievement that charts a progressively more comprehensive understanding of what is meant by the word “environment.” His work brings us not just to the natural world, but also to the environment of the imagination, the environment of language, the environment of literature and of the world’s store of legend and tale. We have the pleasure now of presenting the eleventh annual Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Seán Lysaght of Fahy, County Mayo, Ireland.
This evening, as on eleven earlier Spring evenings since our distinguished benefactor Lawrence O’Shaughnessy first presented the award that bears his name, the University of St Thomas is privileged to welcome a versatile and accomplished Irish poet to our campus, to our table, and into our esteem. The names that are now linked with the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry speak not only to the continuing literary vitality of Ireland, but also to power of poetry itself to express and enrich our common humanity.
Like his predecessors, Pat Boran participates in Ireland’s writing life as a tireless reviewer, broadcaster, and author of two nonfiction books. In his stewardship of the Dublin Writers’ Festival, in his steady encouragement of younger poets, and not least in his energetic service to poetry as publisher at the Dedalus Press, he is an exemplary presence in Ireland’s literary life. But of course, it is Pat Boran, the poet, whom we celebrate tonight.
Our guest was born in the provincial town of Portlaoise in 1963, and, though he is long settled in Dublin, his small-town origins continue to preoccupy him. It is, after all, a poet’s job is to look deep, and it was in Portlaoise that Boran first met the world. Often, his work verges on memoir--as if in writing his own life, he might also write the life of Ireland in his time. In the poem titled “Unbuild,” he concludes, “And now when night falls / I go back again, I unbuild the house. / Stone by blessed stone / I have taken it apart / and still it is not gone.” His poems repeatedly look to his childhood; to the small mythologies of family life, especially the shaping presence of his father; to the walls and windows of homes both occupied and empty; and to the reassurance and enigma of “familiar things” – a phrase that, in fact, serves as the title of one of his four collections.
For Boran, the prospect of meaning—though not necessarily the meaning itself—is always near. We can hear in his poems the Angelus bell, sounding the remains of Christian feeling in Irish life. On other occasions, Boran seems ready to dip a toe into the cosmic: the lofty secular mythologies of physics crop up throughout his work, and he is clearly obsessed with the mystery of time: clocks, watches, and other timepieces figure on almost every page, from the first poem of his New and Selected in which a son is sent out by his father “To bring home the time /without a watch to carry it,” straight through to the last poem, which concludes, “Time itself / Is in a kind of trance…”
And yet, Boran never falls for a glib synchronicity or indulges in the too- ponderous reflection: his poems stay grounded in this world, this reality. In “Between the Lines,” for instance, he evokes
Accidental discoveries: Coins
Fallen down the backs of easy chairs;
The likeness of a lover or a friend,
Emerging in a loaf of bread; things
Rising from forgotten places…
And we see his trust in the latent meaning of objects in the 1991 poem, “Born To Shave,” which describes a moment standing at the sink, reflecting that “Years from now I will reach / from some otherworldly place,/ where none of this means anything, to touch / this handbasin, these dulled blades.” Here and in many other poems, he enacts the wisdom with which he concludes “Between the Lines”: “You find, when you reach into the world / occasional if not always blatant signs / Underneath the covers and between the lines.”
But in that same poem, we notice that Boran can never quite see himself clearly: first too short, then too tall for the shaving mirror, we realize that—in repeatedly coming back to those moments when there something askance, something not quite lined up— this poet so obsessed with home is also acknowledging the dislocations that trouble him, and troubled the Irish nation, in the roaring 1990s and after.
He is, on closer inspection, a poet who knows the dark night of the soul. He regularly gives us poems about loneliness, grief, and worry. Many take place in the small hours: “It’s night. Keep / your eyes open. If you weaken / it will all be over, you’ll have learned / nothing….” Or the punning but dark “Am”: “1:35 a.m. / I look at my watch and see / my life story: / I thirty-five am.”
For all that, Pat Boran’s work also sounds a note that is welcome, and perhaps too scarce, in contemporary poetry: that of good humor. He is a poet who can laugh at himself, one who can say, after a stereotypical suburban moment, that “A man is only as good / as what he says to a dog / when he has to get up in the middle of a wintry night / because some damned dog has been barking….”
Boran’s best traits shine through in his recent poem “Still Life With Carrots” -- both his willingness to risk the large thought, and the sense of bemusement that keeps him from growing too weighty. Finding a shriveled carrot at the back of his refrigerator, one that “seems / to have something to tell me…,” Boran concludes,
And so it goes for all our vegetable loves:
The pea dries up; the tomato weeps
And weeps an ectoplasmic mess;
Lettuce browns like an old book;
Potatoes send up flares of distress;
But carrots just age there, waiting to be found,
As the plates on the table, like the planets, go around.
For having nurtured the arts of poetry in distracting times, for having revealed the richness abiding in Ireland’s daily life, and for writing with good humor, great acuity, and challenging wit, we honor tonight Pat Boran.
On April 15, 2009, the University of St Thomas center for Irish Studies presented the thirteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Mary O’Malley in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.
For thirteen years now, the University of St Thomas has welcomed an Irish poet to our campus, our classrooms, our table, to receive the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry--an honor that remains without parallel in North America. Building on Irish traditions at this university that go back to our founding and were crystallized by the late Eoin McKiernan, the conferrals of the award on these Spring evenings always have been blessed by the presence of our distinguished benefactor, Mr. O’Shaughnessy, and by the presence of his family, and of guests from Minnesota’s educational, cultural, and literary communities. Most of all, these evenings have been blessed by the presence of the poets, and of course, by their poems.
Mary O’Malley, our guest tonight, has for nearly two decades provided extensive service to the Irish literary world, as a teacher, a workshop leader, an arts administrator. She has bestowed on readers in Ireland and elsewhere a range of poems distinct in their craft and in their passion. All of her work is shaped by her keen mindfulness of the poet’s responsibility as witness—which is also to say, by woman as witness. The poems in her six collections arise from this imperative confidence; in her own words, “Now let me start again and tell the truth another way.”
Born in a western Gaeltacht in the midst of a lean decade, O’Malley often gives us poems that evoke a world in which the landscape and the domestic interior are charged with myths, both Classical and Celtic. Of the Connemara mountain rage that crowded the shore, she writes
Twelve guardians watched
over my child dreams
sometimes soft as peaked cream
sometimes gods of stone
always minding, always men.
In these early lines, we can already hear O’Malley resisting the expected romance of place, and preparing us for the witness of her later work.
Though the years have brought Mary O’Malley far from home—to a long residence in Portugal, and into numerous trips abroad—Galway’s elemental presences, particularly that of the sea, are never far from her work. She told an interviewer, “I am a fisherman’s daughter and a blacksmith’s niece and was surrounded by strong shapes and deep rhythms from the time I could talk.”
Reading her poems, one senses that O’Malley reaches for a truth almost deeper than language can call to mind, for “a buried watercourse,” as one poem has it. In “The Boning Hall” the title poem of her 2002 volume, she makes explicit the notion of diving deep: “No one goes diving into coffin ships but if they did / with the desire for pearls quelled, they’d see wonders.” In that poem, in a few long and strong lines, and confronted with the reality of bone, she draws near
Not the names for things you cannot say
But the long round call of the thing itself
In “Tracings,” a poem that speaks in one breath of both her literary and her familial heritage, she links her craft as a poet to the work of her fisherman father, discovering a symbol that speaks both of the poet and the woman:
I feel the heft of a satin handled
fish knife. The poem forms,
a lobster pot turning
on a wooden wheel. The slats
are pliant and smooth. I soaked them
and peeled them bare of bark
in lessons learned under my father’s eye
Connemara is her point of departure and the place to which she has now returned, and yet, it is vital to remember that O’Malley writes out of a different place entirely. She writes as a woman who is both a citizen of the modern world, and also as a thinking critic of that very modernity. Poetry can indeed be a knife in O’Malley’s hands; she tells us what happens when Irish eyes are scalding.
In “The Ballad of Pepsi and Wonderbra,” she takes aim at the shabbiness of consumerism; in a later poem, “Jack of Hearts,” she savages the self-absorption of modern romance. In other poems, such as “Divorce Referendum” and “Prescribing the Pill,” she casts an angry eye on the strictures of the Irish church. Complacency is not allowed the poet-as-witness. In “Knell,” O’Malley begins with a lyric aspiration:
I want to write a simple poem
With the taste of green apple,
Clear as a high bell.
But that aspiration is immediately troubled by the call of brute fact: out in the world, “ordinary men are raping children / no older than my daughter….”
So many of O’Malley’s later and more complex poems come to us out of that space between the lyric naming and the call of news, the nightmare of present history. It taxes the heart and it costs the psyche to write so often, and so plainly, out of such a gap. But Mary O’Malley has done so with invention and clarity, with passion and precision. These are the qualities that reward out affections and our continuing attention; these are the qualities that recommend her poetry to us this night. It is now our honor to present the thirteenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Mary O’Malley.
On April 22, 2010, the University of St Thomas center for Irish Studies presented the fourteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Theo Dorgan in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.
Tonight, the University of St Thomas and its friends—including, of course, our distinguished benefactor Lawrence O’Shaughnessy—assemble on a Spring evening to celebrate the abundant talents of Irish poetry in our day. In doing so, we also once again make a larger claim of the necessity and the guidance of poetry itself, for both the human heart and for the civic sphere.
Our guest this evening, Theo Dorgan, has served Irish cultural life with enthusiasm and generosity for more than three decades, ever since his student days in Cork—as director of the Triskel Arts Center and of Poetry Ireland, as a member of the Irish Arts Council, and as the host of literary programs on Irish radio and television. Those endeavors of Dorgan’s are all ventures out into the world, journeys into the public realm.
But what counts for the poet is the voyage back, the crossing by ready reckoning—one version of which Dorgan recounts in the 2004 volume Sailing for Home, his prose account of a transatlantic crossing under sail. The poet’s voyage requires not just piloting by sight, but by what he calls “instructed faith.” And the sail of this poet’s art is cut from the whole cloth of old-style Romanticism—a poet who leads with love. That wholehearted Romantic stance constitutes Dorgan’s singular contribution to contemporary poetry in Ireland today.
His first collection, The Ordinary House of Love (1990) works some wonders with poems that follow Gaelic models, like “Twin,” or “The Father of the Holocaust”; with songs that rhyme, like “Elusive” or Black Fox Wood”; and with poems set in Cork or addressed to family, like “Speaking to my Father,” in which the poet explains, “this is the use I make of your sacrifice.” Addressing his own life, and Ireland’s national life as well, in “All Soul’s Eve,” Dorgan gives this worried poem a coda taken from the Irish:
The learned men say that love
is a killing disease.
When it goes to the heart
it will never come out again.
The poetry of adult love carries on through Dorgan’s second collection, Rosa Mundi, reaching its finest occasions in lyrics like “A Slow Poem” or “She Buckles in Her Sleep,” or in the opening lines of “Walking Shoes”:
I think of the day we parted and how my heart turned;
you were lacing on walking shoes, shoes for your
winter, shoes for walking away from sunlight,
the room darkening as you straightened & looked down.
Dorgan’s Romantic stance is more than just a matter of personal moments. The muse may inspire political intuition. In “The Geography of Armagh,” by simple repetition, the poet reminds us that both the victim and bomber are “Somebody’s lover.” The melody of the muse may raise the dead to unsettle the living, as in Dorgan’s portrait of the half-hearted 1991 anniversary of the Easter Rising in “Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Easter.” But the most accomplished of Dorgan’s national poems is the cross-rhymed monologue “Garda, Waking from a Dream of Language,” whose purpose pivots around the policeman’s intuition that
I think we learned language first beneath clear stars.
Maybe a Persian watchman or a Greek
Walking the unquiet nights like this was first
To speak plain against night’s unease, . . .
The Romantic emblem of the voyage back carries Dorgan’s readers in Greek, published just this year. This most recent collection draws on repeated journeys back to Greece, as Dorgan works to fathom the matter of Ireland through another island—Ikaria, where, in myth, Icarus fell into the sea. Renewed in this island setting, informed by place and myth, Dorgan’s lyric inclination can recline, stretch, and sigh in the sun, in such poems as “Orpheus” and “Eurydice” and the vision poem “Sappho’s Daughter,” Dorgan remakes the myths for us—as did Robert Graves before him and, of course, as did Joyce.
But always, we return to solace of sailing for home: an action that is both a return and a start, a rescue and an abandonment. It calls us twice to remember, as Dorgan has written, that “Love is not love that will not let love go.” To do so, we must reach conclusions like those he humorously proposes in “Nike,” where he begins with a sadly satirical portrait of a teenager shopping for running shoes in a Greek plaza and ends observing that
Winged victories were carved for girls like her,
To make them fleet of foot and never tire;
The goddess on her plinth above the square
Is wall-eyed, blank—as if not really there.
It our pleasure now to recognize the craft, the heart, and the dedication of Theo Dorgan, the poet—gifts he has brought to four collections and to a lifetime of service. The temper of our time seldom welcomes those who first greet the world with love: we are all too quick to embrace the faux wisdom of cynicism or a smug knowingness. Tonight, we honor Theo Dorgan for insisting that we grant the same authority to the Romantic impulse
Citation read at the presentation of The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leanne O’Sullivan, April 12, 2011
The University of St. Thomas’s Center for Irish Studies and its many friends gather tonight, on a fresh spring evening, to welcome the Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan to our campus, as we have welcomed such poets as Thomas McCarthy and Dennis O’Driscoll in the past. As she sits among us ready to receive North America’s most significant award for Irish poetry, our gathering celebrates not only the achievement of her art, but also the humane traditions of Ireland’s literary culture and, beyond that, the assurance and potency of poetry itself.
Looking back at the accomplishments of the fourteen O’Shaughnessy honorees, we note the many traits that their art shares with Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry. Her poems, like those of Eavan Boland, Moya Cannon, Kerry Hardie, and Mary O’Malley, possess notable thematic invention, sureness of expression, and, above all, a generosity of spirit.
Astonishingly, our guest’s precocious first book, Waiting for My Clothes, appeared from a major British publisher, Bloodaxe, when she was only twenty-one. The province of adolescence is inwardness and individuality—which can also be said to be the province of the lyric poem. O’Sullivan’s Waiting for My Clothes vividly displays those traits. Very much a book of adolescence, it charts a young woman’s awkwardness with her body, her sense of strangeness in this world, and her descent into the trials of an eating disorder—followed, thankfully, by healing and recovery. These poems are not carried along solely by a confessional pulse. These are poems, not recovery narratives. What commands our attention, even in O’Sullivan’s earliest work, is the sheer point and power of her phrase making—her gift for naming unspoken fears.
In “Perfect Disorder,” for instance, she melds Ireland’s history of hunger with a history of anorexia:
There is a disease spreading across this island
The fields are already dark and vacant,
Foodstuffs lie rotting by the gates.
I come with my brittle candle and faded map.
I have no cure but need…
Waiting for My Clothes leads us into disturbing places and themes, exploring what O’Sullivan has called the “famine of the 90s.” More important, and more cheeringly, it also leads us out. As the collection closes, we find her hopefully turning to the comfort of ordinariness: the turning point of asking her mother for a piece of toast, presented with “a slab of butter / that looks more like a doorstep”; a schoolgirl’s silly solemnity in “First Boyfriend”; and moving elegies that record the transformation worked by the passing of a beloved grandmother.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, the poetry world is strewn with accomplished first books that led to nothing. In 2009, however, Leanne O’Sullivan published Cailleach: The Hag of Beara and put to rest any doubts about the staying power of her imagination and art. In Cailleach, O’Sullivan makes something wholly fresh out of the myths of the Old Woman of Beare. Scholars of Old Irish know the Hag from a ninth-century poem. Mythographers know her as one of the titular goddesses of the Celtic landscape. O’Sullivan knows her as the embodiment of the landscape in which she was raised, the Beara Peninsula, way out in West Cork. In Irish story, the Old Woman’s life begins in stone, as in O’Sullivan’s poem “Birth”:
Now comes November,
My birth time, and the white ribs of tide
Uproot the silence of the bay.
Today I break from stone into sand,
Motherless, my mother a stone
Bedding the earth and dreaming my image.
O’Sullivan’s Beare is elemental—a place of deep-rooted things. Instead of the pastoral Ireland of the travel brochures, O’Sullivan offers a wilder place of water, tides, mountains, and the indigenous stories that attend them all. Her Beare is a place of Gaelic duende, a place where the Cailleach can say to the river:
You were the first thought the world had
when it dipped its palms and made rivers,
the grass banks sweetened and sealed
with dew, wells of healing, uneven
chanting of stones, let be, let come.
The Hag to whom O’Sullivan gives poetic voice in these love poems—for they are that, too—is a real woman who knows sorrows—birth and loss—who takes a fisherman as a lover and loses him to the sea. Given simple words pared down to their passion, the Hag speaks to him with unabashed desire:
Roses I found growing around the bridge
I lay on your pillow, though time and love
go round like dancers, in time I won’t be able
to tell your name from mine, to separate
your voice from the voice within this house.
My love I am at the table, waiting.
When you come home my hands shake
like rain breaking on the knotted waves.
For the confidence of her young voice; for her re-shaping of Irish myth; and for her craft and her courage, we have pleasure now in presenting the fifteenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leanne O’Sullivan.
Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry
to Gerard Smyth, April 17, 2012
Since 1997, on sleety March nights and on sunny April evenings, the Center for Irish Studies has convened its benefactors and friends to gather in honor of Irish poetry. The artistry of that poetry lies especially in its watchfulness. From our first honoree, Eavan Boland, until now, our Irish visitors have borne witness—and continue to bear witness—to the vital pertinence of Irish letters in an age that too often wishes to push poetry aside.
That word “witness” applies well to our guest this evening, Gerard Smyth, for he has long balanced his life in poetry with the taxing life of a daily journalist. As a poetry critic in the 1970s; as a frequent administrator of literary competitions; as an editor with responsibility for arts coverage at the Irish Times; and most especially as a poet himself, there is much to celebrate in Smyth’s career. That career has spanned four decades—all of it lived in his native Dublin—and has given us seven volumes of poetry, capped by the resonantly titled new and selected volume The Fullness of Time.
Often, in the poems of Gerard Smyth, we hear the prose editor’s taste for exactitude and brevity, and hear the newsman’s taste for the telling reference and revealing detail. Is it a stretch to think that a journalist’s sensibility peeks though in the closing lines of his poem for Francis Ledwidge, Ireland’s poet of the Great War, that ends with “the page left blank for tomorrow’s stanzas”?
Just lately retired from the press room floor, Smyth recalls in “Nightsong”
… keeping vigil
for fires and floods , what might be news
or might go down in history.
It was always late when I walked the thoroughfare,
like a shipyard with no ships.
Smyth’s practice of poetry also reminds us of photography: not only of the detail and the clarity of a photograph, but also of that art’s forms peculiar relationship to time, for as Susan Sontag has said “all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” In one poem, he writes of faces in an old daguerreotype “taking a break from the life they inhabit / one they’ll leave vacant / for those who come after them.” The same sensibility recurs in the title poem of his recent volume, where Smyth lays out a charter for his poetic project by evoking “unframed pictures of the fullness of time.” In “Hartmann’s Camera,” a response to snapshots of Dublin from 1964, he writes of his “father’s city of lore” in “the year of yeah yeah yeah.”
Notwithstanding the fact that many of his early poems—and for that matter, many of his later as well – conjure up the County Meath farm of his grandparents, Gerard Smyth is inescapably a poet of the inward city. His city is one in which every day comes as news: a city of endless stories, of streets and neighborhoods rich with associations, and a city of early memories. He gives us a city of found objects and found connections, memorably brought to mind in “Sam’s Junkshop,” where the proprietor “built a shrine to things tossed away / A display of dross: the strange, /the familiar, mouth organ, jews harp….”
Of course, none of this is truly “junk.” Quite the contrary: in Smyth’s scrupulous rendering of dailiness and the domestic, we find that he opens up familiar sights and sounds to share in something redemptive and larger than all of us, as in his poem “Everyday Life” where
Every noise was purposeful
the stutter of the sewing machine,
the spin-dryer tossing
loose change in a pocket.
Perhaps nowhere do we hear Smyth’s gift for elevating the ordinary with such tenderness as we do in a poem that he calls “a valentine” for his wife:
These are good days that end with evenings
in the rocking chair, when sometimes we seem
like a ghost-semblance of what we were that Whitsuntide
we knelt on the marble steps…
The Dublin of the Irish Times on the Liffey side of Trinity, the Dublin of Joyce, Kavanagh, and Kinsella, was and is its own self-sustaining world. But Dublin has also been a city in and of the world. Smyth’s poems register not only the presence of other Irish poets and writers, or composers and singers-- ranging from Estonia’s Arvo Pärt to Minnesota’s Bob Dylan—and, in particular, the writers of Middle and Eastern Europe. This expansive literary atmosphere expresses itself in allusion, with dedication, and with direct address. In “In the Eblana Bookshop,” he brings to mind how “A book in the big window/ cast a spell and called me in / to the poet’s cradle in the corner.” We sense both his recalled experience, and the fair field of writing from which Smyth’s uplifting news comes.
For a life well-lived in the service of the arts; for the steady witness of his poetry on both sides of the millennium; for the illumination that his poetry sheds on our commonplace days, we have pleasure now in presenting in the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Dublin’s Gerard Smyth
Tonight, the friends of the Center for Irish Studies gather for the seventeenth time to be warmed by the traditions of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award and to remember the rewards of the poetry that our Irish visitors have brought to us.
On this chill Spring evening, we honor the work and wit of the Belfast poet Leontia Flynn. Her distinctive melding of contemporary speech and literary allusion recalls the art of other poets from the North: Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon, to name two. Her three notable collections from Jonathan Cape Poetry-- These Days (2004), Drives (2008), and Profit and Loss (2011)—each display her sound, her inventiveness, and her ear for individual and human irony.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, and in Belfast, as elsewhere, the art and accomplishment of poetry renews itself—though the lines of descent are frequently a tangle. Flynn has found her own way not by speaking ofher generation but by speaking to it. She often does so indirectly by speaking to herself, and usually disconcertingly, in order to pose the plight of the poet. After all, the poet is a person as well, and that person might well be caught in frightening circumstance--like the helpless woman the poet remembers on the ferry in These Days: “a woman in a wheelchair /was carried back and forth by the boat’s rocking / for the length between two glass doors.”
From that striking image we can feel a truth when Flynn asserts that “These days I am serious.” Rehearsing the address book of her life, Flynn helps us sense suddenly the mutability of our own lives: “…These days, I’m bowled over / hearing myself say, ten years ago… ten years ago such and such….” The habitations we accept, the addresses of our flats and homes matter much, even though we move on from them. No fewer than five poems in These Days carry the title “Without Me.” These poems speak of Flynn’s perception of everyday transience, as when she notes a romantic break-up as “three and half years spent / --like fifteen minutes at a bus stop.”
Flynn rarely fails to hear the ambiguity in ordinary words. The “without” in her titles suggests also a world beyond the boundaries of the self and the familiar. The world that lies “without” preoccupies her second collection Drives, which gathers short poems about persons—often artists or writers like Virginia Woolf or Proust—and cities like Barcelona and Berlin. Her title comes, however, from “Drive,” an affectingly direct postcard of her mother’s car and of her mother. The poem ends with a faithful lift of double meanings: “…she tells this offspring she’s nearing the end of the road / a clock ticks softly … the low pulse of some drive… ? / My mother watches. She’s waiting for a sign…”
Tonight we celebrate in particular Leontia Flynn’s third collection, Profit and Loss— her most ambitious collection, her most technically accomplished book, but also her most plain-spoken. Yes, the poems that open this book do speak of her unsettledness. But this is also a book about finding one’s way. Portentously, the first poem of the book concerns house-shopping, with middle-aged shoppers realizing that the previous owners had been old and infirm: one generation makes way for another. Later poems speak of the anchoring claims of motherhood and marriage. Others, like “My Father’s Language,” describe her parents’ failing health: “… the near shore of my father’s life / licked by small waves, starts to grow faint and vague.”
At the center of Profit and Loss is a virtuoso performance, “Letter to Friends,” a thirty-two stanza verse letter. Writing to us at the edge of the 2008 financial mess, Flynn finds that so much of what only recently seemed important has been stripped of meaning. Listen to how the melody of her lines carries the wit:
And strange too, how much of it is obsolete
already (though these days we’re classed as youth
till 44). In here, among receipts
for gifts long given and lost, I’ve found such proof
of history’s incessant forward schlep
picking up speed of late, as artefacts
that now seem relics from some ancient bureau.
There’s (exhibit A) a 90-minute tape
filled with sad songs; a battered filofax
and some notes for countries long since using Euro.
As “Letter to Friends” continues, Flynn wonders aloud about such global concerns as climate change and the failure of the banks; about the cynical, commercial turn in poetry; and about the amnesiac shallowness of Belfast after the “Troubles.”
In a recent article, Leontia Flynn wrote, “Rather than figuring the endless textual networks with which we have all become so familiar, I want to stop clicking, scrolling and speed-reading and shuffling on to the next song, and instead focus on poetry which stays still and feels something.” It is that centering poetic impulse that we honor tonight.
We praise her wit, her willingness to risk irony, and her skepticism toward the posturing of the too-earnest. We appreciate the scrupulousness with which she has continued to survey “these days” and the hard truths that her poetry asks of us, and asks her generation; and especially, we honor her for the poems themselves, and the music of her lines. We have pleasure now in presenting the 17th Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leontia Flynn of Belfast.
Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Catherine Phil MacCarthy
No small part of the poet’s task is to keep us awake to our world, a point that the late Seamus Heaney stressed in one of his last poems when he wrote, “Had I not been awake I would have missed it.” And still another part of the poet’s task is to help us to look behind the obvious, to unsettle our usual perspectives, to chart “the way things look each day,” as the American poet Wallace Stevens once put it.
For three decades Catherine Phil MacCarthy has given her readers in Ireland and abroad fresh reasons to stay awake, and helped us to look into the unexamined spaces of Irish life. For those reasons and more, we welcome her this evening as the eighteenth recipient of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.
We celebrate, too, the unhesitating sensuousness of her vision—a woman’s full participation in the world, which enlivens each of Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s first four collections: This Hour of the Tide from 1994, the blue globe from 1998, and Suntrap from 2007. What keeps us awake in these poems is her willingness to register desire and touch, as in “Under My Skin” from the blue globe or “Sleeping Together” from Suntrap.
From the start, MacCarthy has turned language into something both lush and precise at the same time, ranging from richly evoked memories of her Limerick childhood and of early love, to etched moments of spare clarity. Often, her poems flesh out the full layers of meaning in a simple moment that is flawlessly registered. At other times, and with the same concision, MacCarthy condenses the heartbreak of an Irish short story, in poems like “The Black Field” from This Hour of Tide or “When There’s War” from the blue globe—poems that resonate with echoing pauses.
Tonight we celebrate especially MacCarthy’s most recent and most accomplished collection: The Invisible Threshold of 2012. In these pages, as before, her poems turn our eye to subjects hard to look at, sights of which we might prefer not to speak. In “Overseas Mission,” for instance, she takes up the national theme of neutral Ireland’s United Nations duty and the pain that Ireland’s veterans carried home.
Her poems have a restless eye. They are filled with journeying and movement. The book opens with a poem titled “Migrant” and closes with “Storm,” in which the wind is seen
legs gathering speed, running
across the far fields to the sea.
Contemporary Ireland and its topics may be the habitation of her insight, but MacCarthy literally travels far around Europe and empathetically into the past, as in the poem “Exiles” that speaks of the Jewish seder. In the monologue “Coolacrease: Looking Back” the poet condenses the pathos of the Irish war of independence. Looking at the present, in a poem about shopping at T. K. Maxx (our T. J. Maxx), the poet senses that “we are only real elsewhere // no longer human / in this place of stale air and artificial light.” And some views across the threshold cannot be dressed up, as in “Limbo” where a desolated, fashionable woman is “often seen alone in that field” at the grave of her unbaptized child. To repeat: “We are only real elsewhere.”
For all their journeying, MacCarthy’s poems see to it that we remain awake to how we orient ourselves in the world. Place names, maps, the cardinal directions, and the seasons turn up in almost every poem. They help us see around the corner. They help us overhear the watchful, speaking woman of MacCarthy’s poems. We hear her steadying answer to the collapsed Celtic Tiger when she looks away from the gleam of the present:
On Lansdowne Road, right by the new stadium
cherry trees still bloom. The monumental Tiffany dome
refracts the heat of the sun, broods
over a street of Victorian redbricks
where old gardens flourish. Mature trees
defy wonders of the boom, promise irretrievable Dublin.
as if this were a first spring, damson, malus, plum
pink heads reach past the builders’ veneer.
MacCarthy’s bitter title -- “When the Dust Settles” -- gets its lyric comeuppance at the end. After the allusions are over and the epigraphs fade, MacCarthy’s poetry uses plain and simple means not to teach or tease, not to dramatize and demand, but to reassure by keeping us awake to our world.
With gratitude for her life as a teacher and editor, as a commentator on the modern world, and especially as a poet who has enriched twenty-first century Irish writing, we now have pleasure in presenting the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Catherine Phil MacCarthy.
On April 22, 2015, the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies presented the nineteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in a private ceremony at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.
For more than three decades and across seven collections of poetry and eight plays, as well as in workshops, classrooms, articles, and lectures, Paula Meehan has balanced her private vision—the autobiographical territory of experience—with her keen awareness that poetry lives in our civic realm. Indeed, the highly public nature of her life as a poet was underscored in 2014, when she was named the sixth Ireland Professor of Poetry—in effect, Ireland’s “poet in chief.”
Meehan’s journey into poetry began in the working-class neighborhood of Finglas, where the swing and slant of Dublin speech and story marked her imagination, as we find in poems like “A Child’s Map of Dublin.” In all her collections, we encounter poems that remember and transfigure her family; one of the most memorable is “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St. Francis.” The plain purpose of Meehan’s way through the world is to come home to it, as these lines from “Home” say:
When the song that is in me is the song I hear from the world
I’ll be home. It’s not written down and I don’t remember the words.
I know when I hear it I’ll have made it myself. I’ll be home.
Meehan’s compassionate imagination often surprises the reader’s expectations; as one critic has said, she finds her world by displacing it. Her writing was shaped early on by Eavan Boland (the first O’Shaughnessy honoree), as well as in her studies in the United States, under the tutelage of Gary Snyder. Meehan has opened herself to influences little heard in Irish poetry, including Buddhism and environmental ethics, as we see in her 2002 collection Dharmakaya.
Similarly, after returning to Dublin in 1984, she took up the work of giving living voice to Ireland’s outsiders. Meehan’s inner city of remembered life tests the present of Ireland after the Tiger. To do so, she resists the artifice of the well-made poem. In the title poem of her first book, “Return and No Blame,” she plainly recounts the reckoning of a daughter –that is, of herself—whose muse has led her away from her family.
In other poems, Meehan writes movingly and mystifyingly of love. These poems—not lyrics, exactly—evoke desire and frustration, regret and exasperation. Sometimes they employ common speech and popular song. Sometimes they rope in the myth of the moon and muse. Sometimes they use the traditional materials of the Irish pastoral, as does a poem from Pillow Talk (1994) titled by its first line: “Not alone the rue in my herb garden….”
Meehan the public poet has commanded the attentions of contemporary Ireland. She has consistently questioned the received wisdom of Ireland: about women, about Dublin’s strictures of class, and lately, about Ireland’s neglect of its environment. Her best-known poem is the bitter “Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks,” recently shortlisted by Radio Telefis Éireann as a defining Irish poem of the last hundred years. In it, her appropriation of Mary’s voice seethes with anger:
They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.
Because—in our world—the Virgin is only a voice in a statue, she cannot act and can only witness. Meehan’s own witness is a kind of moved compassion, an empathy that can come in the guises of humor. A Dubliner’s jokes and digs frame many of Meehan’s pained observations of class and pretense. And sometimes, she turns the joke on herself, as when she asks, “Who’d be a dog, a poet’s dog?”
We must note, too, how powerfully Meehan evokes the woundedness of the natural world, quietly moving into the role of the environmental poet. In the opening poem of Painting Rain, “Death of a Field.” Meehan echoes the lost liturgy when she laments the small extinctions that will be worked by a new housing development:
The end of the field as we know it is the start of the estate
The site to be planted with houses each two or three bedroom
Nest of sorrow and chemical, cargo of joy
And ending with,
Who amongst us is able to number the end of grasses
To number the losses of each seeding head?
Who amongst us? If anyone, it will be our poets.
For the play of talk and language in her lines, for the humors and sorrows in her poems, for the compassionate imagination of her poetry, for the dauntless intimacy of her writing across the decades, we at the University of St. Thomas and the Center for Irish Studies are honored to recognize Paula Meehan with the nineteenth O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry.