2006 Winner: Dennis O’Driscoll of Dublin
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.