2002 Winner: Frank Ormsby of Belfast
Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Frank Ormsby on 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.