2012 Winner: Gerard Smyth
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