2008 Winner: Pat Boran
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.