1999 Winner: Peter Sirr of Dublin

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.