2007 Winner: Seán Lysaght


Citation read at the presentation of The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry

to Seán Lysaght, April 12, 2007

Each Spring, the University of St Thomas is privileged to welcome to its classrooms and lecture halls—and to its table—a distinguished Irish poet, on whom we confer an award unique in North America. The list of O’Shaughnessy honorees beginning with Eavan Boland in 1997 and now spanning more than a decade, is itself a powerful statement of Ireland’s enduring literary vitality. We especially thank Mr. O’Shaughnessy for being with us tonight, and of course for his generosity that makes possible this celebration.

 Our honoree this evening is Seán Lysaght, an artist whose poetry is inseparable from his engagement with Ireland’s natural surroundings.  Lysaght’s poems abound with alert perceptions of Ireland’s west, where he makes his home-- its mountains, bogs, and beaches, its flora, and its birdlife.  We will understand his work best (and, he reminds us, will understand our own lives best ) if we remember that it rests on the bedrock of the natural world.  Still, to call him merely an “environmental” writer would be to underestimate his many achievements -- his years of teaching, his essays, his scholarship, and his four collections of  poetry. For our guest, to speak of Ireland is always and necessarily to speak of the world.

Born in 1957, Lysaght came of age as Ireland began to turn away from isolation. The skies of his childhood included not only birds, but also transatlantic jets coming and going from Shannon Airport, as he reminds us in the poem “Limerick,” where stones skipped on the estuary morph into overseas flights. And like many of his generation, he has played his part in Ireland’s latter-day diaspora, having traveled widely and lived in Switzerland and Germany.

Perhaps it is a bit ironic, then, that the breakthrough book for this cosmopolitan, contemporary author-- his 1991 collection, The Clare Island Survey-- would be precisely about a primitive island. In this inventive volume, Lysaght writes a poem about each of the 28 species of birds that the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger identified there nearly a century ago. In these spare poems, he puts both the scientific and the subjective, the personal and the universal, into free play:

But, stronger than regret

One evening love rose in us and robbed us of breath.

You knew then those shearwaters

that the storm spends, and wrecks far inland.

In his next collection, Lysaght chose the figure of the scarecrow to give the book both its title and its shaping metaphor. A gift for selecting the powerful line and the potent image is embodied in Lysaght’s scarecrows – “A broom handle harpooned / deep among the flowering potatoes ”—which come to us out of an elemental folklore that speaks to human dividedness. His scarecrows stand both in nature and apart from it—guarding us, but both haunted and haunting. And in his poem “Catching Blackbirds,” the author himself shares in the scarecrows’ nature: “So I walk in again, with small straws / on my clothes to tell where I’ve been.”

It is, of course, the poet’s charge to tell us where we have been, or where we are; and there are times when Lysaght reminds us that we reside in a natural world  existing  well beyond our word-craft.  In an early poem he writes that,   “Before the first words in Ireland / there were sparse, post-glacial trees / and northern birds.”  Elsewhere, he presents “… an otter on the outer islet / that lives out of sight. / He licks his paws undisturbed / / and goes unrecorded.”

Yet a poet’s work is precisely, in Lysaght’s own phrase, “the husbandry of words,” and this poet cherishes his words, in lines that fit the speaking voice.  Erris,  his fourth collection, finds Seán Lysaght’s work growing more formal. Skilled at the sonnet, he is also likely borrow from continental and Classical sources. Yet, like the scarecrow, the poet stays rooted in his particular place.

Not surprisingly, then, he often evokes the submerged language of the land, in Gaelic placenames and nature-lore. History is always near:  in “Golden Eagle,” he speaks of  “… the great desert of Erris // where the last ones / flew into extinction a lifetime ago / above gillies and starvelings,” a reference to Ireland’s tragic famine. In Lysaght’s ever-more mythic imagination, the present and the past speak to one another, including the Greek past, as in “Achill”:

Tradition has it that Achilles rested here

In a small cottage after his Trojan labours.

No one knows exactly where. The sea-breezes scour

The open land and eradicate the memory

Of how he stood before his glamorous trireme

With his hero’s crest.

                                   Then, he put on his pampooties

As he went to help the local men unloading.

Here, in evoking the Iliad on a remote Irish island, and in other narrative poems, Seán Lysaght displays his own stewardship of the lengthy tradition of story-spinning in Irish poetry. “To Connacht,” in the second part of Erris masterfully weaves together story, personality, and place.

Tonight, we thank our guest for a literary achievement that charts a progressively more comprehensive understanding of what is meant by the word “environment.” His work brings us not just to the natural world, but also to the environment of the imagination,  the environment of language, the environment of literature and of the world’s store of legend and tale. We have the pleasure now of presenting the eleventh annual Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Seán Lysaght of Fahy, County Mayo, Ireland.