2010 Winner: Theo Dorgan
On April 22, 2010, the University of St Thomas center for Irish Studies presented the fourteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Theo Dorgan in private ceremonies at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.
Tonight, the University of St Thomas and its friends—including, of course, our distinguished benefactor Lawrence O’Shaughnessy—assemble on a Spring evening to celebrate the abundant talents of Irish poetry in our day. In doing so, we also once again make a larger claim of the necessity and the guidance of poetry itself, for both the human heart and for the civic sphere.
Our guest this evening, Theo Dorgan, has served Irish cultural life with enthusiasm and generosity for more than three decades, ever since his student days in Cork—as director of the Triskel Arts Center and of Poetry Ireland, as a member of the Irish Arts Council, and as the host of literary programs on Irish radio and television. Those endeavors of Dorgan’s are all ventures out into the world, journeys into the public realm.
But what counts for the poet is the voyage back, the crossing by ready reckoning—one version of which Dorgan recounts in the 2004 volume Sailing for Home, his prose account of a transatlantic crossing under sail. The poet’s voyage requires not just piloting by sight, but by what he calls “instructed faith.” And the sail of this poet’s art is cut from the whole cloth of old-style Romanticism—a poet who leads with love. That wholehearted Romantic stance constitutes Dorgan’s singular contribution to contemporary poetry in Ireland today.
His first collection, The Ordinary House of Love (1990) works some wonders with poems that follow Gaelic models, like “Twin,” or “The Father of the Holocaust”; with songs that rhyme, like “Elusive” or Black Fox Wood”; and with poems set in Cork or addressed to family, like “Speaking to my Father,” in which the poet explains, “this is the use I make of your sacrifice.” Addressing his own life, and Ireland’s national life as well, in “All Soul’s Eve,” Dorgan gives this worried poem a coda taken from the Irish:
The learned men say that love
is a killing disease.
When it goes to the heart
it will never come out again.
The poetry of adult love carries on through Dorgan’s second collection, Rosa Mundi, reaching its finest occasions in lyrics like “A Slow Poem” or “She Buckles in Her Sleep,” or in the opening lines of “Walking Shoes”:
I think of the day we parted and how my heart turned;
you were lacing on walking shoes, shoes for your
winter, shoes for walking away from sunlight,
the room darkening as you straightened & looked down.
Dorgan’s Romantic stance is more than just a matter of personal moments. The muse may inspire political intuition. In “The Geography of Armagh,” by simple repetition, the poet reminds us that both the victim and bomber are “Somebody’s lover.” The melody of the muse may raise the dead to unsettle the living, as in Dorgan’s portrait of the half-hearted 1991 anniversary of the Easter Rising in “Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Easter.” But the most accomplished of Dorgan’s national poems is the cross-rhymed monologue “Garda, Waking from a Dream of Language,” whose purpose pivots around the policeman’s intuition that
I think we learned language first beneath clear stars.
Maybe a Persian watchman or a Greek
Walking the unquiet nights like this was first
To speak plain against night’s unease, . . .
The Romantic emblem of the voyage back carries Dorgan’s readers in Greek, published just this year. This most recent collection draws on repeated journeys back to Greece, as Dorgan works to fathom the matter of Ireland through another island—Ikaria, where, in myth, Icarus fell into the sea. Renewed in this island setting, informed by place and myth, Dorgan’s lyric inclination can recline, stretch, and sigh in the sun, in such poems as “Orpheus” and “Eurydice” and the vision poem “Sappho’s Daughter,” Dorgan remakes the myths for us—as did Robert Graves before him and, of course, as did Joyce.
But always, we return to solace of sailing for home: an action that is both a return and a start, a rescue and an abandonment. It calls us twice to remember, as Dorgan has written, that “Love is not love that will not let love go.” To do so, we must reach conclusions like those he humorously proposes in “Nike,” where he begins with a sadly satirical portrait of a teenager shopping for running shoes in a Greek plaza and ends observing that
Winged victories were carved for girls like her,
To make them fleet of foot and never tire;
The goddess on her plinth above the square
Is wall-eyed, blank—as if not really there.
It our pleasure now to recognize the craft, the heart, and the dedication of Theo Dorgan, the poet—gifts he has brought to four collections and to a lifetime of service. The temper of our time seldom welcomes those who first greet the world with love: we are all too quick to embrace the faux wisdom of cynicism or a smug knowingness. Tonight, we honor Theo Dorgan for insisting that we grant the same authority to the Romantic impulse.