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Articles and Reviews: POETRY

Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams

By Dennis O'Driscoll

(The Gallery Press, No Price Given)

Given that, in one of the essays and reviews selected here from his vast output of same over the last twenty-five years, entitled 'Pen Pals: Insider Trading in Poetry Futures', Dennis O'Driscoll calls for the negotiation of a 'blurb non-proliferation treaty', pending which, 'poets should each be allocated an integrity rating of 100 points, from which 15 points would be deducted for every blurb written and 20 points forfeited every time they review a close friend or colleague or nominate them for an award;' and '…a 20 point penalty would also apply to reviews prompted by vengeance, expectation of reciprocal benefit or the desire merely to be controversial.', I had better declare an interest from the outset: I have been acquainted with the writer of these admonitions for the last fifteen years, first meeting him when he was Writer-in-Residence in UCD and I was a graduate student there. But although, as O'Driscoll points out in another essay in a similar vein, 'Troubled Thoughts: Poetry Politics in Contemporary Ireland': 'Ireland's critical vacuum, which quickly fills with the hot air of special pleading, has one obvious source: the extreme difficulty of publishing honest (and, inevitably therefore, tough) judgements in a country where the reviewer is liable to bump into his subject on the journey to mail the review.', I can only offer in my defence that, friendship notwithstanding, my reviewing this book is not motivated by any of the reasons listed above. Rather, the only inducements to action are an appreciation of good critical writing, a desire to keep abreast of it and, perhaps most importantly of all, a further desire to share it by recommendation. Besides, I am not a poet, and so am in a less vulnerable position when it comes to commenting on 'the cosily-agreed hierarchy', as O'Driscoll refers to the national poetry scene, than if I was a neophyte versifier anxiously seeking preferment. Practitioners of mere prose can look out for themselves.

O'Driscoll's own exemplars as critics are made clear when he suggests that: 'Poets whose ratings fell below 70 would be disqualified from reviewing until they had undergone honesty counselling from a poet-critic such as Lachlan Mackinnon or had learned passages of Randall Jarrell's criticism by heart. Community service, such as tending Geoffrey Grigson's grave or painting Ian Hamilton's fence, would be accepted in partial reparation.'

Of course, as a senior civil servant, O'Driscoll is in the fortunate position of not having to rely on literary journalism or academia, with their attendant political manoeuvring and backstabbing, for his bread and butter, an independence which frees him to express honestly pretty much any opinion he wants to on poetry, without the compromise imposed by fear that it will hurt his pocket or adversely effect his promotion prospects. One wonders how he could have had the foresight, aged seventeen, to avoid the formal study of the thing he loved, in order to remain truer to it. Apart from nods to Wallace Stevens, C P Cavafy, and C H Sisson, the poet he relates to most in their mutual experience of office drudgery and the quotidian round, but their consequent unbeholdenness to the literary world, is Philip Larkin. In 'Philip Larkin and Work' he notes: 'As for a life of literary journalism, Larkin - a disciple of Cyril Connolly - would surely have been attentive to his strictures on the subject in Enemies of Promise. Larkin's library job allowed him to produce literary journalism at his own pace and on his own terms. He told A N Wilson in a radio interview: 'I write very, very slowly and with great pains; and I think to make a living by journalism or any other subsidiary literary activity, you have to be a quick reactor.' There are other compensations: 'Larkin, without his work colleagues, could easily have succumbed to drink and depression, being prone to excesses of both.' In 'At Work' he writes of his own experience: 'If, at indulgent intervals, I allow myself to worry about the effect my job has on my writing, I also wonder how, were I to retire, my writing would cope with having me around the house all day. With a full-time job, I may be treating my poetry too lightly; without a job, I might take it too seriously.'

Yet one questions whether O'Driscoll really considers it possible to take poetry too seriously, and it is not as though his production of criticism - never mind poetry - has been anything less than prolific. In an interview with Michael Garvey he says that what he recalls from school is '…a physical reaction to language', his first brush with Shakespeare almost causing him to faint. He was brought out in goosebumps by other lines along the way too. While distancing himself from the megalomania and egotism that is endemic in the literary world, he does make the claim that: '…the custody of language is a sufficient responsibility in itself for a poet.', and states: 'My belief is that if you look after the language, then the politics will look after itself.'

The selection of critical writing is characterised by wide and deep reading, and sections titled 'Irishry', 'US and UK' and 'Europa (North and East)' indicate that he cannot be accused of the provincialism of the Little Irelanders, and that his breath of interest extends well beyond the English-speaking world. He certainly fulfils the remit he sets himself in the first paragraph of his Introduction: 'Indeed, the best justification I can offer for this unscholarly book is the hope that it will direct readers towards primary texts with which they may not yet be acquainted or that it will renew and refresh their interest in already-familiar poets.' Among the first category, the snapshots provided from Stephen Dobyns and Mark Halliday made this reader want to check out more of their work. Among the second, particularly impressive are his close explication of Thomas Kinsella, his long appreciation of W S Graham, his championing of Peter Reading, and his homage to Miroslav Holub.

The severest review in the book is that of Adam Zagajewski's Mysticism for Beginners, in which, despite blurbs from Joseph Brodsky and Susan Sontag (it's hard to imagine either of them undergoing honesty counselling), O'Driscoll finds 'genuine mediocrity'. As is often the case, a writer's or critic's blindspots can tell us as much about him as do his bullseyes. For example, it is difficult to discern exactly what is so wrong with 'The naïve interrogative style' of the reviled Zagajewski, ('Things, / do you know suffering? / Were you ever hungry, down and out? / Have you cried?'), and what is so right with 'the poems which celebrate the asking of spontaneous questions' of the revered Holub, ('There is much promise / in the circumstance / that so many people have heads'). Closer textual analysis would make it more difficult to dismiss phrases like 'skewered by their lambent gazes' and 'the Sanskrit of dusk that speaks / in a glowing tongue of joy' as 'overwrought and under-earned' - or perhaps even help to justify better such dismissal.

In its epilogue the book extends as far as art criticism, with a series of reflections under the title 'Losers, Weepers: Christian Boltanski's 'Lost Property''. O'Driscoll links Boltanski's installations of the intimate, personal, everyday detritus of the dead with the death, while he was still young, of his own parents, and his experience of bereavement. While this piece is both revealing and moving, it also contains the sentence in which O'Driscoll comes closest to expressing a standard political opinion, in the conventional sense of those terms: 'Boltanski is one of those artists who should be seen, not heard. Tender and touching though his work can be, some of his pronouncements - the assertion, for instance, that the fall of the Berlin Wall represents the death of hope - seem best ignored.' It is in this statement, and in the overall preoccupation with death, and view of life as a mere journey towards it, that the limits of O'Driscoll's insights become apparent. For, in much less than the space of a generation, it is as though a generational shift has occurred, between what could be called The Crane Bag era of Irish intellectuals (Hederman, Kearney, Mathews, Sheehan, O'Driscoll) and the contemporary one, if such a thing can be detected. (Should it be read as significant that the only typo I spotted in this book was 'Walsh' instead of 'Welsh', when reference was made to the writer of Trainspotting in the review of Simon Armitage (p 244)?) While it is the dereliction of duty inherent in selective memory to play down The Big Moustache's (Stalin) 20m dead at the expense of The Little Moustache's (Hitler) 6m, and while we all rejoiced at the thought of an end to Cold War divisiveness that the destruction of the wall seemed to symbolise at the time, its existence did at least impose a kind of literal dialectical counterweight to the greedy, self-serving individualism which has triumphed in its wake, through globalisation and American corporate imperialism. Aidan Mathews is one of the finest writers working in this country at the moment (i.e. he at least knows there are problems, both in the world and with representing it), but his lingering shards of traditional religious belief are no match for the daily spectre of CNN and clerical child abuse, and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi (dictatorship by other means), and the cult of celebrity and Reality TV. It would be interesting to see what would happen his work if he got rid of the Christianity, a loss of faith which might prove fruitful. Besides which, some of us were never too crazy about the men in black, even before the paedophilia scandals shit hit their fan. O'Driscoll is right to follow the above assertion directly with: 'When his art does the speaking, Boltanski subverts political ideologies through his rejection of the general, his embrace of the personal.' However, Cold War paranoia doesn't seem so far away when the leader of the, ahem, 'free' world can spout garbled, ungrammatical nonsense, even pre 9/11 when he had a harder time identifying an enemy, like: "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who they are, but we know they're there." And who exactly is artistically subverting the ideology Bush represents?

The same generational gap is evident in O'Driscoll's poetry. To be strictly Freudian (or Sophoclean) about it, as poems from the earliest 'Calendar Girls' and 'Infidelity' to the mightily peculiar and arguably pathological ‘Sin’ to the latest 'To a Love Poet' attest, he is undoubtedly much more the poet of death rather than the poet of sex, of bereavement rather than birth. While it is implacably true that death always inevitably wins out in the end, and while fleshy pleasures can easily be debased in exploitative situations, and while sexual satisfaction is contingent on the relative state of one's physical and mental fitness or frailty, and so cannot last, it can certainly be more than nice while it does. O'Driscoll could perhaps take greater heed of an utterance of Padraic Fallon, which he quotes in his review of that neglected poet's Collected Poems: 'There is more to life than despair of life. There is this body-joy in its own energies, the thing that makes trees grow and men marry…Let despair come later. Having lived his joys, he will cope with that, too.' Depending on individual temperament, not being able to do it anymore may well be just as much a source of self-lacerating despair as the memory of doing it may provide gentle solace, but how can you know if you've never done it and enjoyed it in the first place? Some of the most eminent of poets have been noted hammer men, for example Robert Burns, and not merely rakish charlatans. The greatest artists, like Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Joyce - is Beckett a glaring exception? - tend to be those who see life whole, in all its joys and sorrows, griefs and consolations, pleasures and pains, hopes and despairs.

That said, that O'Driscoll is made of the right stuff is evident from what he says about poetry at the end of the interview he gave to Michael Garvey: 'It is an art of words but its deepest power lies in the ability to take you right to the point at which words fail and silence begins - the silence of awe, the silence of the irrational, the silence of the universe…' This faith fits well with one of the finest poet-critics of his, or any other, generation.

First publihsed in Books Ireland


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