Dennis O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, County Tipperary in 1954. He has written eight books of poetry, two chapbooks and a collection of essays and reviews. He has also edited and compiled a volume of contemporary quotations about poets and poetry. Among numerous anthologies in which his work appears are Staying Alive (Bloodaxe), Scanning the Century (Penguin), 20th Century Irish Poems (Faber) and The Poetry [Chicago] Anthology (Ivan R. Dee). A substantial selection of his work is included in The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry 1 (Wake Forest University Press, USA, 2005). His awards include a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies in Minnesota.
Death and mortality have always obsessed O’Driscoll the poet. Both of his parents died when he was in his early twenties and O’Driscoll took on the responsibility of rearing his younger siblings. He has written briefly about this experience but on the whole, biography is scant in his work. He is an egoless poet who mostly prefers to observe others. Both Kist (1982) and Hidden Extras (1987) featured skulls on their covers.
‘Someone’ from Kist was to assume iconic status and anthology favouritehood. Structurally it is a list poem, a form which O’Driscoll exploits frequently to good effect. Its chief thematic characteristics are not only its concern with mortality but its awareness of other people’s obliviousness to mortality. The tension between those two elements introduce the other major aspect of O’Driscoll’s work, its irony. If it were not for irony, the oeuvre’s obsession with death would be unbearable. Stephen Dobyns argues that a certain polar opposite to sentimentality, evident in the unrelenting negativity of many twentieth century writers and would-be writers, is just as much a killer of art as sentimentality itself. O’Driscoll escapes this trap through his irony and humour. Of course irony and humour in the work of British and Irish poets have been all the rage since the late 1990s, but O’Driscoll was there before the trend was, as they say, both popular and profitable, most especially before it was profitable. Practically the entire critical kudos for O’Driscoll’s work has come belatedly from America, along with fellowships and prizes.
O’Driscoll has never seemed to write from within the British/Irish tradition and while it is obvious that he knows how a poem works and should be constructed, he has never written within the mansion of the so-called “well-made poem”. O’Driscoll’s influences are middle-European, Herbert, Holub, the later Milosz. In the 1980s and 1990s the British (and by extension, Irish) critical establishments respectfully acknowledged the genius of the Eastern Europeans while dismissing the Anglophone poets (most prominently Gunn and Hughes) who wrote like them, as sloppy. A young Irish poet showing such tendencies hardly warranted a mention.
Thankfully all that has changed. The cooler, fresher breezes wafting recently from America have brought the European influences to bear on poetry in these islands through an alternate route. Simic, Dobyns and others are winning readers by the thousand. What will save O’Driscoll’s work from being swallowed up by all these new trends is his resistance to proving how clever he is through his poems. The recent fashion for humorous, ironic poetry is tainted by a sort of academic tricksiness which has become so de rigeur that, as Milosz has said of Socialist Realism, it “strengthens weak talents and undermines great ones”.
O’Driscoll is an original in that while his method of viewing the world may have been borrowed from the aforementioned Europeans, the resulting observations are wholly his own. Aside from the obsession with mortality, commentaries on the sheer tedium of bourgeois life abound. O’Driscoll is the only poet writing successfully about the fast-changing materialist, suburban Ireland. He has also written many poems about poetry itself and the oftentimes egotistic world of the poet.
This text was published in 2008, when Poetry International featured Dennis O'Driscoll's work on the website.
New and Selected Poems Anvil Press, London 2004
50 O’Clock Happy Dragons Press, UK, 2005
Reality Check, Anvil Press, London 2007
Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (reviews & essays) Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001
Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations Bloodaxe, Tarset 2006
Dennis O'Driscoll's author website
An article about O'Driscoll by Adam Kirsch in Slate
An American public radio broadcast featuring O'Driscoll
'Read it When You're Drunk': a New York Times blog post on O'Driscoll