Thursday 18 December 2014

Obituary: Desmond O'Grady, poet and translator

This poet of international vision's work was breathtaking and awe-inspiring in its compass

Emer O'Kelly

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

Poet Desmond O'Grady in the Spainard Pub in Kinsale. Photo: John Minihan
Poet Desmond O'Grady in the Spaniard Pub in Kinsale. Photo: John Minihan

Desmond O'Grady, the poet and translator who has died after a heart attack at the age of 78, was arguably, with the exception of Yeats, the most international of twentieth century Irish poets.

Indeed, to re-read just one of his collections in the knowledge that he is gone is to realise again the breathtaking compass, awe-inspiringly rigorous scholarship, and searingly sophisticated simplicity of his work.

The Wandering Celt, published by Dedalus in 2001 is the essence of internationalism and Europeanism. It traces our roots across Europe and through history: the legend of the wandering Jew transposed to Celtic Ireland through the ages on a trail which O'Grady himself followed when he left the country in the 1950s. He went on to live his life as an interrogation of language and learning, and to encounter "the reality of experience."

In The Library, from that Millennium collection, he writes:

Greeks called it a receptacle of books,Romans a book place, Hindusthe Treasure of the Goddess of Speech.Private libraries may achieve imperial reach.To evaluate people look at their libraries.

That exposition lies at the heart of O'Grady's reality of experience: European culture meticulously defined. (A new and exquisitely beautiful translation of The Song of Songs is part of the collection.)

Born in Limerick and educated in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, Desmond O'Grady became inflamed by literature in his teens, much of it found and read "under the counter" as was necessary in Ireland then, including the works of Verlaine, Baudelaire and Rimbaud as well as Eliot, and of course Joyce.

But he didn't wait as long as the Master to flee: he was still in his teens when he headed for Paris, and got a job in the bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

He soon made friends with Sartre, De Beauvoir, Picasso, and of course, Beckett, who, he recalled in later life, regarded him as "an acolyte."

He, on the other hand, regarded Beckett, who had recently published Waiting for Godot,, as a high priest. Soon, the young Irishman was part of literary Paris.

When he married an exiled Iraqi Catholic they moved to Rome; O'Grady taught English there . . . and was the voice of Pope Pius XII on Vatican radio. He organised the 1966 Spoleto International Poetry Festival, and worked as secretary to Ezra Pound, who had become an admirer while in hospital in Washington, and the young O'Grady had sent him his work. O'Grady also worked as the European editor of the The Transatlantic Review.

When he and his wife separated, (there were to be many more loves) he went to teach at Harvard, where he became friendly with Robert Lowell, and continued the links he had forged in Europe with the Beat writers Kerouac and Ginsberg. He took his doctorate at Harvard before returning to his spiritual home on mainland Europe, and from there to Egypt and its ancient culture. And all the time he was absorbing, distilling, and writing, while teaching at the American University in Cairo and at the University of Alexandria.

Desmond O'Grady published seventeen collections of poetry as well as his numerous translations, all of which brought him acclaim and recognition throughout the poetic world. And while he returned to live in Ireland, settling in Kinsale for the last 20 years of his life, his monumental sense of the breadth of literature and broader culture never deserted him.

In Millennium Elegy (2001), he wrote:

Those reflected perspectives that face myself shock me dumb. The Bang that made us all will suck us back to 0. All life began, will end in naught.Physics theory in three letters spells that.

It is a cosmic vision. Yet the tributes to him this week in Ireland have concentrated on the award of the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in 2004, his membership of Aosdana, and the fact that the late Seamus Heaney admired his work. The great European sophisticate and scholar poet, renowned for his sense of humour, might have smiled wryly at the parochialism.

Desmond O'Grady is survived by his daughters Deirdre and Giselle, his son Leonardo, his brother Tom and his sister Betty.

Sunday Independent

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