The 'office poet' and leading critic's work was full of linguistic wit and wry observation, writes Michael O'Loughlin
WITH the untimely death of Dennis O'Driscoll, the world of poetry in Ireland and abroad has lost one of its leading figures.
I first became aware of Dennis in the late Seventies, when his reviews in the legendary magazine Hibernia were required reading for anyone interested in poetry. Magisterial, learned, and sure in their judgements, they were the reviews that every young poet aspired to.
When I met him for the first time, outside his office in Dublin Castle, neat and trim in suit and tie as always, I was astonished to learn that the leading poetry critic in Ireland was just a few years older then me. He generously praised my first collection in Hibernia, but when his own first collection Kist was published in 1982, I returned the compliment with a churlishly grudging review. It was typical of his largeness of spirit that, apart from one pointed aside, he never mentioned this again, and we continued to enjoy collegial relations. In life as in poetry, Dennis's maturity was always striking, but it was hard earned.
He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, and lost both parents at a young age, leaving him to some degree responsible for a large family of siblings. He joined the Civil Service on his 16th birthday, January 1, 1970, making him the youngest ever recruit, a record which, according to the poet Alan Moore, who at one time was also his colleague in the Revenue Commissioners, may be equalled but never excelled. He continued to work as a civil servant until last year.
In a review of his last collection Dear Life (2012), a collection shot through with intimations of mortality, the Guardian referred to him as one of the 'office poets'. While the influence of his day job on his work can be overstated, his careful attention to the surfaces and detail of ordinary life may have been informed by it.
But as a poet Dennis's achievement was unique and original. Partly influenced by the aesthetic of postwar European poets like Holub and Symborska, whose work he tirelessly promoted in his critical writings, he created a stripped-down poetry of the everyday and the domestic, full of linguistic wit and wry observation. However, in his nine volumes of poetry, he did not shy away from the big subjects.
One of his best loved poems begins: 'someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie/eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan.' His deadpan delivery of such disturbing lines made him much in demand as a reader at festivals and events, not just in Ireland but in the USA, where he was twice awarded a prestigious Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.
In 2008 he published Stepping Stones, a biography of Seamus Heaney as told through interviews with Dennis. It is a remarkably revelatory handbook of the working life of a poet, in some ways as much about Dennis as about its subject. In recent years he had serious health problems, but they hardly seemed to affect his output, and he handled them with the same modest stoicism and grim humour so familiar from his poetry. He is survived by his wife, the poet Julie O'Callaghan.