Sunday 17 December 2017

Sadness and celebration at book launch

John Boland

There was the sense of two distinct and vibrant poetic presences in a first-floor room on Merrion Square one evening last week, though the poets responsible for these presences were themselves regrettably absent.

One of them was Dennis O'Driscoll, who died last Christmas Eve at the ridiculously early age of 58 and whose prose collection, The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays, was being launched by Gallery Press. And the other was Seamus Heaney, who died last August 30 at a mere 74 and who, as a friend of the younger poet, would have been the person to launch this posthumous book.

Both of them -- one a major and the other a very fine poet -- were among the kindest and most encouraging of men, so it was no surprise that a feeling of sadness as well as celebration filled a room distinguished by the presence of Seamus's widow Marie and Dennis's widow Julie.

The book itself is full of treasurable pieces, not least three absorbing essays on Heaney and four personal reminiscences and reflections. There's a lengthy appreciation of Michael Hartnett, which isn't afraid to be stern about some of his work, and there are engrossing assessments of Philip Larkin, Thomas Kinsella and the American poet Kay Ryan -- the latter piece making Ryan seem so interesting that I immediately ordered her Selected Poems.

Dennis, of course, was also Seamus's collaborator in the 2008 book Stepping Stones, a series of interviews with the Nobel laureate shaped into a 500-page account of the poet's life, beliefs, influences, attitudes and thoughts about his own poetry and that of others.

No major biography was ever written of the poet in his lifetime (that will, no doubt, change) and he'd never written at length about himself, so this can be viewed as the nearest thing yet to a real portrait of the man and the artist. As such it's an indispensable book. And both poets were indispensable to the Irish literature of their time.

Irish Independent

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