If you were to make a map of 20th-century English-language poetry, Ireland would not be a small island but a sprawling continent. Thanks mostly to two Nobel Prize-winning poets, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, Ireland has assumed a central place in the imaginations of American poetry readers. The latest sign of our interest is the awarding of this year’s Pulitzer Prize to Paul Muldoon, an excellent Irish poet now living in New Jersey. Why do we love the Irish so much? In large part it’s because these poets have portrayed an Ireland that seems glamorously different from our own modern, urban, technological society.In Yeats’ poetry, Ireland is turned into a haunt of gods and heroes, from the faeries of folklore to his own proud Anglo-Irish ancestors. His valedictory poem “Under Ben Bulben” conjures an ancient aristocratic order, telling Irish poets to: “Sing the lords and ladies gay/ That were beaten into the clay/ Through seven heroic centuries.”
Seamus Heaney, who was born in 1939, the year of Yeats’ death, deliberately writes against this larger-than-life legend of “Romantic Ireland.” But his vision of Ireland nevertheless possesses an exotic appeal for American readers nostalgic for traditional rural life. Heaney’s language is full of heavy, earthy consonants, and in its very humility it seems to come from an earlier world: A famous early poem, “Digging,” imagines his grandfather at work among “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat.” Heaney sees his own poetry as a form of that earthy labor: “Beneath my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.”
Against this backdrop, the Irish poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll seems startlingly realistic, invigoratingly modern. O’Driscoll, a 48-year-old Dubliner and the author of six collections of poems, is well-known in Ireland and Britain as a poet and critic, but he is little read in the United States. This is a shame, since he is one of the most interesting poets now writing in English. (His new book, Exemplary Damages, is available in America this month, and his last two books, Quality Time and Weather Permitting, contain some of his best work.)
O’Driscoll’s poetry brings welcome news of a demystified Ireland, a country that has undergone “globalization” and come out looking very much like the rest of the First World. O’Driscoll speaks wryly of these modish similarities in “The Celtic Tiger”:
Outside new antique pubs, young consultants—well-toned women, gel-slick men—
drain long-necked bottles of imported beer.
Lip-glossed cigarettes are poised
at coy angles, a black bra strap
slides strategically from a Rocha top.
Talk of tax-exempted town-house lettings
is muffled by rap music blasted
from a passing four-wheel drive.
As these lines show, O’Driscoll’s Dublin is a version of London or New York.
In addition to being a poet, O’Driscoll is a career civil servant, and his years working in offices have given him a disabused perspective on the daily life of the average citizen of Dublin—or Denver, for that matter. No poet since Philip Larkin, a famously effective librarian, has made sharper observations about the nature of contemporary work: the jargon, the boredom, the small compensations. This is captured unerringly in “The Bottom Line,” a sort of sonnet sequence, made up of 50 11-line poems. A few references to “VAT” (a European tax) and “EC directives” let us know that we are not in America, but otherwise O’Driscoll could be writing about any executive anywhere:
How did I get this far, become
this worldly-wise, letting off steam
to suppliers, sure of my own ground?
What did my dribbling, toddling stage
prepare me for? What was picked up
from cloth-paged books, stuffed bears,
all those cute gap-toothed years?
So embarrassing the idiocies of my past,
seen from the vantage of tooled-leather
and buffed teak, hands-on management
techniques, line logistics, voice mail.
O’Driscoll’s characteristic tone is wry, precise, and self-aware; it is a style incapable of mythologizing. In fact, he is at his best when stripping away illusions, especially the illusions we all use to fend off our fear of sickness and death. Like Larkin, O’Driscoll can’t stop looking forward to what he mordantly calls “Deadlines”:
Your time will come
when it gets a minute,
refusing to be pinned down,
despatching you at whim …
O’Driscoll fights against these quiet forebodings, not with the grand defenses of poetry—magnificent rhetoric, noble aesthetic structures—but with the modest and trustworthy weapon of wit. He marks the passage of time by observing “The word vintage as it occurs/ in the second-hand shop-talk/ of the clothes store—say, in/ this label: Vintage Slip, 1980s.” More seriously, he walks in a churchyard and wonders:
Who had a crush on the girl
Six headstones away.
Who couldn’t muster
Who wouldn’t make
the first move.
O’Driscoll’s poetry has the rare virtue of making us feel that most other poets are forcing things a little, striving for effect. He writes directly, naturally, about the emotions that are closest to us and, for that very reason, go unobserved: how we actually feel about work and possessions and aging. This may seem too ordinary for readers who look to Ireland for a rural authenticity or mythic glamour missing from their own country—as O’Driscoll has noted, “Foreign readers expect Irish poets to ’sing’ ” At his best, however, O’Driscoll makes speech—the kind of plain, true speech Worsdsworth had in mind when he called the poet “a man speaking to men”—seem just as exciting.
Slate magazine, April 2003.