Poet with a direct style that stood out among fellow Irish writers
In an age when poets tend to hover near schools and universities, Dennis O'Driscoll, who has died suddenly aged 58, was an exception. Having become a civil servant in Dublin at the age of 16 (starting with death duties), he remained one for almost 40 years. "In the civil service you are assigned a grade. You know your status," he told the Irish Times. "Whereas with poetry, you never retire and you never really know your grade – it will be assigned posthumously."
O'Driscoll had always known he wanted to be a poet, even before he heard a school recitation of Shakespeare's "When icicles hang by the wall" and nearly fainted. He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 20 and he was left in charge of his five siblings. Unsurprisingly, mortality and work would become two of his preoccupations.
He regularly drew on the jargon of business and bureaucracy, even in the titles of his slim volumes. These – after what he called a "callow and feeble" debut, Kist (Dolmen Press, 1982) – were chiefly from the British poetry publisher Anvil. Hidden Extras (1987) and Long Story Short (1993) were followed by the chapbook The Bottom Line (Dedalus, 1994), a ruthless dissection of office life, which gathered interest beyond the poetry bubble:
The hidden pain of offices: a mission
statement admonishing me from walls,
the volatility of top brass if sales volume
for a single line falls one per cent.
And customers' righteousness, their touching
faith in the perfectibility of man
At the same time as his poetry was beginning to receive prizes and reach significant magazines and anthologies, O'Driscoll was also emerging as a pithy reviewer for journals such as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. The Gallery Press collected his essays on contemporary Irish, American and European poets, together with various interviews and autobiographical writings, in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (2001).
From 1987 he had an entertaining column, Pickings and Choosings, in Poetry Ireland Review, which metamorphosed into The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006). Nicholas Lezard praised it as "an anthology that aims to recharge its subject, to demarginalise it, or at least to demystify it, in the sense of showing that poetry is a human activity, but not in the sense of making the finished product any less mysterious".
In a field crowded with Irish poets, O'Driscoll's voice could be heard distinctly and at ever increasing distances. In 1999 he received a Lannan literary award, after which he moved (with his wife, the poet Julie O'Callaghan) to Naas, Co Kildare.
The books from this period – Quality Time (1997), Weather Permitting (1999), Exemplary Damages (2002) and New and Selected Poems (2004) – reveal a stylistic clarity learned from Brecht and from O'Driscoll's beloved eastern European poets, and an arresting directness – often using droll repetition – which caught perfectly a certain contemporary speech idiom:
No, I don't want to drop over for a meal
on my way home from work.
No, I'd much prefer if you didn't feel obliged
to honour me by crashing overnight.
No, I haven't the slightest curiosity about seeing
how your attic conversion finally turned out
(from No, Thanks)
If he can sometimes seem to out-grump Philip Larkin, in person O'Driscoll was charm itself – quiet but immensely sociable – and his generosity to fellow writers was legendary.
Even as he scaled back the day job, the literary tasks multiplied – editing, broadcasting, judging (at one point he had to read 500 poetry collections for the Griffin prize) and travelling to perform or promote books. No workshops, however; no creative writing classes.
His selfless nature and companionable manner – which would have made him a fine teacher – helped towards the success of Stepping Stones, his series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, which was published by Faber in 2008 to considerable acclaim. It was a bold idea to trace the Nobel laureate's life through conversation, but the book brought the nature of the creative process to life (and to a wider readership than normally follows poetry); in his eulogy for his friend, Heaney acknowledged O'Driscoll's crucial role in producing his "biography".
Stepping Stones, along with two further Anvil collections, Reality Check (2007) and Dear Life (2012), can be seen now as O'Driscoll's "final blazon". Or perhaps he would have regarded that (smiling impishly) as the moment in 2008 when he was for the first time invited by his employers at Dublin Castle to write a poem – to mark the opening of their Revenue Museum.
He is survived by his wife.
• Dennis O'Driscoll, poet, born 1 January 1954; died 24 December 2012