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The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays by Dennis O'Driscoll – review


The ever magnanimous writer-critic Dennis O'Driscoll was overseer of the global poetry village

The death of Dennis O'Driscoll on Christmas Eve 2012 robbed the poetry world of one of its most treasured presences. Poet, critic, indefatigable correspondent and all-round overseer of the global poetry village, O'Driscoll was one of those rare souls who, as Robert Lowell said of Randall Jarrell, seem more interested in other people's poetry than their own. The Outnumbered Poet had been completed before his death, and – though a collected poems will surely follow – stands as an impressive monument to this most magnanimous of poet-critics.

Though he had written in this vein before, one of the pleasantly surprising aspects of The Outnumbered Poet is the talent O'Driscoll shows for memoir. "Walking Out" is an entertaining survey of an Irish midlands town (Naas), though one can't help pausing on the description of the cemetery in which he is now buried ("I have no business in that cemetery, which I have never entered, and among whose jam-packed company of strangers I have no intention of squeezing for eternity"). Longer essays on Miroslav Holub, and Czesław Miłosz and RS Thomas ("When Ronald Met Czesław") continue this unexpected vein of witty memoirs. A slightly off-centre presence in these essays, O'Driscoll is ideally placed to record the behaviour of the titans of our time in their off-hours.

Asked by the British Library whether he would like to donate his papers, Holub replies that he has thrown them all away. O'Driscoll mentions Miłosz and is "aghast" that Holub thinks him a "second-rate poet" awarded the Nobel prize for purely political reasons. "Not a modest man", Miłosz nursed a decades-long grievance over a dinner-party conversation in California, in which he confessed to being a poet: "Everybody writes poetry" came the retort. The nationalist in Thomas objected to red kites breeding in England, given their traditionally Welsh identity, and complained to the RSPB accordingly.

O'Driscoll's collaboration with Seamus Heaney on their volume of interviews, Stepping Stones, is well known, but the longest essay here is on the comparatively neglected Irish poet Michael Hartnett. Most poets live to see whatever reputation they achieve decline, O'Driscoll claimed, and here he provides a wonderfully affecting portrait of a poetic career conducted at some distance from the safety net of the academy or even a steady job. Hartnett lived an irregular life, and struggled with alcoholism, but in O'Driscoll has found an ideal advocate. O'Driscoll's interest in Hartnett is of a piece with his lifelong concern for overlooked writers everywhere. Another essay here, on Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean, is a typically conscientious retrieval act for an almost forgotten figure.

O'Driscoll was the first person in Europe to write about Les Murray, revisited here in an essay on poetry and plumpness. Other themed pieces address women poets and mourning, confessional poetry, and poetry and bureaucracy, while the poets considered range from Douglas Dunn and Peter Fallon to Julia Hartwig, Anna Kamienska and Kay Ryan, with three essays on Heaney occupying the final 50 pages. While O'Driscoll is one of the great poetry enthusiasts, strong undercurrents of misgivings about the future of the art are nevertheless detectible, too. The outnumbered poet of O'Driscoll's title refers to a wisecrack of Thomas Lynch's that any reading in which the audience outnumbers the people on stage counts as a success. O'Driscoll cites a counter example of the Blasket islander Tomás O'Crohan being hijacked by the local poet who forces him to listen to interminable compositions, which O'Crohan is too polite to interrupt.

This connects to a frequent theme of The Outnumbered Poet: poetic egotism and self-promotion. O'Driscoll is among the least dogmatic of critics, but time and again he returns to the topic of nepotistic blurbs, prizes and reviews. Other blurbs are less nepotistic than outright illiterate, as witness these lines from one choice example he quotes: "Some of the latest enduring insights, sexy in the city or leaning on the silo, a madness of pleasure awaits when dancing on the hot soils." Blurbs are not confined to poetry, of course. When Colum McCann was criticised recently for the over-frequency of his blurbing he defended the practice as designed to help booksellers not readers, as though it would never occur to a bookseller to stock the new Richard Ford novel without a publicist's help.

It is a dispiriting symptom of the fortunes of literacy in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Given the profit margins involved for commercial publishers, the problem is particularly acute where poetry is concerned, and furnishes another reason why O'Driscoll is so irreplaceable. A world in which poets swap review-writing for networking and self-promotion on social media is a world less likely to sustain the ecoclimate of small magazines such as PN Review, The Dark Horse and Metre, in which many of these essays first appeared. In the closing essay on Heaney, O'Driscoll quotes Denis Donoghue on art and disaster: "There is sometimes a level of impingement which issues in a kind of brute silence rather than in a high degree of articulation." O'Driscoll's early death leaves a brutal silence in its wake, but it is a joy of the highest order to have this joyous volume of prose.

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