The news of The Gallery Press’ publication of Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays’ is a welcome reminder of the late critic’s remarkable gift for placing contemporary work in a broader, larger context, writes Philip Cummins
THE TERM ‘POET- CRITIC’ is often used to describe a poet whose reputation as a literary critic is as remarkable as his/her’s reputation as a poet, even if their critical work is considered secondary to the poetry. In Dennis O’Driscoll’s case, O’Driscoll was the ultimate ‘critic- poet’: a writer whose brilliant critical essays have overshadowed his work as a poet.
Over the years, in fact, the copy of the Irish Times that would inevitably find itself on the kitchen table of the Cummins household of a Saturday morning would more often than not feature a large chunk of text cut out, much to my family’s annoyance and to the bemusement of regular visitors to our house. After I had finished pasting O’Driscoll’s most recent review to a scrapbook full of his Irish Times reviews, I would be promptly sent down to the local village to buy another copy of the Irish Times that wasn’t deformed by my geeky impulses.
O’Driscoll was a critic’s critic and, in a sense, he had developed and mastered a style that would be the envy of any arts critic. O’Driscoll understood the vital elements that were necessary for any arts review:
i) rigorous, academic- strength analysis of the work, always underpinned with good- quality thought,
ii) a placing of the work in the broader, larger context of contemporary literature and of the culture, and
iii) all of the above, conveyed in clear, concise and, ultimately, readable prose; the latter being a hurdle that many poets cannot cross as smoothly and effortlessly as O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll’s collection of ‘Selected Prose Writings’, 2001’s Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, should, in my opinion, be required reading for anyone remotely interested in contemporary poetry and, one would hope, a collection of poetry criticism that schools and colleges in Ireland and Britain will reference. O’Driscoll’s review of Simon Armtiage’s Killing Time and Short and Sweet is a brilliant critique of not just the 1,000 line poem and anthology, respectively, in question, but also a vivid portrait of the position that Armitage, himself, occupied at the turn of the century and, to a certain extent, still occupies, to this day, in contemporary poetry.
Add to this O’Driscoll’s essay ‘A Map of Contemporary Irish Poetry’- a tight, concise and nuanced essay on contemporary Irish poetry towards the end of the twentieth century, published in Poetry during the same year that the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize for Literature- and what you have, again, is a critic- poet who understands the three vital aspects of arts criticism. A much- missed critic- poet, critic’s critic and reader’s reader.
Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ is due from The Gallery Press on December 4th, 2013.