someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege
someone is paring his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone’s waist will not be marked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone’s fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be rejected as ‘drawer deceased’
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone’s coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today’s date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

Missing God

His grace is no longer called for
before meals: farmed fish multiply
without His intercession.
Bread production rises through
disease-resistant grains devised
scientifically to mitigate His faults.

Yet, though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished –
a bearded hermit – to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

Miss Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.

Miss Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations,
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.

Miss Him when a choked voice at
the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.

Miss Him when we stand in judgement
on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.

Miss Him when the gamma-rays
recorded on the satellite graph
seem arranged into a celestial score,
the music of the spheres,
the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.

Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and an involuntary prayer
escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
a transfusion of foaming blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.

Miss Him when we exclaim His name
spontaneously in awe or anger
as a woman in a birth ward
calls to her long-dead mother.

Miss Him when the linen-covered
dining table holds warm bread rolls,
shiny glasses of red wine.

Miss Him when a dove swoops
from the orange grove in a tourist village
just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.

Miss Him when our journey leads us
under leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
of overlapping branches that meet
like hands in Michelangelo’s Creation.

Miss Him when, trudging past a church,
we catch a residual blast of incense,
a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
which Milosz compared to happiness.

Miss Him when our newly-fitted kitchen
comes in Shaker-style and we order
a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.

Miss Him when we listen to the prophecy
of astronomers that the visible galaxies
will recede as the universe expands.

Miss Him when the sunset makes
its presence felt in the stained glass
window of the fake antique lounge bar.

Miss Him the way an uncoupled glider
riding the evening thermals misses its tug.

Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging
shoulders outside the cheap hotel
ponder what their next move should be.

Even feel nostalgic, odd days,
for His Second Coming,
like standing in the brick
dome of a dovecote
after the birds have flown.


Life gives
us something
to live for:
we will do
whatever it takes
to make it last.
Kill in just wars
for its survival.
Wolf fast-food
during half-time breaks.
Wash down
chemical cocktails,
as prescribed.
Soak up
hospital radiation.
Prey on kidneys
at roadside pile-ups.
Take heart
from anything
that might
conceivably grant it
a new lease.
We would give
a right hand
to prolong it.
Cannot imagine
living without it.


Time for sleep. Time for a nightcap of grave music,
a dark nocturne, a late quartet, a parting song,
bequeathed by the great dead in perpetuity.

I catch a glance sometimes of my own dead at the window,
those whose traits I share: thin as moths, as matchsticks,
they stare into the haven of the warm room, eyes ablaze.

It is Sunday a lifetime ago. A woman in a now-demolished house
sings Michael, Row the Boat Ashore as she sets down the bucket
with its smooth folds of drinking water…

The steadfast harvest moon out there, entangled in the willow’s
stringy hair, directs me home like T’ao Ch’ien: A caged bird
pines for its first forest, a salmon thirsts for its stream.

Weather Permitting


The August day you wake to takes you by surprise.
Its bitterness. Black sullen clouds. Brackish downpour.
A drift-net of wetness enmeshes the rented cottage,
towels and children’s swimwear sodden on the line.

Dry-gulleted drains gulp down neat rain.
Drops bounce from a leaking gutter with hard,
uncompromising slaps: and, like resignation
in the face of death, you contemplate winter

with something close to tenderness, the sprint
from fuel shed to back door, the leisurely
ascent of peat smoke, even the suburban haze
of boiler flues when thermostats are set.

You warm to those thoughts as you sit there,
brainstorming ways to keep the family amused,
plans abandoned for barefoot games on dry sand.
Handcraft shops? Slot-machine arcades? Hotel grills?

In truth – manipulating toast crumbs backwards,
forwards at the unsteady table’s edge – you’d prefer
to return to your bed as if with some mild
ailment, pampered by duvet, whiskey, cloves.


Let it rain.
Let the clouds discharge their contents like reserve tanks.
Let the worms burrow their way to the topsoil
from whatever dank Sargasso they were spawned in.
Let dampness rot the coffin-boards of the summer house.
Let the shrubs lose their foothold in the wind,
the nettles lose their edge, the drenched rat
with slicked-back hair scuttle to its sewage pipe.
Let the tropical expanses of the rhubarb leaves
serve as an artificial pond, a reservoir.
Let the downpour’s impact on the toolshed be akin
to the dull applause on an archive recording of a love duet.
Let the bricklayers at the building site wrap
pathetic sheets of polythene around doomed foundations.
Let the limb ripped from the tree’s socket
hover fleetingly in the air, an olive branch.
Let a rainbow’s fantail unfurl like a bird of paradise.
Let a covenant be sealed, its wording watertight.
Let the floods recede.
Let there be light.

III after Giacomo Leopardi

The storm runs out of wind; nature, which
abhors a silence, fills the vacancy with birdsong.
Deserting the airless, low-ceilinged coop,
the hen repeats herself ad infinitum. Replenished
like the rain-barrels, hearts grow sanguine.

Hammering resumes. Humming. Gossip. Croons.
Sun strides down lanes that grass has repossessed,
takes a shine to the brasses at the hotel where,
by the window she thrust open, the chambermaid
is marvelling at the cleansed freshness, calm.

Balm of mind and body. Will we ever feel
more reconciled to life than now, ever
know a moment more conducive to new hopes,
eager beginnings, auspicious starts?
How easily pleased we are. Rescind

the threat of torment for the briefest
second and we blot out dark nights of the soul
when lightning flashes fanned by wind
ignited fire and brimstone visions.
Sorrow is perennial; happiness, a rare

bloom, perfumes the air – so that we breathe
with the ease of a camphor-scented chest
from which congestion has just lifted.
Lack of woe equates with rapture then,
though not till death will pain take full leave

of our senses, grant us permanent relief.

On Poetry

It is as a poet of European temperament, and stature, that O’Driscoll demands to be judged. His terrain is, in effect, without borders: mordant, open, sharp, generous, and sad.
– George Szirtes, The Guardian

It’s always a pleasure to read a volume that you can commend unequivocally to anyone with a heart and a mind. O’Driscoll’s crisp, unobtrusively musical precision gets to the heart of so many subjects, large and small…
– Robert Potts, The Guardian

O’Driscoll’s mind…ruminates on experience with alacrity, humility, and an unwillingness to pontificate. His talent – which could equally grace a novel – should stand the test of time.
– Paul Groves, Poetry Review

O’Driscoll is still younger than some more feted Irish poets; at his best he is already their equal.
– Alan Brownjohn, The Sunday Times

…one of the most interesting poets now writing in English. 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.
– Adam Kirsch, Slate

O’Driscoll is a real poet: his lines stay with you, and crop up unbidden in your mind as you go about your day.
– Clíodhna Carney, Poetry Ireland Review

It takes a special genius to see the real and important lurking in the mundanely routine – O’Driscoll, the Irish Larkin, does. This most astute of poets juxtaposes the soul of the artist with the exactness of the anthropologist; the result is work of meditative intelligence, humour and forgiving humanity.
– Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times

O’Driscoll is a quietly exciting, subtly intelligent poet; and his book the most consistently entertaining Selected I have read for a long time.
– Grevel Lindop, Poetry London

O’Driscoll is a recording angel of life’s sacred banalities. He does this without censure or snobbery, and without hiding behind a mask of irony. It’s difficult to think of another poet who pulls off quite the same trick. New and Selected Poems is a significant achievement.
– Michael Murphy, Poetry Review

Dennis O’Driscoll’s mock-epic poem, ‘The Bottom Line’…is among the great, great poems of our age, perfectly pitched and richly cinematic, an amalgam of Ulysses and The Waste Land, The Office and American Beauty.
– Thomas Lynch, The Irish Times

Dennis O’Driscoll has produced an extraordinary body of work… Some of his poems have already achieved the status of classics.
– Richard Tillinghast, Poetry Ireland Review

There isn’t a dud poem in this book [Reality Check]. They all afford pleasure from the way we experience the language as playfully alive. They make us see the world which we tend to take for granted differently – both its woes and joys – sometimes highly entertainingly, sometimes with profound gravitas.
– Matt Simpson, Stride

A poet of… immense gifts.
– John Burnside, The Irish Times

A severe, exact observer and craftsman, he keeps a light touch because he so readily identifies with his subjects’ disquiet, with our fundamental insecurity. The pleasures of his work are strongly salted, and seem more addictive for that.
Robert Gray, The Australian

On Literary Criticism

Dennis O’Driscoll, one of the best-read men in the Western world…
Poetry Review

There could not be enough prose about poetry, especially from Dennis O’Driscoll.
– Medbh McGuckian, Ropes

A critic who can write lucidly and enthusiastically, find fault without being captious and praise without excess, is Dennis O’Driscoll.
– Douglas Sealy, The Irish Times

Dennis O’Driscoll was a maker of reputations at a remarkably early age (before he was 25), with a notably discriminating eye.
– Bernard O’Donoghue, Contemporary Poets

Dennis O’Driscoll is one of Ireland’s most respected critics of poetry.
– John Greening, Times Literary Supplement

The poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll is the best judge I have ever known of a good poem and of what makes a poem good.
– Richard Murphy, The Irish Times

The most perceptive and knowledgeable critic of modern poetry, O’Driscoll is an excellent guide unhampered by critical baggage.
– Neil Astley, Staying Alive

…combines the intellectual rigour and fair-mindedness of the civil servant with the passion of the insatiable reader.
– Christina Patterson, The Sunday Times

The very independence of O’Driscoll’s stance is in itself refreshing, but more than that, his essays about poetry and those who write it are thought-provoking and entice one to re-read the poets he considers with the added intelligence and perceptiveness he has provided.
– Patrick Quinn, PN Review

In their judicious enthusiasm, their telling engagement with whatever takes his fancy, O’Driscoll’s reviews make him an exemplary citizen in the republic of letters, a true, shrewd-tongued but never uncivil, servant of the Muse.
– Eamon Grennan, Poetry Ireland Review

Over the years O’Driscoll has unfailingly passed the ‘I’ll buy it’ test: if a magazine has something by Dennis in it, I’ll buy it, regardless of the rest of its contents.
– David Wheatley, The Dublin Review

Review by Adam Kirsch in Slate

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
the courage.
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.

On “The Bloodaxe Book Of Poetry Quotations”

Unexpectedly enthralling collection of acid one-liners and chewy ruminations on the most complex of the literary arts and its tormented practitioners. Insightful and funny.
– John Walsh, Independent (London)

The perfect literary quizmaster’s ‘who said this?’…an entertaining miscellany of comments made about poetry in the last 20 years by writers, journalists, teachers, broadcasters, poets and dictators.

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…You’ll have fun reading it. And it may even tempt you into reading some poetry.
– Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

Strangely gripping…startling insights into an artform that scares most people to death. Some are baffling, some are funny and some are alarming. ‘Now I have the time to become a poet’, is a recent pronouncement from that well-known writer, Saddam Hussein.
– Christina Patterson, Independent (London)

There are surprises at every page’s turning.
– John Montague, Irish Times

On “Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney”

A book of rare stature, vivid and profound in seeking out the hiding places of Heaney’s power.
John Carey, The Sunday Times

A uniquely interesting book because of the interviewer’s tact, his special knowledge of the work and his abiding belief in the importance of poetry in the world.
Colm Tóibín, Sunday Business Post Books of the Year

Wonderful acts of recollection, mingled with musings about writing that are beautiful and true.
Andrew Motion, Guardian Books of the Year

A deeply nourishing book.
Anne Enright, Guardian Books of the Year

Richly enjoyable, consistently engaging.
Terence Brown, The Irish Times

These pages read so conversationally, like a true meeting of minds – the erudition and acute sensibility of the questions matched by Heaney’s customary virtuoso display of knowledge, insight, and grievous (a favourite word of his) honesty.
Bel Mooney, The Times

Stepping Stones is, in effect, Seamus Heaney’s autobiography: childhood, religion, marriage, the Troubles, the Nobel, his theory of poetic inspiration (’a ball kicked in from nowhere’) – all are memorably addressed.
Blake Morrison, Guardian Books of the Year

Guarded and gracious, certainly, but there’s a firmness here that will make you gulp. Hard to put down.
John Kelly, Sunday Business Post Books of the Year

A life self-told, and a priceless body of poetry self-described by the finest living poet in the English language.
Douglas Dunn, Sunday Herald Books of the Year

To listen to the greatest poet of the age, speaking about the mysteries of his art with modesty and wit and yet with deep assurance, is a privilege and a joy.
Ann Wroe, The Tablet Books of the Year

Meticulous and measured, a work of deep insight and revelation; it is an invaluable addition to the work of Heaney.
Vincent Woods, The Irish Times

Unflaggingly absorbing . . . It’s all here, from Ted Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Goya, from the Troubles (”poetic justice isn’t enough”) to “seminar-speak”, from friendship and fun to literary responsibility and religion. The tone is easy, relaxed – even rambling – yet every sentence thrills.
Michael Kerrigan, Scotsman

A truly marvellous book, a book which is the meeting of two deeply committed and thoughtful poetry minds.
Bernard O’Donoghue, Poetry London

Rich in anecdote, reflection and close-ups that mirror the autobiographical nature of much of the poetry. It not only illuminates the work of this great poet, but sets a new template for how a life can be put on the record.
Gerard Smyth, Irish Times

Chatty and authoritative and, for anyone who loves Heaney’s work, gripping.
Christina Patterson, Independent

A must for Heaney’s many aficionados, for whom the contexts of his writing will be fascinating… He possesses a marvellous ability to recall the detail of his life, right back to childhood… The book mercifully lacks the feel of hagiography. There is, too, a sense of Heaney’s twinkling humour.
Stephen Knight, Independent on Sunday

O’Driscoll’s questions are very well chosen … he has a knack for drawing his subject out without ever being banal or toadying … there is an easy but firm intelligence behind everything that Heaney says here … this really is a remarkable book. There isn’t a dull, vapid or useless sentence in it; it’s about what it is to be human as much as it is about what it is to be a poet … it must have taken years, and an enormous amount of energy on the part of the both people. Even the index is highly commendable (always a good sign that a book has had properly lavish attention spent on it). It is packed with both insight and good humour. Even those possessing scant familiarity with Heaney’s verse will like it. Unbelievably, it only costs a tenner. Off you go.
Nicholas Lezard, Guardian Paperback of the Week

This is not only a radically original book; in its own quiet way it is also a great one.
Donald Fanger, Truthdig