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