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The Outnumbered Poet


Dennis O’Driscoll

Available in Paperback only


Among other characteristics Seamus Heaney treasured Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘acuity as a critic’. The Outnumbered Poet, an extensive selection of Dennis O’ Driscoll’s prose writings — critical, biographical and autobiographical — succeeds his much-praised Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (The Gallery Press, 2001).

Opening on a personal note, it includes astute and incisive essays and reviews, encompassing poets as diverse as Anna Kamienska and Billy Collins, and surveying the work of major practitioners such as R S Thomas, Czeslaw Milosz and Yehuda Amichai. There are perceptive readings of the poetry with vivid and telling accounts of meetings with the poets themselves.

Drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Nobel laureate’s oeuvre, the book also offers in-depth considerations of Seamus Heaney’s writings, and — among several previously unpublished essays — a ground-breaking overview of the life and poetry of Ireland’s poète maudit, Michael Hartnett.

Immensely readable, eloquent and often witty, this treasure trove demonstrates the broad church of an indispensable advocate’s thinking.

The Outnumbered Poet is a master class on how to read poetry. For those Creative Writing students cutting their teeth on the ‘plastic bones of great poems’ and indeed all fans of poetry and Dennis O’Driscoll in particular, I whole-heartedly recommend these essays. O’Driscoll always says more than can be absorbed in one reading. He bemoans in the ‘Library of Adventure’ – ‘no book is ever finished, only abandoned’. I’m not finished with this book but it was only by abandoning it that I could find the time to write this review.’ — Martina Evans, Wales Arts Review

At the Heart of Irish Poetry
Despite its three parts, this collection resists divisionism and its essays consistently challenge narrow definitions of history, geography, allegiance or personality. O’Driscoll appreciates a paradox. Part of what makes him such an enjoyable companion on these poetry jaunts is his tendency to observe and record the details (or “contrarieties”) that will demand a thorough re-calibration of a received perception.

Polarities seem anathema to him: he doesn’t feel the need in these essays to declare allegiances or to choose between , say, the U.S. and Eastern Europe , between Poland and Scotland, between Australia and Israel, or between Thurles and Dublin. What seems to interest him is the bucking of official or reductive designations, (the kind of shape-shifting that pertains , perhaps , to being a Revenue Commissioner by day and a man of letters by the rest of the time?).

O’Driscoll’s high standards were honed through close, sensitive and intelligent reading of the twentieth century greats: intimations of a scrupulous, even a ruthless , application of those standards is no mean thing . . . That O’Driscoll knew a lot of poets and a lot about poetry is in clear evidence here. Apart from close attention to individual poets and poems, he is good on cross-sectioning moments and move-ments, on the big picture.

Learning and pleasure; rigor and generosity; flair and subsstance — these are essays of lasting value, written by a master sylist who remains, as ever, the best of company.

— Vona Groarke, Irish Literary Supplement

The Listener

In three parts — autobiographical, poets and poetry and Seamus Heaney — The Outnumbered Poet bears the weight of one man’s witness to the literary world to which he was so much committed. “Library of Adventure”, one of the finest pieces in the book, makes clear that Dennis O’Driscoll’s engagement began at a very early age as his telling words celebrate “the arresting of time” that comes from reading, “allowing us to live other lives in other times ‑ the imaginative and emotional enlargement of our own lives”:

. . . Dennis O’Driscoll will be remembered and read as one of the foremost writers of his generation — a clear-sighted poet and balanced critic who believed in what he was doing for its own sake.

— Gerald Dawe, Dublin Review of Books

Read the full review here

Dennis O’Driscoll was an extraordinary presence in Irish poetry for nearly 40 years. He seemed to have read everything ever published by the plenum of living poets, and most of what had been written before he was born; so diligent was he at attending readings in Dublin that he became an eidetic figure, “seen” in the audience by many even when he had not been present.

Pale, monkish and deadpan, with a gaze that seemed always focused on the middle distance, he was courteous, thoughtful, often hilarious and never short of an opinion. His interest in poets and poetry was all-consuming – impossible to encounter Dennis on the street or after some event without hearing about a new collection he had been reading, some article in a journal that he thought might be of interest to you.

What saved him from being a bore or a mere obsessive was the unmistakable integrity of his interest: poetry, and by extension poets, drew his considerable powers of attention almost to the exclusion of all else.

I say “almost” because so frequently did he lament his indentured status that Dennis was affectionately known to his contemporaries as the only poet in Ireland with a job; he took his duties as a senior Revenue official very seriously, was highly regarded in the service and indeed drew a great deal of his own poetry from a careful attentiveness to the daily minutiae of the working life.

The subtitle of this posthumously published collection of his prose reflections is Critical and Autobiographical Essays . There are indeed a small number of explicitly autobiographical essays here, but in truth the autobiography extends into and animates by its subtle pervasiveness those other essays that make up the bulk of the book: his reflections on poetry and the poetry business, his encounters with poets he has met, read and cherished.

Taken all in all, it is the self-portrait of a very particular sensibility, carefully and modestly present to itself, certainly, but in large part devoted generously to poets and poems that engaged his informed and informing attention.

In the doling-out of life details he is characteristically reticent and literary. Born in Thurles but utterly uninterested in hurling, he was a bookish child, as familiar with Pears’ Cyclopaedia as with the Rupert Bear annual, rapidly progressing, soon at the rate of two books a day, to weightier volumes. Those many people who found Dennis intimidatingly well read may take comfort from knowing how highly (for a time) he rated Enid Blyton. Equally, if they are alert, they will learn that for him, as it should be for us, the activity of reading can usefully be thought of as a constant self-surpassing, an unremitting pursuit of the challenge to expand and deepen delighted attention, a doubling of the world. The Library of Adventure here is a compelling apologia for the art of reading that should be made compulsory, if not in schools then certainly in teacher-training colleges, not least for its arresting opening sentence: “I was a fast reader who became a slow reader.”

— Theo Dorgan, The Irish Times

Poetry Book Society Special Commendation

Publication Date: 2013
Details: 480pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 564 7

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