Tuesday, April 29, 2014

`Fill In Some Blank Corner of the Human Canvas'

“Since words are spoken by everyone, the custody of language is a sufficient responsibility in itself for a poet. To inscribe in language some hitherto unexpressed area of experience – to fill in some blank corner of the human canvas – is worthwhile; to speak the small truths that feed into the bigger Truth. Also, the aspiration of poetry is always towards the creation of something permanent in language: in our era of the disposable, the ephemeral, this is counter-cultural – as, indeed, is the fact that genuine poetry transcends the blinkered vision of the journalistic present; it inhabits the present, but it is also very much in dialogue with the inherited forms and the great voices of the past.” 

The words are Dennis O’Driscoll’s, the Irish poet who died on Christmas Eve 2012 at age fifty-eight (he was born on New Year’s Day 1954). In a working life reminiscent of Charles Lamb’s, O’Driscoll joined the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin at age sixteen, specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” and remained there for almost forty years.  In his memoir-essay “Sing for the Taxman,” O’Driscoll says, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a `poet’ or `artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.” If only more writers shared his common sense and humility. 

The passage quoted at the top is from a 1998 interview collected in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (Gallery Press, 2001). Poets – any writers – as stewards of language, caretakers of our inherited tongue, is a happy notion. So too, the writer’s responsibility for filling in “some blank corner of the human canvas.” In Quality Time (Anvil, 1997), O’Driscoll collects “The Bottom Line,” a mock-epic of fifty eleven-line stanzas recounting life as a low-level manager, not an anti-capitalism screed as the title might suggest. Here is the sixth section: 

“A life of small disappointments, hardly
meriting asperity or rage, a fax
sent to the wrong number, an engagement
missed, a client presentation failing
to persuade: nothing you can’t sweat off
at gym or squash. But, in the dark filling
of the night, doubts gather with the rain
which, spreading as predicted from the west,
now leaves its mark on fuscous window panes;
and you wait for apprehensions to dissolve
in the first glimmer of curtain light.” 

The kinship with Larkin is apparent, and the final lines recall “Aubade” (“In time the curtain-edges will grow light.”) There’s sympathy in both poets for the common, put-upon man, dutiful middle-class men of middling accomplishments, not working-class heroes. In the next paragraph of the interview quoted earlier, O’Driscoll says: 

“My belief is that if you look after the language, then the politics will look after itself. If you take the care and trouble to represent things precisely as you perceive them, literally and imaginatively, you will have discharged any obligation to society which you may have. To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.” 

No utopian blather, just uncommon common sense from an unlikely source -- a poet. In Long Story Short (Anvil, 1993), O’Driscoll recalls the remarkable events of December 1989 in “Cult of Personality.” Normally, prose poems trigger anaphylaxis in this reader, but this one is witty and systematically crafted, like a syllogism. The first five sections recount the careers of Nicolae (“He published 17 books the year before he died.”) and Elena (“Her experiments took human, social, architectural forms.”) Ceaușescu, the Communist despots of Rumania who were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. Three days earlier, Samuel Beckett had died in Paris at age eighty-three. Here is the sixth section of O’Driscoll’s poem: 

“There are authors everywhere who, given the chance, would monopolise all available paper for their books; who would love the billboards at airports to display their words, the refashioned main thoroughfares to carry their names. Negative reviews are amassed like hit lists. Rave reviews are ghost-written by themselves Writing is their power struggle.” 

And the final section: 

“Samuel Beckett shied from publicity, hated to be photographed, shunned media attention. His obituary in The Times was printed alongside Nicolae Ceaușescu’s. Beckett’s photo was the larger of the two.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

I like this peep at O'Driscoll... wonderful choice of quotes, too.

I often wish that someone would discuss what it means to be a poet or writer in a small country compared to what it is to be one in a very large and powerful one. Once when I was in my early 20's, I camped in the yard of an Irish playwright who was engaged to a woman I knew. A notable sculptor showed up with two very young poets (both men) in tow--some day I'll come across my diary of that trip and find out who they were, perhaps. I thought it the most wonderful, astonishing thing that these established artists were bringing young people along, traveling with them, introducing them to figures of their arts world. I often thought of it later on, back in my great big country...