When I read “My hero: Dennis O’ Driscoll by Seamus Heaney” I thought it was another Guardian typo and that the names had been transposed. Dennis O’Driscoll wrote Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney, a homage to Heaney’s work and essential reading for anyone interested in the background to Heaney’s poetry.
I read the first sentence of “My hero” and noticed with a shock that it was all in the past tense. Surely not ... this man with his wit and humour and soft Irish accent. The names were not transposed. The second sentence began “Dennis O’ Driscoll died suddenly on Christmas Eve aged 58”. Seamus Heaney’s moving and affectionate tribute followed.
I heard Dennis O’Driscoll read with his wife and fellow poet, Julie O’Callaghan, at Grasmere in June 2011. He joked about being in the same line of work as Wordsworth – a government-paid bureaucrat. He was a tie and jacket office-worker poet, like Wallace Stevens. There was something school-boyish about his appearance and his mischievous sense of humour. The poems that I remember from that reading are “Porlock”, “No, thanks”, “Germ warfare” and “Someone”.
“Porlock” – Coleridge’s person from Porlock has become a byword for interrupted inspiration. His version transported it to the office –
“this is the best poem I have never written”
“this is a poem of distractions, interruptions, clamouring telephones”.
He introduced “No, Thanks” as a poem “on not saying yes”. How precious time is to the writer who has to fit writing into the left-over scraps of the working day –
“No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal
on my way home from work ...
No way am I going to blow a Friday night’s freedom
just to round out numbers at your dinner table.”
“Germ Warfare” he said was based on an old Irish curse poem: “You pass your plague around like cough drops”. I sympathised having caught a heavy cold in the middle of a busy term from someone who coughed and sneezed all over me in a café.
But it was the early poem “Someone”, the first in the New and Selected Poems, which came back to me when I read of his sudden death:
“someone is dressing up for death today ...
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first.”
He read this poem on Irish radio after the September 11th attacks.
After the Grasmere reading I joined the other groupies to get my book signed. I said how much I had enjoyed the evening and named some poems which I found particularly memorable. On the title page he wrote “For Mary, with warm regards and thanks for your encouragement”.
I looked back at my notebook for that evening. I had written “He was lit up by poetry”.