Breviary – Brief Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll

Dennis300Dennis O’Driscoll (1954 – 2012) was an Irish poet, essayist, critic and editor. Regarded as one of the best European poets of his time, the book critic of The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby, considered him “the lyric equivalent of William Trevor” and a better poet “by far” than Raymond Carver. He was born in Thurles, County Tipperary where he was educated  by the Christian Brothers and then studied Law at University College, Dublin. After completing his secondary education, at age sixteen (1970), O’Driscoll was offered a job at Ireland’s Office of the Revenue Commissioners, the internal revenue and customs service. Specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,”  he was employed for over thirty years full-time. He relished the sobriety of his role as a public servant, in one poem crowning himself “Lord of the Files”

Reviewing the work of Dennis O’Driscoll in Slate, Adam Kirsch had this to say: “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.”

From 1987 he had an entertaining column, Pickings and Choosings, in Poetry Ireland Review, which metamorphosed into The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006). This anthology of quotations about poetry which contains nearly two thousand smart sayings obsessively gleaned from six hundred poetry sources is published in the United States by Copper Canyon Press (2008) as Quote Poet Unquote. Nicholas Lezard praised it as “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, but not in the sense of making the finished product any less mysterious”.

His book on Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney is regarded as the definitive biography of the Nobel laureate. In  Stepping Stones, it was Dennis O’Driscoll’s bold idea to trace the Nobel laureate’s life through conversation. “Is there a more wise, profound and eloquent interviewee in poetry than Seamus Heaney? I wanted to capture his ideas at much greater length than other interviews had; to rescue reflections or recollections that would be absent from the record otherwise. My hope was that the book would present a three-dimensional portrait of the artist, a biography in all but name; by doing so in his own words, it would amount to a Heaney autobiography also.”


Dennis O’Driscoll wrote nine books of poetry, three chapbooks, and two collections of essays and reviews. The majority of his works were characterised by the use of economic language and the recurring motifs of mortality and the fragility of the everyday commuter life. He wrote with the clarity of the eastern European poets he admired, poets such as the Czech poets, Czesław Miłosz and Miroslav Holub, and the Polish poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska. He was also attracted to brevity. In each of his collections he has a set of short poems he has called Breviary. Some of these poems are printed below.


Breviary, Interior

Brief Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll


blue jeans fade
she slips
into a sequined gown



earth is plaster cast
a red fox trickles
down the mountain path



a yolk of moon
its shell speckled with stars



between pre-natal and mortuary
the research unit



butchers put price tags on meat
or neatly trim the fat around its edge



to get to sleep
he started to count sheep
but they too were
being led to the slaughter



with sweaters
striped as deckchairs
unseasonable hockey skirts
schoolgirls surprise
the winter streets
like spring



reclining in the garden overnight
your deckchair soaking up the moonlight



Water under the bridge
flows from the tears of those
who cried their eyes out
over spilt milk.



The bells your
name once rang
no longer toll,
their clappers
fallen silent.



The pickaxe plop
of a lobbed-back shot
all summer from
the tennis club.



after William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon the familiar sound
of his red car

coming at night
around the final bend
toward home

scattering white chickens
and shattering glazed puddles
of rain


All poems © Dennis O’Driscoll
Publisher: Anvil Press Poetry, London.


Breviary, Interior



The Dennis O’Driscoll website which includes a biography, a bibliography, selected poems and some interviews.

Afterthoughts on Contemporary Poetry in English, an essay by Dennis O’Driscoll.

Irish poet Peter Sirr writes a tribute to Dennis O’Driscoll.

Seamus Heaney’s tribute to Dennis O’Driscoll.

Seamus Heaney in conversation with Dennis O’Driscoll on Vimeo.

George Szirtes reviews the New and Selected Poems of Dennis O’Driscoll.

Review of Dennis O’Driscoll  by Adam Kirsch in Slate magazine.

Gerald Dawe’s memoir and review of the critical and autobiographical essays of Dennis O’Driscoll, The Outnumbered Poet.




All poems © Dennis O’Driscoll
Publisher: Anvil Press Poetry, London.

One thought on “Breviary – Brief Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll

  1. Pingback: Dangerous Pavements – Irish Haiku | Brief Poems

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