Minor Refurbishment

Dennis O'Driscoll spring-cleans his collections for a New and Selected


A Selected Poems is evidence of a well-advanced middle-age. The golden years holiday cruise, the hip replacement operation and the stair-lift cannot be far behind. As Sean O'Brien said, "A Selected Poems is like a clock awarded by an affable but faintly impatient employer. It means it's later than you think."

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The grim detachment with which I reacquaint myself with my early work, more often siding with once-resented critics than with cheerleading friends.

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I resolve to make amends only insofar as the existing texts are glaringly in the wrong; where a usage was clearly mistaken, a rhythm misjudged, a metaphor misused, an adjective misplaced; where the words the page recorded failed to match those the imagination intended.

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The difficulty with revision is that, by the time you return to your old poems, their fundamentals are laid down, set like concrete. You can underpin the foundations but it's too late to replace them.

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Some poems, although not especially remarkable in themselves, refuse to be shaken off. You cast them out and they bound back to your door with appealing expressions written all over them. They are like a pet dog, cruelly abandoned in the hills, who tracks his way home and is grudgingly readmitted to the household.

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The clashes and inconsistencies, the thematic recurrences and verbal repetitions that become disconcertingly visible when the walls between the individual collections come down.

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Facing up to the fact that many of one's poems have – even this soon – failed the test of time. And what about the taste of time? One must beware of reshaping one's early work to fit today's fashions. The temptation is to become not just an obsessive reviser but also a revisionist, suppressing what now seems discomfiting or out of step with the age. In fact, the awkward, unsettling, quirky poems, which don't conform to the contemporary consensus, justify any claim to originality you may have.

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A genuine poem never needs modernisation, but it may benefit from some minor refurbishment. If your poem is true, it is true for all time and a permanent record of its own time. In a "certain slant of light", however, you may notice some fault you had missed when you were too close to the writing. Or you may have been aware from the beginning that your poem had a crack in it, without knowing until now how it could be remedied.

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I decided on a relatively large Selected, not because I deluded myself into thinking "more is better" but simply because I am not one of those poets who can neatly hive off a cluster of stand-alone anthology-type poems. I need the ground cover as well as the trees, just as a forest needs its ferns, lichens and primroses as well as its limes, oaks and beeches.

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When I impertinently enquired of W. H. Auden what his own favourite Auden poems were, his handwritten reply to my teenage letter employed locutions already familiar from his commonplace book, A Certain World: "Poets don't have favourites, but they do have unfavourites." Readily recognising the unfavourites in my books, I immediately discounted them for my Selected. We weren't even on speaking terms by then.

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My New & Selected Poems was launched in Dublin at the Royal College of Surgeons, prompting me to indulge in medical metaphor-making to the effect that the book had enabled me to bury some of my mistakes and to take malpractice suits against myself, resulting in the suspension without pay of many of my early poems. In fact, the more negligent poems have been permanently struck off the literary register as far as I am concerned.

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At the time of editing my New & Selected, I agreed to write a catalogue note for Martin Gale's mid-career retrospective exhibition of paintings at the Royal Hibernian Academy. When we discussed our respective projects, Martin ruefully observed that the poet "owns the words" printed in books and can continue revising them, whereas the lender of a painting "doesn't want to receive it back from the gallery with a different face." Absolutely true, though poets like W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore are frequently accused of having defaced their poems through revision.

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The "new" poems in a New & Selected are stateless citizens, born outside the borders of individual collections. Somehow, they have to fight harder for long-term recognition and may never become fully naturalised.

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After compiling the New & Selected, my doubts set in. Anthologists requested permission to reprint poems I had banished, and an editor singled out for his highest praise some lines I had confidently excluded from the book. The only comprehensive insurance policy for a poet is a Collected Poems – and this policy rarely matures before one reaches pensionable age.

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If a New & Selected Poems is a long-service award, does a Collected Poems necessarily represent retirement? Whatever the connotations, poets are less wary of Selecteds than Collecteds, preferring to mark time with a milestone than to call time with a tombstone.

Dennis O'Driscoll's New & Selected Poems was published recently by Anvil Press.