How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we're shown? -- 'The Badgers,' Seamus Heaney
About Bernard O’Donoghue
Bernard O’Donoghue’s poetry is marked by a gift for poetic portraiture, sketching characters at moments of emotional intensity. From encounters during his childhood in Ireland, to elegiac recollections of academics and poets in Oxford, O’Donoghue’s readers are met by a generous yet understated control of voice. Each portrait delivers a miniature, crafted narrative, encapsulating through a brief, controlled moment the full emotion of living. At their most potent, O’Donoghue’s poems seem to act as epitaphs to well-lived lives, but their achievement for a reader is that they do so without sentimentality, nor by trivialising. Each recollected deed is held up as marvellous.
Born in Cullen, County Cork in 1945, he has lived in Oxford since 1965. His first full-length collection, The Weakness, emerged in 1991 with Chatto & Windus, following on from a trilogy of pamphlets. His second collection, Gunpowder (1995) won the Whitbread Poetry Award. More recently, a selection of his poetry was published by Faber in 2008 and followed by Farmers Cross (2011),which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. In 2009 he was honoured by the Society of Authors with a Cholmondeley Award.
Until recently, O’Donoghue taught and worked for Oxford University, specialising in medieval verse and contemporary Irish literature. His reputation as a scholar consolidated in 1995 with his critical work, Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry, described as “excellent” by Ian Sansom in the Guardian. More recently O’Donoghue edited the Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney and has produced a number of translations of medieval works, including Gawain and the Green Knight (2006) and, forthcoming from Faber, Piers Plowman.
All these accolades might seem surprising to a poet as modestly voiced as he is. For the Poetry Archive, O’Donoghue has selected poems from across his career, encompassing one of his first published poems, ‘Nel Mezzo del Cammin,’ written when he was 35, and the title poem from his most recent book, ‘Farmers Cross.’
Of particular delight here for listeners are the introductions O’Donoghue provides for each piece. These are delivered in as gentle a voice as the poems themselves, positioning each intimate poetic moment in a broader cultural and imaginary landscape. From polio outbreaks in Cork in 1956, to the idylls and poverty of Irish farm life, to poems drawn from Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid, the scope of O’Donoghue’s inspiration is encompassing, yet astonishingly precise. Each poem opens to an emotional intensity, in controlled, yet impeccably natural language.
A political fire runs through the poems, but never lifts into anger. Many of the poems gesture firsly toward inclusive and liberal ethics, capturing stories and moments drawn from Roma and migrant communities, or offering portraits of homosexual and working class figures, intellectual and uneducated. While a number of his poems are firmly set in rural Ireland, others in Oxford, O’Donoghue’s elegies are impartial, celebrating a shared humanity and a borderless sense of living in the world.
Bernard's recording was made on October 16th 2013 at The Soundhouse, London. The producer was Richard Carrington.
Poems by Bernard O’Donoghue
Featured in the Archive
Books by Bernard O’Donoghue
The Absent Signifier