An Irish poet on American literature


Poet Theo Dorgan, winner of the 14th annual O’Shaughnessy award for poetry, bestowed by the University of St. Thomas.

Sitting in an MPR studio yesterday morning, poet Theo Dorgan jokingly grumbled that the O’Shaughnessy award is the only award for poets that comes with a week of hard labor.

Dorgan, the 14th recipient of the prestigious University of St. Thomas award, has been spending the week talking to students, speaking at the Minnesota Book Awards and, of course, visiting with the local media. He’ll cap the week with a reading on the university’s campus Friday night at 7:30pm.

While Dorgan is a native of Cork, Ireland, his work also speaks to a deep affinity for Greece (his most recent collection is titled “Greek”). Dorgan and I talked about his connection to the Greek Islands, his visit to Minnesota, and the role of the poet in political life, which you can listen to by clicking on the link below (note: the interview is 15 minutes long, and he has a lovely accent).

Listen to the interview with Irish poet Theo Dorgan:

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A couple of Dorgan’s remarks particularly stood out for me. One is the notion of how nations’ cultures are in conversation with one another, and how that conversation is far more lasting and important than international politics:

You know, no country is properly represented by its professional, political class, or by its foreign policy. America is represented by its authors and its filmmakers and its musicians far more thoroughly and far more comprehensively. And it will be interesting to see in 20 or 30 years time when a cultural historian will look at transformations within Ireland and will, I think, be surprised by the extent to which it’s influenced by that “greater” America.

Dorgan is former director of Poetry Ireland, an organization that fosters poetry throughout Ireland. He also is a member of the Irish academy of arts and letters, and serves on the Arts Council of Ireland. And he’s a passionate editorialist, not known for pulling punches.

The poet Michael Hartnett, in a very prescient poem he wrote in about 1982, said “poets with progress will make no peace or pact/ the act of poetry is a rebel act.” And I like that – the act of poetry is a rebel act. But at the same time we hold language in common with everyone – bus drivers and pediatricians, nursery workers and senatorial aids – we all have language in common and nobody owns it, so you have a duty to language to keep it clean and keep it clear.

Dorgan calls poets “the ecologists of language:”

You can’t have a world where people bend a word like justice to mean “my justice” – there has to be a common understanding of what justice is. The word “honor” – we don’t hear the word “honor” in a political context much, for very obvious reasons I suspect, but a poet can bring the word “honor” in to her poem and make us all think about it and say this word means something, it has a history, it has a value in both private and public discourse.

While Dorgan’s editorials are pointed, his poetry is lyrical and romantic. Enjoy!

Listen to Theo Dorgan read his poem “The Backward Look”

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Listen to Theo Dorgan read his poem “Me, John Wayne and the Delights of Lust”

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The $5,000 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry, established in 1997, honors Irish poets. The award is named for Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, who taught English at St. Thomas from 1948 to 1950, formerly served on the university’s board of trustees and is the retired head of the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation.