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Remembering the many-sided Brian Doyle

  • 28 May 2018


Some poets submit their work carefully presented, bio-lines attached, picture perfect. Other poets send a cache of new expressions with commentaries, back stories, a dozen bytes of miscellanea, sometimes regardless of the submission guidelines. A handful treat the submission email address as an opportunity to mailbox every new poem that fits the bill.

The late, great Brian Doyle — who died a year ago, on 27 May 2017 — was one of the latter. Unlike some other poets of the compose-dispose school, however, Brian's poetry was anything but a matter of diminishing returns. No sooner had all the components of his latest composition clicked than it landed in the editor's inbox with some remark in the subject line like 'this one might tickle your fancy'. Frequently it was the one word, 'and'. The poetry just kept on coming.

The evidence, from one line onwards, was unmistakeable Doyle. Imitation was impossible, self-parody ditto. Gore Vidal loved to say that Tennessee Williams knew how to do only one thing, but he did that thing better than anyone else. Brian Doyle's poetry was a bit like that. So many poems, so many ideas, but nearly all of them written in a trained story-telling voice that subtly divulged meaning through asides, exclamations, double takes, and other canny tricks.

His skill at getting your attention ('It was in second grade that I discovered I could not see' is the opening line of 'Sister Anne Marie') and holding it was of a piece with his seemingly effortless digressions, wacky objective correlatives, and witty cultural insights. His confidence with this thing meant he could travel widely for subject matter.

I ponder the consistent squareness of his poems, square-shaped, on-the-level square talk, a square meal. They must imitate in some way his spoken voice as the phrases link and change, build and undercut, a confiding voice wishing to say as much as possible as clearly as possible. Brian himself was no square. He was many-sided and apt to think right outside the box. Poetry was where he discovered the fullness of surprise. An editor, a reader, you and me, had to be on the alert. Part of his charm was unpredictability.

His belief in direct speech is indirectly explained in his various forays into poetics, as in 'Demerit points for bad poetry', published in Eureka Street in 2009:

'Anyone who has endured brief infatuations with folks who thought they were poets has, ipso facto, suffered through