Writers

Add to researchFrank Ormsby

Frank Ormsby

Gallery Press

Born
Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
Genre
Poetry, Non-Fiction
 
 
Biography
Frank Ormsby was born in 1947, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and was educated at Queen's University in Belfast.

He is Head of English at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. His books of poetry include the collections Ripe for Company (1971); A Store of Candles (1977); A Northern Spring (1986); and The Ghost Train (1995).

He has also edited a number of anthologies, including Thine in Storm and Calm: An Amanda McKittrick Ros Reader (1988), The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (1991) and Northern Windows: An Anthology of Ulster Autobiography (1987). In 1992 he received the Cultural Traditions Award, given in memory of John Hewitt, and in 2002 the Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas at St Paul, Minnesota.

Frank Ormsby was editor of the Honest Ulsterman from 1969-89, and has edited the Poetry Ireland Review (Numbers 53-56). He also edited The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland (2001), a collection of Irish lyric poems including work by W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and Seamus Heaney; and The Blackbird's Nest (2006), an anthology of poems from Queen's University, Belfast.

His latest poetry collection is Fireflies (2009).

Critical Perspective

Frank Ormsby might well be described as the quiet man of Northern Irish poetry, a writer whose output has provided an understated but poignant adjunct to the better-known work of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.

He has also been a key player in the consolidation of a Northern Irish literary heritage through his role as a leading editor of poetry and prose from the province. His anthologies, including Poets from the North of Ireland (1979,1990) and A Rage for Order (1992), have provided valuable parameters for the role of poetry in a climate of political and social turmoil, while his dedicated editorship of Northern Ireland’s leading literary journal, The Honest Ulsterman, during two decades of the Troubles, helped to secure that publication as a refuge of creativity, humour and imagination.

Indeed, Ormsby’s editing of other writers is a good means of understanding his own approach to writing. In particular, his scholarly edition of The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (1991), revealed the significance of his relationship to a writer frequently described as a father figure for the ‘Northern Renaissance’ generation. In Hewitt’s measured and disciplined verse, Ormsby locates important models for younger poets attempting to process the difficult matter of Northern Irish breakdown; examples, as he describes it in his preface to A Rage for Order, ‘of how to address the Troubles obliquely with a dynamic balance of involvement and restraint’. And if Ormsby’s own writing has tended for the most part towards restraint, this is because he, like Hewitt, sees the poet as a civil commentator who speaks from the sidelines, and whose response to events must be consciously mediated by time and perspective.

Ormsby’s early pamphlet poetry exhibited his characteristic tidiness of form and image. It also suggested a poet skilled in the transfiguration of the ordinary, a rendering, through language, of the commonplace into the unexpected. In his first book, A Store of Candles (1977), this emerges in poems which frequently translate the domestic into the metaphoric, but which also begin to pursue the poet’s subtle interest in the various ‘elsewheres’ underwriting the known territory of home. The poem ‘Islands’, for example, draws on a coincidence of memory from 1974 – the poet moving into a new house while hearing news of the coup in Cyprus – to initiate a parallel between Ireland and its geographical counterparts in instability. Typically, Ormsby underplays that parallel: the poem gains little interpretative mileage from the juxtaposition but leaves the field of meaning open, almost casually, to the reader.

This early poetry gave clear indications of Ormsby’s formal reserve, but thematically it took him some time to find his feet. With A Northern Spring, however, published in 1986, he secured a territory perfectly suited to his interests. The book is dominated by a sequence of poems recreating the experiences of soldiers from the Second World War, in particular the American G.I.s stationed in the war-torn landscapes of France or, more pertinently for Ormsby, in the rural Northern Irish Lakeland county of Fermanagh, where the poet himself was born. The rupture of a tranquil backwater by the voices and vitality of the American troops injects the poetry with a forceful energy. In the poem ‘On Devenish Island’, a group of soldiers rows out across a lake to an ancient monastic site, forcing the reader to a sudden confrontation with competing histories:

‘That was a lazy Sunday among the ruins.
When we flicked ash into the saint’s stone bed,
Or pitched our baseball through the perfect arch
Of a church window’s crumbling Romanesque,
We meant no harm, the past completed there
Was not affected.’

As with all the poems in the sequence, the necessary adjustment of focus introduces a connective chain of preoccupations: with individuals caught up in the mass movements of history, with the inevitability of violence re-emerging through time, and with the clash of cultures in the brutal dislocations of war.

An intensely moving but unsentimental collection, A Northern Spring confirmed Ormsby’s ability to retrieve from the past the intimate and hidden details of human experience. It also shows his defiant attachment to economy of form, something that consistently proves a strength and not a limitation for the writer, and derives from his understanding of how poetry makes an impact. Introducing The Hip Flask (2001), an anthology of short poems from Ireland, he described his sense of the shorter form as ‘an insight distilled or crystallised, the essence of a mood or emotion caught with memorable concision, the verbal equivalent – linguistic, aphoristic, epigrammatic – of the brushstroke which evokes the fuller picture, the splash and its ripples’. Nothing could provide a better gloss on this poet’s own tendencies in style and structure, or a better defence of his technique.

The Ghost Train (1995) pursues this quasi-imagist agenda, in a series of poems which display Ormsby’s lightness of touch across a range of locations, from the Irish border to the vulnerable new states of the former Communist bloc. The collection also draws on his long-term love of sport, notably in a moving elegy for his father, to whom he used to read the horseracing news from the weekly paper. Now, on Saturday afternoons, there is only a haunted emptiness:

‘Print darkens my fingers, weeks, then years.
Hundreds of winners, thousands of also-rans
At full tilt, outdistancing that June,
Its hobblers and fallers. They carry me again
Beyond the fact of your death. Outstrip once more
Those weightless hours, paceless afternoons:
At 3.00, at 3.30, the wireless set
In its boxed, terrible silence.’ (‘Reading to my father’)

The collection features a number of related poems on death in its varied forms, and on the ghosts - of history or relationships - which gradually accumulate around the individual.

But The Ghost Train is also about birth, and includes a sequence of cradlesongs and poems written in anticipation of the birth of a child. In this most personal of rite-of-passages, Ormsby situates a direct and pointed political metaphor, a systematic process of reference to the long and difficult ‘gestation’ of the peace process in Northern Ireland during the 1990s. In ‘The Heart’, he addresses the unborn child from the outside world of a city regressing to trauma and violence: ‘If you could raise / Your little antennae for an early scan, / What would you find? That the sky has been lost for days / In a bad dream of rain settling for good’. Against this backdrop, preparations for the birth are tinged with tension and anxiety. Expectation takes on a double meaning, and in ‘The Easter Ceasefire’, the parallel between peace negotiations and fear of miscarriage is drawn into an uncomfortable poem-in-waiting, hedged ‘In the fraught silence between / might-be and might-have-been’. Hope is merely hinted at in the eventual birth of a daughter, announced in the short concluding lyric, ‘Helen’, which celebrates the only available securities of love and renewal.

A striking and coherent collection, The Ghost Train shows Ormsby at his best, defiantly uncomplicated and linguistically precise. Its poetry, confidently and characteristically underwritten, reveals a poet still securely grounded by his touchstones of family, history, and locale, and illustrates yet again the unexpected robustness of a conservative Northern Irish lyric tradition.

The far more opaque collection Fireflies (2009) is divided into two parts, the former being concerned with the city of White Plains and village of Valhalla in New York State, where Ormsby had spent much time over the previous 12 years. Evidently inspired and exhilarated by the scale of things, poems arise from dams, freeways, trains, bridges and rivers. A number of cemetery poems sound an elegiac note, but birth again occasions celebration and optimism in the face of uncertainty – one of 'Two Birthday Poems' dedicated to children born in 2007 is mindful of the heightened state of alert and fear in the United States at that time:

‘In your lifetime
it will be deemed safe to reopen the road
over the Dam.
When planes cross 
you will look up without fear.’

Somewhat ominously, the fifth and final part of 'Valhalla Journal' opens with the line 'Our histories gather behind us, wherever we are', and in the second part of Fireflies, Ormsby returns to the more constrained environment of post-Troubles Northern Ireland. 'Derelict Building', the fourth part of the sequence 'City Journal', examines changes in the urban landscape of Belfast with a quizzical and ironic eye for detail, as a former 'Troubles installation' is redeveloped:

‘But today the scaffolding 
is in place, hoardings announce 'The Delaware Building',
an 'exciting development of luxury apartments'.
Balance itself, and higher than anything, 
the big crane is a peace mobile at the gable end.’

The sequence describes a city 'where the past grows longer daily' and where the lives of its inhabitants are 're-angled, re-aligned', by new constructions and the arrival of outsiders. With such sensitivity and restraint, Ormsby's poetry seems especially well-placed to consider the changing patterns of life in Northern Ireland.


Dr Eve Patten, with updated material by Dr Nick Turner, 2012

Bibliography

2009
Fireflies, Oxford Poets, Carcanet
2007
John Hewitt: Selected Poems, editor with Michael Longley, Blackstaff
2006
The Blackbird's Nest: An Anthology of Poems from Queen's University, Belfast, editor, Blackstaff Press
2001
The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland, editor, Blackstaff Press
1995
The Ghost Train, Gallery Press
1992
A Rage for Order, editor, Blackstaff Press
1991
The Collected Poems of John Hewitt, editor, Blackstaff Press
1988
Thine in Storm and Calm: An Amanda McKittrick Ros Reader, editor, Blackstaff Press
1987
The Long Embrace, editor, Blackstaff Press
1987
Northern Windows: An Anthology of Ulster Autobiography, editor, Blackstaff Press
1986
A Northern Spring, Secker & Warburg
1979
Poets from the North of Ireland, editor - revised edition, 1990, Blackstaff Press
1978
Being Walked by a Dog, Ulsterman Publications
1977
A Store of Candles, Oxford University Press
1973
Business As Usual, Ulsterman Publications
1971
Ripe for Company, Ulsterman Publications

Awards

2002
Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry
1992
Cultural Traditions Award