Rest in Peace, John O’Leary – A True Teacher and Poet

I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of my very first undergrad English professer, John O’Leary. He was with his son on a boat when it capsized. His son made it back, but he did not.

John O’Leary was a strange and wonderful man. He had unruly, curly red hair and a just as unruly and curly beard. My first English class on campus was with him, and was titled The Literature of Solitude. I wasn’t a fan of many of the books we read, but I was a huge fan of him, so going to class was always something I looked forward to. On the first day of class, he wandered in looking a bit disheveled. He told us that he had fallen asleep under a tree on the quad before class started. For the entire duration of class, we watched a bug that had gotten caught in his hair twist itself up and uncurl itself, trying to free itself from the strand of hair. O’Leary never noticed it was there.

I enjoyed that class so much that, come May Term (a term in which you take one class every day for one month) my freshman year, I took his Creative Writing 101 class. We spent hours talking about and writing poetry. I always fancied myself a short story writer, but O’Leary seemed impressed with my poetry, and that inspired me to go on to take more poetry classes at the university and, eventually, graduate with a specialization in creative writing along with my English Literature degree.

I’ll never forget the first thing he told us about poetry as we were all sprawled out on couches in the student center’s meeting room (it was a truly unique class, indeed). He said, “The beautiful thing about poetry is that you can compose it anywhere, even alone in the middle of the ocean.” In light of these recent events, those words haunt me, but it is comforting to know that poetry was with him until the very end.

Toward the end of my freshman year, he released a book of broken sonnets titled SALT. He held a poetry reading and book signing on campus. It was the first one of both I’d ever been to.

He signed my book, and of course I’ve kept it all these years. He wrote:

for Ashley S—-
one of my very favorite students, from whom I have much still to learn

For all I know, he wrote that on everyone’s book, but it’s still not something one forgets easily.

He was a great and interesting man, and a wonderful poet. He will be greatly missed. In closing, I’ll leave you with my very favorite poem from SALT, “LVI”:

I actually know damn all
about it, but I’ve heard
that every word in Arabic
has at least three basic

meanings; it means
what it normally means; it means
its complete opposite;
and every single word

has something to do
with a camel.
So here; I mean what I say;
I mean what I do not say;

and every single word
has something to do with you.

8 thoughts on “Rest in Peace, John O’Leary – A True Teacher and Poet

  1. Dr. O. on

    Beautiful tribute, Ashley. What a tragic death and tragic loss. I love the poem you quote. Not that John ever said so, but it’s fair to suppose he would have read “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” an essay by Jorge Luis Borges in the collection _Labyrinths_. You need to go read that (in all your spare time?!), and you’ll see why when you do! Have a great semester/school year. Hope you’re well. Dr O.

  2. Derry Chambers on

    Hello Ashley,

    I hope you don’t mind me posting this.

    I came across your blog while ‘googling’ john O’Leary tonight. I was very touched by what you had to say. As for me, I was involved with John for a year or so 2006/’07 in trying to establish a quarterly literary revue here in Ireland. Being in his company was always such a great pleasure and a complete joy. Subsequently my daughter taught in a secondary school (high school) where John worked for a while and I was delighted to be in touch with him again. The following is part of a letter I recently wrote to a friend in which I try and explain John and why I’ll miss him forever. i loved his stories…he was always teaching, even when he wasn’t trying to. again thanks for posting your piece. It means such a lot to me to know the ‘good guys’ are remembered.

    Best Regards,

    Derry Chambers

    …..My other funeral was in Ringaskiddy – I get my kicks in very macabre settings these days – and was that of John O’Leary, who drowned in Allihies last week. You met John, I’m sure, at that terrible event in Future Forests to launch Robert Allen’s strange and confused magazine venture.

    First off it must be noted that, thank God, Robert Allen wasn’t present. Apart from Mitie, I knew no one there, and as he, Mitie, couldn’t quite place me, I was the intruder among all of John’s family, neighbours, and colleagues from academia and elsewhere, most looking like they were dressed out of a charity bag. John’s sons wore an assortment of hoodies and jeans and torn sneakers, while his daughter sported an enormous hole in her tights, which she ignored with total self-possession and a dignity that can only be inborn.

    Strangely I didn’t in the least feel out of place for all of that.

    It was way and beyond the most magnificently proper and dignified funeral I was ever at. This may be because/despite the fact that proceedings opened with the Rolling Stones ‘Painted Black’ being played on an iPhone held up to the ‘Island Crematorium’s’ crappy pa system. (Technical problems with computers) In other words, as Sarah said when I told her about John’s death, ‘He was a good guy. He knew who he was!’ I think many of the people there ‘knew who they were’ and it would never enter their heads that they had to pretend to be anyone else…..yes indeed….we are who we are, NOW TURN THAT ROCK AND ROLL UP….. HIGHER, HIGHER…..JUST KEEP GOING LOUDER ‘TIL OUR EARS START TO BLEED!

    After the Stones John’s two sons each read a poem of his, and this was followed by Theo Dorgan reading a letter to John’s children from President Michael D Higgins (Uachtarain na h-Eireann). – At this the crematorium operators mislaid their laughable demeanour of disdain and condescension towards us ragamuffin band of mourners (a la Natasha at Phillip Scully’s burial earlier this summer when a loonie introduced her to a billionaire, which I recall telling you about). Suddenly everyone was being treated with a craven solicitousness by these obnoxious flunkies. God, how I hate soulless money junkies… but, at least for the moment, I refuse to be sidetracked….

    Then some very accomplished violinist lady played a slow air.

    This was followed by Paula Meehan reading another of his poems and then a lady from Poetry Ireland who did a perfect reading of this poem of John’s…

    XXVII. (from Sea, 2003 by John O’Leary)
    To Do List:
    1. find dragon and slay
    2. exorcise cat
    3. prove conclusively the identity
    of Beauty and Truth.
    4. watch, fast and pray
    5. sail Atlantic single-handed
    6. write name in water
    7. return Teach Yourself Waltzing Tape
    8. weep for Adonais and feel bad
    9. write her a letter telling her
    you love her
    10. go out into the midnight
    and check for new stars.

    Jeez Saor girl, the world weeps!!!

    Finally his friend Paddy said a few words. Paddy is the recently retired principal of the Beara Community School and Sarah’s former boss when she worked there. It’s how she got to know John when he was ‘Writer in Residence’ or some equally nonsensical job title at the school.

    Paddy talked about John’s talent, not only as a poet, but for teaching and educating and how special and rare a thing for a human being to possess that was. That it was a gift not given to many, but that John had it in spades. (I’m paraphrasing here of course)

    Addressing John’s children he said that anyone who knew John knew how proud he was of his kids, – but much more importantly, we all knew, having known John, how much he loved his children. ‘Your father loved you,’ Paddy said, ‘and what he would want for you is to go on and enjoy every precious minute of this wonderful life, just as John himself did.’

    And then it all ended up with the Stones blasting out ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

    ‘Pleased to meet you, I hope you’ve guessed my name…’

    I suppose people’s lives are the stories they leave in their wake (so’s to speak). If we’re not to end up as just a ‘born, married, died’ statistic, so beloved of family tree compilers, our stories must be remembered. And to be remembered, of course, they have to be told. I know I’m being long winded (more so than usual here) but I must tell you just this one story of John’s.

    A few years ago I spent a few days in Dublin with him and at some stage in among all the other things we were doing he told me this story….

    Back in October 1972 when he, wide-eyed and unsure about everything except poetry, arrived at Cambridge, he joined the student literary society. He was quickly given the job of finding a VIP speaker for the annual end of year literary banquet. Being young and, as such, having no fear of approaching the great and the good, John wrote to everyone he could think of. Ted Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Lennon, William Carlos Williams, John Betjeman etc, etc, inviting them to speak to, what he implied was, a very prestigious gathering. He hardly mentioned the miniscule fee available for their participation. Most declined and many ignored his invite, but then just before Christmas a letter from Allen Ginsberg saying that he would be delighted to attend and, amazingly, would forego his fee. In lieu he merely asked for a guided tour of the various colleges in Cambridge. John quickly accepted this offer and was showered with kudos by his fellow pimply, and not so pimpled, literati colleagues and teachers for having ‘bagged’ such a colossus of modern poetry.

    Time passed and then it was late May and John and his fellow students in the house in Cambridge they shared were cramming hard for exams. One of the housemates was on the verge of a breakdown and to relieve the stress would now and then rush out into the back garden and start digging feverishly, but aimlessly, for up to half an hour at a time. By the time the exams were over, a very large crater had been excavated in the back garden by the overwrought student who had now calmed down to such a degree that he was never in his life going to possess the energy necessary to undo the damage he had inflicted ‘ar cul an ti’.

    A few days after the exams finished the literary gala was held and the great Allen Ginsburg duly turned up, performed, pleased all and sundry and, even though he was on a health kick and not drinking or toking, accepted John’s invitation to return to his house for a party. John used his last few shillings to get a taxi so that the guest of honour wouldn’t have to wait for a bus in the English rain that had been bucketing down all day. Back at the house someone had set up a keg of cider on the kitchen table and when Ginsberg was offered something to drink he asked, ‘What’s that in the keg?’ On being told it was cider he said he’d like some of that. (Apparently Americans call apple juice ‘cider’ and what we call cider, they call ‘hard cider’.) So, unknown to himself, Ginsberg was getting happily plastered on best British scrumpy and telling everyone who would listen how ‘happy’ he felt just to be ‘ this high on life’ and that no one needed ‘stimulants’ to feel good.

    A few hours later, as the great poet sat naked in an empty bathtub humming his TM mantras totally oblivious to the people trooping in and out to use the facilities beside him, a thunderous banging came on the front door. At about the same time someone noticed that there were two cops climbing over the back garden wall. John eventually opened the front door to be confronted by a dripping wet police sergeant who started the usual spiel about having reason to believe there were illicit drugs on the premises etc etc. Pandemonium ensued as the formerly coolest partygoers in the world turned into eighteen and nineteen year old children and began a mad scramble to divest themselves of a various assortment of drugs and associated paraphernalia. All of this commotion put an abrupt end to Ginsberg’s reverie and he jumped out of the bath and ran buck naked down the stairs to see John arguing earnestly with the senior copper in the hallway. At the back of the house the other two cops jumped off the wall and straight into the mud filled hole the neurotic housemate had been digging for the previous few weeks.

    As John tells it, he heard Ginsberg give a low growl and then he did a kind of waddle/charge out along the hallway, head down, and butted the police sergeant right in the midriff completely winding and flooring the unfortunate officer of the law. The other two cops, having extricated themselves from the pit at the rear, then burst in the back door covered head to toe in mud. Dripping and smearing this slime on everything they touched, they slid and slipped through the house to come to the rescue their superior officer who was wrestling on the floor with a grunting, fat, balding, incoherent and very naked man.

    It took a lot of talking and pleading and more than a few ‘phone calls to senior people in the college and the police station to convince the ‘officers’ that this deranged, middle aged, violent nudist was in fact a very famous visiting American poet, and, as such, not a candidate for the back of a Paddy Wagon and a night in a police cell.

    The saga of Ginsberg’s visit to Cambridge went on the next day when John had to take the hung-over poet’s ‘boyfriend’, Peter Orlovsky, on a tour of Cambridge, but that’s another couple of hundred words and, I think, I’m well over your tolerance limit already.

    Keepin mind Niall Toibin’s warning, ‘Ma ta breag ann – biodh’

    Anyway, you have a Ginsberg and John O’Leary story now, pass it on and keep him alive for a while longer,

    Love and whatever,

    Derry

    • Roisin Beatty Ni Laoghaire on

      Thank you for this. It’s lovely to be able to read such nice things about my dad.

  3. I knew John for seven years at Ipswich School in England and initially kept in contact with him during his time at Cambridge (he started there in 1973 by the way, not in 1972) and am very saddened to hear of his death. Condolences to his family.

  4. David on

    I took a 2 week intensive Creative Writing class in Allihies headed by John O’Leary and Edwin Weihe. John had a profound influence on me and I think about him all the time. I suspect I always will.
    May the sod rest lightly on his breast and the Peace Of God be with his brave soul.

  5. Anton on

    I had no idea he passed away! I spent a May Term with him too, helping to edit a book of Desmond O’Grady’s poems he was working on. Great, inspiring guy!

  6. John changed my life.
    I would not be the person i am today without his influence.

    Rest in Peace, Poet
    You taught me how to praise.

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