‘Eng­land is strange. Some of it stopped in 1947 or 1954’

De­fi­ant Eu­ro­pean Sean O’Brien on his lat­est col­lec­tion of poems – and the UK’s mad be­trayal of its past

The Herald Magazine - - ARTS | BOOKS -


IHALF-EX­PECT to hear Sean O’Brien be­fore I see him. He is per­haps the most dec­o­rated British poet of the last two decades. Among nu­mer­ous other awards, he has won the For­ward Po­etry Prize three times – no one else has won it more than once – and the TS Eliot Prize. Ab­surdly, I en­ter­tain an in­tim­i­dat­ing im­age of him strid­ing through the doors of the Na­tional Li­brary of Scot­land like a gen­eral, only the sound of his boots on the mar­ble floor and the heroic clink of his medals against his chest pre­ced­ing him.

As it hap­pens, I am read­ing O’Brien’s Col­lected Poems in the NLS café when I glance up to see a ro­bust man in his mid-six­ties, dressed in black and with a trimmed white beard, stand­ing a few ta­bles away. He is look­ing ten­ta­tively in my di­rec­tion. Of course, he is not wear­ing medals but some­thing more re­veal­ing: a beret. O’Brien is in town for the un­of­fi­cial launch of his ninth col­lec­tion, Europa, at the Scot­tish Po­etry Li­brary. He throws his con­ti­nen­tal hat down on the ta­ble; it is a clear state­ment of in­tent.

O’Brien is con­sid­ered a poet rooted in the land­scape and dream­scape of north­ern Eng­land but he is a de­fi­ant Eu­ro­pean in art and life. He is also no stranger to Scot­land. In 1990 he took a writ­ing fel­low­ship at Dundee Univer­sity and moved from Brighton to New­cas­tle, where he is now pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing. He and his part­ner, re­tired editor Gerry War­dle, fre­quently holiday in the Cairn­gorms. His Scot­tish con­nec­tions go back fur­ther: in the late 1970s, O’Brien was study­ing for a PhD at Hull Univer­sity; the Scot­tish poet Dou­glas Dunn lived nearby and be­came his men­tor.

O’Brien was born in Lon­don in 1952 but Hull was where he “came to con­scious­ness” as a young boy with a reader’s greed for books. Both his par­ents were in­ter­ested in the arts. Be­fore his fa­ther moved to Eng­land, he pub­lished po­etry in Ire­land, and his mother was a teacher. “There were al­ways po­etry books in the house,” he says in a soft growl. “From when I was five or six, I read an­tholo­gies with Ed­ward Lear and Rud­yard Ki­pling and TS Eliot’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats and so on.

“When I was 14 I got very in­ter­ested in po­etry and this co­in­cided with be­ing taught by a great English teacher called Mr Grayson, who in­tro­duced Eliot’s Pre­ludes and Prufrock and some early poems of Ted Hughes to a group of 14-year-old lads, most of whom had no in­ter­est what­so­ever in po­etry. I thought this was the most in­ter­est­ing thing I had ever en­coun­tered. And that was that.

“Later on, I started read­ing Philip Larkin and Au­den. Hull Cen­tral Li­brary had a mag­nif­i­cent po­etry stock which was aug­mented all the time; there was stuff from the tra­di­tion, but also con­tem­po­rary po­etry com­ing in. So I was in there two or three times a week.”

He lived in the Vic­to­rian dis­trict of An­laby Road. When he wasn’t read­ing, he was out ex­plor­ing the streets. “The city was very badly bombed [in the Sec­ond World War]. It was per capita the worst bombing of any city in Bri­tain. It lost a huge per­cent­age of its hous­ing stock. There were bomb sites every­where and lots of wild back gar­dens to play in.”

In po­etry col­lec­tions such as Ghost Train (1995) he re­turns to these bro­ken land­scapes, and they still dwell in his psy­che. In Europa, there is a poem called The Chase, about a pub set in “a fly­blown nowhere, birches, ponds,/ with HGVs parked up in lay­bys full of rub­bish…”

Other poems ex­plore how Europe’s vi­o­lent past has trans­fig­ured the present: From the Cherry Hills is about the fore­bod­ing smell of petrol in a Ser­bian en­clave of Bos­nia-Herze­gov­ina; in Wrong Num­ber the nar­ra­tor walks around Ber­lin in the late 1980s and buys one toy mouse “from hun­dreds/ Dan­gling from the ceil­ing by their necks/ Like minia­tures from Plötzensee/ Where men were hanged on hooks with wire…”; there is also a poem about his great un­cle, Pri­vate Harry Reed, who fought and died in the First World War.

O’Brien is a Europhile, but he is not a sen­ti­men­tal­ist. In his po­etry, Baude­laire’s ideals of “luxe et volupté” sit side by side with night­mar­ish vi­sions. “I think those two el­e­ments are in­ex­tri­ca­ble from one an­other. Ev­ery­thing we might wish to cel­e­brate or en­joy or re­mem­ber or ad­mire takes place on the same ground as cen­turies of the most aw­ful slaugh­ter and cru­elty. You be­gin to sus­pect you can’t have one without the other. It is cer­tainly true of Europe, which is a bat­tle­field from the coast to Rus­sia, from Den­mark to the toe of Italy and into Greece and Spain.”

Now that we are on to Europa, I ask him if he was in­spired by Dunn’s 1982 poem Europa’s Lover. “I wasn’t think­ing de­lib­er­ately of Dou­glas’ long poem, but it was cer­tainly some­thing that I found very sug­ges­tive and in­spir­ing both when I first read it and when I’ve re­turned to it. It has an am­pli­tude and con­fi­dence which was not al­to­gether typ­i­cal of po­etry in main­land Bri­tain at the time. There is an ex­pan­sive­ness to it, and a will­ing­ness to look into other lit­er­ary tra­di­tions.”

Along with Dunn, po­ets like Au­den taught him the mer­its of be­ing “for­mally var­i­ous”. It shows in Europa, where the poems range from three vari­a­tions on a Shake­spearean sonnet to bawdy light-hearted bal­lads such as Meck­len­burgh Square, writ­ten to “put a bit of leav­en­ing into a som­bre mix­ture”.

He stresses his in­debt­ed­ness to Dunn, who helped him with the prac­ti­cal matters of get­ting pub­lished and the tech­ni­cal side of writ­ing. “He had a strong sense – this is very un­fash­ion­able now – of po­etry not just as a vo­ca­tion but as a craft, as an ac­cu­mu­lat­ing body of skills.”

I ask about that in­ter­jected “un­fash­ion­able”. How can po­etry be­ing any­thing other than a craft? As part of his teach­ing, O’Brien reads reams of ju­ve­nilia. There are some “very gifted” po­ets around, he says, but “some of the work I read seems to have con­fused the role of be­ing a poet with the task of writ­ing po­etry. Some of it seems to have con­fused the idea of form with a sense of con­straint.

“I’m read­ing a lot of stuff that is of im­pas­sioned at­ti­tude, and I’d like to read some­thing more durable… As

You can imag­ine an an­cient dead cou­ple sit­ting up in coffins, read­ing old copies of the Daily Ex­press

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