‘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
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