- Moira Conway
- London, England
Poet Sean O'Brien was born in London, England, on 19 December 1952 and grew up in Hull.
He was educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and studied as a postgraduate at the universities of Birmingham, Hull and Leeds, where he gained a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. He taught at Beacon School, Crowborough, East Sussex between 1981 and 1989. He was co-founder of the literary magazine The Printer's Devil and contributes reviews to newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Times and the Times Literary Supplement. A regular broadcaster on radio, he presented, in an edition of BBC Radio 4's 'With Great Pleasure', a selection of his favourite poems and prose including work by Charles Dickens, A. S. Byatt, Ovid and Shakespeare. The programme 'The Flavours of Childhood' in the BBC Radio 4 series First Taste, for which he wrote and read one part and novelist Joanne Harris the other, won the 2006 Glenfiddich Food and Drink Broadcast Award. His writing for television includes 'Cousin Coat', a poem-film in Wordworks (Tyne Tees Television, 1991); 'Cantona', a poem-film in On the Line (BBC2, 1994); Strong Language, a 45-minute poem-film (Channel 4, 1997) and The Poet Who Left the Page, a profile of Simon Armitage (BBC4, 2002). He has held fellowships at the universities of Dundee, Leeds, Durham and Newcastle as well as at universities in Denmark and Japan, and spoken at conferences in the UK, Greece and Mauritius.
From 1998 to 2006, he taught Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, where in 2003 he was made Professor of Poetry. Between 2001 and 2003, he was Writer in Residence at Live Theatre, Newcastle, a position he held jointly with the late Julia Darling. He is now Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and a Vice President of the Poetry Society.
He won an Eric Gregory Award in 1979 and a Cholmondeley Award in 1988, both awarded by the Society of Authors. His poetry collections include The Indoor Park (1983), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Frighteners (1987); HMS Glasshouse (1991); Ghost Train (1995); and Downriver (2001). Cousin Coat: Selected Poems 1976-2001 was published in 2002. Inferno, his verse version of Dante's Inferno, was published in 2006 and a new poetry collection, The Drowned Book, in 2007. The latter won the 2007 T. S. Eliot Prize. Ghost Train, Downriver and The Drowned Book have all won the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), making Sean O'Brien the only poet to have won this prize more than once. His most recent collections are November (2011), shortlisted for the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize and the 2011 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year);The Beautiful Librarians (2015), and Europa (2018), both shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. His poems have been included in many anthologies, such as the 2006 British Council/Granta publication New Writing 14, edited by Lavinia Greenlaw and Helon Habila.
He is the author of a collection of essays about contemporary poetry, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (1998) and edited the anthology The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (1998). He was awarded the E. M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993. His plays include Laughter When We're Dead, a political tragedy in verse, produced at Live Theatre in 2000 and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 2001; Downriver, a jazz music theatre work co-written with the composer Keith Morris, premiered in a concert version at Newcastle Playhouse in 2001; The Black Path, written with Julia Darling, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in May 2002; Keepers of the Flame, a verse play set in the 1930s and 1990s about poetry and Fascism, staged at Live Theatre in association with the RSC in 2003; and To Encourage the Others, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2004. The Birds, his new verse version of Aristophanes' Birds, was commissioned by the National Theatre in London, first staged at the Lyttelton Theatre in 2002 and revived by Threeoverden theatre company in a tour of North East England in 2006. He has dramatised and adapted novels for broadcast as BBC Radio 4 Classic Serials, including Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (2004) and Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear (2006).
His short story publications include 'I Cannot Cross Over' in Hyphen: an anthology of short stories by poets (2003); 'Tabs' in Newcastle Stories (2005); and five stories in Elipsis 1: Short Stories by Sean O'Brien, Jean Sprackland and Tim Cooke (2005). His first collection of short stories is The Silence Room (2008). His first novel, Afterlife, was published in 2009.
Sean O'Brien lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
‘A Northern Assembly’, one of Sean O’Brien’s trademark satires, from Downriver (2001), in full flow proclaims: ‘Let North, from Humber’s shore to Tweed / Exist in verse, if not yet deed’.
Here mock-serious, elsewhere sarcastic or elegiac by turns, this is a poet whose couplet reveals an essential purpose: the creation of his own vision of the North East of England. When introducing Cousin Coat (2002), his selected poems 1976-2001 , in the PBS Bulletin, O’Brien observed that many of them sprang from a sense of place, ‘beginning in the half-bombed Victorian streets of Hull in the 1950s, taking in its hidden gardens, parks, railways and the vast presence of the Humber estuary’. This territory of imagination has drifted over the years, to and from his childhood, via periods in Brighton and Dundee, towards his adopted city of Newcastle. These places have been transfigured in his work, with accompanying maritime imagery of ships, voyages, ‘tides in the paper’, ‘dry sailors’, and characters ‘heading out on a snow boat / To sail off the compass for home’ (‘Terra Nova’). Yet, if his work originated in Hull, a place with a ‘closeness to water / That water is bearing away’ (‘From the Whalebone’), it reaches its ultimate expression in his multi award-winning collection The Drowned Book (2007). Significantly, the poems were written alongside his version of Dante’s Inferno (2006), whose savage subterranean imagery seeped into it, making a dark world of memory and dream that ‘swings between this world and water’s’ (‘River-doors’). In various places within it, the rivers Humber and Tyne seem to flow into The Styx.
If this suggests that O’Brien is an overly serious and severe poet, however, think again. His readings always have satirical relief and provoke laughter – sometimes ruefully. He is a poet who spices his literariness with the demotic, occasional swear words, and who early on claimed to have put ‘a blockade on high-mindedness’. An O’Brien poem can candidly disclose to us a ‘hatred’ of libraries or the hazards of organizing poetry readings (‘On Not Being Paul Durcan’). There are numerous pub scenes in his work, ‘serious drinkers’ descending ‘through the fiery circles of drink’, and vignettes of the drinking classes of Hull or Newcastle (‘Ex Historia Geordisma’), their lives ‘mortgaged to football’ (‘Autumn Begins at St James’s Park, Newcastle’). By contrast are his cleverly allusive tributes to longstanding friends such as poets Peter Porter and Peter Didsbury (‘Postcards to the Rain God’), and sadly necessary elegies. These have included Philip Larkin (‘A Master’), Michael Donaghy, Ken Smith, Julia Darling, Barry McSweeney, Tom Gunn, and perhaps most memorably, the Hull poet Frank Redpath who is the dedicatee of ‘To the Unknown God of Hull and Holderness’.
He is the most prize-winning poet of his generation (having won the Forward Poetry Prize three times, and the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize). And he has emulated his mentor Douglas Dunn by becoming also an influential critic, editor, and long-time teacher of creative writing. What marks him out as a large literary figure is energy; his emphatic critical intelligence combined with a willingness to take on a wide variety of projects allied to music, film and the theatre (as well as his stage and radio plays, in 2002 he adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for the National Theatre). He has, over the years, founded two literary magazines and continues to broadcast and review books widely. His mixed English and Irish background gifted him a deep attachment to both poetic traditions, as reflected in the essays of The Deregulated Muse (1998), a detailed survey of contemporary poets and poetry. Its introduction succinctly argues its case for this being ‘a particularly interesting poetic moment’, and mentions in particular Dunn, Tony Harrison and Ken Smith, ‘whose concerns with history, class and politics have been close to my own’. The anthology The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (also 1998) well represents his taste, which includes a number of American and Australian poets.
O’Brien is often regarded as a political poet, dating back to some vigorously anti-Thatcherite satires during the 1980s, notably ‘London Road’ in The Frighteners (1987), and ‘The Politics of’, a later poem lamenting a Tory election victory. But his best-known political poem, ‘Cousin Coat’, foresakes party politics to invoke class loyalty and social witness. A menacingly thudding metre underscores its symbolic old coat’s ‘message from the dead’, which ‘must be worn, be intimate as skin’. ‘Be memory, be conscience, will and rage’, it states, ‘So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat’. O’Brien’s poems are full of social snapshots of England from his childhood in the 1950s onwards, but they developed increasingly a dream-like rather than documentary feel. Indeed, as the political anger has mellowed – despite a few attempts, he has found it more difficult to satirize the Blairite Labour Government since 1997 – so darkly mythological elements have surfaced.
O’Brien’s first poetic territory was ‘urban pastoral’, exemplified by the front cover photograph of his first collection, The Indoor Park (1983), showing an opened door in the Victorian Conservatory in Pearson Park, Hull (a leafy space in the inner city, adjacent to his childhood home). This conservatory appears in various guises throughout his poetry, most surreally as a submarine, the ‘Unterseebot of the state’ in HMS Glasshouse (1991), with ‘its vaulted heat, / its bleared below-decks light’. The park itself, significantly for O’Brien a creation of Victorian civic ambition, appears regularly in his dreamscapes, as in Ghost Train (1995), where ‘The dead are reassembling, / There beneath the dripping trees / Beside the pond’ (‘Revenants’).
By his own account, The Drowned Book poems ‘began with a childhood memory of digging a hole in the back garden [in Hull] and seeing water gradually rising to fill it’. This seems closest to ‘Water-Gardens’, which opens with an image of water looking ‘up through the lawn / Like a half-buried mirror’, goes on to ‘rot-smelling Boulevard mansions’ (another local reference), and ends: ‘In King Death’s rainy garden / We were playing out’. The poet then invites us to join him for a walk down ‘The River Road’, a journey, ‘only beginning, beginning’, with ‘Wide, dark waters that grow in the telling’. ‘Arcadia’, the magisterial final poem final poem, also seems to imply an after-life, at least of imagination. It envisions a ‘municipal Arcadia’, where ‘the Brylcreemed ferryman’ guides the poet down the ‘black waters of the lake’. He sees both ‘the glasshouse slowly taking shape’ and ‘the young myself sitting there’. In a move perhaps borrowed from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, he finds himself once more meeting the ferryman, ‘Where he was waiting patiently, as though / We’d never met’. Sean O’Brien’s North East water-world of memory and history is a great creation.
Dr Jules Smith, 2008