Sean O’Brien is one of the most important poets currently writing in English. His verse is notable for its technical mastery, the vivid economy of its imagery, and its dry wit. He grew up in Hull, and now lives in Newcastle, where he is a professor of creative writing. His collection The Drowned Book (2007) won both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward Prize. His last collection, The Beautiful Librarians (2015), was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize and was reviewed in The Literateur here.
He has recently published an acclaimed novel, Once Again Assembled Here (2016), and a chapbook, Hammersmith (2016).
Interviewed by James Marriott.
I’d like to start off by asking about the North. You’ve written that ‘From Cockermouth to Withernsea, the North- / The North is poetry’. What is poetic about the North, or what makes it such a fertile source of poetry for you?
The lines you quote are, of course, deliberately hyperbolic. Everywhere has its adherents who will speak up for it. In the North the range of landscape is huge, from the ice age detritus of East Yorkshire, across the Pennines to the lakes and the old industrial towns of Cumbria and the great industrial centres of Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside, Manchester and West and South Yorkshire. It’s large, much of it is mysterious, it’s bloodstained, resilient, fertile and rich in rivers. And so on.
You grew up in Hull, where Philip Larkin spent most of his life. Critics have pointed out Larkin’s influence in your work. What do you think you’ve learned from him? Are there any disadvantages in writing ‘after Larkin’?
The Larkin popularly referred to is not the one who developed the amazing technical capacity to accommodate his imagination, but the reactionary curmudgeon he became. He can be caricatured as a set of attitudes, but the Larkin who interests me is the maker of poems, the selector of detail, the creator of extraordinary imaginative flights like the undepicted horse race in ‘At Grass’; or parts of ‘Livings’; or the drop-dead conclusion of ‘Friday Night in the Station Hotel’; or the ecstatic interior cinema of ‘For Sidney Bechet’. These and many other poems never cease to be fascinating, and you do try to learn from them, as from Marvell and Douglas Dunn, who also lived in Hull.
Could you comment on other poets whose work you admire and/or who have influenced you?
When I was a child, Edward Lear and Eliot’s Old Possum fascinated me, along with ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. There was a series of anthologies edited by James Reeves, The Rhyming River, which I would read as well in my mother’s office at her school. Around fourteen I became interested in Eliot and Ted Hughes, and Alvarez’s The New Poetry, and then a whole range of work from the Central Library in Hull, which had a vast, continually renewed stock of poetry. I was interested in Shakespeare, Webster, Roethke, Christopher Middleton, Roy Fisher, Empson, Sylvia Plath, Louis Simpson, William Carlos Williams and many others, including the Penguin Modern European Poets series – Herbert, Rilke, Grass. Later on came Donne, Marvell, Larkin, Heaney, Dunn, Mahon, Porter, Ashbery, Wilbur, all kinds of things.
In ‘Sports Pages’ you wrote ‘what any poem’s got to say’s / Bound up with all the vanished yesterdays’. Do you think as a poet you are especially drawn to the past? What interests you about the past, both the archaeological past (graveyards, old mines, and subterranean waterways) and more recent relics like that pub in ‘The Old Lads’? The way you see the coexistence of past and present in the Northern landscapes of your poetry reminds me of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. Is this a similarity that has ever struck you?
‘Sports Pages’ is partly about the way sport depends on memory and on the careful chronicling of previous fixtures, test matches and so on. Sports fans are often very memorious people. They can tell you who played left half for Stockport at home to Bury in 1959. At a more elevated level, people my age remember Puskas and Di Stefano and Pele and Eusebio, whereas for many younger people the world begins with Maradona. I’m drawn to lots of things, among them the past. The survival of the past into the present interests me – for example the way that in some places in England it could still be the 1950s or even earlier. You see glimpses of that in the North and the Midlands – buildings, habits, attitudes, ways of life. This is sometimes mistaken for nostalgia, but it’s not an indulgence. Time is an inescapable poetic subject. Look at Hill, Harrison and Jeffrey Wainwright, for example.
You seem particularly interested in using a wide range of registers in your poetry. Is this just a way of keeping things exciting, or is there more to it than that?
I think Auden exemplified, and may have commended, the idea of the poet as a user of the whole keyboard from epic and ode to cabaret song. MacNeice had a similar range. There are other, equally valid approaches, but I like that one.
How did you come to start writing poetry? Were you, for example, prompted by a specific experience or event?
It was language that excited me, in particular the language of Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ and ‘Prufrock’ and Ted Hughes’s ‘Wind’ and ‘Horses’. An English teacher, the great Mr Grayson, got us reading them at fourteen. It was more exciting and interesting than anything I’d ever encountered. It seemed that poetic language could make the world more real. That was it. No turning back from that point.
Could you describe your writing process? Do things come fully formed; do you start with an image, a line?
There might be an image, or a line, or the sense of a rhythmic shape wanting to be explored. It can be quite an informal process – sometimes you make a note and find that it wants to develop and so you go along with it.
You’ve described yourself as habitually ‘nailed to the desk’. Is writing poetry hard work, or is it so much fun you can’t keep away?
For many years I’ve wanted to be continually at work. It’s addictive. As well as poems, the work extends into fiction, plays, translations, musical collaborations, essays, reviews, radio scripts and so on. And teaching of course. I enjoy it all, with intermittent cursing.
How do you think your poetry has developed over your career? Do I detect a shift to a slightly more lyrical style in your most recent collection?
I find this quite difficult to comment on. Certainly the musicality of poetry is something I find increasingly interesting.
Finally, I’d like to ask you about the future of poetry. Where do you think we’re going? Is poetry doomed in an age of endless distractions?
Experience suggests that while poetry may experience brief flares of popularity, at the level of serious writing and serious readers it is likely to remain a minority preoccupation. Poetry’s a slow burn. It needs the long run. I’ve always hoped more people would enjoy poetry, but I’m realistic. As to the writing of poetry, I’m excited by some of the poets who’ve been publishing in recent years. Poets like Frances Leviston, Paul Batchelor, Katherine Towers, Ahren Warner, Sarah Howe and Tony Williams among others, indicate that the art is in good hands.
Responses © Sean O’Brien 2016.
Image credits: Henry Hemming, 2015; Gerry Wardle 2016.