Sean O’ Brien was born in London in 1952. Shortly afterwards, he moved to Hull, where he grew up, thus firmly cementing an allegiance to the North of England: a subject he explores in much of his poetry.
In these Collected Poems, that begin with his debut, The Indoor Park (1983), and end with his most recent collection, November (2011), O’ Brien displays his remarkable contribution to British poetry over the last three decades.
Whether it’s in the post-industrial North of England landscapes that he uses as a milieu; or the more imaginative settings that weave in and out of history, O Brien’s poems are never afraid to speak about political concerns, or ponder very pertinent questions of our time, such as: how the past relates to the present, and what effect does this collective historical narrative have, if any, on our individual lives?
While poetry is O’ Brien’s main concern, he is also a distinguished playwright, critic, novelist and broadcaster. He currently lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he is professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. His collection The Drowned Book (2007) won both the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot Prize.
O’ Brien spoke to the Spectator about his fascination for railways lines, why preserving the past is not sentimental, and about the various complexities that surround defining English identity.
In a series of lectures you gave last year called Journeys to the Interior you talked about ‘the Imagined England in which we live, with its dead ends and false starts’. You also asked: what does England mean? Did you find an answer to that question?
In recent years people began to talk about Englishness to try and identify what it means. Some people naturally have political reasons for doing this: they want to identify certain kinds of behavior as typically English. I find the subject very complicated. Is Englishness, in the East Midlands, for example, the same as Englishness on the Thames Estuary? Are they all the same tribe? Probably not. Is there anything that binds them together? The English, like any people, enjoy a myth. We need this myth in order to function.
Would you say there are essentially two maps of England?
Yes: the one that is always in the news, and the one that isn’t. The latter doesn’t seem to have changed much, and I’m interested in that. I’m also interested in the unifying power that the Second World War seemed to have for the whole nation. I don’t mean this in a sentimental way, but more practically. It was necessary for the state to galvanise the population into collective action. We know that in the immediate post war years there were some beneficial consequences: a Labour government that put into effect the Beveridge Report; the National Health Service, and a gradual improvement of the education system.
Where the nation acts collectively, its power can be used for very wise ends. The nearest we came to this recently was with the Olympics. Even people like me — who thought we should never have staged the Olympics in the first place — enjoyed the events. Some people felt happy for those two weeks to see what was possible.
You also talk in these lectures about the elegiac nature of English poetry?
Particularly in Larkin, who was the most essentially English poet of the last 100 years. There is a sense of things being at an end, or shortly to be so. Which is partially to do with Larkin, as we understand him. But it’s also about understanding that the English nation is always in some sense, bidding farewell to itself.
This may be true for everybody, everywhere, in all nations. You can see this particularly in a poet like James Fenton, perhaps the heir to W.H. Auden. There is a sense of things somehow coming to a stop. If you read around a great deal of English poetry, you find an elegiac undercurrent running there much of the time. There are obviously many exceptions, but five things that reaffirm themselves in English poetry are: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, and lastly, Taxes!
Speaking of Auden, what qualities do you admire in him as a poet?
I like the way he is interested in the individual as situated in history. So in the poem ‘Consider’, Auden says ‘Consider this as the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman’. He takes an aerial, almost cinematic view of human affairs, and then focuses on individual circumstances. It’s that wide range of distance, and how he focuses on the individual, which has always fascinated me. If I have learned anything from Auden, it’s that sense of trying to write about the historical. Not just the local and the particular — although those are absolutely essential — but also looking at the larger frame in which things are taking place.
Can you describe the process of knowing when a good poem is coming?
I think there is a continual negotiation between the rational, analytical part of the mind, and something which is less knowable. You feel like you are in luck when all your rational preparations actually resort in something unexpected arriving on the page. Where you create circumstances in which something that you didn’t know about is offered to you: like a line, a phrase, or a shift in focus in a poem. These are things that you can’t plan for. You can prepare for them — in terms of trying to learn your craft — but you need the luck to actually get them. It’s a mixture of the rational, and the more inexplicably imaginative, working together.
You’ve written a number of poems about railways. Where does this fascination come from?
The railway poems started when I began doing poetry readings, and I was spending a good deal of time on trains – just getting the opportunity to look out the window, and to think more about the role of landscape in the North of England. Even where railway lines had been torn up you could still see embankments, bridges and tunnels, and so forth. They seemed to be like a map of a previous version of the country.
Also, in English life the train is invested with a kind of unquenchable romanticism: trains are about exciting journeys through the dark, or about exciting transformations. The things that we enjoy in narratives are quite easily accommodated in the world of a railway.
In your last collection, November, there is a leitmotif of history running through the book. What is the significance of that?
Maybe my understanding of history has changed somewhat in that collection of poems. You begin to think that perhaps the coherence that you seek to find in history might not necessarily be found in people’s behaviour. For example, in the poem ‘The Citizens’ I attempt to talk about what kind of behavior people will take part in, given the opportunity. That they will mistreat, murder, and exterminate each other, and find good reasons for doing it. This is not exactly news, but occasionally it strikes you with a fresh horror, that people behave in this way. Everything that we value as history might only be significant, as long as we bear it in mind. For others, it may have no meaning at all.
Your poems seem to have this preoccupation with things changing. Not so much nostalgia, but respecting the past in a dignified way?
The way in which nostalgia is now understood is actually different from what I’m trying to do in the poems. Occasionally my poems have been described as nostalgic, but they’re not yearning for the way things used to be. I’m more interested in asking: what was it like? Just to take one example: to be a child, growing up in a city that had been heavily bombed. Or playing in ruined, Victorian gardens, full of odd bits and pieces. It’s not nostalgia, but simply an attempt to preserve those things, that to me seem significant. Instead of erasing the world that is now gone, let us keep some evidence of this reality. It’s not that I think everything was wonderful at this earlier stage. It’s just that there are things about it that deserve not to be forgotten. On the other hand, the pressure to forget, or to sentimentalize — which is the same thing under a different name — it’s very strong nowadays.
Your poems have never been afraid to voice political concerns. Is it the poet’s responsibility to write about politics, or is all writing political?
At a certain point, yes, all writing is political, whether the writer is aware of it or not, because it positions itself at a certain angle. It stands, whether it likes it or not, in relation to its time. It’s about how we are governed, how we exert power, or how we have power exerted over us. No, I don’t think anyone has a duty to write political poetry. Some people are inclined that way. I am, but other people, for perfectly good reasons, are not.
What kind of outcome does a poem have in wider political discourse?
Whether poetry has any effect, politically, well, the jury is still out really. Poets are always saying it doesn’t. I believe poetry is its own effect. Poetry is itself, and not for some other purpose. It’s the complete act in itself as a poem. But we also live in contradictions. I would prefer that people were not living in the depths of misery; or to live in a place where the government would not make it difficult for people, who have nothing in the first place. So yes, I will mention that in a poem. Whether or not it will have an effect or not, I very much doubt. But at least it gets said. Politics in English poetry has got a bad name, because people associate it with preaching and propagandizing. There are other media that think it’s their business to do that, rather than the poet’s business. However, poetry might — by being serious about its subject matter, and about its craft — offer some benefit to those who choose to read it.