Helen Dunmore

Image by Caroline Forbes

Helen Dunmore

b. 1952

In these times, we should be glad of this voice. - Kate Clanchy, The Guardian

The Deciphering

Helen Dunmore


Wild strawberries

Helen Dunmore


Glad of these times

Helen Dunmore

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About Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore (b. 1952) is the second of four children, her father the eldest of twelve. As she says herself "In a large family you hear a great many stories," a grounding which has influenced her career as a writer of both poetry and fiction. She studied English at York University and then taught for two years in Finland. She began to publish poetry and give readings in her early twenties. Her debut collection, The Apple Fall, was one of the first titles published by Bloodaxe Books. Her second, The Sea Skater, won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award. Her fiction career began with short stories before her first novel was published in 1994. Zennor in Darkness, set during the First World War when D H Lawrence lived at Zennor in Cornwall, won the McKitterick Prize. Since then Dunmore has become one of our most acclaimed literary figures, winning many prizes including the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction and The Signal Poetry Award for children's poetry. Her eight collections for adults have been given the Poetry Book Society Choice and Recommendations and Bestiary was shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize. She is a fellow of the Royal Society for Literature.

In Dunmore's poems thought and feeling find expression in language that "is delicate, exact, surprising" (Sean O'Brien, Ruth Padel, PBS Bulletin). The sensual power of language has remained a hallmark, as in her early poem, 'Wild Strawberries': "a dark handful, sweet-edged/...pulpless, sliding to juice,//a grainy rub on the tongue." While some of her poems read as compressed narratives, other more public concerns run through her work. Her alertness to the beauty of the natural world, for instance, is combined with an awareness of the threats it faces: from concerns about what constitutes 'the natural' in The Raw Garden (Bloodaxe, 1988) to her most recent collection, Glad of These Times, with the title poem's image of "motherly" JCBs "widening the packed motorway." A fascination for history is also evident across the different genres Dunmore works in, the way "The past is something we can't really know and yet we want to memorialise it." (Dunmore, Bloodaxe website). The intersection of world events and the individual informs poems like 'Heimat' and 'Poem on the Obliteration of 100,000 Iraqi Soldiers', a reminder of the human cost behind statistics.

Her early encounter with ballads, hymns and fairy tales can be heard in the music of her poems, particularly in their skilful use of repetition. This consistent characteristic can impart an incantatory quality. Elsewhere, ballad and folklore haunt narratives recast in the light of female experience, such as 'The butcher's daughter' and 'I owned a woman once'. These qualities make for beguiling listening; even when the subject matter is at its darkest, Dunmore's unadorned reading style provides a clear medium through which the rhythms of her poems shine.

Helen Dunmore's Favourite Poetry Saying:

"Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine - good god how fine - It went down all pulpy, slushy, oozy, all its delicious enbonpoint melted down my throat like a large, beatified Strwberry. I shall certainly breed." - John Keats

Selected bibliography

Penguin Modern Poets 12, Penguin, 1997

Snollygoster, Scholastic Press, 2001

Secrets, The Bodley Head, 1995

Glad of These Times, Bloodaxe Books, 2007

Out of the Blue: Poems 1975-2001, Bloodaxe Books, 2001

Bestiary, Bloodaxe Books, 1997

Recovering a Body, Bloodaxe Books, 1994

Short Days, Long Nights: New and Selected Poems,...

The Raw Garden, Bloodaxe Books, 1988


1987 Alice Hunt Bartlett Award, The Sea Skater

1988 Poetry Book Society Recommendation, The Raw Garden

Prize website

1994 Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Recovering a Body

Prize website

1995 Signal Poetry Award, Secrets

Prize website

1997 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

Prize website

1998 T S Eliot Prize (shortlist), Bestiary

Prize website

1998 Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Bestiary

Prize website


Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore Reading from her poems

1I owned a woman once

2Glad of these times

3City lilacs

4Wild strawberries

5Extract from translation of Piers Plowman

6Bristol Docks

7Jacob's drum

8Those shady girls

9A cow here in the June meadow

10In the Desert Knowing Nothing

11Poem on the Obliteration of 100,000 Iraqi Soldiers

12Dolphins whistling

13The grey lilo

14Patrick I

15Mr Lear's ring

16The butcher's daughter

17That violet-haired lady

18To Virgil


20The sea skater

21Three Ways of Recovering a Body

22The surgeon husband

23The Silent Man in Waterstone's




27The Deciphering

28May voyage

A tour of the Archive with Louise Joy

Since I spend much of my time rooting around in the eighteenth century, this is where I headed first. Hearing poems...

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Books by Helen Dunmore