Sean O'Brien

Image by Caroline Forbes

Sean O'Brien

b. 1952

I hope to write poetry that uses the full keyboard, claiming its full range of method and subject. - Sean O'Brien

Postcards to the Rain God (an extract)

Sean O'Brien


Reading Stevens in the Bath

Sean O'Brien

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About Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien (b. 1952) is a central figure in the contemporary poetry world - he has won major prizes for each of his five poetry collections, including the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham award, the E.M. Forster Award and, twice, the Forward Prize for Best Collection. He is also the editor of The Firebox, an acclaimed anthology of post-war UK poetry, a professor of Creative Writing in Sheffield, and the author of literary criticism and journalism for several newspapers and journals.

His poetry often combines demotic and more literary language and is strongly aware of its northern location - a poem such as 'Cousin Coat' creates an angry presence of historical injustice, closed mines and cenotaphs, by enhancing the rhythms and rhymes of ordinary speech. This means that when a more extravagant word is used, it feels necessary - the "comfy meliorists / Grown weepy over Jarrow photographs" seem less believable than the speaker who finds nothing to ameliorate the memories.

There is much more than gloom in the poetry. 'The Amateur God', for instance, set as the year first turns warm, revels in "detail / And leisure to name it" as it conjures up a garden, and 'Reading Stevens in the Bath', which O'Brien describes in his introduction as "a deranged song of praise to Wallace Stevens", zooms from a wide view of Newcastle to where "a large pink man / Is reading Stevens in the bath", through allusions to Stevens, snatches of 'Paper Moon', and "howay!", a chant taken straight from a night out in Newcastle. He also shows a deft way with comic poetry, such as the puncturing of poetry-reading mores in 'Welcome Major Poet' or the speech of the scriptwriter in 'The Thing', drawn - hopefully indirectly - from O'Brien's theatre experience.

His formal manner is assured; a poem called 'Ballad of the Lit and Phil' is indeed in ballad form and his reading indicates a clear pleasure in the metrical shape of his lines. These factors combine to show that O'Brien can add performance to the skills that led Poetry Review to describe him as "the poet-editor-critic of his generation".

His recording was made on 28 February 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Selected bibliography

Andrew Marvell: Poems Selected by Sean O'Brien (...

Night Train, Flambard 2009


The Drowned Book, Picador 2007


The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland After 1945,...

The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary Poetry in...

Ten Hallam Poets (co-editor), Mews Press 2005

The Indoor Park, Bloodaxe 1983 - out of print

The Frighteners, Bloodaxe 1987

HMS Glasshouse, Oxford University Press 1991 - out of...


2001 - Forward Prize (Best Collection) Downriver

Prize website

1997 (shortlist) Forward Prize for Best First Collection The Shuttered Eye

Prize website

2001 Northern Writer of the Year

Prize website

1993 - E.M. Forster Award

1988 Cholmondeley Award

Prize website

1984 Somerset Maugham Award

Prize website

1979 Eric Gregory Award

Prize website


Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien Reading from his Poems

1The Amateur God

2In a Military Archive

3Cousin Coat


5HMS Glasshouse

6Working on the Railway


8Ballad of the Lit and Phil

9After Laforgue


11Special Train


13Essay on Snow

14Reading Stevens in the Bath

15Welcome, Major Poet


17Songs from the Black Path, I, III


19Songs from the Drowned Book I, V


21Postcards to the Rain God (an extract)

22The Thing

23After Rilke: To Holderlin

A tour of the Archive with Stephanie Anderson

On my first visit to the Poetry Archive I dipped in to see what was there, and discovered there was far more to hear...

Featured Guided Tours

Books by Sean O'Brien