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.