Sean O’Brien


Griffin Poetry Prize 2012
International Shortlist

Book: November

Poet: Sean O’Brien

Publisher: Picador

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Sean O’Brien has written six collections of poetry, most recently The Drowned Book (2007), which won the Forward and T.S. Eliot prizes; Cousin Coat: Selected Poems 1976-2001 (2002) and other works which include the book of essays The Deregulated Muse (1998); the verse plays The Birds (2002); Keepers of the Flame (2003) and a verse translation of Dante’s Inferno (2006); the short story collection The Silence Room (2008) and the novel Afterlife (2009). He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Judges’ Citation

November is a book of subtle virtuosity. O’Brien’s skilled handling of rhythm, structure, narrative and image are on full display in this latest collection, rich in evidence of a careful, elegant mind at work. In November we approach year’s end, a time of reassessment, of clear-eyed stock-taking and redirection. ‘Look away just for a moment. / Then look back and see…’ are the book’s apt, opening lines. This turning away and back, this existential strophe and antistrophe, are like the picked-through furrows of a ploughed field where O’Brien paces us with a firm hand past sites of sober reckoning. Gates, graveyards, stations, junctions and the hazy light of more than one afternoon bar become sites of conciliation with both past and present, where ‘every failure brings you its account / for signing.’ Placed in these terrains of transition, peopled by the dedicatees of elegy and homage, November affirms, through accumulated detail, these disappearing worlds that ‘cannot be other than real.'”


November is haunted by the missing, the missed, the vanished, the uncounted, and the uncountable lost: lost sleep, connections, muses, books and the ghosts and gardens of childhood. Ultimately, these lead the poet to contemplate the most troubling absences: O’Brien’s elegies for his parents and friends form the heart of this book, and are the source of its pervasive note of depart. Elsewhere – as if a French window stood open to an English room – the islands, canals, railway stations and undergrounds of O’Brien’s landscape are swept by a strikingly Gallic air. This new note lends O’Brien’s recent poems a reinvigorated sense of the imaginative possible: November shows O’Brien at the height of his powers, with his intellect and imagination as gratifyingly restless as ever.

Note: Summaries are taken from promotional materials supplied by the publisher, unless otherwise noted.

Sean O’Brien reads Europeans


Now we are in Europe let us take
To selling mushrooms by the roadside,
Broad-brimmed platefuls and uniform buttons
Plucked before dawn in the forest of birch,
The dank delicious one-legged flesh
Climbing from grave-pits as big and as deep
As the forest themselves, for it does not
Take long to establish the custom, not long
To forget the beginning, to hold up
A bucket or basket of mushrooms
And talk about always and offer a shrug
That proves our knowledge and our ignorance
Identical, proverbial, entirely
Beyond the scope of history or law,
And since we have always been here
On our fold-away chairs near the crossroads,
Hunched in black overcoats, pale as our produce,
Seeking and selling the flesh of the earth
By the handful and kilo in brown paper bags,
We cannot be other than real.

From November, by Sean O’Brien
© Sean O’Brien 2011

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Photo credit: Caroline Forb