This is no way to earn a living, says prize-winning poet

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sean O'Brien, one of Britain's most celebrated poets, said last night that he regarded his work more as an "affliction" than a career and would not recommend it to anyone, as he won the prestigious £10,000 Forward Poetry Prize for the third time.

O'Brien, who won the best collection prize for The Drowned Book, is the only poet in the prize's history, which includes the likes of Ted Hughes and Carol Ann Duffy as past winners, to have been recognised three times. But even as his own career was looking more artistically productive and materially remunerative than ever, the 55-year-old said that he would never recommend the job of a poet because it was so unpredictable.

"I don't think of poetry as a career. It's more an affliction," he explained. "I would not recommend it as a career to anybody. It's very uncertain and not a very well rewarded thing to do. I would say if someone wants a career, they should look elsewhere. But if it's a vocation, you are stuck with it, you have no choice," he said.

He also urged younger poets to resist the modern- day urge to publish before their work had matured. "I don't think people necessarily need to rush into print. It might be a good idea to really learn the craft than think about publishing. Because of the way we live, people want instant results but poetry doesn't perform in that way," he said.

O'Brien, who was born in Hull but now lives in Newcastle where he is a professor of creative writing, said he became inspired to write at the age of 14 when a school teacher introduced him to the poems of Ted Hughes and T S Eliot.

"I suddenly found language very exciting, I was fascinated by it and thought it was the most interesting thing I had ever experienced," he said.

The Drowned Book, his sixth collection of poems, which is based on the theme of water, was inspired by the countryside of his youth. "It is a landscape which is vulnerable to flooding and it's a default landscape of my imagination," he said.

"The Humber estuary figures in my growing up and in my imaginings I always go back to it. It's my source landscape but as well as being familiar, it reflects mortality and speaks to you of death as well as life." O'Brien, who is vice-president of the UK Poetry Society, won the Forward prize for his collection Ghost Train in 1995 and Downriver in 2001. This year, he was awarded the accolade from a shortlist which included the youngest poet in the prize's history, Luke Kennard, 26, and Jack Mapanje, a former political prisoner and human rights activist from Malawi.

Michael Symmons Roberts, who chaired the judging panel, which included the Radiohead guitarist Colin Greenwood and the poet Glyn Maxwell, said O'Brien's collection was his strongest yet.

"The Drowned Book is beautifully constructed, by turn both witty and heart wrenching. A fully realised, highly accomplished collection, it is a sustained elegy for lost friends, landscapes and a decaying culture. A past winner on two occasions, this is O'Brien's strongest collection to date," he said.

Daljit Nagra won a prize for best first collection 2007 with Look We Have Coming To Dover!, his debut collection offering insights into the lives of British-born Indians, while Alice Oswald won the prize for best single poem with "Dunt".

An extract from 'Blizzard'

The snow will bring the world indoors, the fall

That saves the Gulf Stream and the Greenland Shelf.

White abolitionist of maps and calendars,

Its Lenten rigour pillowed like a sin, it means

To be the only season, falling always on itself.

To put an end to all analogy, pure cold

That proves what it need never say,

It calls us home again, beneath a drift

In which the figure and the ground collapse –

No more redundancy, no more perhaps.

Look at these attic windowsills, look in the gate –

White after white against the off-white sheets,

The wafers of a pitiless communion

That turns a wood to Mother Russia and the night

To afterlife and then to a snowblind street.

With cataracts and snow-tipped breast

The mermaids in their brazen lingerie

Wait bravely at the fountain in the square.