A lesser poet might appear self-conscious after the exceptional success of The Drowned Book, which in 2007 won both the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes. But the writing in Sean O'Brien's profound and thoughtful November is conspicuously applied. Despite its range and sophistication, every freighted lyric phrase earns its keep in a volume that addresses both personal bereavement and the collective loss of social values.
O'Brien's loosely blank verse – he doesn't always write in pentameter yet it remains a centrifugal presence – carries an echo of tradition, and authority. But he refuses any short cut. Avoiding the simple drum-beat with which a less resourceful poet might hypnotise the reader, his walking, talking metre creates space for exploration: "We fear that the fields of blue air at the world's end/ Will be the only court we face./ We fear that when we reach the gate alone/ There will be neither words nor deeds/ To answer with."
O'Brien is too consummate an artist to indulge in mere thinking aloud. His use, here and elsewhere, of the plural pronoun is both a sign that something more than confession is going on, and a call to collective responsibility: this poem is called "The Citizens", after all.
O'Brien is a citizen poet, whose dystopic "On the Toon" prophesies the dismantling of the welfare state and the closure of its public libraries: "It takes/ Less than a lifetime to renew the ignorance/ This public mind was built here to dispel." But his importance is indisputably poetic, not conscientious. Kennings, like that "public mind" for "library", have deep roots in British poetry's Anglo-Saxon history. This kind of formal borrowing is a rich, Modernist gesture. Modernist too is the crunch of thought within each striking phrase: "seeking and selling the flesh of the earth... We cannot be other than real" ("Europeans").
O'Brien also studs poems, like "Bruges-la-Morte" and "The Island", with allusions from Whistler to B-movies to Russian revolutionaries. A sequence of elegies and homages to fellow-poets includes a version of Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre and poems addressing Michael Donaghy, Derek Mahon, Archie Markham and Peter Porter. In each, O'Brien's diction turns towards that of the poet saluted, but the virtuosity is subsumed by tenderness. In a "Leavetaking" for Porter, the narrator admires fire's "crimson speech/ As though like alcohol it were/ A kind of poetry". This this rapid set of transformations – flame into word, colour and alcohol into poetry – exemplifies the loving familiarity with which O'Brien handles the material world.
Elegy's conservative note can too easily lead to facile verse, but these poems don't draw on its familiar "dying fall". They create a symbolic universe out of railway cuttings and foggy suburbs: an anti-metropolitan vision of excellence. Excellence of the spirit, they suggest, is subtle, plain-dealing and refuses glib individual transcendence: "Work is good, like love and company".
Among many treasures, from instant lyric classics like "Josie" and "Narbonne" to the gloriously evocative "Cahiers du Cinéma", the book's centre of gravity is O'Brien's "Elegy", for his mother, and the accompanying "Novembrists". Both poems are moved, and move us, by their recollection of the values of the talented woman who "taught the children of the poor for forty years/ Because it was the decent thing to do". Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but it's a masterful writer who manages, like O'Brien, to get both into his verse.
Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music' was shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes