Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 40 Sean O'Brien
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Winner of Forward Prize and E M Forster Award from the American Academy of Letters. He is a watchful critic (who always has a fresh angle on each poet's tone and project) whose own poetry mixes humour, social commitment, urban landscape, drink and male-related subjects like trains (he's written brilliant football poems) with heady undertugging lyricism, a formal, conscious style and beautifully controlled rhythms. Four collections.

'Bloke out of pub in heavy rain, trying to appease cross, wet girlfriend on long walk home," would be the message in a telegram. A reminder that the rain's not his fault, and that it's universal to blame others for the mess we're in, plus a spot of self-denigration via a seasoned swipe at her family and subterranean sexual puns (I am up and have come ... to no good), seems a non-starter in the appeasement stakes: the poet's fate in the last line seems pretty justified. But the playfulness, getting wilder as TV celebs go down in the floating wreckage, alchemises all the meditations on the human condition (as a road where the bus stop is too far away, where we are always in transit, dependent on transport whose shelter's stove in and a swill of old tickets awaits us, where the future is underwater and we lie in the dark, looking for someone to blame), into a wonderfully teasing, affectionate, apologetic, we're-in-this-together-whatever-the-weather, love poem.

Tone-wise, it runs on tension between formality (expressed in the capitals beginning each line) and blokeish demoticism, blending self-referential, intellectualising references to language (conditionals, the future tense, metaphor), the dry academic style (they too would rain, entailed by human opinion), mock-high-flown poeticism (O send me a metro inspector), plus a very conscious zeugma (a "yoking", the device which joins two disparate things, as in ruin your shoes and my temper), with jokiness (that's what we're saying, we know a watery grave when we see it), wit (mouthing the obvious: raining), sarcasm (dearest, you say, as you shoot me), and ruefully despairing maleness faced with female accusation (my darling, I know you believe the rain is my doing). Vowel-harmonies, holding things together acoustically, are dominated by the AY of rain: raining, rained, rain, away, awaits, saying, grave, nature, entailed, blame (the important one), rain, wave, rain, blame, faced, raining, labour, say. The OO of the climax (shoots) is prepared for by too, too, brute, views, shoes, you, doing, too, you, and you: a list which blends the idea that the world is too much for the poet with the fact that you are, too.

But this poet is a master of, above all, rhythm, famous for his dactyls (-uu, long short short), the oldest European metre. This poem is a little mock epic, bulging with dactyls - know I am (-uu), up and have (-uu), come and will (-uu), go to no (-uu). The classical ancestry fits. The poem moves from leaving the boozer, missing the bus, getting home soaking through an ankle-high wave, into mock allegory for the fall of civilisation, eg, Rome or Troy. The library flooding and we have not read it, the cellar flooding and we shall be thirsty, has an archaic, prophetic ring which electricity (that sizzling bulb. There it goes; the studio shorts), plus the weather-girl, Trevor McDonald and Esther Williams pin down specifically to our own world.

But the poem's two central lines are the threats-cum-advice of your family and the no good they know of the poet. Introduced tangentially as metaphor (feels like), this family grievance is at the heart of all the allegory of collapse. By the end, the collapse of civilisation becomes the poet's demise, as his partner gets rid of rain in her nylons and also rid of him. Yet, from tonight we will lie, we are in the grammatical tense spotlit by the early lines: the future. This shooting is a fantasy, a conditional with "would" left out. As the poem says, this is a metaphor - meaning both rain (the paranoid human condition, surrounded by adversity) and poem representing the central relationship.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Rain' is taken from 'The Ghost Train' (OUP)


At ten pm it starts. We can hear from the bar

As if somebody humourless fills in the dots,

All the dots on the window, the gaps in between.

It is raining. It rained and has always been raining.

If there were conditionals they too would rain.

The future tense is partly underwater. We must leave.

There's a road where the bus stop is too far away

In the dark between streetlights. The shelter's stove in

And a swill of old tickets awaits us.

Transitional, that's what we're saying,

But we're metaphysical animals:

We know a watery grave when we see it

And how the bald facts of brute nature

Are always entailed by mere human opinion,

So this is a metaphor. Someone's to blame

If your coat is dissolving, if rain is all round us

And feels like the threats-cum-advice of your family

Who know I am up and have come and will go to no good.

They cannot be tempted to alter their views

In the light of that sizzling bulb. There it goes.

Here we are: a black street without taxis or buses.

An ankle-high wave is advancing

To ruin your shoes and my temper. My darling,

I know you believe for the moment the rain is my doing.

Tonight we will lie in the dark with damp hair.

I too am looking for someone to blame. O send me

A metro inspector, a stony-faced barmaid.

The library is flooding and we have not read it,

The cellar is flooding and we shall be thirsty,

Trevor McDonald has drowned as the studio shorts

And the weather-girl goes floating past

Like Esther Williams with her clothes on

Mouthing the obvious: raining.

There's no need to labour the obvious, dearest, you say,

As you wring out your nylons and shoot me.