on 13 September 2008
In 2007 Sean O'Brien's collection of poems, The Drowned Book, won the Forward prize and also in the same year it won the T S Elliot prize. Apart from Cousin Coat: Selected poems, 1976 - 2001 and Dante's Inferno: A verse Translation, The Drowned Book is O'Brien's sixth collection of poems. It could be said that O'Brien is one of our outstanding contemporary poets. But does the Drowned Book enhance O'Brien's standing?
Broadly writing in a style that is sometimes known as free verse, both style and content anchors the reader firmly in time and place. Many of the poems seems to lament the past and pay tribute to events and friends long gone. For example, the first two verses of The River Road beckons childhood friends to:
Come for a walk down the river road,
For though you're all a long time dead
The waters part to let us pass
The way we'd go on summer nights
In the times we were children
And thought we were lovers.
This theme of childhood and reflecting on the past through the eyes of children is continued in the poem Water-Gardens. Using some wonderful turn of phrases, it was refreshing to see how O'Brien connected past and present.
Ir could be argued that the collection is in two parts. What links the poems together in the first part of the book is water. Water appears in various manifestations - the sea, river, stream and even drains. What I found interesting in O'Brien's pursuance of this theme was the various connections and associations that he revealed in respect of water.
In the second part of the book, O'Brien uses the broad free verse style to express what appears to be deeply personal thoughts of places and friendships with fellow poets. The theme also changes, politics and class struggle becomes the dominant themes. There is also a change in tone. The poetic voice becomes harsh, forthright and sardonic.
Another feature of this part of the collection is that in some of the poems O'Brien does not appear to convey anything of significance. Rather, he seems to be exploring form. O'Brien appears to be addressing the issue of just how far he can stretch the form in which he is writing. This comes across in poems such as Proposal for a Monument to the Third International and Three Facetious Poems.
As stated at the outset, this collection of poems won two major awards so its high standing speaks for itself. However, I can only give the collection 3 stars because I found the scope of its appeal too narrow. Standing some what outside the cultural milieu of which The Drowned Book speaks, O'Brien failed to engage me emotionally or I just could not cross the cultural boundary and empathise.
on 23 February 2013
I found this collection a maddening mixture of beautiful writing and ambiguity. Because I could never quite grasp the writer's intent in any of the poems, I wanted to dismiss the collection as a rather pointless exercise. However, having struggled through all the poems, I was annoyed to find that I found them all so attractively written that I strove very hard, with limited success, to extract something meaningful from them.
Many of O'Brien's references are so obscure that searching the Internet gave no enlightenment, and I am never quite sure how much this hampers my understanding. Who is James Wright? What is the "Year of the Turnip"? What is Hedley's "Coming Home"?
Also, I am often unsure whether I have even understood what the subject of a poem is. For instance, in "The Coffin Boat", which has some exquisite writing about the demise of his friend, the second stanza describes a place with "howling inmates" where their cartoons "hang for sale" amongst groves of hatstands and stacks of disused literature. What is this place? A graveyard? A lunatic asylum? I feel it is important to know, otherwise the whole stanza becomes irrelevant. Many, if not all, of the poems in the collection are like this. Is this deliberate ambiguity, or does O'Brien imagine we will understand what he is driving at?
So I read the book in a rage of incomprehension, cursing O'Brien for removing the clues to the understanding of his poems, while, at the same time, beguiled by the beauty of what he had to say.