Sean O’Brien (b. 1952) has been described as the leading poet–editor–critic of his generation. He was born in London but grew up in Hull. The North East – its landscapes, history and culture – have remained a core influence and concern in his poetry. He graduated from Selwyn College, Cambridge, and spent the 1980s teaching in a secondary school in East Sussex. Since then he’s made a career as a writer and academic, with fellowships at the universities of Dundee, Leeds, Durham and Newcastle, as well as at universities in Denmark and Japan. From 1998 to 2006, he taught creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University where in 2003 he was made professor of poetry. He is now professor of creative writing at Newcastle University and a vice-president of The Poetry Society.
His many poetry collections include The Indoor Park (Bloodaxe, 1983), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award, The Frighteners (Bloodaxe, 1987), HMS Glasshouse (Oxford University Press, 1991), Ghost Train (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Downriver (Picador, 2001). With the publication of The Drowned Book (Picador, 2007), O’Brien achieved the unique feat of winning the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection of the Year for the third time, the only poet to have won this prize more than once. This collection also won the 2007 T S Eliot Prize, while his collection, November (Picador, 2011) was shortlisted for both the T S Eliot Prize and the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Collection. His most recent collection, The Beautiful Librarians (Picador, 2015), is a Poetry Book Society Choice.
As a critic he has been very influential, his collection of essays about contemporary poetry, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1998) regarded as a classic. He is also a playwright, journalist and short story writer, and in 2009 published his first novel, Afterlife.
His imaginative landscape remains rooted in its own version of the north, from the bombed streets of Hull to the economic deprivations of his adopted city, Newcastle. It’s a world of hidden gardens, railway lines, estuaries, industry and decline, a territory he has made his own, exploring it with an increasingly intense, dream-like quality. Combining literariness with colloquial language, O’Brien’s work can be angrily satirical but also ruefully humorous in its treatment of his abiding themes of history, politics and class.