Lifesaving Poems: Sean O’Brien’s ‘Before’

To safe and almost universal silence I published How Far From Here is Home? (Stride) a few days before Christmas in 1996. The book did well, selling out its print run in a little over two years. For a début book of poems to do that in the pre-internet, social media age looks to me now like a miracle.

Rupert Loydell of Stride did a very good job of selling the book pre-publication, on a slight discount, to a subscription list of friends, family and anyone else who knew me.  Not only did this give Stride a bit of necessary cash flow in advance of paying the printer, it also meant we were up on the deal before the book hit the shelves as it were. (Spoiler alert: I never actually saw the book in a bookshop).

As Rupert was fond of telling me: ‘You won’t sell anything at Waterstone’s. Your market is at readings.’

To be fair to him, he did his fair share of organising these, including one with Phil Bowen in London, whose Variety’s Hammer came out at the same time. The three of us drove up from the sticks and back in a day and we felt like gods.

Not long after the its publication Mark Robinson wrote some very kind words about the book in the final edition of Scratch.  Another miracle.

The readings gradually dried up, as they do. Then, silence.

Towards the end of 1998 I was invited by Siân Hughes, then education officer of the Poetry Society, to fill with her the role of ‘teacher’ for some prizewinning young poets on a residential week at the Arvon Foundation’s Lumb Bank writing centre. (For a fuller account of this trip you can read The Day Ted Hughes Died here).

The plan was to meet the poets at their prize-giving ceremony and reading at the Festival Hall then join up with them on the train to Lumb Bank a week later. It felt like a good gig. There was hoopla, hobnobbing and even a buffet!

Then I made a terrible mistake. Arriving at the Festival Hall way too early I found myself mooching around the Poetry Library and persuading myself now would be a good time to catch up on the reviews sections of poetry magazines I had not got around to reading. You never knew what you might find, I told myself.

Picking up magazines at random I had a chuckle-filled time reading the eviscerations inflicted on my fellow-poets. This came to an abrupt halt when I read the opening sentence of a review which turned out to be about my own book. It read: ‘Anthony Wilson is far too capable a writer to ever be any use as a poet.’ It did not mean this as a compliment. I read the sentence again, to check I had read it correctly. The room began to tilt. Sweat seemed to be coming out of my eyes, but I knew it was not sweat.

I went outside for a bit, onto a balcony overlooking the Thames. Even the river seemed to be tilting. I noticed that I needed to hold on to the furniture to walk.

Then I made a second terrible mistake, quickly followed by a third. I read the rest of the review of my book of poems (it got worse), then photocopied it so I could share my outrage with Rupert and Siân. Taking nothing away from their sympathy, neither course of action did anything to improve my state of mind.

Once the initial shock of my discovery had worn off I seemed to enter a long tunnel of numbness. Normal life and interactions would continue around me, but I participated in them as though hearing and observing them through a wall made of glass. Everything was muffled: sound, the taste of food, my children’s laughter. Everything except my anger.

Siân was great company on the train. She said the answer was to eat and drink my body weight in almond croissants and Virgin Trains coffee while penning offensive acrostic poems using the letters of the reviewer in question. This helped enormously.

Our tutors for the week were Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough. Keeping us busy with insane sounding exercises like writing a villanelle before lunch, they threw ideas, poems and anecdotes at us implicitly expecting that we were well up to the task not only of keeping up but writing poems of value.

This feverish and competitive atmosphere cajoled me from thinking too closely about the review. Nevertheless, as soon as I was away from company my fears about its hostility gnawed away at me. I began to believe that they were right.

I remember going to bed on the second night with a poem (Jo had set this as an exercise) that we found from a book we had plucked off the shelf at random. The idea was to read the poem aloud and to try and memorise as much of it as possible before falling asleep.  I had chosen her own anthology Emergency Kit , probably in an attempt to please her. I closed my eyes, opened the book and stabbed at a page in the darkness. The poem I had chosen turned out to be ‘Before’ by Sean O’Brien. I had a dim memory of having read it when I bought HMS Glasshouse (OUP, 1991), but now the poem seemed to come alive in a completely different way. In its meticulous calibration of that time before waking and the switch to what Les Murray calls the ‘daylight mind’, I found myself suddenly able to hold my rage and disappointment at something approaching arm’s length. The world O’Brien describes is not free of pain, far from it. But, hypnotised by its somnambulant rhythms I found myself wanting to believe in words as a force for good again. Things could be otherwise.

A miracle.

Next morning I found Roger eating toast and marmalade alone in the dining room. ‘Sleep well, son?’ he asked.

‘Never better, thanks.’

‘Memorise your poem?’

‘Not really. Bit long.’

‘Nah, me neither,’ he said.


Make over the alleys and gardens to birdsong,
the hour of not-for-an-hour. Lie still.
Leave the socks you forgot on the clothesline.
Leave slugs to make free with the pansies.
The jets will give Gatwick a miss
and from here you could feel the springs
wake by the doorstep and under the precinct
where now there is nobody frozenly waiting.
This is free time, in the sense that a handbill
goes cartwheeling over the crossroads
past stoplights rehearsing in private
and has neither witness nor outcome.
This is before the first bus has been late
or the knickers sought under the bed
or the first cigarette undertaken,
before the flush and cross word.
Viaducts, tunnels and motorways: still.
The mines and the Japanese sunrise: still.
The high bridges lean out in the wind
on the curve of their pinkening lights,
and the coast is inert as a model.
The wavebands are empty, the mail unimagined
and bacon still wrapped in the freezer
like evidence aimed to intrigue our successors.
The island is dreamless, its slack-jawed insomniacs
stunned by the final long shot of the movie,
its murderers innocent, elsewhere.
The policeman have slipped from their helmets
and money forgets how to count.
In the bowels of Wapping the telephones
shamelessly rest in their cradles.
The bomb in the conference centre’s
a harmless confection of elements
strapped to a duct like an art installation.
The Première sleeps in her fashion,
Her Majesty, all the princesses, tucked up
with the Bishops, the glueys, the DHSS,
in the People’s Republic of Zeds.
And you sleep at my shoulder, the cat at your feet,
and deserve to be spared the irruption
of if, but and ought, which is why
I declare this an hour or general safety
when even the personal monster –
example, the Kraken – is dead to the world
like the deaf submarines with their crewmen
spark out at their fathomless consoles.
No one has died. There need be no regret,
for we do not exist, and I promise
I shall not wake anyone yet.

Sean O’Brien, from Emergency Kit (Faber)

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this post, why not look at my Found Poems page?


  1. What a wonderful poem. I didn’t know it. It explains to me why I like being up at that time of day. And I love the way you describe your reaction to the bad review. In the 90s I had to do a reading with someone who had just reviewed my second pamphlet and said ‘this isn’t poetry. ‘ Awkward! I had no idea how to ‘be’ towards him during the (long, long) evening and settled for a sort of thin friendliness. But inside I was a cauldron of hurt and fury.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mandy. I don’t think I have got over my review either. It was bluntly personal about me and deeply painful. I have never seen the person’s name again in magazines so think it may have been written under a pseudonym. I love your phrase thin friendliness. There is a lot of that in poetry. Maybe we should talk about it more. This might have to become a blog post when I am back in the autumn… With appreciation for your support as ever, Anthony


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