Father Tyne: ‘On the Toon’ by Sean O’Brien

By Rob Packer

November by Sean O’Brien

Is there a trend towards epic in contemporary British poetry? Maybe it’s just my taste (or my local library’s, or prize judges’) that some of my favourite recent poetry collections are or include longish poems with clear epic influences: even stranger is that all of them came out this year and last. There’s been ‘Elsewhere’ in David Harsent’s excellent Night; the incomparable Alice Oswald’s reworking of the Iliad in Memorial (and her 2002 Dart); ‘The Fair Chase’ starting John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (I won’t have time to write more about that collection unfortunately: it’s very good though); Simon Armitage’s adaptation of The Death of King Arthur (I didn’t enjoy this one so much and found it bathetic in parts: if you haven’t read Armitage before—and you should—, start with Kid, Seeing Stars or his Sir Gawain); and ‘On the Toon’ which closes Sean O’Brien’s November.

‘On the Toon’ is what I’m going to call a mini-epic—it’s technically something called an epyllion, a spectacularly ugly 19th-century word that sounds like a hair-removing mythical beast. The poem is set in Newcastle (upon Tyne, obviously), a city closely associated with O’Brien and is a brilliant piece of imaginative writing that combines The Odyssey and Divine Comedy (O’Brien translated Inferno in 2006) with Newcastle’s shipbuilding history and its legendary (infamous?) nightlife. And it begins where all good English epics should (The Canterbury Tales, for example)—in a pub:

O fairest of the northern waters, river-god, great Tyne, I asked,
Flow through this language now, hydrate the tongue
Afresh, abolish drought and thirst
And let me drink you in to learn
The meaning of our history, and what must be.
Send me a guide from your deep source,
A water-sprite, a river-girl, to go with me.

‘The clue you’re looking for at thirteen down,’
She said, ‘is river-stairs, and learning that
Will cost you. Mine’s a turquoise WKD.’

This looks like a typical invocation of the epic Muse, but when the poet asks great Tyne to “hydrate the tongue”, it starts to sound more like O’Brien wants another Newcastle Brown Ale—or whatever it is he drinks—to get started on his poem or his crossword. The naiad he’s then sent is a Geordie lass out ‘on the toon’ and he then brilliantly brings the poem down to urban realism with the turquoise WKD, an exotically coloured alcopop (snakebite, that deadly mixture of beer and cider, is also mentioned later).

The Tyne Bridge (Source: Tagishsimon, Creative Commons on Wikipedia)

Like Aeneas’ or Dante’s descent into the Underworld, the naiad acts as a guide, his Sibyl or Virgil; the Tyne becomes a Styx of heavy industry; and the pair walk through a tunnel of fire where “at its head a pair of vast red doors / Stood open, guarded by a triple-headed bouncer”, who lets them through into a “wilderness of mirrorwork” after the girl says “We’re on the list”. Conflating a nightclub bouncer with Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld, works perfectly, as I think most people who’ve been in a nightclub queue would agree.

And so the poem continues over its ten pages, mixing high and low-brow references so spectacularly that it completely overshadows the rest of what is a rather good collection.

So is this a trend towards epic poetry? Maybe, but growing up with London buses taught me that three, four or five in a row isn’t necessarily a trend. It might be, it might not, though I hope it is. And even if it isn’t, enjoy it while it lasts.

Sean O’Brien, November, Picador 2011

For a different—and bizarre—point of view on why the epic is back, take a look at this article from Forbes (thanks, Google…). Hmm, I think Homer was really in there as name-drop, because I’m not even sure the writer knows The Iliad and Odyssey were written in verse. And while I can accept that Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey must, as part of Western literature, have influences from epic, but I have no idea how they’re epic poetry. None at all. If, unlike me, you have read them and know, please tell me.

Other epics and mini-epics mentioned:

  • Simon ArmitageThe Death of King Arthur, Faber & Faber 2012 (Blogpost)
  • John BurnsideBlack Cat Bone, Cape Poetry 2011
  • David HarsentNight, Faber & Faber 2011 (Blogpost)
  • Alice OswaldDart, Faber & Faber 2002 (Blogpost)
  • Alice OswaldMemorial, Faber & Faber 2011 (Blogpost)
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