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Poetry Feature: Conor O'Callaghan

Conor O’Callaghan, an Irish writer born in Newry in 1968, is one of those poets who critics may lazily – albeit quite rightly – describe as ‘one of the best of his generation’, though he actually seems to fall on the cusp of two generations. Or at least has fallen short, despite having appeared in seminal Irish anthologies, of major British anthologies and promotions – too young for the New Poetry and the PBS’s New Generation campaign; inexplicably missing from the Next Gen and falling short of the cut-off point of Roddy Lumsden’s forthcoming Identity Parade – as inadequate as these may ultimately be at fully checking the pulse, let alone establishing the hierarchy of the literature of a given period (history will do that), they still (usually quite rightly) cement reputations, develop readerships, and give a representative flavour of poetry at the time. This isn’t to badmouth these publications or promotions, but to note that given the inevitable parameters, some genuinely talented and worthy writers often get sidelined or miss out through nothing more than plain bad luck.

This aside, I hope I’m right in reckoning that O’Callaghan’s work will stand the test of time. I can only reach for the usual platitudes in urging you to hunt down copies of his three collections published by Gallery Press to date – The History of Rain (1993) and Seatown (1999), collected together in Seatown and Earlier Poems (2000); and the excellent Fiction, published in 2005 – showcasing the development of an exciting and original poetic voice sounding itself out in poems that are engaged and engaging, witty, smart and sharp, but above all, driven by an energetic music that is as capable of challenging and amusing as it is of moving the reader.

In his review of Seatown in the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Knight pointed to James Fenton, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin as pronounced influences in O’Callaghan’s work, and for those who are fans of any of these major voices in post-war poetry, you won’t be disappointed by his poems. But at the same time, quite rightly, Knight states that ‘despite the presence of these pungent voices, O’Callaghan’s poetry is marvellously his own’. This is largely to do with the knowingness of the poems, which amounts to more than the winks, nudges, sarcasm and irony that crop up in much contemporary verse. Instead, particularly in Fiction, O’Callaghan’s poetry combines the suggestive, deliberative and symbolic capabilities of verse with the inventive, imaginative qualities most readily associated with fictional prose, often to startling effect. This includes the likes of ‘Out-takes’, exploring the sounds left behind from a recording session (‘leftovers from a cleaned up / final version’; suggesting our polished, distorted view of ourselves); ‘Reception’, where the poet remembers an event from his childhood which turns out to be a story he was told ‘over a glass of ropey Chianti’; ‘Hello’, a sequence of poems exploring the invention of that phrase for ‘the blower, / since some kind of formula / for an opening exchange / had to be agreed upon / to get the ball rolling’; and the excellent vignette ‘The Narrator’, who ‘during the break in chapter / gets up to stretch beneath a skylight’, a theme returned to in ‘The Present Writer’, who ‘gets a kick / inhabiting the third person, as if talking across himself / or forever clapping his own exit from the wings’.

In short, O’Callaghan stuff is the business and deserves a wide readership. And needless to say, his next collection will be well worth waiting for. In the meantime, though, do check out the three poems of his which appear in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine, and the comic ‘The Modern Pastoral Elegy’ in that magazine’s archive. And rather than my blathering on any further here, I’ll let the poetry speak for itself – below is ‘Coventry’, the sonnet that opens Fiction, first published in the TLS.


On a night as clear and warm as tonight,
in 1941, a stray German squadron
with a war to win and a radar on the blink
mistook the quays of neutral Seatown
for the lights of greater Coventry.

On a night as clear and warm as tonight –
when she has gone into an almighty huff
and taken the chat over heaven-knows-what
(or something of nothing with a bit of fluff)
and my lot once again is the box-room futon,
the guest duvet –
                                  I am inclined to think
perhaps the Luftwaffe after all were spot on,
and would give my eye-teeth for butterfly bombs
to fall into this silence I have been sent to.

poem by Conor O’Callaghan
republished with permission of the author
first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 2000
from Fiction (Gallery Press, 2005)