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O’Brien says this poem is ‘about an invisible coat which I eventually discovered I’d been wearing all my life and was not allowed to remove’. It seems to be a statement of his intent and purpose as a poet.
The formality of the poem, with its steady iambic pentameter and consistent rhyme scheme, reflects the serious tone and the constant presence of the ‘secret coat’. The language is sometimes colloquial. The coat gives a ‘clammy itch’, compelling the speaker to work to give voice to the poor and persecuted in history even though there was a time when he sought to escape into libraries and the literature of Donne and Henry James.
In the third and fourth stanzas he lists those he feels obliged to represent. We see a compassion for the ‘North, the poor’, while a reference to ‘Jarrow’ places the speaker’s perceived task firmly within the politics and history of his northern home. Progress, he seems to suggest has been limited, since the Jarrow March.
Notice how the final stanza is like a prayer with its repeated plea ‘be with me’ and a passionate request for the coat to keep his poetic voice ‘honest’.
Sean O’Brien has won the Forward Prize for Poetry three times, in addition to numerous other awards for his six collections of poetry. He is also a critic, academic, novelist and short‑story writer.
He grew up in Hull before moving to Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has lived since 1990. He studied at Cambridge and taught for several years in East Sussex. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and had previously been Professor of Poetry at Sheffield Hallam University.
O’Brien is an unashamedly political writer, and his technically accomplished poetry is typically based in the post-industrial North‑east and examines the interplay of past and present. He examines, often with wit and humour, a quintessential England of allotments, football and old industrial towns. He also explores the experiences of individuals during different points in history, looking at the effects of collective narrative on individual lives.