Dunn, Douglas (Eaglesham)

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DUNN, Douglas (Eaglesham)

Nationality: British. Born: Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, 23 October 1942. Education: Renfrew High School; Camphill School, Paisley; Scottish School of Librarianship; University of Hull, 1966–69, B.A. in English 1969. Family: Married 1) Lesley Balfour Wallace in 1964 (died 1981); 2) Lesley Jane Bathgate in 1985; one son and one daughter. Career: Library assistant, Renfrew County Library, Paisley, 1959–62, and Andersonian Library, Glasgow, 1962–64; assistant librarian, Akron Public Library, Ohio, 1964–66; librarian, Chemistry Department Library, University of Glasgow, 1966; assistant librarian, Brynmor Jones Library, 1969–71, and fellow in creative writing, 1974–75, University of Hull; fellow in creative writing, 1981–82, and honorary visiting professor, University of Dundee, 1987–89; writerin-residence, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, and Scottish Arts Council-Australia Council Exchange fellow, 1984. Since 1991 professor of English, University of St. Andrews, and since 1993 director, St. Andrews Scottish Studies Institute. Poetry reviewer, Encounter magazine, London, 1971–78. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1966; Scottish Arts Council award, 1970, 1984; Somerset Maugham award, 1972; Faber memorial prize, 1976; Hawthornden prize, 1982; Whitbread award, 1985, and Book of the Year award, 1986; Cholmondeley award, 1989. D.Litt.: University of Hull, 1996. LL D: University of Dundee, 1987. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1981. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group Ltd., Drury House, 34–43 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HA, England. Address: School of English, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9AL, Scotland.



Terry Street. London, Faber, 1969; New York, Chilmark Press, 1973.

Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 1, with others, edited by Dannie Abse. London, Corgi, 1971.

Backwaters. London, The Review, 1971.

Night. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1971.

The Happier Life. London, Faber, and New York, Chilmark Press, 1972.

Love or Nothing. London, Faber, 1974.

Barbarians. London, Faber, 1979.

St. Kilda's Parliament. London, Faber, 1981.

Europa's Lover. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1982.

Elegies. London, Faber, 1985.

Selected Poems 1964–1983. London, Faber, 1986.

Northlight. London, Faber, 1988.

New and Selected Poems 1966–1988. New York, Ecco Press, 1989.

Dante's Drum-Kit. London, Faber, 1993.

The Donkey's Ears. London, Faber, 2000.

The Year's Afternoon. London, Faber, 2000.

Recording: Douglas Dunn and Philip Larkin, Faber, 1984.


Screenplays (verse commentaries): Early Every Morning, 1975; Running, 1977; Anon's People, 1984; Dressed to Kill, 1992.

Radio Plays: Scotsmen by Moonlight, 1977; Wedderburn's Slave, 1980; The Telescope Garden, 1986; Andromache, adaptation of the play by Racine, 1989.

Television Plays: Ploughman's Share, 1979; Anon's People, 1984; Dressed to Kill, 1992.

Short Stories

Secret Villages. London, Faber, and New York, Dodd Mead, 1985.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends. London and Boston, Faber, 1995.


Under the Influence: Douglas Dunn on Philip Larkin. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Library, 1987.

Poll Tax, the Fiscal Fake: Why We Should Fight the Community Charge. London, Chatto and Windus, 1990.

Editor, New Poems 1972–73. London, Hutchinson, 1973.

Editor, "British Poetry Issue" of Antaeus 12 (New York), 1973.

Editor, A Choice of Byron's Verse. London, Faber, 1974.

Editor, Two Decades of Irish Writing. Manchester, Carcanet, and Philadelphia, Dufour, 1975.

Editor, What Is to Be Given: Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz. Manchester, Carcanet, 1976.

Editor, The Poetry of Scotland. London, Batsford, 1979.

Editor, Poetry Supplement 1979. London, Poetry Book Society, 1979.

Editor, A Rumoured City: New Poets from Hull. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1982.

Editor, To Build a Bridge: A Celebration of Verse in Humberside. Lincoln, Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts, 1982.

Editor, Scotland, An Anthology. New York, HarperCollins, 1991.

Editor, Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry. London, Faber, 1992.

Editor, Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Editor, 20thCentury Scottish Poems. London, Faber, 2000.

Translator, Andromache, by Racine. London, Faber, 1990.


Manuscript Collection: Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull.

Critical Studies: Reading Douglas Dunn edited by R. Crawford and D. Kinlock, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1992; The Uses of the Commonplace in Contemporary British Poetry: Larkin, Dunn and Raine by Jerzy Jarniewicz, Lodz, Poland, Wydawnictwo Uniwersyteto Lodzkiego, 1994; "The Englishman's Scottishman, or Radical Scotsman?: Reading Douglas Dunn in the Light of Recent Reappraisal of Philip Larkin" by Rebecca Smalley, in Scottish Literary Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), 22(1), May 1995; "Secrets: On Translating Douglas Dunn's Elegies into German" by Evelyn Schlag, in Forum for Modern Language Studies (Scotland), 33(1), January 1997.

*  *  *

Douglas Dunn's first book, Terry Street, became famous almost before publication for its deft evocation of life in a working-class suburb of Hull. Bikes, dog shit, perms, cheap perfumes, "old men's long underwear /(Dripping) from sagging clotheslines"—these dour, unrhymed poems, full of lists, filled corners of pages in the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, and London Magazine in the late 1960s. They seemed to inhabit part of Larkin's terrain.

Right from the start, however, Dunn had a way of lifting the end of a poem with an utterly surprising symbol that made the epithet "realist" inappropriate. The second part of the book confirmed that he would not be trapped in a post-Movement stance. Notice, for example, the daring rightness of the first two lines of "Love Poem" and the telling glance at time in the last line:

   I live in you, you live in me;
   We are two gardens haunted by each other.
   Sometimes I cannot find you there,
   There is only the swing creaking, that you have just left,
   Or your favourite book beside the sundial.

The first line echoes with disturbing effect the petition for humble access in The Book of Common Prayer: "that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us." The whole piece sets up a world of implication and nuance that goes way beyond the minimalist writing of the post-Movement poets of the time.

After some uncertainty with two transitional books, Barbarians confirmed that Dunn is one of the very best poets we have. An elegant, technically highly achieved verse is concerned with obscure people, like the inhabitants of Terry Street, who have dragged themselves out of their "holes in the ground somewhere" to wave their "quaint and terrible grudges" at their masters. A quasi-Marxist presence haunts many of the poems—"Gardeners," for example, with its angry ending, "The Student," and "An Artist Waiting in a Country House." "Transcendance" has this presence but echoes Terry Street in more than one way:

   Fish-smelling bedroom of the gutted heart;
   A port town built for departures, dockside bars—
   Flat town, that's warm and sleazy, here's your art:
   A climb on excrement to reach the stars.

St. Kilda's Parliament also looks at the problems of the obscure—"That absinthe drinker and his sober wife"—but more often than before through the eyes of art. Dunn's vision of the ordinary man has matured, and the rhythms have tightened, taking our attention from the first lines of the opening poem ("On either side of a rock-paved lane, / Two files of men are standing barefoot, / Bearded, waistcoated …") to the last poem, a partly self-mocking, sensuous meditation on Ratatouille, love, and the terrible danger implicit for us all in modern politics.

The candor of the poems in Dunn's Elegies—their unremitting look at the emotions following the death of a wife—makes them hard to read without tears. But it is art's job not to flinch, and Dunn's art never does. Neither should the reader:

   They called me in. What moment worse
   Than that young doctor trying to explain?
   "It's large and growing." "What is?" "Malignancy." "
   Why there? She's an artist!"

This is a poetry of, as Dunn says of his late wife, "honesty at all costs." It is also art's duty to transform, however, and Dunn ends the book by celebrating his wife and their love: "I call her name, / And it is very strange and wonderful."

The poem "Larksong" is an example of Dunn's Hardy- and Porter-haunted beauty of manner:

   A laverock in its house of air is singing
   May morning, May morning, and its trills drift
   High on the flatland's abstract hill
   In the down-below of England.
   I am the aerial photograph it takes of me
   On a sonar landscape
   And it notates my sorrow
   In Holderness, where summer frost
   Melts from the green like her departing ghost.

Dunn, like Hardy before him, has always been interested in images of clothes. "All that time," he writes in Terry Street, "I had been in love with a coat," and later he observes himself infatuated with Billie Holiday and impersonating a sophisticate "in my white tuxedo." In Elegies, however, his poems talk of "empty, perfumed wardrobes" where "… once hung the silks and prints of 'If/Only', and the clothes she gave to her friends." Elegies is a commanding, wonderful book.

Northlight has a different richness, a resemblance to a genre painter's interest in rooms and their contents. Dante's Drum-Kit presents problems to those easily irritated by the overuse of Scottish dialect and a delight in the display of playful language gifts for their own sake. But its middle section contains moving poems expressing something that has always been implicitly present in Dunn's work—a profound, eloquent compassion for the underdogs in the fact of the cruelty of late twentieth-century British politics:

   Not down-and-outs
   Though some come close,
   Nor layabouts
   Trading pathos
   For tea and bread
   But simply poor
   In this lowered epoch …

We are back in Terry Street, but Dunn is angrier now, the author of an attack on callous government fiscal policies. The sparer his language and forms, the clearer that anger comes across.

—Fred Sedgwick