Douglas Dunn is a major Scottish poet, editor and critic, whose Elegies (1985), a moving account of his first wife’s death, became a critical and popular success. His books – including ten collections of poetry and two of short stories, and a translation of Racine’s Andromache – are consistently well reviewed in the national press, while his work has been the object of much academic attention and has been extensively translated (there are editions in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Slovak, Armenian and Japanese, at least). He has edited anthologies of poetry from Hull, Scotland and Ireland, and has regularly reviewed books for a range of publications including the Glasgow Herald, Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker.
Douglas Eaglesham Dunn was born on 23 October 1942, and grew up in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, a part-rural, part-urban community. His father worked in the local India Tyres works, while his mother (a devout Presbyterian) kept house for a Catholic lady. He has said that it was not a bookish house: as Jane Stabler commented in a biographical essay, ‘reading was not encouraged on days when it was dry enough to play outside’. What reading he did tended to be at his maternal grandfather’s house, where he became familiar with the romantic adventures of Scott, Stevenson and Ballantyne. Dunn later praised ‘Inchinnan’s colloquial, vernacular, no-nonsense style of life’, while his mother’s domestic orderliness also made a lasting impression on him.
He attended Renfrew High School, and Camphill Senior Secondary School in Paisley where he excelled in English, but, uninterested in maths and science, left without the breadth of qualifications needed for university entrance. After working for Renfrew County Library, he attended the Scottish School of Librarianship in Glasgow, and in 1964 secured a librarian’s post in Akron, Ohio, where he lived for 14 months with his new wife, Lesley Balfour. The stay ended abruptly when, shortly after a serious car accident in which a friend was killed, Dunn received call-up papers for military service in Vietnam. But the trip had a lasting effect, in terms of meeting literary, or more generally, cultured people, and of the reading he did there, especially American short stories.
Dunn applied to study English at Hull University (where the entrance criteria were more flexible than at Scottish universities), and moved there with Lesley in 1967 and graduated with a 1st-class degree in 1969, by which time he was working in the university library below Philip Larkin, with whom he shared a love of jazz. Larkin has proved a decisive influence on his career, Dunn recalling Larkin’s saying ‘you can’t write a poem unless you have a poem to write’, though also finding that “he wasn’t someone you could engage in a deep conversation about poetry; more’s the pity”.
It was at this time his first collection Terry Street was published by Faber (on Larkin’s recommendation) and it won both a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Long working hours, and Larkin’s refusal to allow him time off for reading engagements, lead him to become a full-time writer in 1971, subsisting on reviews, readings and part-time teaching. Despite delighting in a stint in France in 1972, the couple remained in Hull, with Lesley becoming Senior Curator at the Ferens Art Gallery. Her diagnosis with cancer in 1978, and her death in early 1981, overturned this settled life.
Dunn returned to Scotland that autumn on a part-time basis as a writer-in-residence in Dundee, before returning to Hull to complete what has become his best-known book, Elegies, a series of poems about his wife which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1985.
His debut collection, Terry Street (1969), describes from an outsider’s point of view life in the poor Hull community in which he and his first wife had bought a house, viewed all the more sharply given previous experiences in Scotland and Ohio. Concerns with the British class system become more angrily expressed in the collections of the 1970s, but it is an anger modified or complicated by what Christopher Whyte has called ‘affectionate, wry threnody for Empire’ (Modern Scottish Poetry, 2004). Unlike many other writers of his generation, Dunn is uninterested in exploring new poetic forms, and writes in formal metrics and ‘closed’ forms, his leftish opinions counterbalanced by a conservative way of speaking, and at times a certain wish-fulfillment, as in ‘Gardeners’ imagined English Revolution of 1789 (though this is a rare occasion on which Dunn overwrites history). ‘Portrait Photo 1915’ confers dignity on the nameless speaker, remembered now only via this photograph of him in uniform, and Dunn himself often seems to be speaking ‘in uniform’, taking up a formal pose and presenting himself in a deliberate manner.
Such everyday objects – a found photograph, a glove lost as a child, the poet’s old house now ruined – draw forth poems about loss and regret, but also express continuity and growth – how one moves on from them, how they have survived at all, how the speaker views these now redundant objects. Considering Dunn’s use of objects in his poems, Christopher Whyte goes as far as to say that ‘much of Dunn’s earlier poetry resembles a junk shop run by a generous, even an indiscriminate proprietor’. “I’m a great believer in trying to get as many of the five senses into the poem as possible”, Dunn has said of his own work.
Elegies (1985) is not a long book, but in Reading Douglas Dunn Bernard O’Donoghue has commented on its ‘vast and psychologically demanding programme’. Formality of expression combines with emotional rawness to create an undeniably intense expression of grief. Poems such as ‘The Arrangements’, when the poet is registering his wife’s death, and ‘Reading Pascal in the Lowlands’, when he meets the father of a child with leukemia, deal with the necessity of trying to communicate to others the essential incommunicability of death and loss. Both poems also have the detail and concision of a short story, and that form’s balance of revelation and reticence.
He moved north to Tayport, Fife in 1983, where he later settled with his second wife, Lesley Bathgate. He took other writer-in-residence posts, locally and in Australia, as well as undertaking reading tours in Europe and the USA; and Lesley gave birth to their two children in 1987 and 1990, though they separated in 1997.
Following Elegies, and after Dunn’s return to Scotland, Northlight (1988) foregrounds domesticity and family life, while Dante’s Drum-kit (1993) connects his love of jazz and fondness for the Italian’s metrical terza rima method of verse writing. In an interview with Bernard O’Donoghue, Dunn described himself as ‘a lyric poet distracted by social concerns that are not of my invention’.
In 1991 he was appointed Professor of English Literature at St Andrews University, and founded the School’s MLitt in Creative Writing in 1993. He was a founding Director of the St Andrews Scottish Studies Centre the same year, remaining in the role along with his professorship until his retirement from academia in 2008, when his archive was acquired by the University of St Andrews Library.
His two collections published in 2000 present, as it were, the focused and the distracted poet. The Year’s Afternoon is bittersweet and bucolic, the poet looking back at his life from the village garden he is cultivating; while The Donkey’s Ears is an ambitious epistolary-novel-in-verse about the voyages of the Russian Imperial Navy flagship Kniaz, and its sinking by the Japanese at the battle of Tsushima in 1905.
He was awarded an OBE in 2003, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2013.
Dunn has never been a great reviser of his work: ‘A painter sells his work and it goes away and he might never see it again. As a poet, I think I’d prefer it that you wrote something and it was published and you would never see it again.’