The Bigness of Small Poems – # 6 in a Series – Sean O’Brien

U.K. poet, Sean O'Brien ( 1952 - )

U.K. poet, Sean O’Brien

The Lost War

The saved were all ingratitude,
The lost would not lie down:
Reborn, their sacred rage renewed,
They razed the fallen town.

And in the graveyard made their stand
Just east of heaven’s gate.
We are the same. It is all one
Whom we exterminate.

Sean O’Brien (1952 -) from The Drowned Book, Picador, 2007

We live, not where I live, but where too many live in this planet, in the madness of war. This small poem, punches way above its weight and captures the madness of war fueled too often by sacred rage. This poem grabs me by the throat! What a wonderful poem should do!

We are the same. It is all one
Whom we exterminate.

This, for me, says it all. It is all one/ Whom we exterminate. And yet, we persist on pretending the “other” is an “other” and the killing goes on.

This “perfect” poem stirs an anger inside me. Not just because what O’Brien says is true. But because I, too, am part of the problem. I too, nourish my sacred rage but pretend not to. A friend once told me: Richard, we are badly made. Sean O’Brien seems to agree. What could we ever do to ourselves to make this poem untrue? How can we make ourselves better? All of us.

Sean O’Brien, poet, critic and playwright, is a professor at Newcastle University, U.K. and in 2007 had the singular distinction of winning both the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes for The Drowned Book which includes The Lost War.


  1. Heidi Garnett
    Posted April 23, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Richard I’m thoroughly enjoying these short poems and this one in particular, this idea that we’re all made of the same stuff much as we deny it in times of war. Could we even imagine killing another if we truly believed this? It is through making others strange, making them into aliens.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 24, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Heidi: So glad to get your comment. I wish I had more time to post more of these but I have lots stacked up on my desk! I thought you in particular would “get” this poem. For me, I kept thinking of how the propaganda in Rwanda was relentless for 30 years turning Tutsis into the “other”. A dangerous “other”.

  3. Mary Nelson
    Posted April 24, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks Richard. This one grabs me too! Wouldn’t I love to rid myself of thinking there is ‘other’ instead of parts of me I’m not that fond of. Wonderful gem of a poem.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted April 24, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Mary: So glad! I was hoping to post 30 of these but life has taken over. Still have some gems up my sleeve! So expect more!

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