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Review: Crash & Burn, by Michael O'Neill

In Memoriam

Michael O'Neill (1953-2018)
Poet, Critic and Scholar
Professor of English at the University of Durham

Michael O'Neill, who passed away just before Christmas at Durham,
aged 65, after a struggle with oesophageal cancer, was an extremely fine
poet and critic as well as a world-renowned scholar of Romanticism and a
greatly loved teacher of English literature. Michael published some of his
final poems in the most recent issue of the magazine and with his death,
The London Magazine has lost an important connection to the period of
editorship of Alan Ross, who was a long-standing friend of his and who
first commissioned him almost four decades ago. He won an Eric Gregory
Award in 1983 and a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors
in 1990, and published four collections: The Stripped Bed (1990), Wheel
(2008), Gangs of Shadow (2014) and Return of the Gift (2018).

Brought up in Liverpool, Michael read English at Exeter College, Oxford
under Jonathan Wordsworth, who remained a close associate and whose
sense of Romanticism as a living tradition conditioned his own work. A
governing idea that informed Michael's scholarship was one that he took
from his chief literary hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley: namely, that poetry is
progressive and that poets absorb and build upon their forebears in obscure
but vital ways. Michael avoided both dry, empirical source study and also
modish theoretical claims through carefully attuned attention to the poets
that he cared fot In a set of brilliant books that followed his groundbreaking
monograph on Shelley (based on his Oxford D.Phil.), he produced delicate
appraisals of the affinities that he found among writers from the Romantic
period and their later followers. Shelley was always central to Michael's
thinking. Alongside many editions of and commentaries upon the poetry,
he quickly became one of the leading textual scholars of the poet, and his
is the definitive account of the complex manuscript of The Defence of
Poetry
. Beyond Shelley, the poets that fascinated Michael have a common
quality in creating much of their most interesting work when reflecting
upon creativity itself; an idea that he developed most fully in his landmark
study, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem.

Michael possessed a rare musical timbre in his reading voice that carried
over into his lecturing style. Often speaking from ostensibly scant notes,
his lectures seemed to float across a vast body of poetry, inwardly absorbed,
within which connections were suddenly and memorably intuited. He
published incessantly and many of those lectures, apparently ephemeral
at the time, appeared later in more or less the precise written form that
had first been heard. He was fascinated by the complexities of poetry and
the ways in which it can exist for us as a vital thing that transforms lived
experience in real ways that are felt deeply but hard to track. Of The All-
Sustaining Air
, one of his most important books, he explained, echoing
Yeats: 'The modification of a dead man's words "in the guts of the living"
(rather than simply in their minds or memories) implies the very kind of
absorption and takeover which this book has been describing'. That book
- on the metaphorical figure of air as a synonym for inspiration in poetry -
displayed a characteristic range of reference in its opening chapter, which
(leaving out the references to Romantic poets) followed the metaphor
through Crane, Yeats, Stevens, Empson, Mahon, Mallarme, Bishop, Plath,
Moore and Pound.

Michael's love of teaching was clear to his devoted students at Durham,
where he held a chair from 1995, having been appointed as a lecturer
in 1979. He was several times head of department and also headed the
Institute for Advanced Study. He published a long list of authored and
edited volumes on the second-generation Romantics and beyond during
this period, as well as a number of volumes of research proceedings and
innumerable essays. He received a posthumous lifetime-achievement award
from the Keats-Shelley Association at the MLA in Chicago in January. As
a tribute to him, we reprint these poems, all of which first appeared in The
London Magazine
.