Douglas Dunn

1942 -

Biography

Douglas Eaglesham Dunn was born on 23 October 1942 in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, and educated at Renfrew High School and Camphill School, Paisley. On leaving school he entered librarianship, working in Renfrew County Libraries and the Andersonian Library, University of Strathclyde, and qualifying as Associate of the Library Association at the Scottish School of Librarianship in 1962. He married in 1964 and the couple left for America, where Dunn worked in Akron Public Library, Ohio. They returned to Britain in 1966, since Dunn would otherwise have been caught up in the Vietnam draft.

He entered the University of Hull to study English, graduating with first class honours in 1969, and his first collection of poetry, Terry Street, was published in the same year. He worked for two years in the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull, where the poet Philip Larkin was university librarian. Larkin's influence has been found in Dunn's earlier work, though at the time Dunn expressed amused irritation at being regarded as 'the other poet from Hull'.

Dunn became a freelance writer in 1971 and has since written poetry, short stories and plays, as well as editing several anthologies of poetry and fiction. Among other awards for his work, he received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1972 and the Hawthornden Prize in 1981. The early death of his wife from cancer in 1981 was the trigger for his poetic sequence Elegies, which was Whitbread Book of the Year in 1985.

Dunn married again in 1984 and moved back to Scotland. After holding several writer-in-residence posts, he became Professor of English and Director of the Scottish Studies Institute at the University of St Andrews. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1981 and holds honorary doctorates from Dundee and Hull. He received the OBE in 2003.

(last updated in September 2004)

Works

The poetic sequence Elegies (1985) brought Douglas Dunn's poetry to the notice of a wide audience when it became Whitbread Book of the Year. The poems, arising from his wife's death from cancer in 1981, are in general short and lyrical. Around the central event are grouped memories of their marriage, and the sequence goes on to trace the process of grieving and a slow approach to acceptance. The measured simplicity of the writing acquits the book of any suspicion of morbidity. 'Arrangements' is especially telling: going to register his wife's death, the speaker finds himself in the middle of wedding celebrations. 'So I say to a clerk, "I have come about a death."/ "In there," she says. "You came in by the wrong door."'

Dunn had come to critical attention earlier with the publication of his well-received first poetry collection, Terry Street (1969). This working-class area of Hull, Dunn's home for two years, interested him as a relic of an older way of life, and he observes the people and their culture in the 'Terry Street Poems,' which form the first part of the collection. He seldom offers his own reflections on what he sees, but with considerable skill allows his observations to speak for themselves: 'In small backyards old men's long underwear/ Drips from sagging clotheslines./ The other stuff they take in bundles to the Bendix.'  The slightly comic detail that the old men's modesty will not allow them to wash their long-johns in public nevertheless succeeds in expressing their old-fashioned dignity.

Dunn's own working-class upbringing in Renfrewshire sometimes surfaces in his poetry, as in 'The Competition' ('And he called me a poor boy, who should shut up./ I'd never thought of it like that.'), though he does not regard his writing as particularly political. The poetic collection Barbarians (1979) takes the side of the underprivileged, expressing their resentment at establishment attitudes. The sequence 'Barbarian Pastorals' has been described by Dunn as 'very Scottish, very local', and the later collection St Kilda's Parliament (1981) also has considerable Scottish content. But Dunn's poetic vision is by no means confined to Scotland: Dante's Drumkit (1993) contains work in the Italian verse-form terza rima, and The Donkey's Ears (2000) concerns the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

What lies behind his collection of short stories Secret Villages (1985) is not so much class-consciousness as small-town conventionality and hidden emotions. The narrator of 'The Canoes' never quite expresses - though the reader clearly sees - his resentment and envy of the holiday visitors: 'The Barkers looked a prosperous young couple... Their skins were already tanned, which I thought strange for two people at the start of their holiday.' The richly comic story 'South America', in which a grass widow takes revenge on her absent husband by acquiring not one but two illegitimate children, is a masterpiece in its depiction of outraged local decorum:

"I take it that Mr Docherty's at least managed to get over on leave a couple of times?"  

"He was very, very good at writing to me," Thea said slyly.

"I can see that a rather remarkable correspondence has been taking place; I can see that for myself."

(last updated in September 2004)

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