Douglas Dunn has described himself as ‘a lyric poet distracted by social concerns that are not of my invention’ (O'Donoghue, 47) and once mocked such distractions by calling himself ‘Horace with a view / Of the gasworks’ (THL, 57). In a career spanning over forty years, Dunn has produced a body of work that, in the words of Scottish critic Cairns Craig, ‘has developed […] through continual inner dialogues: dialogues between styles, between cultures, between possible identities of the poet.’ The early suburban nocturne ‘Close of Play’ begins with an image of cricketers with ‘the manners of ghosts, / Wandering in white on the tended ground’ but ends in ‘a place without manners’ where ‘The rapists gather under hedges and bridges’ (TS, 41–2). ‘Close of Play’ not only implies that life in ‘the sweet-smelling suburbs’ is merely a question of ‘manners’ but also offers poetry as a way of questioning what appears to be settled and perfected. It is irresponsible, the poem seems to be saying, for the lyric poet to ignore what distracts him.
Dunn's poetry is inextricable from such ideas of responsibility. In the introduction to his work for Charles King and Iain Crichton Smith's 1986 anthology Twelve Modern Scottish Poets, Dunn wrote that ‘I am conscious of writing for other people’. When Dunn writes in another early poem ‘Men of Terry Street’ that ‘they are too tired / And bored to look long at comfortably’ (TS, 17) he is registering the distance between his way of life and theirs. At the same time, he is drawing attention to the fact that there is an unremarked voyeurism involved in this type of social realist poetry that should make both poet and reader uncomfortable. Looking is both a poetical and political practice. Such passages also underline the overtly visual nature of large areas of Dunn's poetry. Neil Corcoran has highlighted the preponderance of dramatizations of observer and observed and usefully defined it as a ‘perceptual reciprocity’.
Dunn's poetry, then, insists that looking at things and making them into poems are ideological behaviours. To write poetry is to enter into a genre of pre-existent concerns and modes that may converge not only with dominant political and social wisdoms but also with an array of deep-seated audience expectations.