Something to be reckoned with

Reading Barry MacSweeney
, ed. Paul Batchelor
(199pp, £12.00, Bloodaxe) 

It's some years since the poet Barry MacSweeney died and this is the first book of essays to consider his body of work as an overall achievement. Not all poetry, it could be said, benefits from such systematic readings, but MacSweeney's work was both ambitious and complex, in a variety of ways, and for those who are interested in his writings this substantial tome should prove both a stimulation and perhaps a provocation to further exploration of his poetry.

On of the first things to be said perhaps is that some of these readings are very much at odds with each other and this fact provides an additional source of stimulation as well as possible irritation. You read one essay, which seems persuasive and erudite and filled with perception only to be confronted with another which presents a somewhat contradictory analysis which also feels authoritative and full of passionate conviction.

All that can be said about this, of course, is that complex texts are themselves often filled with such possibility and agreement or otherwise is likely to be tempered by the reader's own predilections or sympathies. That said, it's clear that a number of these pieces add to our knowledge and understanding of Barry's magnificent achievement even though any judgement of his work is bound to have a strong dose of subjectivity.

At least two of these essays, those by his partner S.J. Litherland and his friend and one-time co-journalist Terry Kelly, have a personal slant. Litherland does a great job of relating his job as a journalist with that of his role as a poet and makes a lot of his need to be continually gathering information and lists as well as headlines, a fact which feeds into aspects of his poetry, particularly around the time of Jury Vet, where the 'headline' represents a key aspect of the writing. She also points towards his 'dandy sensibility', a suggestion which feeds into the self-mythologising nature of much of his work, something which divides admirers and not-so-admirers, who would rather the ego was lacking in presence.

In fact, Barry's mixing of the traditional and the modern - a facet which a number of these essayists are attracted to - also draws a degree of flak, as in the case of Peter Riley who sees MacSweeney as an ultimately flawed grand lyricist whose work is marred by a tabloid sensibility and an at-times excessive use of exploitative scatology. For Riley, Pearl is the highpoint of Barry's achievement where The Book of Demons presents its nemesis. It's hard to disagree with Riley as he's such a magisterial, logical arguer of his case but I think he misses something in his dismissal of MacSweeney's 'tabloid side', which I feel adds to his poetical palette. There's a lot of humour in his 'excessive' mixing of registers - even in the dark, dark poems of The Book of Demons, where Barry's alcohol addiction becomes a central part of his subject matter - and the long lines of those poems are filled with a soaring lyrical quality which is only aided by the humour (of the gallows variety, for sure!) and the dazzling inventive wordplay which just about holds together in its excess. Terry Kelly's essay - 'Not Dark Yet É', also points towards Barry's mixing of materials from pop and rock culture and that of high-art and includes a review of a Bob Dylan gig at the Newcastle Odeon in 1966 which Barry wrote on Dylan's 'electric heresy' tour -

   The first half was devoted to folksy numbers and the new, cool-looking
   Dylan, in black suit and boots to match, with his barbed wire haircut,
        was excellent    ÉÉÉÉ..                         

     The second half saw him backed by a five-piece beat group, and
        for my    
     money this was the most exciting half with, for a finale, the immortal
        'Like a  
     Rolling Stone.'

Here again we see MacSweeney's mixing of the traditional and the modern and while he's clearly in favour of the 'new sound Dylan' there's no suggestion here that he's of the camp that shouted 'Judas' on the same tour in Manchester!

Harriet Tarlo ranges across MacSweeney's output in an impressively argued essay which points towards MacSweeney as a one-off who, in trying to find a 'new-old' role for poetry was largely misunderstood by the critics and the poetry establishment. Her coverage of the main topics of landscape (place), politics and language is extraordinary and this remains a key essay in the collection and one that I'm going to have to read again. Andrew Duncan concentrates primarily on Black Torch
and his analysis here is political, almost Marxist in fact. Duncan has written so much about MacSweeney elsewhere, including a reference to John Wilkinson, where he argues that Wilkinson's critique, while intriguing, is too boxed-in by psycho-analytical theory. He has a point but I found Wilkinson's analysis here - 'The Iron Lady and the Pearl: Male Panic in Barry MacSweeney's 'Jury Vet'' - intriguing. His use of key cultural figures - Martin Amis, Elvis Costello and Barry MacSweeney and their artistic response to the 'masculine' politics of Margaret Thatcher may be partly imagined but it's a novel approach and has much to say about the politics and the uncertainty of that time. I'm pleased to say that Martin Amis comes off worst in this 'rogues gallery trio'.

Matthew Jarvis' essay - 'Hard Hats in Heather' mixes folk-culture with a hard-edged urban style via an argument which suggests that MacSweeney fuses country with city in a manner not normally acknowledge by mainstream critics. His thesis is, at times, a little too systematic but I love his reference to 'Sparty Lea's dancing trees' and his reading in particular of 'Ranter' is probing and genuinely explanatory. This is something I'd say about all the essays in this volume - they all add something in terms of explanation of MacSweeney's writing and even where the interpretations conflict the perceptions are stimulating. Like John Wilkinson, William Walton Rowe concentrates on the politics of MacSweeney's poetry, particularly in relation to Black Torch
MacSweeney's desperate response to the Thatcher government. His mixing of experimentation and traditional modes is seen as central to this - 'Poetry that is radical has to smash open the regime of appearances', not I suspect a sentiment that Peter Riley would have much time for. Language and landscape come together here in an approach that attempts to speak for a different form of 'Albion;' and Rowe locates MacSweeney's poetry centrally in the nonconfomist radical tradition of Blake, Shelley and Milton.

W.N. Herbert also concentrates on the dynamic between pastoral and urban in MacSweeney's poetry and touches on the commercial success of his early work - The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother - which was followed by a retreat into the world of 'underground poetry publishing'.  His early embracing of 'projective verse' and his championing by the likes of Jeremy Prynne underwrite the experimental aspect of his poetics while also conflicting perhaps with his desire for a worldview, a workable socialism which was nevertheless undiluted by a limiting 'reality'. If MacSweeney was a Romantic, and I'd argue that he was, he was also valuably influenced by the tenets of Modernism and its consequent fragmentation. Herbert's suggestion of MacSweeney's utilising of characters from Shakespeare in relation to alienation and homelessness, particularly in The Book of Demons, is fascinating.

Paul Batchelor, apart from providing an introductory essay, concentrates on the relation between MacSweeney's work and his 'adopted fathers', Basil Bunting and Jeremy Prynne. This entails a of degree of biography - Bunting was MacSweeney's boss for a short period at the Evening Chronicle,
- but also probes the degree to which MacSweeney was influenced, linguistically, by both Prynne and Bunting. One of the things that comes across strongly to me, in fact, in many of these essays is a refutal of MacSweeney as the 'naive romantic', the inspirational and intuitive 'genius boy' who was anti-intellectual and untutored. He may have left school at sixteen but apart from his self-education in his newspaper career he mixed with the likes of Prynne from quite early on and was well read in terms of poetics. It may be in fact that he has the edge on the academic poets and it's certainly clear by now that his work in total is something to be reckoned with. I'm glad that his influence is still alive and kicking in a number of contemporary British poets.

     © Steve Spence 2015