Reading Barry MacSweeney
ed. Paul Batchelor
199 pages, £12
Few British poets of the last half-century have written as variously and at such extremes as Barry MacSweeney. His first collection, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, sold thousands of copies, and he was feted as the Tyneside equivalent of the Mersey Sound poets. But commercial acclaim soon soured with his disastrous nomination for the Chair of the Oxford Professor of Poetry, a publicity stunt engineered by his publishers. MacSweeney, aged nineteen, was pilloried in the national press, and would not publish another book with a large-scale imprint for nearly thirty years, when Bloodaxe published what was to prove his final collection, The Book of Demons.
MacSweeney wrote prolifically in the intervening decades. This work was disseminated through various small presses and little magazines; for a time he ran the Black Suede Boot Press. His avant-garde credentials were impeccable, and he was equally at home on either side of the blood-soaked Royston perimeter: he was both a key participant in both The English Intelligencer and Eric Mottram’s tenure as editor of Poetry Review. A selection of work that appeared in Wolf Tongue affords a sense of MacSweeney’s achievement in this period, after an earlier selection in The Tempers of Hazard anthology had been pulped by Paladin. Much else, such as the Black Torch sequence, remains in long out-of-print small press editions. Reading Barry MacSweeney makes an eloquent case for a collected works.
The variousness of MacSweeney’s work and affiliations presents problems for a collection such as the present one, and it is a measure of Paul Batchelor’s achievement as an editor that Reading Barry MacSweeney foregrounds the complex range of responses that this work engenders. I came away from this book with a much richer sense of MacSweeney’s life and work, a richness that was largely a consequence of the moments of disagreement and contradiction that were allowed to arise between the essays.
Such moments are brought into particular focus in the discussion of MacSweeney’s work from the late 70s and early 80s—comprising ‘Colonel B.’, the ‘Liz Hard’ poems, Jury Vet and ‘Wild Knitting’—which Peter Riley describes as a ‘violent and obscene’ aberration representing ‘the central disaster in Barry’s career’ (137). Without necessarily endorsing Riley’s description of these poems as disastrous, a sense emerges through a number of the essays included here that, in W. N. Herbert’s words, MacSweeney’s ‘engagement with the experimental agendas of the Cambridge school’ (144) in the wake of the Oxford Professorship debacle took him away from a poetry that might ‘engage with any audience other than its own adherents’ (146). As Batchelor argues in his own essay, it is possible that his association with these writers—or, more particularly, his friendship with J. H. Prynne—led MacSweeney to ‘graft [Prynne’s] priorities onto his own’ (118).
Although there is much in these works from the late seventies and early eighties that is problematic, especially with relation to their representation of femininity, the critical invocation of an ‘essential’ MacSweeney led astray from his natural gifts by his association with avant-gardism doesn’t meet the challenge of this poetry’s complexity. (The case isn’t strengthened by the mention of the ‘Cambridge school’, a term that seems to function here and elsewhere as a critical shorthand for a kind of egg-head experimentalism, rather than any well-defined or useful identification.) It risks repeating the terms on which his poetry was so disastrously marketed at the beginning of his career, where the emphasis was placed on MacSweeney’s supposedly untutored facility with language and poetic form. Such a condition is implicitly opposed to artificial or studied forms of language, which threaten constantly to contaminate the purity of the natural. It is along such a vector between the natural and the artificial that the influence of other writing supposedly exerts itself on MacSweeney’s work.
MacSweeney’s identification with Thomas Chatterton is an instructive counterpoint to this reading. Chatterton was the archetypal Romantic hero, dying young in the face of the world’s indifference, yet the works for which he is known to posterity are the faux-medieval Rowley poems. In Chatterton’s work, then, originality and imitation are brought into proximate creative tension: as such, Chatterton figures in MacSweeney’s poetry as much more than an analogue for the poete maudite. Far from being overwhelming, the example of other writers and other forms of writing is an integral part of MacSweeney’s best work. MacSweeney actively seeks out to encounter it, like Keats’s chameleon poet, ‘continually infor[ming?]—and filling some other body.’ This kind of fluidity represents a counterpoint to the poetics of identity that frames work in terms of a writer’s nature.
It is a measure of Batchelor’s sure editorial hand that he includes work such as William Rowe’s that directly contradicts such readings: ‘the belief that MacSweeney’s political poetry of the 1980s is inferior to the rest of his work doesn’t fit the evidence’, Rowe writes. He argues instead that ‘“Jury Vet” and “Wild Knitting” [ … ] represent some of MacSweeney’s finest writing’ as they confront the Thatcherite ‘attempt to expropriate the commons, our common intellectual inheritance, of which language is the chief part’ (86). Rowe’s argument contextualises MacSweeney’s language-use within a social and political discourse, rather than the expression of subjective feeling. The social, sexual and prosodic degradation of the works of the early 1980s is a response to the degradation of ‘our common intellectual inheritance’ under the auspices of a nascent market ideology.
Rowe’s insistence on these poems’ concern with the commons resonates with Harriet Tarlo’s description of their ‘witty and brilliant [ … ] brutal exposure of an increasingly consumerist society’ (26). Tarlo also registers the discomfort of the ‘aggressively sexualised, even fetishistic, terms’ (26) on which these texts are predicated. In his reading of these poems, John Wilkinson contends ‘[p]ornography and consumerism are treated as the same phenomenon, holding out the promise of desire fulfilled only to withdraw it and flaunt another’ (101). Instead of this vicious circle of unfulfilled desire, these poems work to inculcate the reader into an ethics of ‘care’ through their prosody, which ‘shapes the reader into a shaper’ (105). The poems’ shredded prosody refuses the cost of maintaining such care itself, and the form that this re-shaping will take is unresolved.
The publication of a book of essays dedicated to the work of one poet necessarily makes a claim about the importance of that writer. Reading Barry MacSweeney makes an eloquent, energetic case for MacSweeney’s poetry to be read—in its ambition, pathos and technical innovation—as some of the most important of the last half-century. There is much more to MacSweeney’s work, and to the scope of this book, than the poems from the late seventies and early eighties discussed here, and it would require a much longer review than the present one to unpick them. These texts do, however, represent a fault-line in both MacSweeney’s writing, and the growing critical reception of this work, one that is opened up by Reading Barry MacSweeney and along which further work on MacSweeney might be conducted.