No 1 - Spring 2001
The mythical history of Northumbria; or, feathered slave to unreasonable demands
on Barry MacSweeney (1948-2000)
In 1971, Penguin did a survey anthology of British poetry since 1945, which included Barry MacSweeney. 27 years later, they did another one, which didn't. There is a story to tell here. This is difficult poetry:
lynx shoulderblade tundra dart
all of that
obituary cremation refusal placement
ganglia warfare in wood neck lace
panto Plato revives
wild wolf eye
sudden snake eye
suds abide in lycanthropic
fancy tollbridge Amersham
and MacSweeney's career, covering more than thirty years, is full of bewildering twists. A selected poems came out as The Tempers of Hazard in 1993, and in 1997 another 100 pages of selected poems formed part of Clive Bush’s Worlds of New Measures anthology; allegedly, another selected poems is awaited from Bloodaxe. What I am setting out to do here is to provide a simple map of his work, and to point out some of the rules, not necessarily obvious, which organise the text. Some of the information comes from many hours of telephone conversation with Barry and from a three-day interview in 1996; the interview was vetoed by its subject, but I cannot resist using the results to illuminate his work. I will try to distinguish between what comes from Barry, and is reliable, and what comes from my own conjecture. I have already reviewed The Book of Demons and Hellhound Memos, and made some remarks on Ranter, and will not repeat what I have said.
Das Ganze ist das Unwahre. The work of Barry MacSweeney offers exceptional difficulties to the critic, as to the reader, because it is made up of hundreds of bursts interrupted by very fast cuts, where shots from different perspectives fail to resolve. There is a great bulk of work at this pitch of complexity, some 400 pages of it. The name which occurs, after re-reading it all, is Swinburne: where a similar fantastic and glowing ornamentalism, a proliferation and autonomy of small-scale structures, drowns the overall line. Accusations of the imbalance of sensualism and intellect have been levelled at both poets. I feel MacSweeney is temperamentally close to George Barker, in rebellion, excess, and guilt. Both are chronically non-academic types, and this is why little appears about them in print.
MacSweeney (1948-), encouraged to write at school, won an award for young Northern writers in 1964, and then became famous in 1968 with a bestseller (in terms of poetry), The Boy from the Green Cabaret Writes to His Mother. He then presented the publisher with new and more complex work, which they turned down; so his career ended, at the age of twenty, and he became (the term didn't then exist) an underground and small press poet. A phase of prolific experimentation followed, typically using his personal genres of Odes, Funereal Elegies, State of the Nation Addresses, female star biographies, autobiography, family history, confessions, history, and Celtic ethnographic forgery. There are great swathes of work in this period which I don't understand. While The Tempers of Hazard (the 1993 Paladin ReActive anthology shared with two minor rustic poets) is a splendid collection of his fleeting and flimsily-stitched pamphlets, it leaves out his books, such as Ranter and Black Torch volume 1, which are among his finest; and most of Odes. It ripples with a wide range of preoccupations: rock, wolves, frills and furbelows, legendary heroes, rebellion, American poetry, broken-up syntax, corruption of the media, alternative history, Celticity, sexual guilt, Northumbria. Around 1985, a period of withdrawal and disillusion followed, along with personal problems. One of the things he said when I interviewed him was that in 1979 he gave up on the possibility of external success in the literary world, or of political change in Britain, and withdrew into himself. He retreated to a fellside cottage to write Ranter, and when he had finished he counted seventy empty wine bottles in the cottage, and realised he was an alcoholic. The project of autonomy in his poetry is inseparable from chemical addiction; the beckoning to excess and revolt instructs the long struggle against sobriety. He returned to poetry with Hellhound Memos (1993), and then Pearl (1995), his masterpiece, and The Book of Demons (1997). These are straightforward autobiographical narrative, based on self-exploring therapy and on the work of poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and brought a return to legitimate publishing and the High Street.
Every failed strike raises the possibility of an other history: how victory could have been enjoyed in a society with a broader flatter distribution of power, a more collective ethos. The concern with writing alternative histories has largely been confined to interviews and false claims in advertising copy; MacSweeney has actually written a history of coal-mining in the North-east, in Black Torch, which floats the postulate of a different history and invests a startling documentary energy to keep that imaginary picture alive for a whole volume, until it is too large and strong to be set aside. This wonderful book was announced, in Poetry Information 18, as follows:
Book 1 did come out in 1978, but books 2 and 3 were never written. 'Blackbird', an elegy for his grandfather, published in the Paladin new british poetry, is book 4. The black torch is coal itself. The evocation of social conflict – something incredibly rare in British poetry – brings us back, of course, to the importance of strength, in all forms of selfpossession, courage, endurance, in such contests. It's not enough to have novel ideas, you also have to win at the showdown, or it's all academic, and it doesn't even have psychological interest; it could only be important if it was going to affect real life. His style, subjected to intense elaboration and development, may reflect local speech patterns and life values; but it is not ordinary talk in the pub. There is a large range of documentary about Tyneside in his other work, for example Ranter and Pearl; he has recounted in an interview how the geography of his home town, with near-wild countryside right beside working-class slums, helped shape his work. Such juxtapositions, around large industrial towns subject to stoppages of trade and to periodic conflicts between owners and workers, are common in Scotland, South Wales, and the North of England; he records a geography of the periphery, of decaying palaeotechnic cities surrounded by high wastes. Black Torch dares to go back many centuries to explain how social attitudes came about, making the present explicable rather than mysterious. The dialect mentioned is the reported speech of 19th century striking miners, and belongs to the documentary part of the poem.
"Black Torch, book 1, a first part of a long projected work, drawing on the political, social activity of Northumberland and Durham miners, will be published by London Pride Editions this autumn. Much of it is in Northumbrian dialect. Book 2, half finished, works around John Martin's diaries – he is the Northumbrian painter – tracts by radical Baptist ministers, and the trial of T. Dan Smith. Book 3 is planned to be based on tape recordings with residents of Sparty Lea and the Allen Valley in Northumberland."
The groundbreaking study of MacSweeney was by John Wilkinson (published in Angel Exhaust Eleven, 1994). 'Pride and pastiche are the key dyad throughout'; Wilkinson fits all of the poetry into his overarching fringe-medical schema, drawn from the (brilliant, but also marginal and non-quantitative) theories of Melanie Klein, where damaged internal objects ("partial objects") bring about fetishism and wildly oscillating affective states, where loved people and things suddenly "become hostile" and are ejected, leaving a state of emptiness. His greatest poem is 'Last Bud': 'The poem performs a scorched earth exercise on all MacSweeney's previous writing, and fuelled by the disgust and resentment (…) thrusts away friends, patrons, and lovers in favour of a glorious darkness and emptiness, an absolute independence conceding and receiving nothing'. ("Far Cliff Babylon", in Odes, has a similar scenario.) There is a long study of Barry in Clive Bush's book Out of Dissent New Measure.
Black Torch is political poetry, to go along with Colonel B, Wild Knitting, and large parts of The Book of Demons. Much of his poetry is on a different scale, dealing with mythic artistic figures or with the poet, taken as a heroic myth, or with his lovers, ditto. The key to its construction is simple and omnipresent in pop culture. The moment when I understood it was when Barry phoned me just before a high-profile reading at the Cambridge Poetry Conference and announced his intention to dress up like Johnny Cash and come on stage riding a motorcycle, as Billy Fury had done at Newcastle Town Hall in 1963. Visualizing Keynes Hall, deep within King's College beside King's Street, I was cold to the idea. He described it half a dozen times, and wanted my assent. The next day I met Jeremy Reed, by chance, and he described how he was writing a novel about Elvis Presley. I think almost all of Barry's poetry is a re-enactment of mythic reality, granting us mobile versatile scenarios, portable objects for reconstitution and imitation. This artistic grammar is popular and comprehensible to all: no-one really fails to understand what it means to walk into a barber's shop and say you want your hair cut like Elvis, even if they disapprove. The moments of failure to share fantasies point to a set of rules for evaluating them immanent in the oppositions and categories of the overall social structure. MacSweeney demands, in an extreme form, emotional projection: he projects onto various Star Figures and the reader projects onto him. Where this projection does not occur, the poetry collapses. Reed has accomplished a long-term project of recording the mythic history of rock stars, fantasy vehicles simultaneously drained and saturated with pure experiences and ideal acts.
These kernel scenes are associative, repetitive, substitutive (you act out what the star did), collective, fantasized but bound by strict rules, populist, clinging to details, domestic, human-oriented, and implement a social structure. Potent objects appear in the poems as properties reminding us of a scene which is overall and enveloping; they are signs like those in a saint's life, who awakes from a vision to find an object, given to him by an angel, still in his hands. They are signals of the edge of real space and the beginning of charged, mythic space; they are visible power, as trophies, the bucrania of primitive temples, were proofs of the hunter's prowess. Their physical qualities are irrelevant, but they have power as symbols of the overall physical and mental skill of the hunter. They do not use sensory realism, because they embody fatidical patterns in personal life experience. The fast cuts are related to the montage of events from different lives. MacSweeney works often from photographs; his poems are not narratives but iconic eulogies which allude to a serial structure – they are chiefly ornaments, glorifying a human person (their whole aura rather than just their "body"), seizing the symbolic world as a set of emanations of personalities. The kernel scene is not one person, but several people in a pattern lit up with a symbolic charge, which can be transmuted and recycled in different media because it is clear and finished as a pattern. I believe that all of his poems could be understood if one had knowledge of the scene (even, the photograph) which they illustrate.
Take this black box, it belonged to my
son. Glower was where we lived, his face was
alien. He was not a navy man.
A corn of skull for Pan. Also take these
pipes. He was a wretch, they belong to you.
Drift like a lady-in-waiting through the tripe.
Open the sand, if it was late. My pimp's keener, unsurpassed
lacqueurs along the beize.
Deck it, asteroid, ignore the Malaga grape, (Odes, p. 11)
The glittering tenuity of structure of the poems tracks real rock stars of the 1960s, such as Dylan and Hendrix: where the perforation of the logical narrative and the song form, respectively, broke through any informational coherence to discharge just such a million globules of meaning, fragmenting and cohering into a hundred patterns we cannot name. MacSweeney took on pop culture, but hip pop culture, and at a particular moment, when avant-garde techniques were flooding the pop genre.
Just 22 and I don't mind dying deals with Jim Morrison, Brother Wolf deals with Chatterton, shards of whose pseudo-archaism recur throughout. (The line about "he was not a navy man" probably refers to Morrison, son of an admiral.) MacSweeney takes over Chatterton as the latter took over an imaginary 15th century poet; we remember the Gothic figure, a by-blow of Romanticism, who gets taken over by books and relives them. This is a kind of ghost story where MacSweeney occupies the figures who come alive out of the past. Fantastic greed is the nature of reading when it is taken beyond a little. Temporary and lascivious loss of the personality is the pursuit of readers who lack such screens as academics have. Hugh Walpole was fearfully interested in details of clothing and knickknacks, knew enough about pricing objets to prove Chatterton's fraud. The acquisition of great learning is a displacement. The objets, around which the whole apparatus of learning rotates, are meaningless outside the myth: collecting curious information about art is a misdirection of appetite, the real thing is to do art, the rest is just an antique-shop, a thinly controlled form of hysteria. We suppose that MacSweeney's method of mythologizing admired figures is superior to grim fact-grubbing.
The sometime loss of lucidity of these poems is not due to experimentalism but to their reliance on pre-existing stories; the poem transcends the magazine stories by being more allusive and less literal. Much of Odes is about Barry, and here again the lack of obviousness is like a magazine: the hero is cool, is engaged in leisure activities (mainly sexual), and not in bound logical action. The various acts are liberated and casual, like the object-symbols of the good life piled up in an advertising photograph or an album sleeve. They are under-specified because they are over-specified. The work of Jeremy Reed, and Gavin Selerie's book-length poem Roxy, model the poem on the magazine photograph, as the central site of self-presentation in our time, and so shed light on what Barry is doing in Odes and Jury Vet – which is mainly directly written about photographs of women in magazines.
Wilkinson describes the Jury Vet poems as 'a personal pathology (combined with) virulent social satire". MacSweeney 'displace(s) undercover observation to a place outside the body, collapsing the fashion spies of glossy magazines, Special Branch and Security Service operatives, newspaper reporters and the machinery of jury selection for secret trials, into the perverse organising principle of these poems, scopophiliac, coprophiliac, fetishistic, sniffing and prying, unwrapping, smearing and ejaculating. Every sexual perversion is mobilised against the persistence of unregulated love …' But the tone of the poems is one of glorification, Barry playing Dick Clark to a hall full of rampant teenagers: 'Your single body's a striking SOVIET.' For Bush, "Sexual disgust, the major tone of the poems, bears witness to real hatred (…) the actual destructive compromises of marriage in capitalist society …" When I interviewed Barry, he gave a totally different interpretation of the poem, which explains every detail of the text in a matching whole. It is addressed to a "You", a real person, whose photograph is attached to the typescript of Jury Vet, and whose existence Wilkinson misses. The controversy underlines how obscure much of Barry's poetry is, animated by a drama and situation which are apparent to Barry but not to others. There is nothing about jury vetting in the work, it was attached because Barry went to a conference of the NUJ where details of the "ABC trial" for a journalist's alleged crimes against national security, and the successful attempts of the police to de-select jurors who weren't right-wing, caused a furore. This entered the borders of the poem by a kind of attraction which is indicative of how Barry works, but which may offer problems to the reader. It is not satire.
Jury Vet is not about disgust but about the absence of disgust in a blissful infatuation where the gap between fantasy and reality was levelled, which is why no distinction is drawn between the real girl and the magazine photographs of female punks: the lovers become everyone. It is useful to re-attach the poems to the photographs: of girl-punk groups around 1978. MacSweeney was moving from documenting male hero-figures like Shelley and Jim Morrison to glorifying ordinary girls in the punk movement. We know that certain parts of the body, certain angles, don't fit into classical aesthetics; the punk girls deliberately foregrounded these angles, textures, fluids. Barry's passive-receptive capacity is more than most's; it wasn't his idea. He gives an account of the photographs. So the critics behold these non-aesthetic zones, and their reaction chain is "disgust" "alienation" "attack on capitalism". What everyone had in mind, though, was an orgasm of the whole body, the regaining of totality by aestheticising the polluted, the abolition of the gap between femaleness and femininity, between three-dimensional women and two-dimensional glamour photographs. These are learned men who haven't spent enough time hanging out with punk women. Your single body's a striking SOVIET!
The contrast between MacSweeney and Wilkinson is striking. MacSweeney rejects any kind of self-criticism, engaging in a kind of lascivious self-promotion up till the points where he collapses into a state of guilt and abjection rarely paralleled in literature; Wilkinson, a student of Heath and MacCabe at Cambridge, has strong rational objections to the presence of the author in the text, as love object or anything else, and has depleted the text so that there is no recognizable human form. The tension around the star-fantasy method in poetry is that it has low prestige; one definition of middle-class art, or of learned poetry, is that it eliminates such projections, tearing away the decorative structures of the ego in order to make someone unhappy and compliant. In order to make the transition out of pop culture, you have to accept that art is not going to work in this way, but instead is about the play of weighted syllables and line-breaks, or the ironic rejection of irony or the seizing and demonstration of prestigious cultural assets, or something. Wilkinson, a Cambridge PhD student, can't help having more cultural capital than MacSweeney, who left school at 16 to join a local newspaper; but he can't write expressive poetry, while MacSweeney has written great poetry. Some of the vagaries of MacSweeney's career, and of his self-esteem, have been due to the stress between his aesthetic and the critique of subjectivity which the Left Modernist strata around him were so involved in.
The poetry fails when the appropriation of signs is too perfunctory; in Hellhound Memos, moments of the poet at the crossroads with Anne Sexton and (the blues singer) Robert Johnson, 'swapping licks' on an old typewriter, are embarrassing and unpersuasive. The relational patterns are all archaic, an acquisitive trip where everything means me, and you can take everything home with you; an old manoeuvre which works when the language is highly enough integrated. The obscurity of many of MacSweeney's poems is due to his over-identification with the central figures, which means that no scene-setting is allowed, to guide the reader; this is reminiscent of what Basil Bernstein says about explicit code speech, that it has mastery of exophoria, i.e. describing situations in terms comprehensible to outsiders. This explicit: implicit opposition is strongly related to social class, and very contentious; Barry achieves total identification with his characters, fulfilling a Nonconformist, workingclass, and old-fashioned artistic ideal, while the "high" poets of the period were busy shunning identification in favour of didacticism, episcopal authority (and exophoria). He is too headstrong to be a natural communicator.
Ranter (1985), a volume-length narrative poem, marked the end of a phase. The word ranter, centrally, refers to a revolutionary sect of the Cromwellian period; more religious and less political than the Levellers, nonetheless a proverb for their resistance to the established order of things. The appellation is a nickname – it already meant a vagrant and licentious way of life. This is the meaning which we find often in Burns: a ranting laddie. Alternatively, the name 'Ranter' may have been given in derision of their way of preaching – like rant and rave. Burns' vagrants were also musicians and reciters of ballads; there is a specific style of folk singing in the North-east known as ranting, used for example by the Northumbrian group the High Level Ranters, as also in the well-known Tyneside song, the Collier's Rant. It may be coincidental that the Gaelic (Irish and Scots) for poetry is ranntachd.
Something else we can track down from the outside is the historical references. Some of these are:
Clearly, Ranter is an extreme example of montage, it can't possibly be tied down to any one moment of history, even for a few lines. This multiplicity is the view of history available to people living in the late C20; it is the way you or I would actually think about Northumbria – although one would also call it 'mythic', which seems to be archaic. If I think of Northumbria, I obviously call up fragments from different centuries, millennia even, and it would be frustrating to pare these down to yield things happening to one person at a single time.
1. Diggers. Communist revolutionaries of the 1650s. (p. 31). 'King Digger / your burial / first on the list.'
2. Lollards. 14th C anti-hierarchical heretics. (p. 31). 'Prince of Lollards / with the very last libel / in every parish/ beneath your shoes'
3. Levellers. forerunners of Diggers (p. 30)
4. the Peasants' Revolt ('Working down / tunnels / of history // Ranter setting / his date: 1349 // Blackheath, Ranter's / proposing place')
5. Viking raids in about the 9th C. 'Would long for the long cry / as the prow bit your sand, / flailing villages into welts / of widowhood. Blood on my blade / in rosehip and fern.'
6. 12th C Kent. 'I am Eadwine / prince of scribes.' (translating 'ego scriptorum princeps').
7. disturbances of the early Industrial Revolution, circa 1815-30: 'Ranter. Mad & brain-sick, / Captain Pouch, Plug rioter, / verb for rising, knotting ropes / in Spithead, offering wrists / for chains' (20)
8. a mythic Ireland in which the saga of Sweeney Furious (Buile Suibhne) is set; a legendary 6th C AD. 'Waiting for Sweeney's / Irish misery / beamed in from a bough' (p. 16)
9. the North during its devastation by William the Conqueror's earls after the uprising of Edwin and Morcar: 'Ranter's children / driven out / by D'Aubigny / foster fathers / for orphans / driven on by Mobray / Durham to Evesham, 1069' (p. 19)
10. the lst C AD. 'Hadrian's leather boot' (p. 7)
The other line we can check is the placenames. Why does Ranter go from place to place in Northumbria? The best analogy I can find is the outlaw film. A rebel is being chased for his life, and the places figure as stages in the chase; one thinks of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' or the Milius 'Dillinger'; if Harry Dean Stanton can be in both films, then so can Barry MacSweeney star in mediaeval, seventeenth century, and modern outlaw legends. Eventually, we get some explanation of this vagrant life in terms of the Irish romance Sweeny furioso (Buile Suibhne). Of course the name is the same. Ranter relates to two important themes of Gaelic literature and folklore: the panegyric, and the tales of broken men, outlaws displaced from their land by the defeat of their chief, or later by the seizure of their land by the English; when the whole province of Ulster was cleared of its people in 1610 or so, the uncultivated stretches of countryside were filled with outlaws and caterans for decades. When the Ranter is shown living out of doors, this combines the madman/exile theme of Tristan or Lailoken living in the woods, with numerous traditions of evicted tenants finding shelter in ditches and under trees. In Black Torch, the striking miners of 1840 are shown camping on the moors, where they find food from the wild.
The lines about being covered in feathers and living in trees refer to Sweeny Furioso; whose plot involves Sweeny being driven mad by warfare, and retiring to live in the trees as a wild thing. He appears as Sweeny on p. 16 and Suibhne on p. 34. (See the Introduction to O'Keeffe's edition of Buile Suibhne, quoting a Norwegian text: 'And it is said of these men [gelt] that when they have lived in the woods in this condition for twenty years, then feathers grow on their body as on birds, whereby their bodies are protected against frost and cold …' A poem within the saga states, 'rowing a rudderless boat / tis a garb of feathers to the skin / tis kindling a single fire.') (An earlier book of Barry's was called Pelt Feather Log.) Other Celtic sagas share this plot, notably the Folie Tristan romance which gave Ken Smith Tristan Crazy. John Arden combines various themes from the Sweeny, Merlin, and Lailoken sagas in part 3 of The Island of the Mighty (1974). If MacSweeney adopts this romance, we can deduce that the hero is under stress and at breaking-point. It is 'Ranter's folly' (p. 1).
Sweeny is a liminal figure, in the sense of Victor Turner (adapting van Gennep) in his book Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, participating in an "anti-structure" where the rules of society and its benefits, are set at naught. Spatially this refers to the fells, the uncultivated wilderness, close to the village where Barry lived as a child, and to the cottage where he wrote Ranter. Ranter is outside class society, eats only wild food, is unconfined by time. He drifts from one intense experience to another, but has no social identity If the revolutionaries are all liminal figures, they are there to illustrate the theme, rather than as subjects. Ranter starts out by seeming to be a political poem, like Black Torch, but resolves itself as an individualistic poem, about a rebel figure and about the failure of his marriage in what one can assume to be the late 1970s. It comes to resemble Ken Smith's Fox Running. The bad end of his marriage was already discussed in the last of Odes, and he is still banging on about it ten years later in Equofinality 4. Re-reading the poem, one sees that the references to history are there as explanations, not as primary sequences themselves: 'Ranter: Leveller, Lollard, / Luddite, Man of Kent, Tyneside / broadsheet printer, / whisperer of sedition, / wrecker of looms / feathered and peltstricken / bound with skin / hung up in trees'. (p. 6). The bits of history appear almost as epitheta ornantia of the hero Ranter, as prestige possessions enumerated in a Celtic praise-poem. The hero feels himself disintegrating as his marriage breaks up, and uses his remarkable knowledge of history to give him reassurance about the survival of identity across time. We aren't going to find out any more about the Men of Kent; the compositional unity of the poem is its depiction of a marriage, although this is disintegrating and is presented as a series of snapshots without explanation. The furniture taken from EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is not written up as part of a series of events, or a conflict; the antistructure throws away time, which is why the historical figures are all simultaneous.
The last section of the poem is put into the mouth of the ranter's lover, or the poet's wife. The multiplicity of voices fails silent. Where control is surrendered altogether, a new order emerges. Permitting a second voice is one of the signs of greatness in a lyric poet.
Barry wrote Celtic pastiche in the end part of Ranter, and in 'Finnbar's Lament' (originally titled 'Glad Wolf Battle Gosling'), whose smoothness and legato make one suspect that MacSweeney regards Ireland as the home of authenticity and ease, so that his fragmented poetry is the product of an inauthentic society and its broken-up consciousness.
Opening of her lids was like the rising of larks
in the blue slowness of a stubble-burning day.
She would stretch out her arms, disgrace-fetcher,
and I would lose my identity for hours on end,
displacing my power and delight in power, and my desire
for the wrecking of other men and the tormenting of tribes.
We would twinkle to the hearth, bearded one, and
wrap ourselves in the rags of our fortune.
('Glad Wolf Battle Gosling')
He has rejected the Irish side of his family; while one can be optatively Irish, he is optatively Northumbrian. Northumbria had a Celtic poetry and society before the region lost its independence and (largely) fell silent: Irish phraseology would then be an imaginative loan to fill in what never got written down. Topography and antiquities go together, and to both is added class resentment. The word 'flamebearer' (in Ranter) translates a word Fflamddwyn in the early 7th C Cumbric poem The Gododdin. Two commentaries on the poem are in disagreement whether this person was an Angle or a Romano-Briton. Brough, in his recent account of The Northern Counties to AD 1000, stresses that the Anglian presence in the North was particularly thin, merely an elite which somehow gave its language to a largely Celtic rural society; and MacSweeney, with his local patriotism, was probably aware of this fact, commonly discussed by archaeologists for a long time. Numerous placenames in Ranter make it clear that it's happening in Northumberland and near the Thames. The name 'Finnbar' points to Ireland, although it could also be the Highlands. MacSweeney specifies in Our Mutual Scarlet Boulevard that Flamebringer is 'Ida', an Anglian king of Northumbria (AD 547-59); this is not too far out, as Ifor Williams remarks in his edition of Taliesin that he might have been a son of Ida; Nennius (9th C) mentions Ida, Aneirin, and Taliesin in consecutive paragraphs. MacSweeney's frequent references to cloakclasps (penannular brooches, 9 times in Ranter, 3 times in 'Finnbar's Lament') shows him treating Celtic antiquity in the same terms of personal adornment that he applied to rock stars and female punks. These brooches are some of the most beautiful things to have survived from the Gaelic past, and were still being made in the Highlands in the eighteenth century. MacSweeney's evocation of the Celtic past is based on detailed study. The narcissism, delight in adornment, heroism, and pride of Celtic warriors, the features we find hardest to assimilate, are carefully integrated by MacSweeney; 'A red buckler with stars and animals of gold and fastenings of silver upon him. A crimson cloak in wide descending folds around him, fastened at his neck with precious stones' (from an Irish tale). Even his ornate and centreless verbal style may be based on the rioting ornament of Celtic jewellery and manuscripts.
"Glad Wolf Battle Gosling"'s version of the Rebel is exceptionally interesting:
Who was my appledawn bride is now the plaintiff
sorely gathered in with her grievance deep.
She'll take me to the Judgement Mound
where for my offences many against the kindred
I shall be rightly impaled or strung by fires.
My own satires shall be turned against me, my courage
Diminished, and magic gone from the streams and wells.
My own mead hall forgotten from the songs.
(from Equofinality 4, 1991)
So the outlaw accepts his own lawful doom? Children don't you do what I have done. We know outlaws have to die; what brought an end to flamboyance, mythic fantasy, and 'wildness' was the institution of religious guilt, and there are indications that MacSweeney – outlaw, legendarist, fop, parader, ranter, and sometimes drunkard – sees this state approaching. But the casualty of Reason and Realism was poetry.
MacSweeney's whole career has been an attack on the line, the sentence, and the rational mind. The poet who has followed on from MacSweeney, in typography, ornamentalism, and construction in rushes of flakes is Maggie O'Sullivan, someone even keener on being Irish than he is. The dislocation between phrases is, for her, at least related to political works which suspend and atomize 'official' media statements in order to make them groundless.
Indulgence is either compulsive or disconcerting, so that to be judicious is difficult, but the conservative view of MacSweeney is that the excellent work is to be found in 'The Last Bud', Black Torch, 'Glad Wolf Battle Gosling' and Pearl, only; while his assimilation of feminism and popular culture points the way forward to English poetry. For a fan, the work is amazing.
Postscript: Barry died in May 2000, a moment which altered British poetry spiritually, murderously, and irrevocably. I took notes during his last phone call to me, a few days before, to catch the torrent of talk; the projects he cited were Horses in Boiling Blood (translations of Apollinaire), Blood Money: the Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell (slated for Bloodaxe but unlikely ever to be published for writ reasons), a huge 2–volume Collected to be done by Bloodaxe (“The Monty!”, he said), Collection (God knows what this was), and Fierce Passion, possibly a rewrite of a lost work of the 1970s, Toad Church. Maybe he passed away from an excess of talent and excitement. A compelling memoir appeared in The Guardian, written by Gordon Burn, his contemporary at Newcastle Grammar around 1960–64; while Burn’s much–admired books on murderers probably influenced the Mary Bell sonnets, his novel on Alma Cogan, with its obsessive detailing of glamorous women’s clothes, is almost an hommage to Jury Vet. I admit that Barry and I were in bitter feud at various moments, but we always ended up discharging our weapons in the air.
I would like to express my gratitude, and admiration, to Barry’s mother.
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- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The