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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Past writings on, and past tributes to, Barry MacSweeney

I have been reading the very welcome collection of essays on Barry MacSweeney, edited by MacSweeney scholar Paul Batchelor, Reading Barry MacSweeney (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2013), an important supplement to the work of William Walton Rowe in Three Lyric Poets (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2009) and the essays in John Wilkinson’s The Lyric Touch (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007), (though Marianne Morris’ essay ‘The Abused Become the Abusers’ in Quid 14 (October 2004) must also be acknowledged, and the long 100 page chapter in Clive Bush’s volume Out of Dissent which I read last night).

The oscillation of views on MacSweeney’s work is extreme, which is not surprising, given its range. The by turns precocious and derivative early work, uneasily dominated by father-figures like Bunting and/or Prynne contrasts with the Vorticist impaction of Odes which followed. The either hopeless or aspirational mythologizing of Ranter gives way to the violent abjection of middle period political work like ‘Liz Hard’, which is either enthusiastically embraced as the central work of the oeuvre or dismissed as its ‘central disaster’ (Peter Riley’s phrase, I think). In one volume, The Book of Demons, readers face either the pastoral richness or sentimental poverty of the ‘Pearl’ poems, and the execrable or exemplary un-palatability of ‘The Book of Demons’ (depending on one’s views towards the idyllic and the alcoholic). The collaborative celebration of Apollinaire in his final book Horses in Boiling Blood – a marvellous book I fully recommend to those who stopped with Wolf Tongue – presented the last in a long line of ventriloquised heroes and avatars, from Chatterton to Robert Johnson, a strategy which raises various objections, subtle excuses and lengthy supporting expositions, from his critics.

In another posting (here) I deal with some of the views of MacSweeney (the canonisation of him, to be precise) but I don’t offer my own. MacSweeney (who I met only a couple of times) pops in and out of my autrebiographical texts (to be published whole as Words out of Time: autrebiographies and unwritings (see some excerpts here and here). I fish these four direct references out of the texts that make this up. 

I don’t remember buying Barry MacSweeney’s poem about Jim Morrison.

Why is there no news from Barry MacSweeney?

I came over but he was deep in MacSweeney and Rimbaud.

Barry MacSweeney recites his Mary Bell sonnets.

To contextualise: Just 22 and don’t mind dying came in a 7 inch square sleeve; I know I had a copy, probably bought in Norwich at the underground bookshop that was closing down. There was ‘no news’ because I had invited him to do a reading in the early 1980s in Norwich, no reply. I too (‘he’) indulged in the equation of MacSweeney and other doomed heroes, you can see. The last quotation refers to the last gig I saw him do, in Southport with Lee Harwood in about 1998 or 99 at which he read the notorious and unpublishable ‘Mary Bell’ poems about the Tyneside child-killer who was herself a child at the time of the murder.

MacSweeney haunts past and present. I have two copies of his Hutchinson volume The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother (see note 137 below): one signed and dated by me: ‘robert g sheppard august 1974’, by which time I’d met him, having recorded a London poetry reading with Tom Pickard (who read his brilliant ‘Dancing Under Fire’) in 1974 for my tape magazine 1983. I still have the blurred cassette on which I am surprised he read early poems. The second is signed ‘All best wishes Barry MacSweeney Nov 1968 Liverpool,’ which I bought in the Oxfam shop a few years ago. There’s something totemic about having two copies.  

As a ‘linguistically innovative poet’, for me, the central MacSweeney book has always been The Odes. I reviewed this in Reality Studios in 1981, and this review is republished in Far Language, whose title comes from MacSweeney, but I also beefed it up for the end of my ‘British Poetry Revival’ chapter in The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool University Press, 2005). It ran like this (pp. 68-70):

With their celerity, and condensation, Barry MacSweeney’s Odes offer a tough view of politics in the late 1970s. Having made a precocious beginning in the late 1960s, even being picked up by a major publisher as a possible Geordie complement to the Liverpool Poets, and having mixed with a broad range of poets, from Bunting and Pickard, to Prynne and Mottram, who steered him away from such celebrity, MacSweeney developed a range and authority that remained in his writing until his death in 2000.137
Pound had approvingly quoted Bunting’s bilingual equation ‘Dichten = condensare’ in his ABC of Reading (1951), to demonstrate that condensation is the essence of writing,138 but in Odes, whose title might suggest a debt to Bunting’s own two books of ­Odes, ‘the style is compressed, paratactic.’139 This is not the economy that comes of careful revision but is an economy built into the compositional process. Condensation is so acute, its resultant autonomy frustrates the processes of naturalization. Perhaps learning from the increased impaction found in the work of Prynne at this time, as he too moved from the Olsonian inheritance, MacSweeney has said,

I’ve worked towards this condensing of language, this cutting across meaning, not having words next to each other which are supposed to be there … I think they are shocking. 140

By squeezing metaphoric language into this indeterminacy MacSweeney, like Bill Griffiths, has ensured that the poems stay poetic. Celerity is a guerilla tactic against a language that belongs increasingly to the controllers of our society.  In ‘Far Cliff Babylon’ MacSweeney can adopt a persona that declares with frightening simplicity in lines that are parodied throughout the piece:

I am 16.
I am a Tory.  My

vision of the future represents
no people.141

The Babylonian exile of the reggae of the era (‘I have no people/They represent me’) merges with the sinister tones of Igy Pop’s lyric, ‘No Fun’, that operates as a resistant echo of the other NF, the National Front, which, as we have seen from Lud Heat, was a small but potent force throughout the 1970s.142  More positively, ‘No Fun’ counterpoints another slogan: ‘No more apartheid’. 143
The poem is what MacSweeney would ironically call a number of his angry poems of the 1980s: a state of the nation address. The sceptre of unemployment hovers in the surreal image of

your natty dread future is a dole card
stamped with asteroids exploding
across the city of my

The reader is forced to join in the mechanics of language, cannot rest in too many of the familiar notions of space/time, social detail, idea, or traditional image, most of the comforting impedimenta of ‘poetry’. In ‘Far Cliff Babylon’ there comes the stark realization that ‘I have died every day since I gave up poetry./Dangerous condescending humans lapped it up.’ 145 Despite this, the real triumph of these poems is that they ‘move’ the reader - in both senses of the word.  Yet the ‘movement’ of the poems, the celerity of the text, resists that static aestheticization of the feeling, that comforting, introspective notion, of having been ‘moved’. It recalls what Forrest-Thomson said of the alternative linguistic orderings evoked by poetic artifice. That the lines ‘I am 16/I am a Tory’ quote the young William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party from 1997 until 2001, makes the poem seem prophetic, a bridge to the poetry of the 1980s and 1990s.


And beyond, I think, into the 2000s and 2010s: Mr Hague’s now shiny skull is thought a useful target for a nail in Sean Bonney’s Happiness published two years ago. (Look it up.) It’s a cogent enough account, it still seems to me (and I note how the hero-worshipping and the mythical aspects are strategically ignored).

When The Tempers of Hazard appeared in 1993 (I got my copy pretty quick and avoided the notorious pulping) I was surprised to see the anarchic and typographically wild ‘Liz Hard’ and ‘Jury Vet Poems’, but I’d always found them ‘difficult’ in a different way, a less-guarded way, than Odes, and I don’t mention them here (though to be fair I was writing a history of the British Poetry Revival, whose dating generally ends in 1978). Looking at them now, and wondering if I am up to writing about them, I realise that they should be formally regarded as a continuation of the impaction of the Odes, despite the scatological and sexual violence of the content (Bush refers to them as the ‘Jury Vet Odes’, which encourages me in this identification). As readers of these posts will have noticed, FORM is what I am interested in with my current critical project. But before I turn to that, I recall another debt to MacSweeney in my creative work. I am making this clear to myself (and others) before moving on. 

The apparently non-parenthetical remark above ‘until his death in 2000’ was added at a late stage in the preparation of the manuscript of The Poetry of Saying (as were the references to Hague, it seems; MacSweeney himself confirmed the quote but I have seen the odious video of the infant Hague uttering these words through his Giles cartoon chin). But this wasn’t the only reference to the sad fact of MacSweeney’s death in my work. (I found out about it by picking up a copy of The Guardian in The Willow Bank in Liverpool and read Andrew Crozier’s obituary. It was quite a shock.) The last poem of my long intratextual project TwentiethCentury Blues was the millennial ‘Empty Diary 2000’. The character ‘Pearl’, who appears in a kind of semi-Beckettian comic-tragic pairing with ‘George’ throughout the project, and is the narrator of this poem, is of course not the same Pearl as the one eulogised by MacSweeney in his searing pastoral ‘Pearl’ poems. (They are both based on different real people.) Here is the poem (revised from the unsatisfying prose version in Tin Pan Arcadia). The dedication to MacSweeney, which seemed inevitable at the time) is only at the end because of the terrible rhyming couplet it would make if placed just after the title. (Try it.) It’s not ‘about’ MacSweeney, but seems appropriate to him; there’s as much from Noel Coward (‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ rather than ‘Twentieth Century Blues’), Kiki of Monparnasse, Roland Barthes, Harryette Mullen, even Angela Carter, and it’s a farewell to the entire project and the ‘Empty Diary’ strand that runs through it like the legendary ‘Fuck You’ supposedly printed through miles of Brighton Rock that had to be destroyed. There exists, however, an Empty Diary 1327 (coincidentally written in the last few days, a Petrarch 3 variation) and an Empty Diary 2055 (a homage to cyberpunk in the Blues itself) as well as the complete 1901-2000 series (though I have it in mind to extend it into this century at some point: 2001-2014 perhaps, 14 fourteen-liners).

The Push Up Combat Bikini

Coda 4
Empty Diary 2000
IM 11

Such turned out to be the eternity the poet promised me, the bastard
                                                                                                                Angela Carter

You’re coming over all female.
Your conceit’s too clean. Out
of the push up they’re a let down,
deposits that won’t quite register,
banked on your looking. You sniff
eroticism off dirty shifts, smudges of pelt.
I slip an ought, drop a stitch or two
Hot gushes signal your retreat. Every
time I open my mouth out comes
a manifesto of a new literary movement!
Was that a poem, curling round you,
your nerves ajangle at syntax’s opening?
It takes me and takes me
for somebody else, as you
push me out between its lines.
What might a poem be, elsed?
You dunk your aching, lived-in balls in ink
and roll them across the page.
I’m your shagged out Muse.
Take me over you this last time.
Whisper me Pearl, whistle me off.
I’ll be a big register on your retina,
breathlessly weaving love for a puppet prick
that can be choreographed. I’m
pegged on that line to George’s stuff
and nonsense. ‘I’m only an instance of a fuck
fucking (he says (she says (who says?
The ventriloquist tongues my clitoris and it speaks.

dedicated to the memory of Barry MacSweeney

2000; revised 2007


For the sake of completion, I took a look at my When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Shearsman, 2011), a book I thought did not include much on Barry MacSweeney. In fact there are a string of references, on one occasion countering the mythologising of him by Iain Sinclair. But more germane to my current theme, his role at the Poetry Society during the years covered by Peter Barry’s The Poetry Wars is outlined and I compare his more assertive political poetry to that of Lee Harwood, but introduce it with sound-bites from Marcuse’s 1977 book The Aesthetic Dimension … :

‘In its autonomy art both protests [the prevailing social relations], and at the same time transcends them. Thereby art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience’ and its ordinary language which, one might add, the manifesto [ of the Poetry Society] also questions. (Marcuse 1979: ix) Marcuse sees the ‘logic’ of art – via its distanciation, and other techniques hinted at in the manifesto – as culminating in ‘another reason, another sensibility’, which defy prevailing conditions, with its own ‘categorical imperative: “things must change”’. (Marcuse 1979: 13)  The critical function of the work of art re-establishes the emancipatory dreams of the 1960s in a new 1970s formalism…. Barry MacSweeney, at one time chair of the Poetry Society, in a public mode of poem he would call later ‘a State of the Nation bulletin’ (MacSweeney 2003: 138) …  delivers a public address in a clipped shorthand that may owe as much to his journalistic training as it does to the example of Allen Ginsberg’s public ‘Poems of these States’, an excerpt of which provides the epigraph to his 1977-78 poem, ‘Black Torch Sunrise’. MacSweeney offers images of potential insurrection, or of ‘1968 failure’:

Whipped legs
                        of left-bank women students
                                    blur on the shimmered screen
                                    625 line consciousness  (MacSweeney 2003: 75)

The public scene is mediated through the latest televisual technology but the language is ‘direct’. It is a public discourse that disarmingly answers its own questions: ‘Will the Labour Party uphold the jailing of pickets?/ Of course.’ (MacSweeney 2003: 74).


Of course.


137. The early book was The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother (London: New Authors, Hutchinson, 1968). MacSweeney had published in Vogue as well as The English Intelligencer so one can imagine that he was confused enough when, at the age of 20, he was nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. MacSweeney turned to the small presses for the next 25 years until he was anthologized by Iain Sinclair in The Tempers of Hazard (with Thomas A. Clark and Chris Torrance) (London: Paladin, 1993),  pp. 133-285 and in The Book of Demons, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997. He is well served by Clive Bush, ‘Parts in the weal of kynde, Barry MacSweeney’, Out of Dissent, pp.304-416.
138. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber, 1951), p. 152.
139. ‘MacSweeney’, p. 36.
140. Ibid., p. 37.
141. Barry MacSweeney, Odes (London: Trigram Press, 1978), p. 57.
142. Ibid., p. 58.
143. Ibid., p. 58.
144. Ibid., p. 57.
145. Ibid., p. 60.

(All my posts on form, MacSweeney and other writers building up to create the project The Meaning of Form may be accessed here.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places