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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Extreme Views on Extreme Work in Barry MacSweeney

Reading Paul Batchelor’s critical edited volume Reading Barry MacSweeney, the variation in views on MacSweeney’s work is oscillatory, which is not surprising, given its range, but there is something unique and dizzying about this multi-form body of work. The by turns precocious and derivative early work, uneasily dominated by father-figures like Bunting and Prynne, contrasts with the Vorticist impaction and defamiliarisation, the shocking parataxis, of Odes which followed. The mythologizing of Ranter – a text perhaps derivative of Ken Smith’s Fox Running –gives way to the violent abjection of middle period political work (which is the focus of this analysis). In one volume, the posthumous The Book of Demons, readers face (the book divided into two parts) either what they might think of as the pastoral richness or the sentimental poverty of the bucolic ‘Pearl’ poems, and, after the divide, the execrable un-palatability of ‘The Book of Demons’, with its self-indulgent mythologizing of alcoholics and alcoholism or the deep and raw honesty about dependency and its attendant horrors (depending on one’s views). The collaborative celebration of Apollinaire in his final book Horses in Boiling Blood – yet another ‘translation’ project – presented the French modernist as the last in a long line of ventriloquised heroes and avatars with whom MacSweeney openly identified, from the youthfully deceived Chatterton and Shelley in early work, to the tragic and self-doomed Robert Johnson and Anne Sexton in later pieces, a strategy which raises various objections, subtle excuses and lengthy supporting expositions, from his critics.
However, it is probably the work of the late 1970s and early 1980s – the years of the rise of Thatcherism, the demise of punk anarchism – that divides the most, the typographically extreme and semantically excessive ‘Liz Hard’ and ‘Jury Vet’ in particular. Peter Riley regards this work as ‘the central disaster in Barry’s career. His growing confidence crashed into its own absurdity,’ he said. ‘Somehow he determined, or was persuaded, that things like erotomania or faeces were powerful meanings in the cultural and political order of the world.’ (Riley 2013: 137) Riley is right to remark that his poetry ‘had always been political as he knew and understood politics: on the ground, in the workplace (he had been a union official)’ but he finds ‘the infantile sexual temper-tantrum reduced politics to crude categories of the person,’ in this work, offering an apposite image for this: ‘the Nazi officer in the brothel.’ (Riley 2013: 137) There are crudities of this kind, most evident in a later series of poems, ‘Postcards from Hitler’ which literalises Riley’s image of the sadistic fascist and results in banalities of predictable language. ((source0) Riley is correct to see that MacSweeney’s oeuvre is suffused with politics, whether overt or enmeshed with mythology or bucolics. But his assertion that ‘using poetry as a vehicle of shock is doomed’ because ‘it only ever reaches the pre-confirmed and they just laugh and yell for more’, is only partly true in this case. (Riley 2013: 137) These poems did not reach a wider public, even a little press one, until the Paladin anthology The Tempers of Hazard offered a provisional ‘selected poems’ in 1993, shortly before the Paladin series was unceremoniously pulped. That nobody yelled for more confirmed MacSweeney’s feelings of isolation.
The contrary critical opinion – but by no means simply adulatory – is exemplified by John Wilkinson’s tracing of a politicised male panic at the ascendancy of Thatcher after 1979, and reverses Riley’s opinion: ‘This is how lyric poetry should work.’ (Wilkinson 2013: 103) While acknowledging a content of ‘things like erotomania or faeces’, Wilkinson remarks: ‘The satisfactions it offers are categorically poetic, operative not through metaphor but through sound and lexicon’. (Wilkinson 2013: 104). This is a rare formalist moment in the apprehension of these poems, for they are usually read – pro and contra – via their extreme contents. Marianne Morris’ ‘The Abused Become the Abusers’ in Quid 14 (October 2004), traces these works in terms of fetishism and abjection, relevant categories it must be acknowledged (these and similar psychological categories are used on other works by MacSweeney too), but ones in danger of obscuring lyric satisfaction in favour of ‘a gleaming wound, reflected in the reader’s face’. (Morris 2004: 21) Her assertion, ‘There is not enough poetry like it’ (Morris 2004: 21) affirms a view that these poems are ‘central’, though not the ‘disaster’ Riley detects. A concentration upon form will not only emphasise the satisfactions identified (and analysed, as we shall see) by Wilkinson, but will mediate the fetishistic and abject content, that will see it operating as neither ‘gleaming wound’ nor ‘crude categories of the person’, and will identify a political import operating via a ‘logic of autonomization which at once frees and impoverishes’ the texts with regards to their obdurate materials. (Jarvis 2006: 85)    

(Other posts on MacSweeney and other writers dealt with in my The Meaning of Form project may be accessed here.)
Batchelor, Paul. ed. Reading Barry MacSweeney. Newcastle and Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2013.
Jarvis, Simon. ‘The Truth in Verse: Adorno, Wordsworth, Prosody,’ in eds. Cunningham, David, and Mapp, Nigel. Adorno and Literature. London and New York: Continuum, 2006: 84-98.
Morris, Marianne. ‘The Abused Become the Abusers’, Quid 14 (October 2004): 4-21.
Riley, Peter. ‘Thoughts on Barry MacSweeney’, in Batchelor, Paul. ed. Reading Barry MacSweeney. Newcastle and Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2013: 131-140.
Wilkinson, John. ‘The Iron Lady and the Pearl: Male Panic in Barry MacSweeney’s “Jury Vet”’, in Batchelor, Paul. ed. Reading Barry MacSweeney. Newcastle and Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2013: 87-106.

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