One of the immediately refreshing aspects of Luke Roberts’s book about Barry MacSweeney is the clear manner in which he distances himself from the mythologizing and gossip which surrounded the poet soon after his death in May 2000. It is highly appropriate that he should open his introduction with a reference to the obituary written for The Guardian in which Andrew Crozier addressed the alcoholism which had caused MacSweeney’s death and was, as Roberts puts it, the “intractable subject of MacSweeney’s later books”. Crozier made the point, in his inimitably careful way, that “It would be unfortunate if this final self-identification became his own myth”. Luke Roberts’s fine engagement with MacSweeney’s work goes some considerable distance towards avoiding the world of gossip; instead he directs us to the poems themselves and how much of MacSweeney’s writing arose out of social and political commitment. The focus Roberts presents us with gives “a serious account of the communities he moved through from the mid-1960s to the end of his life”. This is an important book which provides a literary context within which to view MacSweeney’s lyrical intensity and to re-view his powerful political commitment.
This is the first major study of MacSweeney’s work and what is so attractive about it is the fine mixture of close textual criticism and historical literary context: in two ways we are reading a world which comes alive. Roberts looks at the Menard Press publication of MacSweeney’s lecture on Chatterton which was delivered at the University of Newcastle in 1970: Elegy for January. MacSweeney’s interest in the work of Chatterton may well have started as a recommendation by J.H. Prynne as did his reading of Death’s Jest Book by Beddoes:
“Though he begins by taking a sceptical view of the ‘romantic myth we are led to believe’, MacSweeney drifts into a glorification of youth and early death, In a manner not dissimilar to the ‘melancholy raptures’ of Dr. Knox, quoted at merciless length by Hazlitt, he addresses Chatterton directly: ‘You are the elegant, eloquent poet, my brother!’; ‘Thomas, what is there, after all, after youth’. Nevertheless, over the course of the lecture, MacSweeney does speak of a number of Chatterton’s poems precisely as if they were ‘old well-known favourites’, and this is borne out by the order of engagement we find in the poems. MacSweeney’s language and imagery is persistently inflected by Chatterton in Odes, ranging from subtle single-word allusions to the extended ‘Wolf Tongue’, which revels in his vocabulary for well over a hundred lines. Some of the most intense passages in Colonel B feature interruptions and excursions drawn from ‘AElla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ and ‘Elinoure and Juga’. Far from emptily enthusing about the circumstances in which they were produced, MacSweeney used these texts as a vital resource for his own writing.”
Luke Roberts then provides us with a vignette of the “true poète maudit”, Mark Hyatt, MacSweeney’s friend who killed himself in early 1972. He points us to the publication of some of Hyatt’s work in the posthumous edition published by MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press and Crozier’s Ferry Press, How Odd, before taking us forward to the collection of MacSweeney’s own work, Fog Eye which was dedicated to Hyatt and in which ‘Elegy’ appears:
“Invulnerable nothings. Nothing
indecipherable as those ghost
messages. The seed burns by
a grey unblinking plant or moon.
You tear pages from a diary
written many years ago, but
the stories are the same today.
There are chapters like hidden doors
and they do not bear closing.”
The final chapter in this book looks at Pearl and Blood Money: The Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell, Child Killer and Roberts suggests that there is no simple coincidence in MacSweeney “thinking about the figure of the child and the idea of innocence”:
“These poems were written with extremely high-profile trials of children going on in the background, and a change in how the child is constituted as a legal subject.”
I have said that this is an important book and I hope that it may be just the first major study of a neglected poet whose explosive lyricism and deep political commitment to justice, (one who hated secrecy and deception), deserves to be more widely known. As Chris Hall wrote on hearing of the death of Barry MacSweeney:
“It is to be hoped that his untimely death will stimulate a genuine reassessment of this important, brave and undervalued poet.”
Ian Brinton, 26th May 2017