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Book Review

Reading Barry MacSweeney, edited by Paul Batchelor (Bloodaxe, £12)


The essays Paul Batchelor has assembled in this volume hide behind a prosaic and somewhat misleading title. This is not so much a reader’s guide as a series of specific responses to MacSweeney’s life and work, some defiantly cerebral, some forged in personal memory and anecdote.

MacSweeney was post-war British poetry’s lone wolf: a journalist rather than an academic, an endlessly self-reinventing experimentalist, a man who rejected trends and movements. It’s no coincidence that his earliest important poems was called ‘Brother Wolf’, and his Selected Poems was issued as Wolf Tongue. MacSweeney had bad experiences with mainstream publishers; much of his output was via small presses. Even the release Wolf Tongue and its preceding volume The Book of Demons under the Bloodaxe imprint was bittersweet: they’d previously rejected his 1985 sequence Ranter.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the ten essays in Reading Barry MacSweeney add up to a fragmented, troublesome and argumentative book. Harriet Tarlo’s placing of MacSweeney in an “old-new” poetic tradition has a lot of thought behind it but reads like a first year university student thesis, overburdened with assertions of “I shall demonstrate” variety. John Wilkinson’s aggressively academic analysis of MacSweeney’s political poems is made from an ivory tower, demonstrating abject naivety regarding the British political landscape of the 1980s. His essay is full of statements like “the power of Barry MacSweeney’s best poems lies in their creative and integrative summons to the reader, surprised into poetic activity which has not been advertised according to post-authorial dogma”. And that’s one of the easier sentences to parse!

On the plus side, W.N. Herbert offers a highly readable overview of The Book of Demons; Matthew Jarvis evocatively maps the Northern landscape that provides a rugged backdrop to the best of MacSweeney’s work; editor Paul Batchelor relies on close reading and textual reference, hewing as close to the poetry as possible; Andrew Duncan brings insight and empathy to the story behind the unfinished Black Torch sequence; and Peter Riley and William Walton Rowe offer coolly objective analyses of MacSweeney’s heroes and nemeses respectively.

 The two best pieces are by the contributors who knew him. Terry Kelly considers MacSweeney’s musical influences in a warm, poignant and beautifully understated mini-memoir. S.J. Litherland, MacSweeney’s partner in the last decade of his life, lovingly reconciles the different aspects of a troubled and brilliant individual, citing instances of MacSweeney the journalist using his position to champion the underdog that will make you want to stand up and cheer. These two essays alone make Reading Barry MacSweeney a worthwhile purchase. They bring you MacSweeney the human being in all his conflicted and vulnerable glory.

 Neil Fulwood


4 thoughts on “Reading Barry MacSweeney, edited by Paul Batchelor (Bloodaxe, £12)

  1. I’m sorry that Neil finds my writing on Barry MacSweeney displays an “abject naivety regarding the British political landscape of the 1980s”, but he seems to have been misled by my academic affiliation, which upsets him, into the belief that 1) I am not British and 2) that I know nothing about British politics in the 1980s. My naiveté was acquired in mental health services in the West Midlands, not in the bookstacks of the University of Chicago. As it happens, I knew Barry, although not well enough to trade on that, and I love his writing and wrote about it long before I became an academic. I wouldn’t have chosen to have the credential ‘Professor’ attached to my name in Bloodaxe’s blurb, and I hope Neil might now read my piece as something other than an academic performance, after removing the prejudicial filter. Even if the prose remains incomprehensible.

  2. At the risk of sounding “prosaic” once again, I fail to see how the title “Reading Barry MacSweeney” can be considered “somewhat misleading”, since it refers to a collection of essays that offer different ways of reading Barry MacSweeney. Nor do I see how the essays “hide” behind such a title. Neil Fulwood should note that this volume is titled as part of a series of books published by Bloodaxe: “Reading Paul Muldoon”, “Reading Peter Reading”, etc.

    John Wilkinson has already disabused Neil of some of his sillier assumptions, but I must say that Wilkinson’s essay places MacSweeney’s 80s poetry in the context of artistic responses to Thatcherism – specifically the societal impact of the Falklands war, the Miners’ Strike, and financial deregulation. How exactly does he demonstrate “abject naivety regarding the British political landscape of the 1980s”? Or did Neil just like the sound of that phrase? Given that it places MacSweeney alongside Elvis Costello and Martin Amis, I don’t think Wilkinson’s piece can fairly be called “aggressively academic” either. Neil’s verdict on Peter Riley and William Rowe is also puzzling: he calls their pieces “coolly objective”, but in fact their advocacy of particular aspects of MacSweeney’s work is impassioned, and they disagree violently on the value of MacSweeney’s epic “Jury Vet”: Rowe claims that it grapples with “a crisis that goes to the heart of the survival of poetry itself”, while for Riley it represents “the central disaster in Barry’s career”. As for my contribution, I do indeed “rely on close reading” to some extent, but I also place the poetry in the contexts of Modernism, of English and North-East-English literary traditions, of MacSweeney’s biography, and of the history of political and religious dissent.

    The few opinions that Neil ventures about MacSweeney’s poetry are highly questionable: MacSweeney did not “reject trends and movements”, he more often joined them briefly, devouring and then regurgitating their aesthetics in partially-digested form. In doing so, he added ever more voices and masks to his own repertoire. And I don’t understand what is being implied when Neil says that MacSweeney was “a journalist rather than an academic”, as though these were the only options available… or is it simply that Neil requires false dichotomies when he’s trying to think? In the writing of this more-than-somewhat misleading review, Neil’s priority was, evidently, to sound like he had an opinion at all costs. It is a pity that, despite this, he seems to think “troublesome and argumentative” are negative epithets for a book of essays.

  3. Vehement comments, gentlemen, for a review which, in its final analysis, finds the book “a worthwhile purchase”.

    Two points:

    John – the political naively in question stems principally from your assertion that contemporaneous critics of Thatcher and Thatcherism by male artists/critics/commentators were indicative of gynophobia, a notion as facile as believing that anti-Hitlerite sentiments proceed from a dislike of moustaches.

    Paul – there’s a certain irony in the way you lambast me for opinionism and at the same time ridicule them as silly, which is essentially an opinion on an opinion and moreover one that resorts to petty name calling.

    I stand by my review: ‘Reading Barry MacSweeney’ is a mixed bag which occasionally mires itself in pretentiousness and political illiteracy but at its best fully justifies its cover price. That, by the way, constitutes a recommendation.

    I worry for your blood pressure if you ever receive a bad review.

  4. Neil, I realise that replying to your comment is probably futile, since you didn’t address any of the points I raised in my first post, but for the record: I didn’t object to your having opinions, I simply disagreed with them, and I explained why. If a person won’t (or can’t) provide argument and example to back up their opinion, then their views might well be considered “highly questionable”. If, instead of argument, they provide a silly caricature (as you do with Wilkinson’s essay), then “highly questionable” seems too charitable. I actually suspect that “opinion” is too strong a word for what you’re offering, and if you read my original comment again, you’ll see that I in fact accused you of merely wanting to sound as though you had one.

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