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.