I was but a speckle in my mother's womb when Barry MacSweeney and his peers were lighting up the glory days of the 60s. I never met or heard him read. I have read all his published work.
What strikes me most about Barry MacSweeney then, aside from his poetry, is he is most times referred to as a touchstone talent infused with tragedy. His life: his work - Barry MacSweeney: poet and alchoholic. No doubt there is truth in this but it is not hugely informative. To my mind his writing has the hallmarks of running on the main line one day. It makes Eliot's look like the product of a fizzed up technician in needs of a good shagging.
Most biographys concentrate on MacSweeney's drinking. Most criticism dramatises his writing in terms of this aspect of his life. Born July 17 1948 in Newcastle, died May 18 2000. A newspaper man, including at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle with Basil Bunting. First book published in Hutchinson New Authors imprint The Boy From The Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother (1968). Other books, from many: The Last Bud (1969), Brother Wolf (1972), Odes (1978), The Tempers of Hazard (1993), Pearl (1995), The Book of Demons (1997), which MacSweeney wrote in detox.
I value MacSweeney because of Pearl, and some texts in The Book of Demons and other poems which relate to Pearl. Together these plough a furrow to an older poem, Përle, which MacSweeney quotes to preface the poem Mony Ryal Ray 1:
For urthely herte myght not suffyse
The struggle to speak, for Pearl; the struggle to articulate a passion, for the poet: this
runs through and through. Also: a freshness in the face of nature, a writer of a wet, wild
Much desired landscape loved keenly several lifetimes [...] bleak and bare of plastic
life, who writes of borage, and rain and the fells as the rim of the world but also of
the turbo-mob and
Barbour vegetarians, who couldn't / stand the nailed-down
These lines come from Cushy Number, a poem in Pearl In The Silver Morning in a letter-pressed edition of 170 copies 2. It is a micro communication. Perhaps part of an autheniticy that may be characterised as regional, something which MacSweeney shares with Larkin. Both wrote window poems; this is MacSweeney's:
Looking Down From The West Window
I smashed my wings
against the rain-soaked deck
and was happy you lifted me
into your safe fingers and palms.
If not too disgusted, hold me
close forever keenly 3.
Larkin had a respected institution and MacSweeney had none. Larkin also had cynicism and the leveling of feeling in all things that this brings. MacSweeney had despair, perhaps: also passion and courage, the moth in the borage on a cold summer morning.
1. Mony Ryal Ray is part of the Pearl sequence back to text
2. Published by Peter Riley, 27 Sturton Street, Cambridge with financial assistance from Eastern Arts Board - No. 49 of the Poetical Histories series, may be ordered online through Amazon back to text
3. This short poem opens Pearl back to text