Tuesday, September 08, 2009


After listening to Sunday's Radio 4 broadcast on Barry MacSweeney I was grateful to see MacSweeney receiving some affection from mainstream media. But I also felt a little stunned and disappointed by the pathologizing rhetoric of alcoholism through which so much of the work was read. Given this it seems especially important to recall Clive Bush's reading of MacSweeney's Book of Demons (1997):

It is no less than the destruction of the poet as a measure of value that MacSweeney takes as his theme and he takes it, too, from the bourgeoisie who like to see their artists wounded, crippled, dying, or in some way at least fatally produced by a culture they have, less-than-secretly, little desire to change.

This reading of MacSweeney's Demons — with the movement of capital at its center — should have been integrated into the BBC program. That it was not reduces the force and complexity of MacSweeney's work and the extent to which he was fully aware of his contradictory relationship to the interpellated role of self-destructive poet within a market system.

Looking through some of the work he produced in the '80s and '90s after the program, I was particularly taken by the relentless rapid-fire rhythms of "Blackbird: elegy for William Gordon Calvert." The metrical contour of Sean Bonney's ongoing series Commons bears a striking resemblance to some sections of "Blackbird" and is perhaps informed by it:

rude unwelcome guest
luckless wind
at family's four doors
nothing fever eyes wear
solid fern
narrow compass
abjuring life
treason to my instruments
of you taken
invisibled counterfeit
midnight stealer
quiet roofs pigeon croop
sponge boots caress
aching sills
stare at rough slot
magnets on the heart
aery chambers lift
handsome filings
from dust to a star

This poem may very well be included in the Bloodaxe MacSweeney edition, but its useful to recognize that it was first published through Ric Caddel's Pig Press in Black Torch, presumably in a run of no more than two or three hundred. The poem circulated within a fairly intimate community of poets unlike the work of, say, Dylan Thomas or Simon Armitage, both poets whose work is mediated through a rhetoric of disability (alcoholism in Dylan's case and regionally-specific economic disadvantage in Armitage's) in order to market it toward a broader reading audience. Nothing sells quite as well as the mad visions of a raging alcoholic (i.e. Kerouac) or the market-friendly rise-above narratives produced by peasants that somehow yanked themselves up from the dregs through determination and biologically innate talent (i.e. from Stephen Duck, John Claire and Robert Southey's notion of untutored genius to Philip Levine). In short, it seems something of a disservice to MacSweeney to frame his work through the disabling narrative of an alcoholism articulated with a regionally and economically specific Geordie identity when in fact it was precisely the destructive character of such narratives MacSweeney consciously challenged in confronting his own alcoholism.