Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines, Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.
Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction, is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”
One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.
I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.
The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”
This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …
ragged wings swoop
we catch a hen
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
& fills this skull
schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
not fascist Aryan
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
we don’t know
By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …
After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.
In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …
Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.
MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …
… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.
Or, as he says in the poem, his words …
have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust
Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special, with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet“ – Started September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full
A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.
Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.