Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 by Barry MacSweeney

I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.
— Jim Morrison

Barry MacSweeney’s cultural heroes, referred to with almost talismanic zeal repeatedly throughout this volume of poems, include Jim Morrison, Arthur Rimbaud and Thomas Chatterton. All died, or abandoned their art, prematurely; all contributed in different ways to the Romantic myth of genius, closely associated with youth, forever frustrated by tragedy, always Dionysic in its force, and only expressible in poetry which searches out new extremes of experience.

MacSweeney died in 2000, leaving a body of poems representing a major undercurrent in post-war English poetry. He’s included in Iain Sinclair’s important anthology Conductors of Chaos (Picador 1996) and makes a guest appearance in Sinclair’s own Lights Out for the Territory (Granta 1997), where he’s described as being “possessed by the knowledge that, being one of those gifted with language, he was also cursed”.

MacSweeney himself expresses half of this double bind in 1983’s “State of the Nation bulletin” ‘Wild Knitting’: “Keep me / out of control”. The other half is most clearly uttered in 1997’s sequence ‘The Book of Demons’, in a long, extremely painful homage to Sylvia Plath entitled ‘Daddy Wants to Murder me’: “they were very kind and told me straight, for straight / is what I need, dad, now that drink has twisted me”.

MacSweeney’s poetry consistently confirms to an irresistible requirement that poetry be effective, that it affect its readers at a physical level, quite apart from any intellectual consequences of its consumption. His is a poetry of extreme suffering, of Eliot’s “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing”. Words and sentences are strung out, attenuated into painful patterns; emotions are stitched into language, sometimes forcibly, as the poet seeks some sense in the pain he experiences. This is the poetry of a grim and authentic confessional, a darkly rhymed night of the soul, rightly described by one obituarist as finding its true expression in the form of the lament.

MacSweeney’s lament is for innocence, youth and whatever else came before the corruption and agony he so clearly attaches to adulthood. This agony is both personal and general: “Dear God / What kind of country is this”, he demands in ‘Ranter’. The answer comes in ‘Hellhound Memos’: “I come down like slate-grey rain. That’s all. No God available”. His critique aims at social injustice and exclusion from the perspective of one who identifies, perhaps too intensely for comfort, with all kinds of deprivations, and seeks, through some uncertain but surely genuine redemptive aesthetic to save them all.

His key sequences, written in the 1970s, the mid-1980s and finally in a remarkable productive explosion in the 1990s, assume personae through which the self and social reality can be diagnostically analysed. ‘Ranter’, a short sequence of long poems produced in 1985, typifies this process of confessional analysis. The persona of Ranter links MacSweeney with the English radical tradition, stretching back to the Diggers of St George’s Hill, and coinciding, in the year of this poem’s publication, with folk-protest movements like those suppressed at the Battle of the Beanfield:

Ranter: Leveller, Lollard,
Luddite, Man of Kent, Tyneside
broadsheet printer,
whisperer of sedition,
wrecker of looms

feathered and peltstricken
bound with skin . . .

In style and theme this may owe as much to Ted Hughes’s Crow as it does to other underground poetry of the 1980s, but it establishes MacSweeney as a figure whose own marginalisation from the official poetry scene sought its counterpoint in other exclusions, other suppressions.

Apart from doomed youth, MacSweeney frequently acknowledges Russian artist Kasimir Malevich as his great modern precursor, but his real position relates to tradition of English poetry that goes back through Basil Bunting (a key figure in his literary universe, sharing MacSweeney’s region, the north-east of England, as well as his poetic) to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, via him, to Blake and on to Medieval verse, notably the anonymous Pearl, which provides him with the symbolic framework for his own ‘Pearl’ sequence between 1995-7.

MacSweeney’s ‘Pearl’ (“I am Pearl, queen of the dale”) confirms his credentials as a belated Romantic, mining the resources of the language to their full potential and mixing medieval anachronisms like the three-stressed alliterative line with post-modern pop-culture slang in jarring, dazzling poetry:

I leak truth like a wound, sore not seen to.
Call me a scab if you wish, I’m still plain Pearl.
Wild Knitting was named after me, I know you did, Bar.
Every day — I wake at four – tongue fever grasps me
and I am possessed: though
my screen is blank and charmless to the human core
I have an unbending desire to marry consonants and vowels
and mate them together
in what you call phrases and sentences
which can become — imagine it — books!

MacSweeney’s poetry in ‘Pearl’ is powerful, almost effortless in its ability to match its historical sweep with his characteristic honesty in pointing out the wrongs of the contemporary world — closer, perhaps, to Piers Plowman than Pearl. At the same time he manages to sustain an ironic, self-deprecating distance, recognising that words and worlds can never fully correspond, that nature poetry is never the poetry of nature:

. . . an engine revved before
daybreak, as the world, the permanent wound
I would never know in sentence construction, fled
away from my heather-crashing feet, splash happy
kneefalls among the tumblestones,
whip-winged plovers shattering the dew.

MacSweeney’s poetry, despite its surface complexities (the typography of ‘Jury Vet’, abandoned in 1981, resembles Dadaist or Merz experimental poetry; ‘Blackbird eschews punctuation, offering abbreviated, seemingly random lines; the Sex Pistols’ kindred glance into the abyss adumbrates ‘Far Cliff Babylon’), ultimately offers a particularly intense encounter with the subterranean poetry of the English language itself, from its “high sentence” to its guttural growls. MacSweeney is a ‘child of Albion’, a “State of the Nation” poet doomed to flashes of political optimism made only more futile by the deepening historical gloom they illuminate, a situation expressed most powerfully in the final lines of the final poem of this remarkable collection: “We are not stone, but we are in the grinder. / Everything is lost, and we are dust and done for”.