By PETER RILEY.
Desire Lines: Unselected poems 1966-2000.
Edited by Luke Roberts
Sarments: new and selected poems.
John James died in May of this year, Barry MacSweeney in 2000. I knew both of them quite well.—PR
BARRY MACSWEENEY’S DESIRE LINES is supplementary and in some cases complimentary to Wolf Tongue (Bloodaxe 2003), a substantial selection which he made himself shortly before he died. This left a large amount of uncollected material, particularly from before 1970, which he probably considered immature, and from the 1990s until his death when he wrote a tremendous amount of poetry in a kind of fervour. Luke Roberts includes his first book complete in its first state and makes good use of the later material, including filling in an apparent hiatus between 1985 and 1993 and a fuller use of Horses in Boiling Blood (1997-9), versions after Apollinaire. The intervening period (basically 1970s) was one in which MacSweeney cultivated longer and sequential works which must be among his most achieved, though he included only the substantial and monolithic Odes and one or two small works. It is good to see such works as “Fool’s Gold”, “Fog Eye”, “Pelt Feather Log”, “Starry Messenger” in print, some of them for the first time, not to mention his one work of documentary political poetry, “Black Torch”, here complete.
I’m not sure what MacSweeney’s “standing” is these days. I find it hard to accommodate him to current expectations and restrictions. He had a recklessness which would get him into trouble now. He might be a feminist’s nightmare; he never showed any concern, as far as I know, for ”post-colonial” or sexually divergent problems, and yet as a “revolutionary victim” or poete maudit (it was precisely from Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Laforgue that he kicked off) he might be just what the radical cultural academy wants. If he was cursed it was more by alcohol than by a devotion to white male hegemony but his oppositional energy was great enough to bypass any particular concern.
In fact he probably remains one of the best-known of the alienated and rebellious poets coming out of the 1960s — fierce oppositional anger, emotional and sexual realism, the lyricism of desperation, a rhetoric of disturbed and violated language. Such properties as these were in the air and he seized on them with fervour. But he was unique. They all remain acutely his in the peculiar reaches of excess to which he took them. This reached its climax in the late 1970s-’80s, when what I assume to be a coming-together of public and private horrors—not the least of which was the Thatcher government—drove him to a wilful distortion and destruction of the materials of his art in the creation of horrible poems. Not bad poems — the question of quality was banished in the volume and force of it — horrible poems were obviously what he wanted, and his nurtured techniques of linguistic weaponry and the rhetoric of disgust enabled him to. Not that he thought of them in that way; when he sent me a particularly obscene one for some collection I was doing and I queried it, his only response was, “Beautiful. Beautiful sonnets….” These poems are mostly not in the new selection but can be found in the “longer poems” section of Wolf Tongue.
Given the amount he wrote, and the extent to which it was governed by emotional states, he is probably considered an uneven poet, but that strikes me as too easy a verdict. Some things may well be a lot better than others, but I find that everything of his holds typical qualities of flare, intensity, longing, a particular quality of contact with the reader, always straining against settled language, mildly or wildly but insistently, claiming poetry as the summit of his acts. One thing he never is, except momentarily, is prosaic. There is a passionate self-projection as northern worker, youth-hero, lover, triumphant victim, finally a Hamlet-like desperation and recklessness. Language is sharpened to a point which first scratches the author.
The act of refusal and the demand for recognition are almost constant, at first through troubled and strident love poems and urban irony. The pressure intensified and didn’t settle until the end of his career: he moved from complaint to lamentation via screaming fury. It is all heavily oppositional, of course, but it is a long way from the cold self-righteousness now cultivated by outsider poets.
I was clearly wrong in an earlier essay on MacSweeney,1 as John James pointed out at the time, to characterise his earliest poems as “pop” poetry. There is an ordinariness in the locations and terms of address, but there is nothing easy or perky about it.
The sun always goes down
like this between the
staithes of the High Level Bridge,
dragging a golden plate across
…………………and then breaking it
among the rooftops of the
wharf-side houses and stores,
bending yellow slivers
up the mast of the red tug….
There is a refusal or an accusation in the violent enjambment, the regional vocabulary (staithes), the realism (sewage) and the pointed, active, verbs which sustain the movement, all indicating pressure against resistance (drag, break, bend).2 Two years later (1970) the tone is set hard in illicit substantives and yells of pain—
You are breaking my arm. The
……….one of angry frustration, a
……….bottle rack in my throat. john
clare’s hoe ripping through
the blind.…….one hand on the bell
………..t’ other handcuffed, my ghost
where I cannot knock. no use at all.
no one needs you.………foreign,
(second of “Six Street Songs)
And so forth towards “Postcards from Hitler”. The danger is that the endings come to a kind of uncaring and turning away which can’t be specified, as in this set a rejection which could be personal, of self or of other, or implicate poetry and the whole culture.
IN HIS LITTLE BOOKS of the 1970s he ventured a new poetical constitution with each text, as if erecting a system of correspondences between the subject and the language-use, the texts of the angrier works becoming more and more unorthodox. It was also as if each work was an attempt to escape into a new mode which would become permanent, but always the contrary intervened. “Toad Church” (1972), which is an attack on someone or everything, has one of the most dislocated texts, gestural units of address and exhortation ejected quite virulently, and refusing either in themselves or in the poems they form to agree to a rational scenario or anything recognisable as a situation, place or condition from which the poems are issued. Glimpses of domestic scenes and conflicts being thrown at each other, occasionally forming a momentary symbolism, if you do the translating yourself.
Lower your eyes I am your father coming home.
…….Valve these illusory callipers with otherwise
metaphorical distress, you the yellow-hammer
………in my iris’ bed…..
But sometimes there is a wicked grin and undoubted signs of relish —
He is excited because a bun flies by. Those
people will just throw anything, on3 mono
…..Count me, out of the sudden way.
He cannot kick the ball because he is inside it!
(the stars fall back on the beach & are absorbed). The
…….rest is skin.
Call me whore, the shoes of any citizen of NW 8.
How you read any of the phrases here depends on your own resources, especially in instantly converting an image to a recognisable livable thing, but the ghosts of Alexandrines hint at a process of ennobling of household joke-objects through stately disdain.
The mode here contrasts strongly with the more connected and lyrical writing of Fog Eye (1973) with its senses of sadness and loss, a continuity of short sections of short lines which perhaps became his default resource whenever he retracted from the quest for more and more advanced poetry. And especially “Pelt Feather Log” (1974), in the just-discernable form of the notation of shared stays in different places, which thus locates calm and clarity as pastoral, but by no means reverting to anything like nostalgia or the English dream of fields. The self in it is alive and sharp at all points and the figurative inventiveness fully active—
protocol harm. the
day breaks / time
survives the clash
of torn tongues.
..yellow buds & thorns
….mark the even hand
I stare into the many-faceted base
………………………of my cider glass
& feel the power of poetry
extending its plumed arm through my mouth!
…………….on the passion flower
…………..a spider rubs his mind
…………against the world
& out from the indoor palm
….comes a hawk
………..that is brightening my life
I have to insist against the lovers of the hysterical side of MacSweeney, who are perhaps mostly academics in the grip of various crisis theories, that this kind of writing is every bit as apocalyptic in its steady but highly-wrought formulations, as anything else he wrote.
BLACK TORCH (LATER 1970s) has always been known as his major narrative poem and this complete edition will be welcomed. Myself, I find it one of his least successful ventures because, to avoid a detailed critique here, it brings out more than anything else the banality of his politics as a fundamental class conflict between good and bad, in this case the Durham coalminers and colliery owners during the strike of 1854. As such it is entirely effective, using techniques of documentation and conflict dialogue, (highlighted by pitting dialect against standard English,) partly from the example of The Cantos, all very sharply trimmed to stir up the reader’s anger, with entire justification. But there is a helpless fatality in the whole story, exacerbated by MacSweeney’s periodic extension of the narrative of conflict to early and modern instances of what must be parallel failures of justice, and the enemy starts to includes entities called “platonic misogynists”, “the Labour Party”, “Bank of England dwarfs” and so forth. “Cambridge Intelligencer” is among them but I don’t know which side it’s on. The nearest to a solution, at the end, consists of instances of individual sensuality and persistence rather inconsequentially listed.
The alternation or concurrence of wild and tender poetries becomes more and more stark in his later years. The horrible shouting poems of the mid-1980s are suddenly followed by Soft Hail, a previously unpublished long poem of very short lines ranging wherever his thoughts lead him, but starting from echoes of abject failure and of Shakespearean despair.
and never resorting to bravura. So too the delightfully wry and humorous Letters to Dewey, life advice to a young child: “Always be innocent and suspicious”, “Lay your heart upon the earthe”, “Never take a cabbage to a vet”…
Perhaps the most remarkable shift of all occurs in a prefatory poem to Black Torch called “Iron & Bread” written in a style which as far as I can see is unique in his entire work, nor can I think where such a manner comes from. Forty lines, unpunctuated, with all the phrases and sentences running into each other, not as a rant but as a serious and passionate address and, I think, a statement of purpose—
have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust
of heart heart’s unease unquiet
truth which is torn away version
inside carbonised resting black heart
in hand trees reaching left years tongue
beat inside silver river tree has
remained black unto ages…
if go south is to soften the weave
undurable iron such
electric gardens tended by her when
her champions all are all in earth
her champion’s scarves feet are dead if
they have gone no course to run or see
that there is any time so they fell and died
each word a kerbstone
The interesting thing here is that the writing casts aside syntactical cohesion but is not fragmented, jarring or seemingly damaged in any way, and what it transmits is not fierce anger, or any kind of mechanical cynicism, and the driving force is rhythmic in a way which is in touch with the ancestral line. Helpless as we may be floating on it I think the first line does announce a theme which passes through the poem half-disguised, surviving as a statement of good will against the possibility of worse futures.
This book, together with Wolf Tongue, shows the range and courses of MacSweeney’s poetry fully, though there will no doubt be more to come (we await in trembling the sonnets of Mary Bell the child murderer) and represents a challenge not only to the act of reading, perhaps least of all to that, but to grasping the sense and content of a red-hot anger turning ever this way and that in quest of revenge and peace, and here laying its entire repertoire before us. Such outright poetical defiance has not been seen among our angry poets for a long time.
IT IS DIFFICULT to speak of groups among contemporary poets. All sorts of assumptions flow in concerning shared and mutual influences, common agendas, internecine conflicts and the group gets spoken of as if it were an independent creature with its own digestive system. How you read any one of them becomes infected with how you might read any other. John James and Barry MacSweeney were “associated” together — that should be enough.
You would never guess this from a first reading. The self in James’ poetry is almost the inverse of MacSweeney’s lone wolf: it is positive, urbane, social and explicit. The tone of address is certainly capable of passion but passion is reached through intimacy and consideration, opening the poetry to political and social anger and frustration, even at times a hopelessness, but the voice is not raised into the howl of despair; it is specifically directed through a public rhetoric “In the curving surface of the screen the news today a baleful pornographic dance…” Everything takes place in a real space. And the surface of the poetry is not broken; the lines remain intact, always carefully balanced against each other, and the poem moves carefully towards its goal, the final words that both summate and reach out beyond the poem. And as for subject-matter, most of the poems are about civilised pleasures.
The lineation is the principal mechanism at work. He abandoned punctuation early on, preferring to articulate the syntax without it, which requires a skill in balancing and echoing which is not easily imitated. Mainly he just launches into the poem as into the world, not necessarily jauntily—
I light a cigarette & watch the ducks in the park
the keeper’s calling in the boats
reluctantly the evening lights come blinking on
on the other balcony
someone looks away
the hotel violinist starts to play
they’re lighting the candles in the dining-room
the flames spread out
like a fleet in formation.
The ferns are seeding the plains of my destiny
snowing under certain pieces of reckless foolishness
—Letters from Sarah (c1973) No.64
This is plain enough if unpredictable, and the principal feature is a succession of moments or glimpses which follow their own course, meaning there is no subjective programme, no attempt to lure the reader into an alliance with the authorial self, but the image details stand there as independent things rather than tokens. Only the word “reluctantly” raises a question of attitude, and nothing predicts or foreshadows the last two lines, which are themselves no more than glimpses of something in a life. They remain private, and this is partly by the enlarging and distancing effects of the two metaphors, in contrast to the plain bareness of the preceding fragmented scene. The two parts of the poem (lines 1-9 and 10-11) are from a rational viewpoint nothing to do with each other. Yet they are there, they form the steps of the narrative, we trust them, that the experience is authentic, by the way they are so carefully held apart.
There is something in all his work of this reticence, this discrete mentioning of names and percepts, which can also take the form of statements which are not supported by narrated circumstance or figurative intensification or “depth”. An important text here is the poem “A Theory of Poetry” (1977) which is itself advice on how to write poetry (or how to write John James’s poetry), at times severely practical —
It’s very important
to make your lines
bands of alternating colour
running from one side to the other
these will bind
your poem together
like an egg
& make it exist
but other sections are broadly cultural on a platform which might amount to anti-Romanticism, for the advice here is all about being “stringent and lean”, “avoid the countryside”, “literalness and frivolity”, “banality & repetitiveness preferable to histrionic virtuosity on most occasions” (at times very reminiscent of the Imagist directives but without the images).
He did not always follow his own advice and he was capable of what could at least be called sustained high tone, almost magisterial when the subject is human want and suffering. A special poem in this respect is “Baudelaire at Cébazan” (c. 2010?), in which his love of the south of France (which went so far as buying a small vineyard) is linked directly into the great socialist lament—
how the wine sings in the bottles
of the toil & poverty to come of deprivation
calling out to all the honest people of the earth
content to raise a glass he looks into the smiling eyes
………of his companion
as the echo of the Angelus beats out the song
a little girl is singing in the road outside
weariness falls away at each fresh vegetable sip
something precious returns like a seed cast again
& reaches towards the heavens like this scarce flower
The theme is of the wine as recompense and recovery for the tired worker reaching his home. There is no avoiding hints of the Eucharist here and of Catholic (or at least religious) imagery in many of his later poems, such as the next one in the book:
the wine to hand
wild thyme on the hillside
balm to the palate
& thirsty heart
pour again hope
the virtue of the work
restore to us an inkling
of the sacred
His vocabulary was not always as kind as this, and his basically idiolectic discourse could leave the reader with an unconnected collection of names and referents quite unreachable to ordinary souls, though the most extreme of these are not included in this selection. The most challenging is probably the title poem, “Recollection Ode: Les Sarments”, a medley of remembered places and other things, most of them no more than named, which in three pages offers the reader at least ten unreachable destinations, none of them helped by Google — “phantoms of Horfield & Haslar”, “Mater Doloroso El Suspiro del Moro”, “Martin Godfrey”, “the Mystery of the Three Amandas”, “early Rachel Weisz” et cetera. And it took me twenty minutes to find out what sarments are. They are vine shoots, thus they are that which connects one vintage or year, to the next through a thin tube. (There’s a photograph of a heap of them on the font cover.) Nor am I comforted by being able to recognise several of these items from my own knowledge of the author and his environment: that “Anglia” was the college he worked at, and “J’s tie a stripe of orange on white” is unmistakably J.H. Prynne. There is also his strange habit of suddenly dropping one word, almost any word, into French, here “the splash of le ragondin at Auch”. Apparently we call them coypu. It feels like an attempt to discourage readers who don’t speak French, though it is also part of his insistence that words are specific to locations, and such acts of substitution are like breaking through momentarily to a parallel world.
I don’t think any of these factors explains the neglect which beset his career, which remained always in the “small press” zone and was completely unknown to the poetry prizes industry and the more auspicious poetry media. He was also one of the best readers of his own work I ever heard (MacSweeney was another, with his beautiful Geordie accent), who was almost never invited to read anywhere.
The selection was made by James himself and begins with 58pp of “New and Uncollected Poems”, after which the “Selected Poems” of 120pp. This is a small proportion of his work, and I think the Collected Poems published by Salt in 2002 remains essential for appreciating the work of this remarkably original, purposeful and clear-headed poet.
N.B. (1). Shearsman Books has issued a pamphlet homage to John James edited by Kelvin Corcoran called According to John James. It quotes the first eight lines of “A Theory of Poetry” (quoted above) and 28 poets were asked to contribute eight-line poems based on it.
N.B. (2) The following books by poets who have operated in the same or kindred zones as Barry MacSweeney and John James (which was never simply Cambridge actual or coded) have recently been published.
- Andrew Duncan’s On the Margins of Great Empires is a selected poems from 1978 to 2003 with a helpful introduction by the poet. It’s an excited, hugely wide-ranging poetry soaring from the star and jewel riches of the Asian margins down to the brick offices in which are fates are problematized. Quite cryptic but never shirking the open and articulate cry. Duncan has criticked tirelessly and Fulfilling the Silent Rules: Inside and outside in British poetry 1960-1997 is I think his eighth book about contemporary British poetry. I admire the great erudition and enthusiasm for what enthuses him but I decided it would be better if I did not review the book.
- John Welsh’s In Folly’s Shade shows the steady experienced strength of a poet who has never been more than marginally connected to the academic carnival.
- Rod Mengham, who has published and supported all kinds of advancedness for many years now has two prose works published together in Grimspound and Inhabiting Art, the latter a collection of essays. Both a prehistoric compound on Dartmoor and “culture” send him off far and wide, insisting on careful examination of the physical actualities and the invocation of “art” as the name for what we actually inhabit.
- John James’s vocation as poet was launched by having Charles Tomlinson (1927-2015) as his teacher in Bristol. Tomlinson is associated with Carlos Williams for a poetry stripped of ornamental fuss and addressing experience directly in calm measures. Swimming Chenango Lake is a selected poems, edited by David Morley and published by Carcanet .
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
- “Thoughts on Barry MacSweeney”, in Reading Barry MacSweeney, edited by Paul Batchelor. Bloodaxe Books 2013.
- See his essay or statement of 1968, “Kill the bird, the Liverpool bird”, in Certain Prose of The English Intelligencer, edited by Neil Pattison, Reitha Pattison and Luke Roberts. (2012). The title speaks for itself. In fact, his 1980s ranting and raving poems are closer to pop, if pop can be allowed to included the swagger of rock n’ roll.
- “on”: a misprint for “in”?
- “Sarah” is Tristan Tzara and there must be some kind of connection or “altered translation” but as with MacSweeney’s very different poems “After Apollinaire” there is no point in seeking out the originals, and anyway it is impossible too find them. The poems of both poets are absolutely their own.