Sunday, 14 April 2013

Reading Barry Macsweeney - edited by Paul Batchelor

Barry MacSweeney was described as 'a contrary, lone wolf...[whose] ear for a soaring lyric melody was unmatched' (Nicholas Johnson, Independent). MacSweeney found fame with his first book, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother, which appeared when he was just nineteen years old. But he soon retreated from the publicity, and for almost thirty years his poetry appeared only in small press publications. Identifying himself with Chatterton and Rimbaud, MacSweeney developed a poetics based on experiment and excess, from the fragmented lyricism of 'Brother Wolf' to the political anger of 'Jury Vet'; from the dizzying historical perspectives of Ranter to the nightmarish urban landscape of Hellhound Memos.

In 1997, MacSweeney once again found a wider audience, with the publication of his last full-length book, The Book of Demons, which recorded his fierce fight against alcoholism. This book also included Pearl, a sequence of tender lyrics celebrating the poet's first love and his rural Northumbrian childhood. At the time of his death in 2000, MacSweeney was preparing a retrospective selection of his work for publication. When Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 appeared in 2003, it brought a wealth of poetry back into print, displaying the incredible range, ambition and quality of MacSweeney's work. Reading Barry MacSweeney is the first book of essays to assess MacSweeney's achievement. Bringing together academic critics, poets and friends of the poet, the book considers many aspects of MacSweeney's career, including his political verse, his re-imagining of pastoral poetry, his love of popular music, and his mapping of Northumberland. 

Contributors include Professor W.N. Herbert, Matthew Jarvis, Peter Riley, Professor William Rowe, Harriet Tarlo and Professor John Wilkinson, as well as MacSweeney's journalist friend Terry Kelly, and poet S.J. Litherland, MacSweeney's former partner.

Paul Batchelor was born in Northumberland in 1977. In 2003 he received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors, and in 2004 he was given the Andrew Waterhouse Award by New Writing North. In 2005 he was a winner of the Poetry Business Prize; his pamphlet To Photograph a Snow Crystal was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2006. His first full-length collection, The Sinking Road (Bloodaxe, 2008), was shortlisted for The Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2008 and the Glen Dimplex Prize for Best First Collection. His poem 'Comeuppance' won the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition in 2009. He did his PhD at Newcastle University on the work of Barry MacSweeney, and his critical anthology, Reading Barry MacSweeney, is due from Bloodaxe in 2013. His second collection is due in 2014. Paul Batchelor lives in Manchester and is a freelance reviewer.

'Barry MacSweeney was a contrary, lone wolf. For 25 years his work was marginalised and was absent from official records of poetry - MacSweeney's ear for a soaring, lyric melody was unmatched - his poetry became dark as blue steel, edging towards what became his domain: the lament' - Nicholas Johnson, Independent.

'His notion of the artist was formed around a myth of exemplary failure and belated recognition: Rimbaud was an early model for this - Such identifications were the basis for a poetics of direct utterance in which MacSweeney's voice mixed with others to inveigh, to celebrate or entreat - Pearl, a work of redemptive pathos, evoking the figure of a childhood sweetheart as a presence in nature, on the confines of social existence, was reprinted in The Book of Demons, where he projects himself as maimed and abject, hapless yet percipient victim of the demon drink, in writing that is both comic and terrifying' - Andrew Crozier, Guardian.

'MacSweeney's poetry places a radical, critical energy, unsparing of illusions, and bitter and comic in its self-appraisal, at the disposal of a clear-eyed celebration of the world. In lyrical and experimental forms the poet bears outraged witness to a culture in decline - as battered prophet, demonic wanderer and clown of misspent desire' - Clive Bush.


  1. Lovely Barry MacSweeney there.

    The Boy From the Green Cabaret

    The most talented (and modest) of the old Morden Tower crowd.

    All of the talent and none of the phony hippie posing.

  2. Before retirement I worked as an Antiques Exporter and advertised for house clearances in the local press.

    After his death, MacSweeney's poor old mum rang me to buy the contents of his council flat....she was understandably distraught at the loss of her talented charming quiet boy.

    The flat was in an awful, neglected state ....drink had seized him by the throat and was the cause of his demise poor bugger.