The poet Barry MacSweeney was a contrary, lone wolf, self styled the 'prince of Sparty Lea'. He was proscribed from official records of poetry for 25 years. Pearl (1995) and The Book of Demons (1997) relaunched his reputation. He won a Paul Hamlyn Award in 1997. MacSweeney was a boy wonder, in the Romantic tradition, who turned lyricism on its head and made it a very dark place to be.
"There is so much land in Northumberland.
The sea taught me to sing
the river to hold my nose.
When it rains it rains glue.
Chatterton's eyes were stuck to mountains.
He saw fires where other men saw firewood."
Barry MacSweeney was born in 1948 in Newcastle, England. He attended Broadwood primary school and Rutherford grammar. The presence of his Geordie mother, younger brother and maternal grandparents in his first and last works indicate that he craved family security. Raised in the poor quarters of Newcastle, the contrast of surrounding moorland hamlets were oxygen to a suppressed wisdom. He would 'plodge' in the river Allen, at the moorland hamlet, Sparty Lea, tickling trout and picking rosehips at Allendale for NHS syrup quotas.
From NICHOLAS JOHNSON: BARRY MACSWEENEY - AN APPRECIATION
"And mam has let the stove die - not like her - so it is cold tonight.
Typewriter he taught me down the dale - mitts on - Red mittens -
and the sun's last lances lingering lovingly in Penrith
& Kirkby Stephen, where clatter of brief-legged ponies
hammered in my heart, but mossbank stones pillowed my spirit:
before the awesome black velvet went over my eyes
up a height in the last wilderness on the frozen law.
Those faraway jewels and halo brooches rived from darkness:
35 years ago MacSweeney became swept up by the vital, transatlantic public poetry that travelled like a radar through London, up to Newcastle and out to Wylam, Northumbria. At sixteen he saw many poets read at The Morden Tower. Tom Pickard, another teenager, had opened this mediaeval room on the old city walls, run on a bootlace with his wife Connie. Besides their charms, poets were also drawn by Basil Bunting, whose batteries got recharged by such attention, laying the foundations of Briggflatts, whose precision and rich textuality was equally relevant to Pickard and MacSweeney.
MacSweeney moved to Essex. He attended Harlow Journalists College. The poet J.H.Prynne became a lifelong friend. He lent Barry books, recordings, instilling a sharp sense of the Romantics, from Chatterton and Olson, and their accompanying radicalism. MacSweeney observed a phantasmagoric devotion to the poet maudit, but also understood the discipline kept by these 'cussed pioneers' he admired and knew.
Reciprocally, MacSweeney opened the doors of his aunts' cottages for ten days to a new generation of English poets who met head on for 'Sparty Lea Poetry Festival'. Sparks flew and Sparty Lea - like The Tower, set the benchmark: for its pollenation of radical poetics.
MacSweeney's debut The Boy from the Green Cabaret sold unusually well for a book written in the air of those unusual times. When its publishers, Hutchinsons, nominated him for the Chair in Poetry at Oxford, the 19 year old with three O'levels received three votes. It took half a lifetime for his reputation to recover. The last bud (1969)and Flames on the Beach at Varregio (1970) presaged the emphatic rhetoric that was to come.
"the clouds move easily enough, without meaning
sufficiently articulate in their own magic. I am no
animist bound to them as if there were no dispersing the
black strewn shore gleaming with fallen points of joy
but the black glazed seductive trick eludes us, Grace
stands on Platform 10 awake receptive to thrills
& we miss her / her stripped down pearly car."
MacSweeney was open to the youthful aspect of running with whatever looked interesting at the time. He kept a flat in Dieppe, and often visited Paris. He taught many Creative Writing students at Hertford College of F.E. how to decipher the Racing Guide form in newspapers. He married the poet Elaine Randell and worked for The Kentish Times. Together they ran Blacksuede Boot Press, publishing works by Andrew Crozier, J.H.Prynne, Nicholas Moore and themselves.
His ear for a soaring, lyric melody remains unmatched. Many poems carried the raw sparks of an early draft, tight-knit, unembellished and vernacular. He retained regional adjectives in his poems, jewels in deceptively sparse works. He knew the twists an ear and eye could make, harnessed to a wide ranging knowledge, clean and swift: the journalist's touch. Brother Wolf (1972), Fools Gold (1972), Black Torch and Odes (both 1978) took on Chatterton, riot mobs, Eric Burdon and 19th century north east history, in prose poem, spontaneous composition and spatial work. His role as official NUJ national delegate, and shop steward belied an ambiguity to his view of Labour and Trade Unions.
Seperating from Elaine Randell, he began to enact addictions and compulsions of a marked man. Poetry became dark as blue steel, edging towards his domain: the lament. Blackbird (1980) was an elegy for his grandfather, searing and restless. Ranter (1985), and its comets' tail Finnbar's Lament (1997 (first published by Equofinality in 1986) were poems of atonement, from 'a man who'd made some bad mistakes.' He married for a second time in 1983, the marriage lasting three months.
"prayer in peltchest
where are you my love
psalter protected by wings
keep me going, Lord
plaid laid by pipes
My feast, brother
palace of his making
My house, keep out"
A new, sexual poetry, Colonel B, Jury Vet, Liz Hard and Wild Knitting, attached to the tail end of punk, stemmed from a boredom that took the quality of despair. He was back in the North East. His poetry ignored the miners' strike because he no longer wrote it. As deputy editor on The North Shields Gazette he wrote with precision and wit. 'Mouth of the Tyne' was his column. He said he'd embraced Christianity in 1989. What is sure and obvious in the work that was to follow, was his knowledge and feel for language of The Old Testament and the Psalms and his preoccupation with good, evil and atonement.
In 1992 MacSweeney was writing again, Hellhound Memos (1993): spurred by the death of a teenager in the Meadowell riots. MacSweeney felt the boy's grandfather's consideration of his prowess as a joyrider outweighed the fact of his death.
Paladin issued The Tempers of Hazard (1993), containing a kaleidoscopic chunk of his work. Then they pulped it. He took this very badly, to be mistreated twice by the establishment. Having kept a double life as a journalist, the poetry sprang back and gained the upper hand. This bought him mixed fortune: loneliness and mental distress, acclaim for the poems Hellhound Memos, Pearl and The Book of Demons, and a new relationship - with the poet S.J.Litherland. The Book of Demons (1997) would be dedicated to her, 'beloved comrade and warrior Queen'. Hellhound Memoes had led to Pearl, a sequence of lyrics evoking his childhood friendship with Pearl, a girl who had a cleft palate, whom he taught to read and write.
In 1994 he experienced hallucinations in the form of a demon with rustling knives in its mouth. (The man with no eyes, no cranium, no brow, no hair/...The blades say: there are your bags. Pack them and come with us.) Recovering from a breakdown, having lost his job, MacSweeney was hungry to give readings again, including an 8 city tour we shared, an Arts Council tour, 'Hellhound on my Trail'. The Demon poems showed how he could observe a situation in a split, if sometimes refracted, second.
The dissolution of his later years contrasted with his ability to assist patients in hospitals and detox clinics when he was an outpatient. He savoured the sweetness of slowly watching where the pieces of his life dissolved and how they found redemption and beauty. MacSweeney's final writings showed new and reconfigured approaches to his achievement; to give his life, to the poem. Pearl in the Silver Morning, Letter to Dewey (both 1999), the forthcoming Apollinaire versions Horses in Boiling Blood (Equipage) show this. Four weeks before his death, his relaunched Blacksuede Boot Press published the Cumbrian poet Emma McGordon, The Hangman and the Stars. In 2002 Poetical Histories published False Lapwing. S.J.Litherland has continued to locate and remind us of his work, assisting editors of posthumous works and the obligations surrounding his Selected Poems Wolf Tongue which Bloodaxe have in preparation.
Barry MacSweeney's poetry was a sulphur, fusing the political and the personal: scathing and contemptuous of the destruction of the North East's labour force, the shipyards and coalmines. Apart from a compendium published by Talus, nearly all his works remain out of print, locked in a limbo that needs a new readership to approach then appraise the void his death leaves, to hear so clearly the cadences of a voice that couldn't prevent its extinguishing.
Barry Patrick MacSweeney, poet, journalist
born Benwell, Newcastle July 17th, 1948.
Died Denton Burn, Newcastle upon Tyne May 9th, 2000.
Married first Elaine Randell, second Lesley Bourne.
Thanks to George Beckett
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