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elements of the population, the slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. The thread of another voice can be heard in MacSweeney’s poem, that of the disguised Edgar in King Lear:

The country gives me proof and precedent

Of Bedlam beggars who with roaring voices

Strike in their numbed and mortified arms

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary,

And with this horrible object from low farms,

Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes and mills

Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers

Enforce their charity.

In section six of
Ranter we have the anguished cry:

Dear Christ

what kind of kingdom

People standing in the fields all day

in the rain

doing nothing

leaning on sticks

glaring, miserable

resentment filling

their chapped bodies

afraid of everyone

and themselves

This group of poems of political and individual marginalization is on the move from its opening lines:

Ranter loping

running retrieving

motoring chasing

her with a cloakclasp

sniffing the trail

loving wanting

eyes on any horizon

but this blind spot

leaping the fence of his enclosure

nose down in open fields

stunned with blood

trailing her scent

greyhound quick from his trap

and the angered lament, tinged with desperation, is not far behind:

Moaning: this must be the last lap

And it isn’t

even the first

The Special View of History, (Oyez, Berkley 1970) Charles Olson sees ‘history as the one way to restore the familiar to us—to stop treating us cheap. Man is forever estranged to the degree that his stance toward reality disengages him from the familiar’. Ranter brings Bede, Cuthbert, Hadrian and Halfden into focus and presents MacSweeney’s version of Composition by Field:

Ranter’s head

carved and set

beneath volutes, 1075

on the voissar

scratched on his neck


grooved snout

separate from other men

women too high to touch

in 1100

I was a silent watcher

Eight men hanging

At Bury St Edmunds

ropes and rings

knotted over pegs


in a scarlet gown

ruddy slippers

and black hose

pink fleur de lys

invaded the psalter


St Oswald’s, Gloucester

I slept for a year

The twenty-two poems which make up the later volume,
Pearl, published by Equipage in 1995, evoke a childhood love between the poet-persona and his sweetheart In his article for the London Review of Books (volume 20, number 19, October 1st 1998) Nigel Wheale pointed to the vivid creation of the children’s lives on the moors ‘lashed by gales blowing in from Ireland, and their pleasures taken among forests of borage, heifer clarts and becks where brown trout swim through watermint’. As Dr. Wheale makes clear , this sequence of poems is not a bucolic: ‘Pearl has a cleft palate and, partly as a consequence, is illiterate. Stranded at the beginning of the alphabet, she can only vocalise “a-a-a-a-a-a”. The seam of her damaged mouth has cultured pearls and ore, veins of copper and gold more valuable, for the poet, than the metals laboriously won from the worked-out mines among which the two children live and play.’ With the moving anguish of the dispossessed, the disinherited, Pearl is imagined as saying:

I am Pearl

So low a nobody I am beneath the cowslip’s

shadow, next to the heifer’s hooves.

I have a roof over my head, but none

in my mouth. All my words are homeless.

This acute feeling of isolation and watchfulness does not only have the Middle-English dream poem
Pearl as its source:

           Sithen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
           Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele…

          (Since in that spot it slipped from me
           Often have I watched, longing for that precious thing)

There is also the marginalized figure of John Clare, many of whose poems written whilst he was an inmate of Northampton General Lunatic Asylum evoke the pain of the outsider who is aware of his enforced difference:

In the cowslip’s peeps I lye

Hidden from the buzzing fly

While green grass beneath me lies

Pearled wi’dew like fishes’ eyes

Here I lie a Clock-a-clay

Waiting for the time o’ day

Socio-political anger and outrage haunt some of these poems and in ‘Cavalry at Calvary’ the defencelessness of Pearl is juxtaposed in the poet’s mind with the young girl, Irma Hadzimuratovic, whose life was destroyed by shelling in Sarajevo:

Irma, in the agony of the night, in the filthy bombshell bombhell,

under the nostrils of the TV cameras, freak show

brilliance, foaming at the mouth

for the worldwide page of the Shields Gazette, baby. Irma,

dying on your little side, arm the colour of fresh milk.

Irma, page one if there’s nowt better, pet,

for this edition only

The glib ease of the colloquial term ‘pet’ causes maximum offence when juxtaposed with the journalist’s concern for death’s saleability and the evocation of the ‘colour of fresh milk’ which takes us back to ‘Sweet Jesus: Pearl’s Prayer’ and the whispers of the marginalised young girl:

They want to tax my ABC, they want to jail my tongue.

I dream their high-up heather deaths

though I do not emit articulate sound.

I am just a common white swan.

Fierce I am when I want, want

my milky hands on my destroyers, rive

them apart like a marauding reiver…

Anger and dismay merge, time and again, with personal recollection throughout the sound-patterning and cadences of
Pearl and the echoing of ‘argent’, ‘borage’, ‘rain’ and ‘law’ explore a moving inter-relation of echo, progression and memory. What wrings clear in these poems is sound, a kind of lyricism such as is pointed to in Peter Nicholl’s article on Swinburne in Parataxix, number 10, 2001:

This is the kind of lyricism we might find in a poet like Rilke, whose blind people, as Jacques Derrida puts it in his book Memoirs of the Blind, ‘sing of the poetic condition, namely of lyricism itself insofar as it opens beyond the visible’. Derrida goes on to quote the first lines of Rilke’s poem ‘Gong’: ‘We must close our eyes and renounce our mouths,/ remain mute, blind, dazzled:/ Vibrating space, as it reaches us/ demands from our being only the ear.’

MacSweeney’s preoccupation with sound was evident from the collection of Odes 1971-78 which were published by Trigram Press in an edition of six hundred copies in 1978:

Open your black-backed gull.

See her, inside.

                Fine bird,

              orange barley.

           Shrink, wear partial vests
               of stitchwort
                     & lace.

                     (Filters red


                     Mottled death,
                                         (‘Beak Ode’)

The accumulation of sound and imagery, pun and bitterness, becomes increasingly the hall-mark of this Selected Poems, the record of the voice of an outsider singing eerily in the wind: ‘sound: as of the nightingale too far off to be heard’ (Ezra Pound, Canto XX). Robert Duncan’s comments on Pound’s Pisan Cantos are a useful route into this world:

That one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding is the secret of rime and measure. The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings. It resembles the time of a dream, for it is highly organized along lines of association and impulses of contrast towards the structure of the whole. The same impulse of dream or poem is to provide a ground for some form beyond what we know, for feeling ‘greater than reality’.

(Tri-Quarterly 12, Spring 1968)

The story of Barry MacSweeney’s earlier
Selected Poems, contained in Paladin’s The Tempers of Hazard, is well-known: launched with a reading at Compendium Bookshop in London and then rapidly pulped. Iain Sinclair records the detail in Lights Out for the Territory (Granta 1997):

Rupert Murdoch’s accountants saw no reason to tolerate low-turnover cultural loss leaders. Barry took it hard. More than any other British poet MacSweeney was possessed by the knowledge that, being one of those gifted with language, he was also cursed. His was a true ‘sickness vocation’—questing for the heats and silks of fame, firework effects, the dazzle of a Michael McClure shriek cut with French decadence. He fixated on spoiled heroes, stopped in their youth: Rimbaud in ‘the Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother’, Jim Morrison in ‘Just Twenty-Two—and I Don’t Mind Dying’, and Chatterton. He didn’t sit out the dead years in comfort.

The selected poems of Chris Torrance were also printed for pulping in that Paladin volume and Jeremy Prynne’s review of Torrance’s early poetry has an appropriateness for MacSweeney as well:

The singing voice of such persuasive and dilated movement has not for a long time been heard in the land. It is here covert, aware of distance held off by a species of pearly haze, small faces of the actual suddenly but without surprise revealing an intimate curve.
Grosseteste Review, Autumn 1969)

That Chris Torrance should be given the last word is itself appropriate and his ‘MAYTIME (for Barry MacSweeney)’ was published in 2003 in the volume
Wobbly Chair (Canna Press, 200 copies):

windblown pipit

takes your soul

out over rushes

a shiver up my spine

your crab cancer

                           implacable smile

In his obituary for MacSweeney published, perhaps appropriately, in
The Independent, Nicholas Johnson said that ‘Barry MacSweeney was a contrary, lone wolf. For 25 years his work was marginalized and was absent from official records of poetry’. The opening of his monograph on Thomas Chatterton, Elegy for January, published by The Menard Press (300 copies) in 1970 has a grim tone to it: ‘Thomas Chatterton, the English romantic poet, was born in Bristol on November 20, 1752, and swallowed arsenic eighteen years later in London—starved and unrecognised’. The publication of Wolf Tongue which is his own selection does go some way to remedying the neglect felt by the Ranter ‘poete maudit’.

Copyright © Ian Brinton, 2007. This review first appeared in Tears in the Fence, issue 37.

Wolf Tongue—Selected Poems 1965-2000 by Barry MacSweeney (£10.95.  ISBN: 1-85224-666-9.  352pp.)

Lurking behind Barry MacSweeney’s book-length poem,
Ranter, turned down by Bloodaxe and printed in 1985 by Slow Dancer Press, there are the voices of those mid-seventeenth century political and religious radicals who considered the poorest beggars, even ‘rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses’ as ‘every whit as good’ as the great ones of the earth. The books and pamphlets published by the Ranters have in their titles a MacSweeney ring: ‘A Single Eye all Light, no Darkness’, ‘The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit’, ‘Copps Return to the wayes of Truth’, ‘Strange Newes from Newgate and the Old-Baily’. In John Holland’s ‘The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit’ we can read ‘that the essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel’ whereas, more sensationally, in ‘Strange Newes from Newgate’, ‘eating a piece of beef, one of them took it in his hand, tearing it asunder said to the other, This is the flesh of Christ, take and eat. The other took a cup of Ale and threw it into the chimney corner, saying, There is the bloud of Christ. And having some discourse of God it was proved that one of them said, That he could go into the house of Office, and make a God every morning, by easing his body’. The Ranters spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged