Sunday, September 6, 2009

The radio programme on Barry MacSweeney was broadcast to an audience that probably new little about the type of poetry he represented, or about MacSweeney himself, and it had thirty minutes to position the poet and his work. Ian Sinclair, Jackie Litherland and Chivers himself did convey some important aspects of the poetry, namely its foregrounding of the oral - of sound patterning and repeated motifs - and MacSweeney's ability to create his own myths and maintain them within a poem or sequence of poems.

But, inevitably, the programme presented MacSweeney as the stereotypical Romantic doomed poet, born to live fast and die young (or at least middle-aged). Did we really need the gruesome detail of the effects of alcohol on his body? Probably not, though at least it was followed by him reading one of the Demon Poems for which it provided a context. You could argue that MacSweeney's poetry, like Ginsberg's, can't really be separated from his biography. Is that a fault in a body of poetic work? Discuss. But an inordinate number of those thirty minutes were spent discussing his alcohol habit, and all of the recordings of MacSweeney talking were of him talking about drinking.

The programme assumed that readers weren't interested in, or capable of absorbing, a simple outline of his poetic development, and the influences on it. There was little contextualizing in terms of poetic contemporaries or religious and political influences (like seventeenth century radical movements for example, or MacSweeney's late conversion to Christianity); no mention of Ranter, and its reference to the 17th century Ranters, and no mention of Pearl, and its reference to the medieval poem of that name. No mention of Thomas Chatterton, and the influence of that literary myth on MacSweeney. The best thing in the programme were the clips of MacSweeney reading his work; he was a very good reader. Unintentional humour was provided by the quote from a Sean O'Brien poem which likened MacSweeney's reading style to 'a bucket of lava flung over the listener'.


Dominic Rivron said...

A fair review - but at least the programme happened and, as they say, "all publicity is good publicity". One can only hope that this programme with all the weaknesses you rightly indentify might serve indirectly to generate an interest in his poetry among its listeners.

The Editors said...


I have to admit I really enjoyed the programme, mainly because of its focus on the poems themselves: great to hear MacSweeney reading his own work. But at the same time, I share the same misgivings about the absence of a critical or aesthetic context in which to make sense of his work. It's impossible to talk about his poetics without mentioning Bunting, whose own focus upon the oral component of poetry has had such a radical impact upon the poetry of the North East, and MacSweeney's in particular. This might well have been a matter of length - only so much can be covered in 30 mins - but there does seem to be a more general tendency in the mainstream media to shy away from the heavy aspects of poetics - ie discussions of form, aesthetic theory, poetic schools and so on.

I was also a little unsure about the presence of Sean O'Brien, whose own critical writings - see, for example, the bilious review of Keith Tuma's Anthology of Modern British & Irish Poetry which he wrote for Poetry Review - have regularly attacked the alternative and experimental currents within post-war British poetry, from which MacSweeney's work drew much of its strength and inspiration, and within which aesthetic communities MacSweeney himself was situated. I don't doubt the genuineness of O'Brien's admiration for MacSweeney's work, but his general aestehtic tendencies make him, at best, a problematic choice of interviewee.

Simon, Gists and Piths

Tom said...

Hi Alan,

I'm glad you were able to tune in to the programme today, and I'm glad you enjoyed at least some of it.

Let me respond, briefly, to some of your criticisms.

1. Romantic / doomed poet. Both the producer and I were very much alert to the potential of over-emphasising this side of Barry because it does fit into a common sterotype, but ultimately it was a very important part of his poetic persona, as Iain Sinclair makes quite clear at the top of the programme. He was a myth-maker, both within and without his poetry, and obsessed with live fast die young figures (Chatterton, Morrison etc).

2. Alcoholism. Again, we didn't want the programme to focus on this, and on reflection, I don't think it did. 'Inordinate number of those thirty minutes' - I'll have to go back and count, but I don't think it was as much as that. The demon poems are extraordinarily powerful and it would have been false to have ignored those, and the effect of his drinking on his poetry (SJ Litherland talks about that).

3. Poetic development. I think this is a fair point, but then one can't cover every aspect in a half-hour programme on Radio 4. As you say, many listeners would not have been grounded in any notions of 20th century poetry let alone the more experimental streams. It's difficult enough getting any alternative or challenging contemporary poetry in the mainstream media, so one has to accept that some elements will have to be explored on other platforms. My intention, frankly, was to introduce people to Barry's work, as Dominic says; not to cover the whole history of 20th century radical poetry and Barry's relationship to it.

Also, of course, tons gets lost in the final cuts - c'est la vie.

Finally, Pearl was mentioned several times, and Iain Sinclair mentioned both Chatterton and Ranter.

Very best wishes,


Alan Baker said...

Dear Tom

Thank you for taking the trouble to respond to my review. You make some valid points.

First, I can say that I did enjoy the programme, though I probably didn't express that in the review. I'm also sure that it would have turned some people on to MacSweeney's work. I agree with Dominic Rivron that 'at least it happened' and you're to be congratulated on making it happen.

I do think that the absence of a discussion of his poetics over-emphasised the poet's life and personality. A typical recent edition of the popular Radio 4 programme "In Our Time" consisted of a group of academics discussing Logical Positivism. So I'm sure Radio 4 listeners could cope with, say, a discussion 17C radicalism or the middle-english Pearl poem, and their influence on the poetry, and that this would be just as likely to turn them on to MacSweeney's work.

You say "It's difficult enough getting any alternative or challenging contemporary poetry in the mainstream media, so one has to accept that some elements will have to be explored on other platforms." OK. Fair point. I have no experience of making a radio programme, and I'm sure that the final cut is to some extent out of your control, and is dictated by the need for an "angle"

I didn't expect you to cover "the whole history of 20th century radical poetry and Barry's relationship to it", just to put his work into some sort of literary context and link it to the historical/political ideas that underpin it.

But hey, I can be too critical, I know, and (to relate this an earlier post) I have to remember that there's a world out there that neither knows nor cares about contemporary poetry, and to have thirty minutes to tell that world about a poet like MacSweeney... well, there are limits to what you can do. Perhaps, given an hour, it might have been just right.

with best wishes


Sam said...

Since Tom has taken the trouble to come here and defend his programme, I feel somewhat churlish "having a go" (as it were), but I do feel that most of Alan's criticisms hold water, and I, too, found myself largely disappointed with the way in which MacSweeney was presented.

Alan mentioned Ginsberg as another poet whose work, it could be argued, "can't really be separated from his biography", but I'd say a better example might be Clare. In his case, enclosure and the asylum were undoubtedly important, yet, all too often, they have overwhelmed or distorted accoutns of his life and work.

While I take Tom's point about the difficulty of "getting any alternative or challenging contemporary poetry in the mainstream media", and understand that his intention was "not to cover the whole history of 20th century radical poetry and Barry's relationship to it", I suspect a programme which properly grounded MacSweeney's work in the tradition of, say, the Ranters, Chatterton, Blake, Shelley, Clare, and Bunting would have done far more to generate interest in his poetry, than having, oh, Sean O'Brien offering his thoughts.

And, Tom, if you're reading this, sorry if it sounds unduly negative. I thought your piece on MacSweeney here was excellent, and I was very much looking forward to the programme. I also hope it will encourage others to check out his work.

London Word Festival said...

Hi Alan, Sam,

I totally agree that a discussion of Barry's poetry in the context of 17th century radicalism or the Middle English Pearl would be fascinating and entirely right for Radio 4. As someone who studied Medieval Literature at university and who came to Barry's Pearl via the original, I would definitely be keen on the latter in particular.

However (and with the caveat that I'm no expert) the programme was designed to be an introduction to, rather than a deep-level analysis of, Barry's work. That's largely dictated by his relatively low profile. I'm not talking within poetry here, I'm talking within the wider, mainstream culture. Perhaps - though perhaps not - my little documentary will pave the way for future discussions. I know from recent correspondence that many people who had not come across Barry's work before were hugely impressed by it, so you never know.

The other problem, of course, is that Barry was such a multifaceted writer. This was just one of say a dozen really interesting programmes you could make about his work. In fact, from the material we recorded with the interviewees, you could make about three docs. We probed his professional career as a journalist quite a bit, and I think the relationship between his journalism and his poetry is intriguing.

Oh, and I'm not offended by any of your feedback, which is sensitively put! Everyone has a different version of Barry MacSweeney, and this programme articulates just one part of mine.

All the best to you both,


Sam said...


Yes, I can see that the 4.30 Sunday afternoon slot probably wouldn't be the best place for the sort of in-depth analysis I was hoping for (I can just picture the reaction of a listener tuning in expecting to hear Poetry Please, only to be confronted by a few choice extracts from the Jury Vet Odes or "Liz Hard"); and I fully agree that the connection between MacSweeney's writing and his work as a journalist is one worth considering further: 'Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down the needed things, with no frills'.

At the same time, (and this was one of my reasons for suggesting a comparison with Clare), biographical labels have a habit of sticking to poets, and its precisely those who come to a programme without any pre-existing knowledge of the subject, who are most likely (perhaps) to go away repeating these "facts" ("alcoholic", "on the fringe"); especially if they aren't placed in a wider critical or aesethetic context.

Anyway, thanks for taking my comments in the spirit in which they were intended.

Best wishes,


Aidan Semmens said...

An interesting programme, which I caught up with rather late. Didn't really tell me very much I didn't know already, but I was staggered by Iain Sinclair's remark that Barry "was nothing but a poet".
I know, and have known, many people who also knew Barry, some of them quite well, who had no idea he was a poet at all.

Jackie Litherland said...

The type of programme described by Alan about Barry's poetics we would all love to hear. As Tom said you could have several programmes about Barry and why not? Music has just this kind of coverage on Radio 3. I have always been bemused that poetry is not given the same serious space.
I thought, however, that in 30 minutes, Tom and the producers managed to give a taste of Barry and his work.
As to the reference to Barry's alcoholism, it is not a side show away from the main stage. Barry wrote The Book of Demons to make sure that did not happen. It is not just a question of separating the poetry from his life, the poetry is the pain, just as in Owen's work the poetry is the pity.
Barry was never one to shirk a fight. Once he started to try to renounce the demon drink, he threw himself into the cause. I use the language of messianic zeal deliberately.
Of course a complicated and complex poet and man such as Barry saw the humour and irony of such a battle as well as its terrible consequences.
He wasn't ashamed of his alcoholism, he was part of a movement that treated it as an illness.
As for Sean's presence in the programme, I thought his comment about Barry having no skin was very perceptive.
The Poetry Book Society Recommendation for The Book of Demons came from Sean (who was one of two judges) who wrote a strong appreciation of the book.
The reference to 'a bucket of lava flung over the listener' in his poem Coffinboat quoted on the programme is not about Barry's reading style but about his late night telephone calls.
Sean told me he was moved to tears when he heard Barry read his Pearl poems at Morden Tower.
However I do agree that a poet from within the avant garde circle that Barry belonged to should have been interviewed. Ric Caddel would have been the ideal candidate had he lived. But Maggie O'Sullivan, Nicholas Johnson come to mind.