Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Yet more on...

In reponse to the the previous post, I'd first of all say to Ms. Litherland - if she's reading this - thank you for taking the trouble to comment on my post, and for your interesting take on the subject. I do take issue with a couple of things however, as will be apparent below. But to take up one point at the outset: I'm sure Sean O'Brien was indeed moved by MacSweeney's poetry; I don't doubt his sincerity on that. The reason people objected to him being a major source in the documentary is that he represents a faction in poetry which has held cultural dominance (though that appears to be changing) and has, in his written statements, consistently attacked - I could dig out the quotes if I looked hard enough - what might be called 'innovative' or 'radical' poetry and poets; these latter being the very people who sustained MacSweeney over the years with friendship and practical help. It was this that made people feel that O'Brien's prominence in the documentary was incongruous.

As for MacSweeney's poetry, I have my own views on it, which differ from Ms. Litherland's and also from Andrew Duncan's in 'The Council of Heresy'. Duncan identifies 'Pearl' as MacsWeeney's masterpiece, and regards 'The Book of Demons' - with reservations - very highly. In my view however, the best work is the mid-period of 'Ranter', 'Wild Knitting', 'Jury Vet' etc. While there's plenty of rage and passion in these works, these emotions are lent force by a level of restraint, and by impersonal elements - historical in Ranter, sociological in Jury Vet, for example. I read these works, and 'Hellhound Memos', before I knew anything about MacSweeney the man, and what have learnt about him since hasn't added anything to the work. In Wild Knitting, there's a section which the fury of the speaker leads up to the tenderness of the lines:

You the wronged woman. You the complexity. You the seeker
of buses and trains. You the wandering wife far from home.

The change of tempo and blending of emotions in this poem is subtler and more skillful than anything found in 'The Book of Demons'.

For me, the least interesting thing about MacSweeney, or about his poetry, is the man's alchoholism. In terms of emotional and intellectual content, 'The Book of Demons' is thinner than the earlier work, though it's undoubtedly rip-roaring and would have come across well in performance. I thing Pearl is more complex, but still not as rich as the mid-period work. I didn't know MacSweeney personally, but to say that "he had no skin" as O'Brien did, is implying that he was a uniquely sensitive individual in line with the Romantic stereotype. But he worked as a reporter - a notoriously hard-nosed profession - and as Adian Semmens has pointed out, plenty of people knew him as a reporter and nothing else. Wilfred Owen's contention that 'the poetry is in the pity' was controversial at the time, and was objected to by Yeats, for example. To say 'the poetry is in the pain' doesn't do justice to MacSweeney's work. Everyone suffers pain, but not everyone writes great poetry.

6 comments:

AidanSemmens said...

Hear, hear, Alan. I'd agree with every word of that - except perhaps the implication that Barry was hard-nosed (or, indeed, that I am!)

:-)

Alan Baker said...

Thanks Aidan.

I shouldn't stereotype journalists, should I? You're probably the exception that proves the rule...

AidanSemmens said...

Actually, Alan, there are a great many decent, caring people who work as journalists - most of them in the provincial press, as Barry was.
There are a number of the other kind as well, of course, while most probably lie somewhere in between - like most other people.

Alan Baker said...

Aidan. Agreed. I stand corrected. I apologise for my glib comments. We certainly need good - decent and caring - journalists at a time when free speech is constantly under review. I also think regional newspapers are invaluable and I hope they're not finally undermined by advert-driven free papers. I know the Nottingham Evening Post - while not perfect by any means - does raise issues of great concern to local people, that would be passed over in the national press.

AidanSemmens said...

Alan, your (quite unnecessary) apology makes me realise I sounded rather prickly in my last comment. I didn't mean to!
I'm quite used to being held in slightly lower esteem than estate-agents, used car salesmen and investment bankers. And, let's face it, that's as much as a lot of the industry deserves.
;-)

Alan Baker said...

That's the problem with internet communication - you can't read the tone easily. Glad you're relaxed about it Aidan, though I was out-of-order. I think I meant to say that a person/poet can't be that ultra-sensitive if they can cope with a job that requirs a certain amount of toughness, which journalism surely does.