Paul Batchelor has brought together a range of diverse perspectives in Reading Barry MacSweeney which, with its insights about MacSweeney’s life and work, adds much to an understanding of Wolf Tongue, reviewed here on the DURA poetry pages. Contributors include WN Herbert, Harriet Tarlo and MacSweeney’s former partner, SJ Litherland.
Batchelor doesn’t flinch from the opportunity which an essay collection offers to present very differing, even diametrically opposed views. So Peter Riley describes some of MacSweeney’s work of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including “Jury Vet” and “Wild Knitting”, as “violent and obscene”, marking “the central disaster in Barry’s career”. Yet William Rowe considers these same poems represent some of MacSweeney’s “finest writing”.
Harriet Tarlo is rather critical of the “aggressively sexualised, even fetishistic terms” of these poems while John Wilkinson contends “Pornography and consumerism are treated as the same phenomenon, holding out the promise of desire fulfilled only to withdraw it and flaunt another”. I found Harriet Tarlo’s essay particularly interesting. She considers that critical readings have overemphasised MacSweeney’s personal life almost to the exclusion of his poetry. She lauds the universality to be found in his writing, citing the international references to European revolutionaries and avant-gardes, to Blackburn spinners and Welsh miners, as well as to the places of Northumberland which he knew so well. Matthew Jarvis, on the other hand, sees MacSweeney as a particularly Northern poet. Paul Batchelor’s own article explores MacSweeney’s preoccupation with fatherhood and the literary fathers he “adopted”, including Dante, Whitman and Wordsworth.
All in all, this collection of essays will certainly enhance and inform a reading of Barry MacSweeney’s work and makes for a valuable companion to Wolf Tongue.