Nationality: British. Born: Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, 17 July 1948. Education: Rutherford Grammar School; Harlow Technical College, 1966–67. Family: Married Elaine Randell in 1972. Career: Formerly freelance journalist; director, Blacksuede Boot Press; editor, with Elaine Randell, Harvest and The Blacksuede Boot, Barnet, Hertfordshire. Awards: Stand prize, 1967; Arts Council grant, 1971. Address: 55 Haydon Place, Denton Burn, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Died: 9 May 2000.
Poems 1965–1968: The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother. Hastings, Sussex, The English Intelligencer, 1967; New York, McKay, 1969.
The Last Bud. Newcastle upon Tyne, Blacksuede Boot Press, 1969.
Six Sonnets for Nathaniel Swift. Newcastle upon Tyne, Blacksuede Boot Press, 1969.
Lost Is the Day. London, Ted Cavanagh, 1970.
Joint Effort, with Peter Bland. Barnet, Hertfordshire, Blacksuede Boot Press, 1970.
Flames on the Beach at Viareggio. Barnet, Hertfordshire, Blacksuede Boot Press, 1970.
Our Mutual Scarlet Boulevard. London, Fulcrum Press, 1971.
Just 22 and Don't Mind Dyin': The Official Biography of Jim Morrison, Rock Idol. London, Curiously Strong, 1971.
Fools Gold. Newcastle upon Tyne, Blacksuede Boot Press, 1972.
The Elevated Horse. London, Hutchinson, n.d.
Brother Wolf. London, Turret, 1972.
5 Odes. London, Transgravity Advertiser, 1972.
Dance Steps. London, Joe DiMaggio Press, 1972.
Fog Eye. London, Ted Cavanagh, 1973.
6 Odes. London, Ted Cavanagh, 1973.
Pelt Feather Log. London, Grosseteste Press, 1975.
Black Torch. London, New London Pride, 1978.
Odes. London, Trigram Press, 1978.
Blackbird: Elegy for William Gordon Calvert, Being Book Two of Black Torch. Durham, Pig Press, 1980.
Starry Messenger. Ashford, Kent, Secret Books, 1980.
Ranter. Lenton, Nottinghamshire, Slow Dancer Press, l985.
Hellhound Memos. London, The Many Press, 1993.
Pearl. Cambridge, Equipage, 1995.
The Book of Demons. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1997.
Elegy for January: An Essay Commemorating the Bi-Centenary of Chatterton's Death. London, Menard Press, 1970.
The Tempers of Hazard, with Thomas A. Clark and Chris Torrance. London, Paladin, 1993.* * *
The diversification of British poetry in the 1960s meant that attention was frequently focused on poets operating from, or at least with their roots in, the provinces. Liverpool was a breeding ground for the so-called pop poets, but an equally lively, and in many ways more fertile, scene developed in and around Newcastle, where Barry MacSweeney was an important member of the local poetry community.
MacSweeney's early work, as represented in Poems 1965–1968: The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, has a strong sense of the geography of his locality, and there are numerous references to its physical appearance. But more important, the rhythm of the poems and their structure seem to be shaped by the twin influences of the city and the country. It would be wrong to call MacSweeney a purely urban poet because, like many provincials, he is obviously aware of often being on the edge of the moors or close to the coast. The land and the sea spill into his poems, balancing them and keeping them from settling into bright exercises in urban playfulness. At the same time he has a sharp eye for the hard side of the city:
They stood smoking damp and salvaged
cigarettes mourning their lost bundles,
each man tagged OF NO FIXED ABODE.
Mattresses dried in the early sunshine
blankets hung over railings and gravestones
water and ashes floated across the cobbled hill.
MacSweeney may have had roots in the northeast, but when the necessities of work took him away from the area, likewise his writing changed. He seems to have been affected by aspects of the 1960s mood, and he began to produce poems, as in Our Mutual Scarlet Boulevard, that, in his own words, "had to do with dreams; either sleep, fantasy, or the luxurious influence of various hallucinogens." They were perhaps a worthwhile experiment and certainly displayed skill in construction, but they lacked the concern and directness of the earlier work, leading one to wonder if MacSweeney had lost his way in a fashionable maze. But he soon demonstrated that the experience was something he had learned from rather than been changed by, and Brother Wolf proved that he was still his own man. It had a tautness that seemingly came from a desire to discard the unnecessary and was rich in form and content.
Most of MacSweeney's work after 1970 or so appeared in little magazines or was published by small presses and may have been overlooked because of that fact. But he continued to write powerfully, and his poetry benefited from a return to his original concerns. Black Torch, a long poem sequence building on the events of a nineteenth-century miners' strike in the northeast, brought in the poet's links to the area, referred to its landscape and traditions, and touched on twentieth-century problems facing an idealist in an imperfect world. It is an ambitious work and, although flawed, has much to recommend it. The language jabs at the reader's consciousness:
no requiem no hymn no journey song
stopping to drink from a broken stream
ghosts of miners on the fell
shadowy poachers armed with snares
melt & make no noise
Odes, another sequence from the 1970s, goes off in a different direction and is almost mystical at times, with MacSweeney aiming to milk words for the meaning derived from their rhythms and sounds rather than their dictionary definitions. Not all of the pieces succeed, but they are never boring and at their best are slightly mysterious and provocative, with some lines lingering in the mind as if to tease with their play on the subconscious.
It is clear that MacSweeney devoted most of his poetic energies in the 1970s and 1980s to longer works, and Ranter is probably his major achievement. In it he mixes memory—his own and the historical—so that the poem moves in and out of time. It blends images of a long tradition of English dissent—
Ranter: Leveller, Lollard,
Luddite, Man of Kent, Tyneside
whisperer of sedition,
wrecker of looms
—with evocations of the landscape and life of the northeast of England:
Mill chimneys and derelict sites,
burning rubbish in back lanes,
high moors of mist and snowdrifts,
to the land of Bloodaxe and Bede
you fetched me from the city I loved.
Kiln-bricks piled high in a yard.
Men with flushed faces and women alone,
children scratting from door to door.
It also hints at separation and loss and of the pain of regret:
I wouldn't go with you
down that road. Now
we are both alone
by rivers we love.
Ranter combines the personal and the political, and it is difficult to extract from it and still be fair to MacSweeney's overall intentions. The effect very much depends on the poem's being read in its entirety. The rhythms and the language play an important part throughout, and although individual phrases have beauty ("shivering primrose /and the wind's dark beat"), their movement is best understood in context. The poem is effectively an accumulation of all of MacSweeney's ideas over the years.