Sweeney, Matthew (Gerard) 1952-
SWEENEY, Matthew (Gerard) 1952-
Born October 6, 1952, in Donegal, Ireland; married Rosemary Barber, 1979; children: two. Education: Attended Gormanston College, 1965-70, University College, Dublin, 1970-72, and University of Freiburg, 1977-78; Polytechnic of North London, B.A. (with honors), 1978.
Home—11 Dombey St., London WC1N 3PB, England.
Farnham College, Surrey, England, writer-in-residence, 1984-85; West Surrey College of Art and Design, Farnham, England, external advisor in creative writing, 1986-89; Poetry Society, London, England, publicist and events assistant, 1988-90; Hereford and Worcester, poet-in-residence; South Bank Centre, London, writer-in-residence, 1994-95.
National Poetry Competition, 1980; Hammersmith Festival Poetry Competition, 1980; Prudence Farmer Award, New Statesman, 1984; University of East Anglia writing fellow, 1986; Cholmondeley Award, 1987; Arts Council of England Writers' Award, 1999.
Without Shores, Omens (Leicester, England), 1978.
A Dream of Maps, Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1981.
A Round House, Allison and Busby (London, England), 1983.
The Lame Waltzer, Allison and Busby (London, England), 1985.
Blue Shoes, Secker and Warburg (London, England), 1989.
Cacti, Secker and Warburg (London, England), 1992.
The Blue Taps, Prospero Poets (London, England), 1994.
(With Helen Dunmore and Jo Shapcott) Penguin Modern Poets 12, Penguin (London, England), 1997.
The Bridal Suite, J. Cape (London, England), 1997.
A Smell of Fish, J. Cape (London, England), 2000.
Selected Poems, J. Cape (London, England), 2002.
Fox, Bloomsbury (London, England), 2002.
The Chinese Dressing-Gown, Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1987.
The Snow Vulture, Faber (London, England), 1992.
The Flying Spring Onion (poems), Faber (London, England), 1992.
Fatso in the Red Suit, Faber (London, England), 1995.
Up on the Roof: New and Selected Poems, Faber (London, England), 2001.
One for Jimmy: An Anthology from the Hereford and Worcester Poetry Project, Hereford and Worcester County Council, 1992.
(With Jo Shapcott) Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, Faber (London, England), 1996.
(With Ken Smith) Beyond Bedlam: Poems Written out of Mental Distress, Anvil Press Poetry (London, England), 1997.
The New Faber Book of Children's Verse, Faber (London, England), 2001.
(With John Hartley Williams) Writing Poetry: And Getting Published, NTC Publishing Group (Lincolnwood, IL), 1997.
Contributor to periodicals, including Cyphers, Green Lines, Honest Ulsterman, Limestone, New Poetry, Pacific Quarterly, Tablet, and Resurgence.
Matthew Sweeney is a respected Irish poet who has also written children's books and edited several anthologies. Helen Dunmore, writing in the London Observer, noted that "Sweeney's poems are like shards of mirror. As you bend to look more closely, they cut." "He tells you relaxed stories in gently persuasive verse," as Peter Porter explained it in the Observer. "Suddenly you are plunged into fear or strangeness, yet Sweeney seems not to have changed his pace."
Speaking of Sweeney's poetry, Michael Donaghy in Contemporary Poets noted that the Irish writer's "work does not sit comfortably in the canon of contemporary British or Irish poetry, and for a time his work did not receive the international recognition it has long deserved. There is little figurative language and almost no rhetoric in a typical Sweeney poem.… Instead, he achieves his considerable effects by subtle shifts of tonal register within highly distilled, suggestive narratives and dramatic monologues. Furthermore, his poems are pervaded by a potent mixture of horror and humor reminiscent of Kafka and Beckett." In an interview with Lidia Vianu posted on the Lidia Vianu Web site, Sweeney explained his approach to poetry: "The way I describe my poetry, when asked, is to say I think of it as imagistic narrative.… I prefer on the whole to imagine myself into other people's experiences than to write out of my own. Most of my poetry has a narrative element. Some of it strays beyond realism into the territory I call alternative realism (which is not to be confused with surrealism, although many people do this), and it often mixes humour and seriousness. Both these latter tendencies are common in the Irish literary tradition, also in the German literary tradition that I studied at university."
Sweeney's poems tell stories and their narrative quality has been praised by several critics. According to Medbh McGuckian in Books and Bookmen, "in a short space he can manufacture a whole complicated narrative plot." Reviewing the collection Blue Shoes for New Statesman and Society, John Lucas praised Sweeney for his "storytelling wit and ingenuity." Donaghy compared the narrative element in Sweeney's poems to parables, while admitting the often unnerving nature of the stories presented: "Sweeney has the uncanny ability to remind us of nightmares we had forgotten: childhood terrors, fear of bodily decrepitude, and the apocalypse are all embodied in his finely wrought parables." Sweeney's collection Cacti contains "two suicides, two death-bed scenes, sickness, nightmares, murder," as Ian Sansom noted in the Times Literary Supplement. "Sweeney has always enjoyed high drama, and his poetry has always worked dramatically." Nick Laird, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, explained that Sweeney's poems "explore estrangements and strangeness through small, hermetic whimsies and nascent narratives."
Sweeney's narrative poems often focus on characters who are facing grim situations. Robert Greacen in the British Book News described Sweeney as "a poet who enjoys exploring unusual moods and situations." His poem "The Coffin Shop" depicts morticians as "truly repellent creatures" who can always spot the relatives of the deceased, as Donaghy pointed out, while the poem "Where Fishermen Can't Swim" tells of a young Irish sailor who gets stranded on a rock during low tide and cannot be saved by his desperate crewmates. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement of the collection The Lame Waltzer, Mick Imlah found that "the poems embrace each new failure of the crippled, the pissed, the rejected, the stupid, the forgotten and forgetful with a down-beat shrugging manner." While the unusual is often present in Sweeney's poems, he also portrays the ordinary in an offbeat and even eerie manner. Laird noted that "ordinary incidents such as a drink at a railway station, attending weddings, and a door-to-door sale of perfume are all rewritten with a menacing backdrop." Peter Porter in the London Observer commented that "Sweeney writes happily of marginal people, of the oddities of city life and customs." "Sweeney's world," Michael Glover explained in British Book News, "is an odd and eerie place to be and, like it or lump it, we seem to be in its clutches."
The sometimes horrific subjects found in Sweeney's poetry for adults are also found in his work written for children. Sweeney "does not fit easily into any category," Sheila Flanagan and Rachel O'Flanagan stated in the St. James Guide to Children's Writers. "His works are not in the mainstream and are characterised by a somewhat bleak vision of life and a downbeat atmosphere." His picture book The Snow Vulture is the tale of twin brothers, Clive and Carl, who have opposite personalities. Clive is easy going while Carl is mean-spirited. When the two brothers play in the snow, Clive builds a snowman while Carl creates a snow vulture which comes to evil life. The creature wreaks such havoc that the two boys must join forces to save themselves. The monstrous snow vulture "is a powerfully-conceived horror," Neil Philip wrote in the Times Educational Supplement.
Sweeney's poems for young readers are "comic, sad, faintly menacing, [and] sometimes possessed of strange Magritte-like properties," Charles Causley explained in the Times Educational Supplement. Speaking of the collection The Flying Spring Onion,Flanagan and O'Flanagan found "a macabre and occasionally menacing humour" at work. In the poem "Into the Mixer," a boy falls into a cement mixer and comes out stiff and silent. "Worrying Days" tells of a donkey who wrongly believes himself safe from the slaughterhouse. "Big Sister" finds an older sister pegging the baby to the clothesline along with the wash. Morag Styles, reviewing Up on the Roof for the Times Educational Supplement, described Sweeney as "a challenging poet whose work can be tender, funny and unsettling" and who has a "terrific sense of the ridiculous."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Harmon, Maurice, editor, The Irish Writer and the City, Barnes and Noble (Totowa, NJ), 1984.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Books and Bookmen, March, 1979, Derek Stanford, review of Without Shores, p. 34; March, 1986, Medbh McGuckian, review of The Lame Waltzer, p. 24.
Books for Keeps, March, 1995, review of The Snow Vulture, p. 12; September, 1995, Jack Ousbey, review of Fatso in the Red Suit, p. 25; September, 2001, Clive Barnes, review of The New Faber Book of Children's Verse, p. 28.
British Book News, December, 1983, Robert Greacen, review of A Round House, p. 774; March, 1986, review of The Lame Waltzer, p. 181.
Community Care, December 18, 1997, Julia Tugendhat, review of Beyond Bedlam, p. 29.
Critical Survey, January, 1998, Michael Faherty, "Learning How to Fall: The Not So Secret Narratives of Matthew Sweeney," p. 93; September, 2001, Michael Murphy, review of A Smell of Fish, p. 120.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1992, review of The Flying Spring Onion, p. 212.
New Statesman, August 24, 1984, Michael Hofmann, "The Prudence Farmer Award," pp. 21-22; January 31, 1986, John Lucas, review of The Lame Waltzer, p. 32; January 16, 1987, John Lucas, "The Inherited Boundaries: Younger Poets of the Republic of Ireland," p. 30.
New Statesman and Society, April 7, 1989, John Lucas, review of Blue Shoes, pp. 39, 40.
Observer (London, England), February 12, 1984, Peter Porter, review of A Round House, p. 52; January 26, 1986, Peter Porter, review of The Lame Waltzer, p. 50; April 23, 1989, Peter Porter, review of Blue Shoes, p. 44; December 3, 1995, Kate Kellaway, review of Fatso in the Red Suit, p. 16; February 1, 1998, Kate Kellaway, review of The Bridal Suite, p. 17; May 28, 2000, Helen Dunmore, review of A Smell of Fish, p. 12.
School Librarian, August, 1992, I. Anne Rowe, review of The Flying Spring Onion, p. 111; February, 1996, Lucinda Fox, review of Fatso in the Red Suit, p. 29; autumn, 2001, Martin Axford, review of Up on the Roof, p. 154.
Stand, autumn, 1993, Fred Beake, review of Cacti, pp. 79-80.
Times Educational Supplement, February 14, 1992, Charles Causley, review of The Flying Spring Onion, p. 27; December 4, 1992, Neil Philip, review of The Snow Vulture, p. 8; April 20, 2001, Morag Styles, review of The New Faber Book of Children's Verse, p. 21; June 22, 2001, Morag Styles, review of Up on the Roof, p. 22.
Times Literary Supplement, September 24, 1982, Tim Dooley, review of A Dream of Maps, p. 1041; May 11, 1984, Michael O'Neill, review of A Round House, p. 516; May 16, 1986, Mick Imlah, review of The Lame Waltzer, p. 540; April 7, 1989, Lawrence Norfolk, review of Blue Shoes, p. 365; November 6, 1992, Ian Sansom, review of Cacti, p. 26; March 14, 1997, Kevan Johnson, review of Emergency Kit, p. 23; March 6, 1998, Michael Parker, review of The Bridal Suite, p. 25; March 2, 2001, Nick Laird, review of A Smell of Fish, p. 24.
Lidia Vianu Web site,http://lidiavianu.scriptmania.com/ (July, 2002), Lidia Vianu, "Imagistic Narrative: Interview with Matthew Sweeney."
Wordfest,http://www.wordfest.com/ (October 12, 2003), "Lesson Plans: Up on the Roof by Matthew Sweeney."*