Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

 

AN OPEN LETTER TO RUPERT LOYDELL
CONCERNING BARRY MacSWEENEY’S “SELECTED POEMS”



Dear Rupert

Well, I’ve been carrying this book around with me for a month or two now. In my head, anyway. Most of the time I left it indoors on my desk under whatever happened to land on top of it. But when I did pick it up with the intention of reading, it’s funny how something always seemed to get in the way. One day, I remember, I suddenly remembered I had to cut my toenails. Then, on a day when there was no distraction, and no excuse, it turned out that the book was very difficult to open. It reminded me of when I was supposed to be reading Basil Bunting’s big book. In fact, it was exactly the same experience. I began to suspect that demons were at work.

Of course, I know exactly what these suspected demons are. They’re not demons at all, really: they’re actually quite sun-loving, well-disposed, cheerful, irreverent Maggie Simpson fans who don’t very often feel like wading through shit in the name of art.

MacSweeney’s poems aren’t shit. Not really. Many of the poetic theories and apparent beliefs behind them sound really good. The idea, for example, that you “cut out all the unnecessary stuff”. And the “condensing of language… cutting across meaning, not having words next to each other which are supposed to be there.” That’s all okay. And as someone who reads in an accent firmly entrenched way south of Watford, I’d be quite open to the suggestion that I’m missing something of MacSweeney’s native tongue, although I don’t know if I can fully subscribe to the notion that the northern language is longer lasting, durable, harder, springier, more elemental, and comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts, which is what the poet said about it. I suspect that other languages might well make the same claims, and quite justifiably.

The main reason I can’t get on with MacSweeney’s poetry is that, simply, I find most of it pretty fucking unreadable. By “readable” I mean “able to be read and enjoyed”. Let’s face it, most of this stuff isn’t difficult, in the sense that you have to try and work out what it means. I don’t do that with poems, anyway; if I want a word puzzle, I do a crossword. Some of the odes are pretty reader resistant, I suppose, come to think of it, but you can just take them at face value and move on. If that value appears to be zero, fair enough. Usually, though, this poet’s heart is usually on his sleeve. Quite a few very upfront and obvious procedures and preoccupations in the poems don’t interest me much at all. Such as: His obsession with the idea of the poet as outsider who dies young (which includes the alarming notion that Jim Morrison is worth bothering with). How the ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins haunts virtually every page. The obviously self-conscious harking back to an earlier tongue. How I’m supposed to be interested in the fact that the bloke had a drink problem.

I can’t be doing with that last one at all. One of my best friends is an alcoholic, and I’ve seen his vomit and I’ve banged on his door and peered through his window to see him stretched out on a sofa and I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. And I’ve heard him quite soberly discuss it all with a rationality that’s scary as hell. Nothing in MacSweeney’s “Book of Demons” poems adds anything to anything. It’s just written down in that poetic line that comes from the Americans and into Britain in the 60s and 70s and there’s control and lack of control in pretty much equal measure.

But the poet as alcoholic is neither here nor there. He could’ve been a one-legged dwarf with a Kylie Minogue fixation for all I care. Some of this stuff is just so bloody horrible to read.

                  Demons, big-hatted and hard-hatted, far as gutter-toppled

                  squint-eye with grapple-lost spectacles can see, custard brain

                  head slanty on kerbside perch, vomit ready for a roller ride

                  into the X-rated, dog arse emptying unlit street…..

I don’t mean the subject matter is horrible, I just think it’s horrible to read, that is, it gives no pleasure, and provokes no stimulating thought ­ notwithstanding its quality of here’s my life laid out on a plate and look at the shit of it all. If anything, that only serves to limit it. And who cares anyway? Get drunk. Be sick. Fall over. Meanwhile, this morning I was reading

                  suivante she was

                  privy perle without spot

                  doucement duckdown

                  they bedded in

                  Suibhne stroking

                  his dream of Siobhan

                  unhooking her bra-clasp

                  in several great cities

                  and one Quaker town

                  Ranter the peacock

                  armed with strut

and it dawned on me, just as I got to the bra-clasp, that I had intended to cut my toenails and I should do it before I put my socks on ­ because it’s really hard to do with socks on.

All of which has led me to the conclusion that any idea of a long and considered essay about all of this is something I simply can’t be bothered with. I think it would just get me down, and what’s the point of that? I’ve only just been given the all clear after a severe bout of Les Murray, and I still feel a little fragile.

Very best

Martin

                © Martin Stannard 2003



Martin Stannard Home Page: www.martinstannard.co.uk