Niall McDevitt's work combines a complex mix of literary
influence, from Shakespeare and the bible, through Blake, Milton and Rimbaud,
to the avant-garde of the 20th century and beyond. Yet although there is a
richness to his poetry, which makes it impossible to label him with an 'ism',
there is also often a directness which is politically assertive, frankly
provocative and up-front about where he is coming from. He is as at-home with
popular culture as he is with high-art and provides a wonderful riposte to
those 'guardians of the temple' who assume their power is based upon superior
knowledge. Take this extract from 'The Proletarianization of the
Yet all I see's
the proletarianization of the
media-brainwashed and work-programmed boot-licks
games, suntans, tracksuits, soap operas,
parties with strippergrams, cakes like chocolate dicks.
etiquette are those of the 'tough' not the 'toff'
and stats show they increasingly resort to violence:
glassing, biting people's earlobes off.
They too are
being successfully schooled in the new science.
Proletarianization of the Bourgeoisie')
McDevitt certainly has attitude as well as intelligence, yet if there's
something of 'the ranter' about him - Barry MacSweeney comes to mind -
there's an excess of diversity
about his wide-ranging erudition which is very pleasurable to read and, I
suspect, hear read out. This is poetry which sings even as it provides a
subversive polemic, boisterous and irrepressible.
we became, lords of the air.
complexes swooped, abseiled, parachuted
Into the leper
temples for rites libations
public healing of the body anarchic.
One of McDevitt's 'day-jobs' (he appears to be a polymath, having worked also
as an actor and a musician) is as a conductor of Literary Tours around
London. One suspects this is more psychogeography than tourist trap, however,
having more in common with Iain Sinclair than with the heritage trail:
within the crumbs and shards of Roman wall,
I walk from
epoch to epoch, a tour-guide, stumbling
black-and-white facades of Tudorbethan houses.
Below street-level - in an underground car-park -
is one of the 'holy of holies'. Its chancel extends eons.
There's no doubt that this 'privileged sense of place' (London still has
enormous evocative kudos) gives gravitas to McDevitt's historical pageant,
more E.P. Thompson than David Starkey, I imagine, yet there's a sense of
grand-sweep, both in time and space which has a powerful pull, even if a sceptical
reader is trying to fight it. On the question of psychogeography outside the
capital, readers might be usefully pointed towards Norman Jope's sustained
engagement with the city of Plymouth, notably in his long poem 'Sound and
Fury', originally published in The Stumbling Dance (Stride, 1994).
There's an intriguing poem about Orwell, entitled 'George Orwell is following
me', which has both an amusing and a sinister aspect, evoking both a sense of
the slightly paranoid as well as laughter, at least in this reader. Orwell
remains a somewhat contradictory, controversial and complex figure, still
occasionally argued over by the right and the left, both claiming his
inheritance while unsure about the complexity of the man. McDevitt appears to
cut through this - I don't think he's a fan! - though his sense of being
'shadowed' by this formidable presence is what provides the humour of the
is invigilating my existence
in the bleak
streets and bombsites
I feel the
force of his eyes
he stands tall thin intent as a surveillance camera
always busy on the next bowl
of the public
piss-steam with scientific disgust
the merits of the henry millers
'George Orwell is following me')
There's a strong dislike of the puritan ethos in McDevitt and it certainly
seems true that some of Orwell's literary judgements were based on a
repression that wasn't entirely wholesome. Whatever one thinks about Orwell's
complex political position, the strength of McDevitt's critique is to do with
questioning perceived authority - he has a strong affiliation with the
underclass and with outsiders, which features in his poetry in a variety of
He also has a knack for the more compressed lyric, as indicated in this
extract from 'Horseshoes (i.m. Michael Hartnett, 1941-1999)': 'Cormorants on
Thames/ - wing-waving in ritual - /hook the opaque foams.'
Jarman', we get the following:
blue voice of
the blue magus
fills the all
soliloquy and swansong
to drug the
of being in
with a joy
and a play
I keep going
back to hear
As I said earlier, there's a richness to his poetry which isn't reducible to
any monotone. There's a strong sense of ritual and a melancholy streak as
well as the more assertive, upbeat aspect I've tended to concentrate on here.
He has a wide range of cultural reference, an incredibly rich and
wide-ranging vocabulary and an interest in the 'off-centre' and skewed which
I feel is admirable. He's also a relatively new name to me and one whose work
I'm sure I'm going to keep abreast of.