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This review is taken from PN Review 154, Volume 30 Number 2, November - December 2003.

HEROIC FAILURE BARRY MACSWEENEY, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Bloodaxe) £12


Barry MacSweeney embraced from the outset of his career a romantic notion of heroic failure. It is no coincidence that the celebrator of Chatterton - antique spellings as of 'starre' and 'moone' persist throughout his work as does the use of 'argent' for 'silver' - should himself be the boy-poet who all but disappeared from public view. His first volume of verse was published by Hutchinson when he was nineteen. After a foolish publicity stunt by his publishers, that of proposing him for the Processor of Poetry at Oxford, he appeared only in small-press publications for the next twenty-five years. The Book of Deynons appeared from Bloodaxe in 1997, and won him a Poetry Book Society recommendation. This new Selected Poems appears posthumously. His death in 2002 was from alcohol-related causes. (He claimed to have been an alcoholic since the age of sixteen - a claim some feel to be exaggerated).

Early on he came under the wing of J. H. Prynne who is the dedicatee of a number of these poems. There is, however, little of the intellectually-controlled hermeticism of Prynne in his work: rather, for much of the time he reads like a Newcastle version of Ginsberg with his rhetorical overload and his Blakeinspired visions of Albion. Above all there is a sense of a poet fuelled by anger. Some of this is politically motivated - there is a good deal of fantasising about killing Tories - but it is hard not to feel ...
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