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This item is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

Letters from George Steiner, Jackie Litherland, Constance Parrish and David Kennedy
Hough's Huff


Two howlers in the latest PNR.

Neil Powell ascribes to Graham Hough words which he never spoke. That sentence comes form my own recollections. It is a conjectural paraphrase of what Hough might have said to my friend R.P. Blackmur on returning to Christ's College that day. Having been taught to think and feel against myself, I sought to justify Hough's aversion to my presence at Cambridge and his open fear of the interest among students which that presence provoked.

More important: Finnegan's Wake on page 71. Not, I fear, a typo - but a recurrent barbarism which should have no place in the Review.


Neil Powell replies: Of course, I accept George Steiner's account of this anecdote's origin. Interestingly, I had the story from Graham Hough's nephew, which perhaps suggests that Hough himself came to believe it.



In response to the review of Barry MacSweeney's Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 by Roger Caldwell (PNR 154), a myth might as well die here. Barry MacSweeney the poet did not embrace the notion of himself as an heroic failure. As a declared alcoholic he is bound to suffer from the associations of decline and downfall of that state. However Barry regarded himself at the height of his powers when he wrote Pearl and The Book of Demons just a few years before his death in 2000.

Pearl is much admired by your reviewer Roger Caldwell who would have preferred only a slim volume of Pearl and a few extra poems. Instead, he had Wolf Tongue, a large Selected by Bloodaxe to bring Barry's poetry back into print. It is certainly not easy to review a lifetime's work. To quote a couple of lines you dislike doesn't do justice to `Jury Vet' or the Odes, oddly described as `language poetry'. He has my sympathy in that the book isn't meant to be read at a sitting. It is doing the work of a Collected until the unpublished poems can be assessed and edited.

The weight of his task has brought somestrange claims. Barry in performance did not chant his work or rant in the way imagined by your reviewer. I fear prejudgement is more powerful than judgement here. The voices of Ranter and of his other poems are modulated throughout and certainly not at one pitch. Barry had a remarkable gift to switch tone and emphasis. He had a graceful lyrical voice which matched the cadence of his line.

Asking for Pearl to represent MacSweeney is like demanding from Joyce that Ulysses is shortened to its final chapter. The glory is in the language as well as the extensive interplay of ideas. Epic quality might not be the modern taste but there will always be poets who wish to take on the big themes. Anti-intellectualism is a surprising jibe. Perhaps if Roger Caldwell had looked past the `emotional discharge' he doesn't find effective, he might have found more than inchoate rage. The poem `Daddy Wants to Murder Me' which prompted this reflection is certainly about child abuse. There is nothing inchoate about the milieu of criticism described, nor the subsequent linking to mental illness, but what lifts the poem intellectually is the remarkable ending set in the wastelands of Northern Ireland at a time when gunmen knocked on doors to ask `Is your Daddy at home?' The boy answering the door is Barry at seven to the killer Barry at 45. The political underpinning is no mere device. Barry was intensely interested in and well informed about politics and the fact that he had contempt for terrorism only serves to add another layer of irony to the role of vengeance outlined in the poem.

Irony was something badly missed by Roger Caldwell in The Book of Demons. Barry had no illusions about himself by the time this book was written - which is the only book to have benefited from long periods of sobriety and treatment in rehab clinics. I must take issue with Roger Caldwell declaring that the book is `short circuited by the evident enjoyment of the poet in displaying his own self-debasement'. Here he mistakes Barry's tone. There are many ways of dealing with alcoholic horrors and the sheer grind of `recovery'. I can say that there is not the slightest vestige of enjoyment in it. What Barry took pride in was his determination to give it `his best shot' and to keep on writing. The black humour he relishes in The Book of Demons is to mock himself in his deluded drunkenness. Barry hated himself in his fallen state and had no pretensions that he rose as a poet thereby. This is the kind of romantic nonsense that he savagely attacked. His self-knowledge was the engine of the book. It is a brave, even heroic, work to fight his demons on his own terms in the language of poetry. The head demon is the one with no eyes, no cranium, just a mouth filled with flashing blades. As one critic, Paul Batchelor, insightfully noted, this is the poet himself, harming himself and others. Barry's intellectual grasp of his predicament and decline, linked with the political and cultural decline of his beloved Albion, should not be underestimated. The Book of Demons is about suffering and depression at a time of the ascendancy of Thatcherism and the global free market, it is also an ironic descant on the vicissitudes of addiction and the black comedy of powerlessness, it is also a love story. It is not a failure. It was reviewed extensively and acclaimed. It won a Paul Hamlyn Award as well as a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Barry saw Pearl and The Book of Demons as one book, his Blakean innocence and experience. It was reprinted in Wolf Tongue because the book, under the overall title of The Book of Demons published by Bloodaxe in 1997, was sold out.

I hope your readers will ignore your critic's reckoning and clamour for more of MacSweeney. Equipage will be bringing out shortly his versions of Apollinaire. For his language alone Barry will be esteemed, his zestful inventive and revolutionary syntax, the grace and gesture of his phrasing, the audacity and confidence of his linkings, the bravura of his wit.

Your reviewer's dismissal of the Beat poets (`he so much resembles in anti-intellectualism') cannot be answered here. I can only say that Barry looked to other influences. Chief among them Louis MacNeice of Autumn Journal, Shelley, Frank O'Hara and Ezra Pound of the Cantos.


The Sins of the Fathers


May I point out a seeming misapprehension on the part of your correspondent Mark Beech in his interesting letter `Wordsworth and Satan' (PNR 154). The `bad' Earl Lonsdale (formerly Sir James Lowther), portrayed by James Gillray, had died on 24 May 1802, some sixteen years before the General Election of 1818. The Viscount Lonsdale involved in that election was his successor, his cousin, Sir William Lowther (Viscount Lonsdale) from whom over the years, Wordsworth received many favours including the repayment of the debt to his dead father John Wordsworth, owing by the previous Earl, as well as the appointment as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland. Both Keats and Byron made adverse comments on Wordsworth's involvement with Lord Lonsdale but Browning's was most cruel, writing in `The Lost Leader':

Just for handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat -

By espousing the Lonsdale cause Wordsworth was indeed showing the obligation he felt to his patron. Not so, Isabella Lickbarrow, about whom the original article was written, who maintained her integrity by refusing a gift from Lord Lonsdale.

Ambleside, Cumbria

Put It in Your Pocket


John Manson, Dorian Grieve and Alan Riach appear to have missed another example of MacDiarmid's `piecing together' from the work of other writers (`Hugh MacDiarmid after 25 Years, PNR 154). The passage which ends their article - `How glorious to live!' - and which they argue demonstrates MacDiarmid's `appetite for life' is in fact a direct steal for Death's Jest Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49).

The passage comes from one of the unplaced fragments which generally appear as an appendix to editions of Beddoes' verse drama. The relevant fragment designated `8 [I.iii]' can be consulted in full in the handsome new edition published by West House Books in association with The Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society.


Postal delays in late October intercepted a number of corrections to David Gervais's `"Cock Crow": Why Edward Thomas isn't Thomas Hardy' in PNR 154: the `amazing story' (p. 38) should be an `amusing story' (though it is amazing too); `Sir Philip Sidney of the Georgians' (p. 39) should be `Sir Philip Sidney or the Georgians'; `Stendahl' (p. 39) is of course `Stendhal'; and Hardy was the poet not of `Imminent Will' (p. 40) but of `Immanent Will'. Our apologies to everyone but the postman.

Michael Hamburger advises us that the fifth line was omitted from his poem `Appendix to the Deeds' in PNR 154 (p. 51): `If flesh were grass, well-rooted, self-seeded'. Anvil Press will publish Michael Hamburger's book Wild and Wounded in March, where the correct text will appear.

This item is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

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