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The book of demons by Barry MacSweeney (Bloodaxe Books, 1997)

Barry MacSweeney wrote poetry with the same energy with which he lived his life. By the age of sixteen he was becoming known as a distinctive and unique voice in poetry, as well as starting out on what would become a long struggle with alcoholism.  

His poems are often set against the industrial working class background of Newcastle, and were influenced by the modernist poet Basil Bunting who he met when they both worked together as journalists at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

Macsweeney's poetry shifts between the industrial landscapes of Newcastle and the open expanses of Sparty Lea that he loved: "There is so much LAND in Northumber-land". In 1967 he invited poets from both the United States and Britain to attend the 'Festival of Sparty Lea', styling himself from then on as 'The Prince of Sparty Lea'.

MacSweeney continued to write and publish work throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s and The Book of Demons was published by Bloodaxe in 1997. This contains the extraordinary sequence Pearl. These poems recount the story of MacSweeney falling in love as a teenager with a girl who was mute due to a cleft palate. He said of her: "Pearl was a mute girl who lived at the top of the lonnen (or loaning) who was also spell-bindingly beautiful and the first girl I ever saw naked". MacSweeney taught her to read and write and later, the story goes, he met her again - at which point she was married with a family and was able to speak. 

These poems move fluidly between the voice of MacSweeney and Pearl herself, and have been commented on as being amongst the most moving poems written in the last part of the 20th century. These poems excite me for their raw emotion and energy and how seamlessly images are drawn from a massive range of sources: from medieval poetry to Bob Dylan. This book is to be recommended to anyone who has ever thought that contemporary poetry does not have the ability to move them - the impact of the language is instant but highly memorable:

"My tongue black - FOREVER, word we wrote on a slate, remember 
when you taught me? - only my hands and eyes moving now - two
daughters we could have had -

but I am looking kindly and lovingly on you
Please do it
                 - cool your raging fire lovelorn heart- for me.

And love me - forever.?


Barry MacSweeney was born in Newcastle in 1948. His first book, The Boy from the Green Cabaret tells of his mother was that unimaginable success for today's still-living poet: a poetry bestseller. Alcoholic from an early age, MacSweeney wrote consistently throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's and published many pamphlets of poetry. His disillusionment with the state of poetry was worsened in the early 90?s when just weeks before Paladin were due to publish a first book of his, Rupert Murdoch (who had recently bought the company) announced that they would not be continuing to publish poetry as it was deemed to be too unprofitable. The blurb for The Book of Demons says that MacSweeney "has now recovered" but after a relapse, his struggle with drink ended when he died in 2000. 

Other poetry books about love and relationships

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy

Lucky Day by Richard Price

Extracts from Reviews

"What emerges in re-reading is not only the strength of MacSweeney's emotion and the power of the imagery, but his amazing flow of language. There is Promethean conflagration at the heart of Barry's poetry; it burns with love and anger".
                                                      Joyce Hodgson, Tears in the Fence

"Pearl is justly rewarding: raw, swift, reiving - the work of a master; grace under pressure"
                   Iain Sinclair (His Guardian Book of the Year in 1997)

 Chris McCabe, Joint Librarian, The Poetry Library

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