Attitude as well as intelligence


b/w
, Niall McDevitt (Waterloo Press)


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 Bourgeoisie':

     Yet all I see's the proletarianization  of the bourgeois,
     media-brainwashed and work-programmed boot-licks
     into computer games, suntans, tracksuits, soap operas,
     office parties with strippergrams, cakes like chocolate dicks.
     Codes of etiquette are those of the 'tough' not the 'toff'
     and stats show they increasingly resort to violence:
     headbutting, glassing, biting people's earlobes off.
     They too are being successfully schooled in the new science.
          (from 'The 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.

     Land animals we became, lords of the air.
     Jesus complexes swooped, abseiled, parachuted
     Into the leper temples for rites libations
     And much public healing of the body anarchic.
          (from 'The Drum')

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:

     In London, within the crumbs and shards of Roman wall,
     I walk from epoch to epoch, a tour-guide, stumbling
     into the 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.
          (from 'In London')

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 piece:

     george orwell is invigilating my existence
     in the bleak streets and bombsites
     I feel the force of his eyes
     from where he stands tall thin intent as a surveillance camera

     orwell is always busy on the next bowl
     of the public urinals
     sniffing his piss-steam with scientific disgust
     and debating the merits of the henry millers
          (from '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 scenarios.

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.'

In
'Blue-after Jarman', we get the following:

     blue voice of the blue magus
     captivating and liberating
     fills the all
     fills the blue hall
     with soliloquy and swansong
     to drug the disease
     of being in transience
     with a joy and gravitas
     and a play and prayer

     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.

     Steve Spence 2012