Skip to main content

Louis MacNeice

‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural’. Even if you’re not that well-versed in modern British and Irish poetry, chances are you’ll still know ‘Snow’, or a line or two from the poem will seem naggingly familiar. While still in his twenties, Louis MacNeice wrote it in 1935, and since then, it’s been a favourite with readers, writers and editors, cropping up in every kind of poetry anthology.

Weird, then, that MacNeice’s work has often been seen as a footnote to that of his illustrious pal W.H. Auden, when he’s so clearly a hugely original poet in his own right. And when, among more recent generations, the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Don Paterson and Conor O’Callaghan have all cited him as a major influence in their own writing. It’s not like ‘Snow’ was a one hit wonder, either. Despite some of the less exciting – and often lengthy – stuff he wrote in the early 50s, MacNeice only got better, perfecting his moving, atmospheric and powerful lyric poems until his final and best collection, The Burning Perch, appeared in 1963, shortly after his death.

How can I convince you of how good The Burning Perch is, without just saying its worth forking out the thirty quid for MacNeice’s hefty Collected Poems, just for this short book’s appearance in it? Well, if you want to know where some of today’s best poets get their linguistic tricks from, you needn’t look much further.

For starters, MacNeice is the master of time travel: ‘Soap Suds’ opens with youthful memories before fast forwarding to adulthood and spinning back again; ‘Déjà vu’ is the closest anything I’ve ever read has got to getting that sensation down on paper. There are also some amazing poems that capture the dark, sometimes isolating, and more haunting aspects of modern life. ‘Goodbye to London’ is a personal history of the city, where, after the war, ‘the people once more were strangers / At home with no one, sibling or friend’, and there’s no way to really begin to paraphrase the surreally brilliant ‘The Taxis’.

Many of the poems in The Burning Perch attempt to use the past – both in a personal and shared sense – to make sense of the present; something we often do (writers or not) in our own lives. But in the final poem of the book, ‘Coda’, MacNeice seems uncertain:
So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.
Either way, the desire in so many of MacNeice’s poems is to more fully understand himself, others, and the world around him: something that all of us can relate to. What’s more, in reading his best poems, you come away with a wider – but never prescriptive – perspective on all sorts of things, not least your own life. He is, as one poet once described him, ‘the laureate of in-between-ness’: his writing as relevant now as ever to our fast moving, changing, and sometimes disorienting times.

this article was first published by The Poetry Society in 2010, in YM: New Work in Poetry


ermferrari said…
Great recommendation! Followed your advice and read some poems from 'The Burning Perch' this morning; I had no idea, really love them!
Ben Wilkinson said…
My pleasure Edward. Glad to hear you enjoyed 'em.

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry in Motion

Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse

Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land, to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood the test of time because t…

Way More Than Luck: 27.2.18 - the launch

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …