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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