It is no longer necessary and not before time to make a case” for MacNeice as a poet. He had a couple of decades of fame, and more of comparative neglect, but his contemporaries read him poorly on the whole, even when they were most appreciative: as a 30s poet” or journalist,” as the author of a few near-perfect lyrics, and even as a professional lachrymose Irishman.” Fortunately, errors of this order no longer need detailed correction. More to the point, it is the generations of poets, in Ireland as well as Britain, who have learned so much from MacNeice formally, as well as in other ways who provide the most potent argument for his poetry’s continuing life. Two Irish poets in particular Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon would be unrecognisable without MacNeice’s example and influence; and others, from later Irish generations still, are continuing to discover and make creative use of resources in the poems of this writer who died before they were born.
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Frederick Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907. He attended Oxford, where he majored in classics and philosophy, and was part of the generation of poets that included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis. He taught at the University of Birmingham and at Bedford College for Women, until he joined the BBC in 1941 as a staff writer and producer. Some of his best-known plays, including Christopher Columbus (1944) and The Dark Tower (1946), were originally written for radio and later published. Although he chose to live the majority of his adult life in London, MacNeice frequently returned to the landscapes of his childhood, and he took pride in his Irish heritage. In August of 1963, MacNeice, on location with a BBC team, insisted on going down into a mineshaft to check on sound effects. He caught a chill that was not diagnosed as pneumonia until he was fatally ill. He died on September 3, 1963, at age 55, just before the publication of his last book of poems, The Burning Perch.Review:
Major poets, like trick-or-treaters, tend to arrive in pairs or small groups (whether this is a matter of fate or academic convenience may be debated). And yet from roughly 1930 to 1950, British and Irish poetry seemed to fall under the sway of a single writer: W. H. Auden. Auden was hardly a solitary figure, of course his compatriots included Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis (father of Daniel), and the four writers were once thought to be so intimately related that the poet Roy Campbell referred to them as MacSpaunday. But it wasn t a relationship of equals: the MacSpaunday poets were usually considered notable not because of how closely they resembled one another, but because of how much the other three looked like Auden.
That has begun to change for Louis MacNeice, whose reputation has been steadily rising for 20 years in Britain and Ireland, in part because of vigorous support from Irish writers like Edna Longley, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon. MacNeice s Collected Poems has finally been published in the United States, where readers will now have a chance to approach this underestimated writer on his own terms....
He is one of the 20th century s great poets of loneliness. And yet this aspect of MacNeice can be easy to overlook, in part because he seems (as is frequently said of Auden) entirely comfortable with the rhythms and clutter of the modern world: Cubical scent-bottles artificial legs arctic foxes and electric mops. We think of solitary poets as writing about ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas; we don t usually think of them as being interested in electric mops.
Nor do we think of them as being fluent. Yet MacNeice is effortlessly, almost ridiculously articulate he seems capable (again like Auden) of writing about nearly anything, and in nearly any form. The 800 or so pages here include tiny poems (the nine-line Upon This Beach ); book-length poems ( Autumn Journal, which helped make his reputation); book-length poems in terza rima ( Autumn Sequel, which nearly undid it); virtuoso deployment of nearly all forms of rhyme ( London Rain rhymes a word with itself in every stanza); and a vocabulary that suavely extends from Tom or Dick or Harry and trams to ochred and archaize. Surely a poet of loneliness should do a little more stammering.
Or should he? The difference between loneliness and mere solitariness, after all, is that the lonely sensibility wants to be otherwise. There is a reaching out that never quite touches. In MacNeice s best work, the ingeniousness and inevitable failure of that reaching indicates the depth of the longing. He is a superb love poet, for instance, yet his love poems often foreground their own ephemerality, like ice sculptures in the summertime. Consider Meeting Point, which is about the fiction writer Eleanor Clark, one of MacNeice s many, many paramours. ...
What we most want, MacNeice suggests, is simply to know each other better, but that possibility depends on laboring blindly through darkness. With the publication of Collected Poems, MacNeice s own excavation is now complete; readers who meet him halfway will find a passage that opens and opens and opens. --New York Times Book Review
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