Skip to main content

A poet's 'Book of Demons'

A poet's 'Book of Demons'

Barry MacSweeney was an active participant in Newcastle’s thriving arts scene during the 1960s.  He was born in Newcastle in 1948 and at sixteen started working at the Evening Chronicle where he met poet Basil Bunting.  MacSweeney started attending and reading at the famous Morden Tower, organised by Connie and Tom Pickard. MacSweeney, and Newcastle’s poetry scene at this time, are often associated with The British Poetry Revival.  This was a modernist-inspired movement that explored new forms and drew inspiration from the American modernists in a reaction against more conservative approaches to British Poetry.

Barry MacSweeney was a prolific poet. This proof is from his final collection The Book of Demons which portrays his hopeless fight with addiction.  The publication is deeply personal and was MacSweeney’s last real offering of poetry as he struggled with his problems. These proofs from the book include annotations by fellow poet and MacSweeney’s partner Jackie Litherland.

Editorial correspondence, proofs and original artwork reveal the alterations and setting decisions that led to the final version of the text.  Looking at these annotations allows us to explore the process and collaborative nature of publishing literary works.  Book of Demons, alongside many of his others can be found in the Bloodaxe Books Archive. Bloodaxe Books the independent poetry publisher based in Hexham. Bloodaxe is an internationally significant poetry publisher known for its work with translated collections and American poetry, it has been responsive to cultural change in Britain and has published some of the finest writers in the British-Caribbean and South-Asian diaspora. Bloodaxe has also published more female writers than any other British poetry publisher, at a 50:50 male: female ratio.

Reference: BXB/1/1/MAB/1, Proofs for Barry MacSweeney’s The Book of Demons (1997), Bloodaxe Books Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

Studying MacSweeney’s writing, both published and in draft, you could start to unpick how the artistic community and Newcastle as a place defined his experimental and transgressive poetry. The 1960s poetry scene in Newcastle was part of a national poetry movement but what part did MacSweeney and other Morden Tower Poets play in the British Poetry Revival? Did local poets of the 1960s art scene identify strongly with a North East identity?

Basil Bunting’s most prestigious work Brigflatts was written in 1966 at the height of the Morden Tower readings. He often read at events and attracted other prestigious poets to Newcastle. You could ask how mentors like Basil Bunting influenced the poetry of younger poets like MacSweeney.

Starting with these early days in Morden Tower you could also trace the development of MacSweeney’s work and ask how this sense of identity, place and connection to Newcastle might have changed over time, or whether it was a common thread still present in The Books of Demons

Selected background reading

For further reading about Barry MacSweeney’s work:

Bevington, O., 2015. Transcending time and Space: Barry MacSweeney’s Experimental odes of the 1970sThe Modern Language Review, vol. 110, no. 2, 2015, pp. 399–421. [Online] Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/10.5699/modelangrevi.110.2.0399 (Accessed 21 April 2020).

Batchelor, P., 2009. 'I am pearl' : guise and excess in the poetry of Barry MacSweeney. Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Newcastle School of English Literature, Language Linguistics.

Roberts, L., 2017. Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of Post-War British Poetry Seditious Things SpringerLink.

Astley, N., 2013. Reading Barry MacSweeney. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.

For general reading about the poetry revival:

Virtanen, J., 2017. Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960–1980 Event and Effect. WorldCat.

For more on Basil Bunting, an influence on Barry MacSweeney and an important figure in Newcastle’s poetry scene in the 1960s:

Niven, A., 2014. Towards a new Architecture: Basil Bunting’s post war reconstructionELH, vol. 81, no. 1. [Online] Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24475598  (Accessed 14 May 2020).

Alldritt, K. & Bunting, B., 1998. The poet as spy : the life and wild times of Basil Bunting, London: Aurum Press.

What can I find here in Special Collections?

Barry MacSweeney’s Archive includes his personal papers, draft and published works, correspondence, literature reviews, poetry publications, photographs and newspapers articles.

You could use correspondence from publisher Neil Astley to investigate the development of The Book of Demons and the changes made during proofing:

  • Astley, N., Jul 1997, Letter from Neil Astley to Barry MacSweeney relating to proofs of The Book of Demons and editorial issues including potentially controversial content in some of the poems. [manuscript] BM 3/3/1/6, Barry MacSweeney Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186
  • Astley, N., Sept 1997, Letter from Neil Astley to Barry MacSweeney relating to proof reading of The Book of Demons [manuscript] BM 3/3/1/6, Barry MacSweeney Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186
  • Personal correspondence to friends and family could also establish some of MacSweeney’s social circles when investigating the Newcastle poetry scene.
  • The published and unpublished poetry manuscripts may also provide interesting insight into the development and evolution of MacSweeney’s work

You can also find other editorial material that accompanies the correspondence and proofs annotated by Jackie Litherland The Book of Demons and Wolf Tongue in the Bloodaxe Books Archive including proofs and author information about MacSweeney. 

The Bloodaxe Books Archive also contains works of many other authors, including proof material for Jackie Litherland’s The Long Interval

  • Editorial correspondence regarding Jackie Litherland’s The Long Interval. 1982- 1997. BXB/1/1/LIT/1/1. Bloodaxe Books Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186
  • The Flambard Press Archive; a North-East based independent press which published poetry, fiction, some non-fiction and visual-art books. Editorial material, correspondence and reviews of Jackie Litherland’s The Apple Exchange, The Work of the Wind and The Absolute Bonus of Rain can be found in the Flambard Press Archive.

You can navigate the Bloodaxe Books Archive and the works of its poets by year, featured words, and even shape through the dedicated Bloodaxe Archive interface.

The first reading at Morden Tower was in 1963 with Basil Bunting as first reader, the events were organised and hosted by

For further research about the publication of poetry in the North East we hold small presses, including:

  • Iron Press Archive, another North East-based independent press, publishes poetry, fiction and drama. 
  • The Arts Council Poetry Collectioncontains poetry books published by local, independent publishers who were funded by Arts Council England.

We also hold editions of the Makaris poetry broadsheet as published by Durham University Literary Society between 1965 and 1971.

What can I find elsewhere?

Basil Bunting was an active participant at Morden Tower and an influence on Barry MacSweeney.  The Basil Bunting Archive is held at Durham University.

Durham University also hold photographs of the Colpitt Poets, a poetry collective based in the Colpitt’s pub in the 1960s and 1970s in Durham City.  The photographs include some Morden Tower readings.

A friend of Barry MacSweeney and fellow poet influential in the British Poetry Revival is Andrew Crozier, you can find the papers of Andrew Crozier at Cambrige University Manuscripts and University Archives.

Interested in North East authors

If you’re interested in a broader look at literary figures in the North East you may also be interested in some of our other literary collections:

Jack Common – a Newcastle born author and essayist. His debut novel was Kiddar’s Luck published in 1951 it is an account of 20th Century working class life in Tyneside from a socialist perspective. His collection contains correspondence to friends and acquaintances including George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Dorothy and Max Plowman, Richard and John Middleton Murry and Thomas McCullough.  Common has been a source of inspiration for many North East artists including Sid Chaplin, Michael Chaplin and Max Roberts.

Sid Chaplin is a writer whose work strongly reflect his formative years in the pit villages of County Durham, his time in the coal industry and his other interests, particularly the history and culture of the North-East. His archive covers the years 1930-1990 and includes typescripts of Chaplin's published and unpublished novels, short stories, poetry, plays and articles, television and radio drama, diaries and notebooks, newspaper cuttings, photographs and correspondence.

Michael Chaplin Michael Chaplin was born in 1951 in County Durham to Rene Chaplin and Sid Chaplin; a writer based in North East England. He has worked as a journalist, in television production and as a freelance writer producing work for the theatre, television, radio and print.

His archive consists of draft manuscripts, publicity material and correspondence as well as personal material and items relating to the estate of his father, Sid Chaplin.

Catherine Cookson – we hold a small collection of papers of North East writer Dame Catherine Cookson (1906-1998) which includes the manuscripts from two of her books, an interview recorded in 1985 and examples of the dictaphone tapes she used to create her books.