Find an Angel and Pick a Fight, Peter McCarey, Molecular Press, 2013, £17.70
reviewed by Ira Lightman
Readable and with a sort of bracing corrective seriousness on how to live, rather than how to be righteous, this collection of articles and reviews is finally indigestible, too pugnacious with too little revision, fathoming or empathising. McCarey is facile trashing writers like Antin and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. But there is a bringing together of fascinating abstract areas – translating poetry, music, maths. Ultimately, McCarey tells us these areas ought to relate. So we do our own relating, then help McCarey out with it? The computationally talented polyglot lacks sufficient intellection and overview but not smugness. His title comes from his own (not very good) poem quoted in the book, and its angel part is not really explained – though there are pleasing glances at faith ventilating a sometimes materialistic (“I can’t see what this means”) grumpiness. Self-belief improvises unrevised into unauthoritative prose of nevertheless lively style – good creative writing, in other words, without the glib sob of conventional prose and poetry.
McCarey resists the sentimental pull, and his take on Leonard and on colleagues like Riach is usefully prickly – although one warms more to Leonard and Riach than to McCarey.
His didactic paraphrasing at length and extensive footnoting is generous, sending the work outwards rather than to the specialist fraternity. The sensibility remains partial, picks fights. He freely says in places that he has just written the previous sentence, as if the essay were a terrific live activity – which is what my favourite of his poetry does (at www.thesyllabary.com, with paraphernalia of scientific thorough variety of vowel and consonant combinations and diaristic jumpy-sultry poems). He says that he doesn’t get things – the Walter Benjamin or Laura Riding essay he’s just alluded to – and one wonders why he doesn’t fetch in a good interpretation of them by others; or just give it more of a try?
There are nice short essays on Prynne, which look, without the hagiography of Prynne’s (creepily encouraged, paternalistic) circle, for the raw impact of the poems on a speculating poetry reader. There’s a good blast at Geoffrey Hill’s morbid self-advancement, tallying with my favourite rare 70s bitchy essay by John Ashbery about the English scene and the young Hill prowling Cambridge on the make.
McCarey for me is strongest on questioning the nostra of poetry translation. He is a useful critic to think with here. He may comment on an Edwin Morgan’s statement (that translation is getting at the under-ghost-text) only by obfuscating Morgan and nipping at his ankles. But he rises to points that show our monoglottism. Writers from other countries may not like us for patting fellow English-language speakers on the back for being also insular. Or crass. A quest for precision doesn’t fully dispel, however, what one feels is the strange pull on McCarey of the extrovert, improper and unchaste hinted in the “helps explain” of his nevertheless fascinating sentence:
“The foreign reader sees a poem shorn of the day-to-day, the ephemeral; its outline is clearer, its context and associations less so, its register and accent might not be caught. (Maybe this helps explain why the likes of Poe and Byron could mean more at times to the French and Germans than to native English speakers.)”