George Macbeth (Vol. 5)
MacBeth, George 1932–
George MacBeth is an "arrogant" and inventive Scottish poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Macbeth has exuberance. He loves to write. But what he writes is so often, at least in [Collected Poems, 1958–1970], premeditated whimsy. A sense of imagination that, as in the case of many British poets today, cannot express itself with honest freedom, as Kerouac, but one that is fettered by structure. His poems, no matter what the subject—and the range is broad—fall into a traditional order of spacing, rhythm, and length (a six martini discussion of "life"). Attempting amusement and intense subjectivity, he creates contrived sets of words—statements after the fact of feeling. Perhaps in this paradox lies Macbeth's appeal. And, to the credit of his paradoxical nature, he is best in the section on the child in man, where there are fewer jarring shifts in tone: for example, these lines from "When I Am Dead": "And I desire to be laid on my side/ face down: since I have bad dreams/ if I lie on my back." (p. 1019)
Jon M. Warner, in Library Journal (reprinted from the March 15, 1972, issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), March 15, 1972.
Early in his career, George Macbeth acquired a reputation as the enfant terrible of English poetry, which his subsequent lively publicity has done its best to play up…. Sadly, if we ignore the sinister packaging, we find that Macbeth is not quite the diabolical revolutionary he is made out to be. A look at the poems themselves, rather than the notes on them at the back of the book, brings the expectant eye to focus on a rather traditional product: accomplished, but not in any important sense original. The poems strike a violent posture, to utter a mild truth: publicity by Mr. Hyde, poems by Dr. Jekyll. "The Son", for instance, has the following note: "A mortuary attendant rapes the body of a dead woman. He associates her with his mother, who died of a liver disease". Yet the poem itself is robustly healthy at its core, and familiar in its impulse….
The technique of these poems is not to match complexity with a complex texture, but to provide a powerful simplification. They refer complicated contemporary situations back to primal myth. (p. 29)
It is perhaps significant that there are a number of Science Fiction poems, for much SF writing is precisely what I have tried to indicate in Macbeth, the use of a complicated theory to establish a very simple human situation. (p. 30)
Christianity seems to be an irritant to Macbeth. He tries to debunk it, but it's a frame of reference that he can't resist…. [It] is the invariable symbolism in which new beliefs must clothe themselves, as if it has become an obsessive force in the collective unconscious. The roots of this in Macbeth's own experience are perhaps explored in "St. Andrew's", a dispassionate poem which, by describing exactly the barrenness of the mystery, expresses the hopelessness of established religion more vividly than the irony wrung from religion elsewhere. That Macbeth does have a certain animus against Christianity is clear. What is left obscure is the reason for this, and the relevance of it, beyond a convenient source of emotive references, to his poetry…. The animus remains inarticulate, barren in its own spite. Macbeth has not harnessed his anger as a creative force. (p. 33)
[Macbeth] is not a revolutionary wit but a hack satirist, dependent on the continuance of the Establishment. The pity is, there are signs he could have been something more. He has an unusual sympathy, but not the passion to drive him far beyond the obvious. He has an acute mind, but not a clear head, for it is buzzing with effects.
The tendency to elaborate the surface, rather than strike to the substance, is one that recurs throughout Macbeth. It is mirrored in his style, which tends more to an accretion of detail and an accumulation of verbal effect, than to one incisive choice or a single stroke of language. Despite, or because of, all the surface clutter, there is a distance from the object…. This distance in the writing is probably a habit now, which Macbeth shows recent signs of trying to break, but initially the distance was deliberately sought, and not, I think, as an aid to perspective, but as a protective measure. Macbeth has been widely praised for his powers of invention. It is equally possible to see his work as a series of attractive diversions, skirting immense areas of silence….
[The] discovery of a distancing device acted as a release, made it possible to write about difficult personal material. The pity is that this is not a release but an evasion. A divorce grows between the impetus and the expression. Interest shifts from the real to the apparent subject, from the clarification of a complex experience to the forging of a simplified one. And so there is this division of energy in Macbeth, between the lurid facade of the note and the wholesome commonplaces of the poem. Presumably the real subject, the material that was of difficulty and might have been of value, lies lost somewhere in the cabbala of the note: and what we have in the poem is kitsch. (p. 34)
He has often been praised for his versatility. I'm not sure it isn't his worst enemy, for it seems to extend the fundamental dissipation of energy. There are several subjects on which he has written a cluster of poems, treating the same material in a variety of styles, from a straightforward selection from the facts through several degrees of decoration to extreme artifice. The neatest example is the sequence on the death of his cat: in quite a brief space of time he seems to have run the whole gamut. Here the critical conclusion is not simple: the precise account is moving, but the formal lament is even finer—only, beyond the lament, lie two more variations, a surrealist dream-poem of only moderate quality, and an intricately woven sequence of twelve sonnets that is quite preposterous. There are other clusters where one can simply say that the quality is consistently mixed. In the White Goddess poems he seems all the time to be circling his material, feinting as often as he attacks: intricate footwork, but only rarely does he draw blood. The ironic reflections on Christianity are similarly inconclusive. (p. 35)
Had his creative impulse been intensive rather than extensive, Macbeth might have given us at least one moment of utter reality, wrought into imperishable form. As it is, he has given us a body of verse, most of which is already disposable. (p. 36)
Macbeth's style was impressive from early on. In recent years it has not acquired significant new strengths: rather it has become muscle-bound. The bold use of the associative force of words, which was particularly Macbeth's achievement, has been developed into a violent element of style; odd instances are effective, but the constant use of it turns surprise into a mannerism. (p. 47)
[The] publication of Collected Poems comes at a very odd time, when the author is clearly at a transitional stage. (p. 48)
[In] recent uncollected poems there are signs of a more direct, personal voice, and a gentler mood, though the voice is often blurred by stylistic ambitions, with a particular tendency to rhetoric. "In Winter" escapes these vices: a delicate development of a small, unextraordinary moment.
One of the current epitaphs that Macbeth likes to sport is "extraordinary gifts arrogantly wasted". On the evidence so far, I rather think that we have seen a distinct but limited gift, artfully deployed. He has worn the guises of Surrealist and Expressionist, but he is by natural sympathy a neo-Romantic, with inclinations to the sentimental. Thus his best work has, in fact, been in a domestic setting, with tinges of humour: for in this vein the postures aren't possible, or else they're material to be debunked, but the sentiment can be real. Macbeth is clearly concerned to be "the important poet", but he has perhaps not realised where his own strengths lie. Until recently, the use of masks and devices has dissipated most of his "important" material. On present form, he may well find himself with classic status, but not on the same podium as Byron: he is more likely to be cherished as a twentieth-century descendant of Edward Lear, with a certain infusion from A. A. Milne—but that is no mean compliment. (pp. 48-9)
Roger Garfitt, "George Macbeth" (copyright © by Roger Garfitt), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 29-49.
In the better poems in George MacBeth's new collection [Shrapnel] one senses that the real life of the poems moves on a level quite separate from the aspirations of the language. The personal poems that conclude the book are sustained by moments when Mr. MacBeth edges towards a conversational tone…. This is a new tone in his work, and almost stifled at birth by habits of style: a fallen calf lies "on stones of unconcern", a friend's phone call comes "through troubled iron of my own concerns", a thank-you poem celebrates "ceremonies of beneficence". How much better these poems could have been if their candour was not at the mercy of grandiloquence. Even so, they represent an advance.
"Aspirations," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), March 9, 1973, p. 270.
George MacBeth has frequently been called one of the half-dozen best British poets now writing, but to me he is still down the bank, reaching about, uncertain where he is going. Often he is reduced to the conscious effort of entertaining, for which he lacks a happy touch; nor is he any happier when searching, for he seems to speak from outside his lines, leaving them stranded. He describes more than he evokes, and his mind is seldom on what he depicts; it lacks imaginative tact and precision. (pp. 69-70)
Calvin Bedient, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973.
Prayers occurs at a point of confluence between two familiar George MacBeth tendencies: the poem as self-referential comic sport, and the poem as gravely liturgical ritual. On the whole the latter element predominates: these are exotic, priestly offerings, more aptly chanted than read, addressed to an array of real or mythical life-forms (Lord Squirrel, Fire Bird, Last Rose) whose powers are solemnly petitioned…. It is all good fun, but smells strongly of the poetic sacristy…. Mr. MacBeth, as this pamphlet shows well enough, has considerable technical competence; all he needs now is something to say. (p. 997)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), August 31, 1973.
George MacBeth's Poet's Year is not a bouquet of seasonal garlands but simply an accumulation of what he wrote between the months of September 1971 and September 1972. The book's blurb directs one to "death and sexual energy" as the mainsprings of Mr. MacBeth's work, but also comments that there is a greater concern "with time and the effects of time" than has been evident in his earlier collections—hardly true if one compares, say, "A Death in the North" (in The Broken Places, Mr. MacBeth's first mature collection, published in 1963) with "On the Death of May Street" in the present book: both speak with the same slow-paced elegiac gravity of "time and the effects of time". As for "sexual energy", there is a poem called "Porn" which is written in a characteristic MacBeth fashion of fragmentary lewdness, and a couple of resolutely unpleasant excursions into the erotic ("Lovers" and "Lovers Again"), written in stark quatrains. The term "energy" does not come readily to mind. An elegy for Andrew Young, a congested, formally dense but impressive poem called "Birth", and an exuberantly Kiplingesque performance on "The World of J. Edgar Hoover" must be counted among the successes of a typically uneven and entertaining collection. (p. 1276)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), October 19, 1973.
[The Transformation] is short and lush, more an intricate game than a novel. Guy Sebring changes into a woman called Alcestis and embarks on a series of splendidly bisexual encounters as time wheels dizzily between the Belle Epoque to the late Thirties, and space shifts similarly from central Europe to an Edwardian country house. Mr MacBeth sets up an atmosphere of erotic expectation which only the Story of O could fulfil; and it is his pleasure gently to disappoint his reader, which he does with a sanguine aplomb worthy of the depraved figures in his fantasy. (p. 216)
Elaine Feinstein, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 14, 1975.
[The questions] which George MacBeth asks are unsettling, enigmatic, subversive—questioning not the senses but the motives, the bases of perception…. [His] new collection, Shrapnel and A Poet's Year (which was originally published, in England, as two separate volumes), is ruthlessly bizarre, with a vicious nervousness about many of the poems. They are compelled by a gothic ritualism, which educates the sensibility to that predicament which has so many names—evil, ego, imago, and which inevitably accomplishes the collision or collusion of energy and design. The categories of personal, social, and aesthetic experience are fused by MacBeth until we are left uncertainly caught in a web of imaginative intrigue, bound fast by a metrical concision that is as deft as a magician, as tight as the knots he ties. Some of the pieces are slight, but "Even the most ordinary detail/Can be a surprising wonder …" as poets and their readers have always known. And the best of these poems are small, nerve-wracked masterpieces, especially the "War Poems," and most especially "The Broken Ones."… (p. 127)
MacBeth is uncannily adept, moving from an intricate aloofness to a relaxed conspiracy…. And the juxtapositions which he effects are rather like capriciously and hugely arrogant metaphors…. It is a very good volume of poems. (p. 128)
J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.