George Macbeth (Vol. 2)
MacBeth, George 1932–
An inventive and original Scottish poet, MacBeth is the author of The Colour of Blood and The Night of Stones. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
MacBeth is an extraordinary phenomenon, but his real 'presence' as a poet rather than a performer has yet to be demonstrated—he is the Unidentified Flying Object of British verse. He has written, for instance, a poem called 'Scissor-Man' in which, according to his note, 'a jealous pair of scissors complains about the racial prejudice which has prevented it from obtaining its rights in the way of housing, and which still interferes with its love-affairs.'…
MacBeth's mixture of grotesque humour and grisly seriousness with a buoyantly active style is a welcome addition in British poetry and cannot but have a liberating effect. His dead-serious poems, on themes involving the horror of war, the meaning of Eichmann, private suffering—all, once more, suggesting a Lowell influence at a certain remove—gain in sheer intelligent effervescence from his capacity for comic fantasy but by the same token lack a final conviction. Mind, sensibility, phrasing are pyrotechnically exploited; but the bright contriving that makes MacBeth's buffoonery so welcome also makes his more serious writing seem hollow, as though its conception were not truly his—not yet, at any rate.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 260-62.
MacBeth obviously has talent to burn, so why complain if he occasionally burns a little of it—burns it, or blows it, or just says the hell with it. And in any case, for the twenty-five splendid lines of "The Horsemen" [in The Night of Stones], one can feel nothing but gratitude.
George W. Nitchie, in Shenandoah, Autumn, 1969, pp. 77-9.
George MacBeth's passion is to create despair in his readers, who cannot help but sorrow to see so much talent so frequently misdirected. Too often MacBeth uses poetry as a vehicle for a hoax. No doubt he wishes to correct those poor dullards among us who make of poetry too serious a thing…. But MacBeth can put together lines and passages of fresh and potent imagery….
Sometimes his straightforward statements are just too simple, as in his eighteen portraits of as many species at a dog show. Here [from The Night of Stones] is his "Old English Sheep-dog": "Eyes/drowned in fur:/an affectionate,/rough, cumulus/cloud, licking/wrists and/panting: far/too hot/in your/'profuse' coat/of old wool. You/bundle yourself/about on/four shaggy/pillars/of Northumberland/lime-stone,/gathering sheep." Maybe George MacBeth is a hoax.
Harry Morris, in Sewanee Review (© 1971 by The University of the South), Spring, 1971, pp. 306-07.
George MacBeth's Collected Poems: 1958–1970 affords a wide-angle view of one of the more versatile poets writing in Britain today. And, although MacBeth has previously published six volumes of verse, this one, which gathers the poet's choice of his earlier work as well as some new poems, is the best showcase to date for his far-ranging talents. Here one finds both searing portrayals of modern love—detailed down to the lady's mole—and soap-bubble poetic jokes which, as MacBeth says, were "written for those who (like myself) regard themselves as children." Forms range from the exploded typography of "op" to such traditional forms as the sonnet. But the tonal reach of these poems is perhaps their greatest surprise. This man can gear language to whatever effect he wants: humor, satiric wit, liturgical solemnity, or psychological horror….
In MacBeth's light verse and experimental poetry anything goes, including the detached typography of the Concretists and strange do-it-yourself poems that one is supposed to paste upon playing cards and deal out to partners for reading. If a number of these are wearisome, others are genuinely entertaining but, for all their cleverness, they are not what MacBeth does best. What he does best is to write a poetry of psychological inscape so intense, yet so bleak, that the "fun and games" section of his book may be seen as a retreat, a place to gather one's senses before passing on to some new vision of hell….
[If] the characters in such art as George MacBeth's are too small-scale to make tragedy possible, at least they can squeal convincingly when they are dismembered. Employing violence as a surrogate for tragic catastrophe appears to be an increasingly common practice in the arts—one thinks of the film Easy Rider; of James Dickey's novel, Deliverance. MacBeth stands as a master of this kind of effect; he can destroy his characters with consumate craftsmanship.
Patrick J. Callahan, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 15, 1972; used with permission), April 15, 1972, pp. 71-3.
[MacBeth's] work is perhaps more widely read in the United States, and certainly in Europe, than that of almost any other contemporary British poet except Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. MacBeth is a charming miniaturist, a writer of nonsense verse and petit paeans and elegies to family animals and suchlike. But his ambitions range much further than that….
He produces good writing but bad poetry in so many cases that an explanation has to be sought…. MacBeth, in searching for the bon mot, puts down (rather like James Dickey) each image and limits it by explaining or defining suggestions away; he gives us in the end a very unresonant sort of poetry, prescriptive, incapable of wider application than the poet gives it. It is pinned down…. MacBeth's poems seem often contrived, self-obsessed, prolix.
Michael Schmidt, "A Defence," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1972, pp. 170-81.
A charitable reader [of MacBeth's Collected Poems 1958–1970] might refer to a diverting variety in the poetry and an admirable versatility in the poet. My own inclination is to admire a rather small number of poems, mostly those in the second section (and particularly a marvelously elliptical long poem called "A Light in Winter," which chronicles an agonizing adulterous love affair as if it had never been done before, thereby reproducing with peculiar faithfulness the distinctive attitude toward themselves of all adulterous lovers).
Beyond this, I am moved by segments of poems, but seldom by poems as a whole. I am entertained by a good many and bored by a good many more. Across the collection, MacBeth's tendency to be casually outrageous seems gratuitous and can consume itself….
Edward Lueders, in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1972, pp. 294-95.
Sometimes when I read George MacBeth's poetry I want to toss the book across the room and shriek, "Oh, for heaven's sake, MacBeth! Grow up!" or "Get serious!" But then I may turn the page and come upon something so amazing that I am ready to forgive him all (or at least most) of his excesses. MacBeth is one of Britain's most peculiar and fascinating poets. Though he says in the foreword to his Collected Poems that he regards himself as a child, his works are very grown-up; and even when his poems abound with tricks, they are often quite genuinely serious.
MacBeth delights in the outré. I can think of few other poets who could conceive of the notion of applying Robert Lowell's principle of "imitating" foreign poems to poems in his native language. But MacBeth plunges gleefully into his own "Ode on a Grecian Urn."…
Some of MacBeth's poems are very sick jokes … sick jokes with a difference, however. The jokes in these poems never totally conceal a sense of horror over the pain which exists in the world. If MacBeth is obsessed with the macabre, it is perhaps because he is also obsessed with the roots of human conflict and the psychology of the fascist personality….
[His] poems tend to be very complicated. A real virtuoso, he is fond of ingenious rhymes, stanza patterns, and syllabic forms. Even some of his simplest poems turn out to be not so simple at all if they are examined closely. Thus "St. Andrew's" appears to be a terse and eloquent reminiscence about going to church in Scotland as a child. It takes another reading or two to make one realize that it employs an intricate, but almost imperceptible, rhyme scheme. Realizing that many situations in life are ambiguous, MacBeth fills his poems with ambiguities. He seems to believe that, if all art is artifice, there is no reason why poetry should not be as artificial as possible. MacBeth seizes upon one artifice after another, as though he thought that the devising of riddles were part of the aesthetic pleasure of writing a poem and unraveling those riddles were part of the aesthetic pleasure of reading that poem.
Until now, however, MacBeth has rarely asked his readers to venture into a maze without a thread to guide them. In his previous volumes, he appended notes to his most difficult poems. The Collected Poems omits them, perhaps to save space. Whatever the reason, I think their omission is a dreadful mistake. The notes did more than define unfamiliar words or phrases; they sometimes announced the theme or situation of the poem. Since MacBeth likes to plunge directly into a situation with little exposition and few transitions, such announcements can contribute to the understanding of a poem, can even be an indissoluble part of a poem's meaning….
His best poems are sinister, outrageous, and funny. Bothersome in content and labyrinthine in form, they exemplify, as he himself says, a poetic mode "intricate as mah jong." I hope he continues to play—and win—the most difficult games.
Jack Anderson, "Games," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1972/73, pp. 360-63.