“Matthew Sweeney is a force for good in British poetry,” writes Ruth Padel. “The work is one large metaphor: a parable for the human condition…He is one of our finest poets of the unconscious; of darkness brought to light….” A strong sense of noirish filmic narrative is present in most of Sweeney’s poetry, which moves beyond realism into what he calls ‘Alternative Realism’. He is quick to assert that his writing is not surreal, nor is it a form of magical realism – he is concerned with metaphorical connections and the leaps the imagination makes while seeking to disclose the truths of the everyday. There is often violence, or a looming danger against Sweeney’s protagonists, and there is always a sense of mystery, which is given over to the reader for contemplation.
Matthew Sweeney was born in Donegal in 1952. He sees in the Irish Tradition – rich as it is with the parallel existence of the Otherworld and the physical world – an openness to Alternative Realism not present in the English Tradition. Sweeney has a Degree in German and English and has said in interview that his motivation for studying German was his love of Kafka. At the Polytechnic of North London and the University of Freiburg, he was introduced to other poets from the German Literary Tradition, who had a profound effect on his writing. There, he made a connection between the Irish and German Traditions, saying later in interview: “I saw round the back the same thing with a little bit of darkness added and that appealed to me – European darkness. So I made this big connection and it was wonderful.”
Sweeney’s first collection was published in 1981, but it wasn’t until he won the Prudence Farmer Prize (for the best poem of the year in The New Statesman) for ‘Ends’ in 1985, that he began to be recognised as a modern day fabulist. The part spiky, part deadpan tone of this early poem – which you can hear on this Archive recording – is characteristic of his oeuvre to date.
Such a consummate storyteller is he, it is perhaps easy for the music of Sweeney’s language to be over-looked initially, but the cadences are part of the telling as will become very audible on this Archive recording. As Peter Porter once wrote: “Wearing his faux-naif narrator’s smile he tells you relaxed stories in gently persuasive verse. Suddenly you are plunged into fear and strangeness, yet Sweeney seems not to have changed his pace or raise his voice. The result is poetry of originality, where language ticks over beautifully but unselfconsciously.”