Wednesday, January 19

A (Very Long) Note on Lee Harwood

Lee Harwood was absolutely excellent, reading at The Flying Goose in Nottingham on Tuesday evening. As Clive Allen and I walked across to the pub afterwards, we agreed that Harwood had read really well. He has a gentle, almost diffident manner, and he’s pretty softly spoken, but there was also a quiet but strong confidence about his delivery which was very impressive. Also, and this is good too, he wasn’t solemn or precious about anything – in fact, when a latecomer came in moments after Harwood had begun his reading, and apologised for interrupting, Lee just said, “It doesn’t matter – it’s only poetry.” Then he picked up where he’d left off, reading with a hint of a smile.

Last year sometime I wrote a review (which was published in Staple magazine) of Harwood’s Leafe Press pamphlet “Evening Star”. I’m reprinting it here, and there is a point in doing this, which I’ll come to afterwards…..


“Evening Star” is Lee Harwood’s first collection of new poems for some time, which in itself makes it well worth having a look at. The first poem, “Salt Water”, reminds us how good Harwood can be:

The complexity of a coral reef
the creatures sunlight
shafting down through the crystal sea
water the flicker of shadows
light wavering and fading
into the depths

This is how the poem begins. There’s nothing difficult about reading this writing. What is difficult is the poet’s achievement: with deceptive simplicity Harwood has the ability to suspend the object or the moment and allow us a clear examination of what he wants us to see. The line-breaks, the hiatuses, the control the poet exercises over the pace at which we read this -- believe me, that’s difficult.

The poem is two pages long, and only when it’s done do we find it dedicated to “Joey Peirce/Harwood, who lived 11-14 March 1997”. And it’s then we are turned back to the poem and its significances, such as:

“Polyps” the books say coral
a tube with a mouth at the end
surrounded by tendrils to catch
small creatures
A world of soft tissue

That the dedication comes after the poem, and not immediately after the title, is indicative of the poet’s characteristic restraint. I like it that, although the poems largely possess a fidelity to the thing and don’t mess around --

the mudflats and saltings shine
as the children run by
along marsh edge and the high dyke bank
egret and oystercatcher dunlin and sandpiper

(from “Pagham Harbour Spring”)

-- they also are sometimes not quite as easy to “get” as they might be. “Fragment Of An Indecipherable Inscription” seems a straightforward enough account of a family outing until the third stanza introduces an unexpected dissonance:

In the distant town can we buy food?
Like refugees. Like distant bombs.
A stumbling return. Will you still be there?

There are times I really like not knowing what’s going on. I don’t necessarily read poems “to understand”. But there are other times I feel frustrated. “The Wind Rises: Istvan Martha Meets Sandy Berrigan” manages this trick: naming a modern Hungarian composer (“The Wind Rises” is one of her works, by the way. Thank you, Google) and the wife of American poet Ted Berrigan in one title is fine: there are no rules about this stuff. But I’m struggling to relate them to the poem. I suspect Harwood knows something (probably a lot of things ) I don’t. I’m not sure I appreciate being made so blatantly aware, though. But the poem is okay, and whilst I’m not quite sure where it’s coming from I like where it goes, and I‘m enjoying re-reading it.

Harwood is something of a mixed bag these days. He can still be what would once upon a time have been called quite radical (although now it doesn’t raise an eyebrow) by slipping in to one poem a hefty wedge of prose quotation from Charles Darwin’s journals, and there are plenty of instances where the rather clunky prosaic quality of the lines might be read as another example of the modern poet saying Hey, look at me, I’m a poet being determinedly non-poetic. And he can be more than a bit minimal, too: a little poem like “Eric Satie” doesn’t really want to give up much of itself to you. Which makes it rather interesting.

But his real strength is on display in a poem like “Cwm Nantcol”:

Light slanting down on this high green valley.
Wind blowing, bending the reeds, hawthorn trees,
the scattered clumps of rowans.

Massive slabs of rock,
like ribs down the sides of the cwm,
clawed and scoured, ground and polished
by the glaciers of “Ancient Times”.
And now silver birch, oaks, tender mosses
grow in the shadows of these purple grey bluffs.

Such an emptiness. Here where sheep die
trapped in a fence or drowned in the river,
where a single track winds up into the mountains,
ends at the last farm, a stream, cattle
up to their shanks in a bog……

But interestingly, to my ear, this poem also has a weakness that crops up several times throughout the collection. It’s what you might call ‘the poet thinking out loud’:

But why this fascination? the many returns
to this place? A comfort?

The rhetorical questions weaken the poem considerably. One is tempted to refer to the old workshop cliché about not telling too much, just let it show. And Harwood does this kind of thing quite a lot:

Is that what getting old is?
Learning to live like this - that strength
increasingly needed. Or sink into gaga?

(“The Wind Rises”)

Talking to you? to myself? to the “ether”?

(“5 Rungs Up Sassongher”)

If the myths were put aside, and we…?
Would the mirrors be clear and glitter? a rainbow
flickering on their bevelled edges? I doubt it.

(“Hampton Court Shelter”)

But this is to concentrate on the negative. There’s a lot to like in these poems. The third section of “5 Rungs Up Sassongher” -- “The Joyous Lake” -- is quite beautiful:

A sort of simplicity, not babble, to hold to
firmly but gently. Intense and. Beautiful as
a spray of moth orchids on the sunlit table.

And a lasting memory I’ve taken from reading these poems are a couple of lines from the second poem in the book:

the children running on the dyke bank
absorbed in this world

echoed (I’m sure not unwittingly) in the fifth section of “Five Pieces for Five Photos”:

We smile at the children
absorbed and opening their world

Which is really cool. Yes, there’s good stuff here. My initial impression had been that it was all rather dry, but the poems repay continued attention and re-reading. Definitely recommended……


I've changed my mind about some of what I've said in there, but no matter. My main reason for reprinting this is that Harwood read a poem I mention, “The Wind Rises: Istvan Martha Meets Sandy Berrigan”, at the end of his first set. In the interval, he and I had a really nice chat, taking in subjects ranging from the fact that it turns out he lives almost within shouting distance of one of my kids in Brighton, to how good New York is for charging the batteries, and a couple of other things in between. But, more to the point, I drew his attention to how I’d mentioned that particular poem in my review (which Lee had seen), and how hearing it read was really interesting. I think I meant that I’d got more out of it, hearing the poet’s voice. Lee had mentioned in his introduction to the poem something about Istvan Martha’s music, and how Sandy Berrigan is a quilt maker. But there was also the matter of hearing the poet, the rhythms of his speech, and his breaths. Lee also told me how he’d been trying to get something of the music into the poem. I know this is kind of neither here nor there stuff in some respects, because you have a book and you have the poem on the page and most of the time that’s it, and it has to be enough. But if you can get more, go for it. Lee and I agreed for example that, however much we might have admired John Ashbery’s poetry before we ever heard him read, once you have Ashbery’s somewhat monotone delivery laced with his sense of mischief and pleasure to go along with it you have an added dimension that can only be good. Harwood’s reading was another excellent example of this – something has been added to my future reading of the poems, and I’ll own up to how some pieces which had not made a deal of an impression on me at the time of writing that review, on hearing them read aloud by the bloke who wrote them, they sounded really good, and I’m going back to them immediately.

This is not by any means to imply a failure in the writing, nor necessarily a failure in my reading, although the latter is more than likely. Reading "The Wind Rises...." now, very slowly, pausing slightly where the text tells me to pause, and still hearing the poet’s voice, I’ve learned something and I’m richer for it. I said in the review how the poet controls the pace at which we read. I now realise that at times when I was reading the poems I was wholeheartedly and rather dumbly ignoring all that and going at some of it like a train. It helps if the reader does his share of thinking, I guess.
If I have a point to make it’s that poetry readings are, in principle, good things. The problem, of course, is that more often than not poetry readings are pretty dreadful things. But when you hear someone who is an absolute master of the craft at work, and when they are at the top of their game, it’s an exhilarating experience. Lee Harwood at The Flying Goose was exactly that.

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