Saturday, June 5

Lee Harwood's "Collected Poems"

Review by Alan Baker

At last, all of Lee Harwood's work, covering a forty year period, is available in one place. Much of his poetry has been out-of-print for years despite him being, to my mind, a central figure in the British scene. So this book is, as the publisher claims, a major event.

When we look at Harwood’s poetry - modernist, cosmopolitan, surrealist,
influenced by Dada, Borges, the New York School - it’s hard to believe that Britain in the early 1960s, when Harwood started his career, was still a deeply conservative and insular place. Tom Raworth has written about the isolation of poets like himself in this period, when American books were hard to come by, and the predominant mode of poetic discourse was the conservative one of The Movement poets. Harwood’s early achievement needs to be seen in this context. In the early 60s, he associated with Ashbery in Paris, and began his translations of Tristan Tzara, and later in that decade he spent time in the US, establishing some key contacts there.

The early work is original, fresh, and unlike that of any other English writer of that period; it is erotic, sensual, and right from the start had that mixture of delicate understatement and disconcerting directness. There is often a child-like quality to these poems, which somehow manages to speak to the complexity of lived experience. The early books have a slightly pop-art feel (but again, very subtle) and are peopled with admirals, nobles, tribesmen; a gentle mockery of the fading British Empire, echoed in the Sergeant Pepper period of 1960s pop culture. Narrative is important, and he gives us stories tantalizingly unfinished, suggestive of other dimensions and perceptions. In mid-career he published a collection of prose stories, 'The Dream Quilt', included in this volume.

“The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72”, a diary of a love-affair, marks the end of the first phase of his writing. This sequence shows considerable narrative skill, and an ability to evoke a scene, in a few lines, which works as an emotional setting. It is Poundian, and interweaves a personal journal with quotes from various esoteric sources, including Egyptian mythology. But the idiom couldn’t be further from Poundian bluster: tentative, understated, with a lightness of touch and plainness of speech.

John Ashbery has pointed out that Harwood’s poetry is “more like recent American poetry than English poetry”. In the collection “Landscapes” (1969), we have:

The white cloud passes a shadow across
the landscape and so there is a passing greyness
The grey and white both envelope
the watcher until he too is drawn into the picture

(from "The Final Painting")

This is as transparent as poetic language can be (a virtue usually associated with prose), and in Ashbery’s words “is self effacing not from modesty but because it is going somewhere and has no time to consider itself”. In this whole poem, the subtlety with which the scene is presented in relation to the reader/observer, and the self-consciousness with which the poem is aware of its own artifice, combines a complexity of thought and perception with an unusual simplicity of language.

It’s hard to explain exactly how his language works, how a style so apparently diffuse and disjointed can leave us with an effect of crystalline clarity. I think this has something to do with the honesty with which he re-creates a state of mind, or a reaction to the world, and the way the self-consciousness of his poetic artifacts paradoxically creates a sense of authentic experience:

Is someone weeping in the street outside?
It sounds like a man. It is 3:30 am.
But when I go to the window, I can see no-one.
I might have asked him in to cry in the warm,
if he’d wanted. This isn’t as stupid as it seems.
But everything on this (surface) level is so disjointed
that it can make even this possible act of kindness
appear to THEM as ‘foolishness’ (if ‘they’ feel patronizing)
or ‘absurdity’ (if ‘they’ feel insecure that day)

(from "Love in the Organ Loft")

In the 60s and early 70s, Harwood was often bracketed with Tom Raworth, and on the page, their early work can look similar. But, as, Richard Caddel pointed out, their reading styles belie this, and while one of Raworth’s virtues is speed, Harwood’s work has a more relaxed feel, and his prose-like measures give the reader time to absorb what they’re reading. There is a gentler tone to his surrealist imagery, where a child-like naivety often predominates:

The steamboat approached the quay ‘a room full of trees’?
about the lesson there was a letter aboard for me
Telegramme to stop the process, m’lud
But nothing was learnt from all the mistakes
The steamboat – toot, toot – approached the quay
White smoke puffing from the funnel
What a bright picture all this is!

(from "The Backwoods")

In his 1987 essay on Dada, Harwood identifies that movement as a direct reaction to World War One, a response to a specific social and political situation. That impetus, which Harwood claims was lost to later conceptual art, is what gave early Dadaist art and poetry its vitality. Harwood's own poetry had that impetus right from the start. The first piece in this volume, published by Bob Cobbing's Writer's Forum in 1965, is 'Cable Street'. The title refers to the famous battle with Mosley's fascists in London's East End. The poem, which is still remarkably fresh, is a meditation on living in Cable Street in the 1960s interweaved with descriptions of the events of thirty years earlier. And in a late collection, 'Morning Light' (1998), we have a long poem about the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, handled with typical tact and discretion, using the statistics of the killings to speak for themselves. Throughout his career, Harwood’s work has had an awareness, arguably an increasing one, of its social context, and this is one of the things which gives it its vitality.

Later work becomes more clearly British; his adoptive town of Brighton and its surrounding country is increasingly the subject and setting his poetry, and we have vignettes of everyday life like ‘The Domino Players’ from the collection ‘Dream Quilt’, a quasi-documentary account of some of the poet’s ancestors, workers in the leather industry in the English Midlands, that amusingly captures the stolidity of those people:

…despite his success he was regarded by the rest of his family as a disgrace. His ‘crime’ had been making boots with cardboard soles for the Republican Government during the Spanish Civil War. The disgrace was probably more to do with ideas of honesty and good craftsmanship than with anything political.

(from "The Domino Champion")

Some would argue that in later years, Harwood lost his sense of newness and originality. Certainly the language becomes more everyday, less given to surrealist disjunction. And his work did seem to lose its edge for a time in the late 80s/early 90s. But ‘Morning Light’ (1998) was a return to form, and that collection, along with the most recent, ‘Evening Star’ (2004), could clearly be written by no one else; they are recognizably Harwood. And while there’s perhaps a lessening of tension, there is a broadening of scope; an acknowledgement of social relations, family ties, and the shared experience of growing older. In fact, if we look at the final section of this volume, containing his most recent, unpublished work, we see a return to a more adventurous use of form. The piece is titled ‘Take a Card, Any Card: An Ikonostasis‘, and subtitled ‘52 pieces to be shuffled as you will’. This seems like a return to vintage Harwood, but the wide-eyed naivety of the early work is replaced by reflections on the past, and an individual’s place in a community that includes those who have passed on. There is the characteristic tone of wonderment and delight at being in the world, combined with what almost, but not quite, amounts to nostalgia. As one of the poems in this section puts it:

It is like Cornell’s Boxes. Not a nostalgia that somehow sees the past as better but that captures the sadness, the undeniable fact, of time passing, life passing.

The comparison with Cornell, the gentle surrealist, and his boxes of found objects, with their childlike wonder and sense of mystery, is an apt one for Harwood’s poetry as a whole.

By the time he was thirty, Lee Harwood had published six collections, including three with the legendary Fulcrum Press (beautiful books, now collector's items), and in 1971 was included in Penguin Modern Poets series, in a volume with John Ashbery and Tom Raworth. A change in fashion/critical opinion/power structures (take your pick) took place in the early seventies, and he has been published by small presses ever since (which goes to show that it's these outfits that have kept poetry alive, at least in these islands). For a short period in the 1980s, Paladin produced a series of editions of what had been non-mainstream poetry, including a Lee Harwood 'Selected'. Since that volume went out of print, it's been hard to get hold of much of Harwood's work. Now, it’s available again; something we should be grateful for.

(pub. Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, UKISBN 0-907562-40-X, 522pp. £17.95 in the UK, $28 in the USA.)

© Alan Baker, 2004

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