It could be in a story or at this moment: An Introduction to the work of Lee Harwood and his forthcoming New Collected Poems
Lee Harwood was a leading poet of the British Poetry Revival, a ‘catch-some’ phrase that encompasses a range of alternative, non-mainstream poets that emerged in Britain during the 1960s. However, rather than defining them in opposition to that mainstream poetry, it is better to see them looking back to surrealism and modernism, or looking abroad to the explosion of open field and open form poetries in the USA and – to a lesser extent – to the experimental poetry of Europe. Occasionally, members rediscovered forgotten British poets; in Harwood’s case, this was the elegant formal 1940s poet FT Prince.
In the 1960s, Harwood was at the centre of a bewildering number of scenes, one minute dashing off to Paris to meet the dying Dadaist Tristan Tzara (whose work he translated); travelling to New York to befriend the current avant-garde, meeting John Ashbery and Joe Brainard (he collaborated with both); or appearing at the Marquee Club on the same bill as folk singer Donovan (a gig Harwood did not recall, when I presented him with an online photo of the poster: but then, you know what they say about the sixties!).
The most important technique he learnt was the use of collage: sometimes the transitions are rapid and revelatory, as in his first mature poem, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue’, even confusing. Sometimes they are literal (he had a love of the torn piece of paper, the fragment of language, the snippet of conversation, a truncated call for help, the indecipherable telegram, the disembodied voice on the telephone). Later, the technique is more gentle, though movement from scene to scene (like jump-cuts in film) can still be abrupt. In fact, one of the lessons of editing these poems has been to see that there are many (early) poems which do not do this, are more like the so-called ‘I do this I do that’ poems of Frank O’Hara, another poet he encountered in New York, although Harwood also favoured elaborate fictions (only hinted at in some of the poems below). He talked of his ‘puritan-cavalier routine’, between notational writing and baroque fictionality, and the early 1970s saw him experimenting with stark note-form (and complete eschewal of figurative language). This resulted ironically in his longest poem, ‘The Long Black Veil’, but it also resulted in what today would be called conceptual writing, but was at the time thought of as ‘found poetry’.
Later years saw Harwood refining these techniques and combining them all to create that gentle collage style I mention above. By now, he was regarded, by those in the know, as an important writer, but the work was still not fully recognised at the centre of literary culture, although he has been anthologized in representative collections, and won a Cholmondeley Award late in life.
Kelvin Corcoran and I are currently editing New Collected Poems by Lee Harwood, to possibly replace, certainly to supplement, the Collected Poems Harwood himself put together in 2004. Our book will similarly be published by Shearsman Books, which is run by Tony Frazer, and our working principle (if not the process itself) is simple: we have collected every poem Lee Harwood published in book or pamphlet form during his long career; he died in 2015. One exception is a single poem published, appropriately, in Shearsman magazine, after his final book; the second is a late collaborative piece with John Hall. We restored poems omitted from the 2004 collection and found a few poems dropped between collections. We have not touched the reported 500 unpublished poems preceding the earliest texts we publish (which are from his 1965 pamphlet title illegible, omitted from the 2004 Collected Poems), nor any later manuscript poems that there might be, in the British Library archive of Harwood’s work. Our task was huge enough: New Collected Poems will be published this year. I hope that this selection will whet your appetite.
I have selected four short poems according to the old Benny Goodman medley formula: ‘something old, something new; something borrowed, and something blue’ (though I will re-order them chronologically). The ‘something old’ is one of Harwood’s earliest published poems, ‘angel rustling in the dry ditch’ from 1964 or 1965. I include it for its immediacy, and for its simultaneous obliquity. Like so many of Harwood’s poems, it’s a poem of longing, a poem, marred by the rather unusually modish ‘lovepoets’ with their ‘lovepoems’, but the orthographical deviation does at least point us to Harwood’s role as a poet of love poems (whether that is love of a person or, as later, of the landscape or cultural objects).
The ‘something blue’ has to be (and here I cheat a little), a poem published first in the collection The Man with Blue Eyes (mid 1960s) entitled ‘As Your Eyes are Blue’. In some ways this articulates all of the poles of Harwood’s poetry: it collages poignant but disconnected moments, yet is obsessively focused upon the love-object. It swings away to exotic scenes, but returns to the domestic interior with its dull light. It observes; it quotes. A clear statement is interrupted by a stuttered aside (or is it best to think of tattered fragments of text?). The blue eyes belong to the poet John Ashbery.
‘Something borrowed’ suggests those ‘conceptual’ or ‘found’ poems I referred to above, and I have picked ‘6 Postcards of “Shipwrecks” at Cape Cod, Massachusetts’, not least of all for the literary borrowing, a seventh postcard not numbered (deliberately) in Harwood’s title, at the end, which, for a British ‘tourist’ poet, brings the issue back ‘home’. These ships, that grave, aren’t just old ‘wrecks’, abandoned ‘remains’. This poem comes from Harwood’s 1977 collection, Boston-Brighton, but did not appear in the 2004 Collected Poems.
My ‘something new’ has to be one of Harwood’s last poems, and this comes from his final collection which we are scooping up in our new book, The Orchid Boat, 2014, and it is ‘The Books’, a good example of his gentle art of collage, as it switches from subject to subject, which is not to say that the subjects themselves are gentle; this poem shocks with its revelations, one from the heart of Harwood’s family. The poem swings from the ancient library of Alexandria to wartime 1940; from the horror of that detail, to the campness of the ending. It’s a familiar move in many of his poems, late and early.
angel rustling in the dry ditch
ah the bamboos sing
not for you
not for you
not for me
in this café
where angels drift
from table to table
whispering their lovepoems
waiting for my angel
who’s late as usual
who never comes
frogs and green fishes
whistle their lovewords
when they do
I only catch the last word
but hope some day
to hear it all
a quiet rustling
behind my shoulder
As your eyes are blue
As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you.
and cities apart. yet a roof grey with slates
or lead. the difference is little
and even you could say as much
through a foxtail of pain even you
when the river beneath your window
was as much as I dream of. loose change and
your shirt on the top of a chest-of-drawers
a mirror facing the ceiling and the light in a cupboard
left to burn all day a dull yellow
probing the shadowy room ‘what was it?’
‘cancel the tickets’ – a sleep talk
whose horrors razor a truth that can
walk with equal calm through palace rooms
chandeliers tinkling in the silence as winds batter the gardens
outside formal lakes shuddering at the sight
of two lone walkers
of course this exaggerates
small groups of tourists appear and disappear
in an irregular rhythm of flowerbeds
you know even in the stillness of my kiss
that doors are opening in another apartment
on the other side of town a shepherd grazing
his sheep through a village we know
high in the mountains the ski slopes thick with summer flowers
and the water-meadows below with narcissi
the back of your hand and –
a newly designed red bus drives quietly down Gower Street
a brilliant red ‘how could I tell you…’
with such confusion
and a general lack of purpose only too obvious
in the affairs of state
‘yes, it was on a hot july day
with taxis gunning their motors on the throughway
a listless silence in the backrooms of paris bookshops
why bother one thing equal to another
dinner parties whose grandeur stops all conversation
the afternoon sunlight which shone in
your eyes as you lay beside me watching for… –
we can neither remember – still shines as you
wait nervously by the window for the ordered taxi
to arrive if only I could touch your naked shoulder
now ‘but then…’
and the radio still playing the same
records I heard earlier today
– and still you move me
and the distance is nothing
‘even you –
6 Postcards of ‘Shipwrecks’ at Cape Cod, Massachusetts
The 83 ft. Gloucester dragger ‘RAYMONDE’ on the Peaked Hill Bars near Provincetown.
2. The sea comes aboard
The wreck of the 73 ft. New Bedford dragger ‘GLEN AND MARIA’. Aground south of the old Coast Guard Station on North Beach, Chatham.
3. The Bark ‘Francis’
The German bark ‘FRANCIS’, iron hull, bound for Boston in 1873 carrying sugar, came aground ½ mile northwest of Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro. The wreck can be seen at low tide.
4. Wooden Skeletons
Ships that have been wrecked and buried for many many years may reappear after a severe northeast storm.
5. The old and the young
Fishing boats and shucking houses, worn out and abandoned, are reminders of times past.
6. Target ship
At night a flash of light, an explosion, the sound of aircraft – these are the clues that tell us that once more the ‘JAMES LONGSTREET’ is under attack. This 418 ft. vessel lies 2 miles west of Eastham’s First Encounter Beach in Cape Cod Bay. This World War II Liberty Ship was turned over to the US Navy in 1944 to be used for target practice by the Naval Air Force. The ship rests on the bottom and has been described as a ‘bunch of holes held together by their rims’.
(My thanks to the National Park Service of the Cape Cod National Seashore’.)
1 postcard from the Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord
British Soldiers’ Grave
Grave of two British soldiers who died at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775, the first day of fighting in the American Revolution. The inscription on the grave is from a poem by James Russell Lowell.
‘They came three thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne.
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.’
‘She climbed down from the tree the next day a queen’
after many adventures.
Beyond the wood a field sloped down to a wide river,
its banks edged with reeds.
And at the frontier?
that mixture of squalor and bureaucratic inefficiency.
Is this Europe or China or a dusty crossing in Mexico?
It could be. In a story or at this moment?
She climbed down from the tree a queen,
her memories pleasant for now, but later?
As the years slide by (passing a mirror
– who is that old woman? ugly old man?)
other memories heap up, crowd in.
The intense pain of partings, foolishness, selfishness,
stubborn blindness, and useless, though real, regrets.
As though caught below decks in a sinking ship,
water pouring in as further leaks spring,
the metal plates buckle and split.
Memory pouring in. Powerless to stop any of it.
You can go into the books.
Remember the library in Alexandria.
Remember its destruction by Christian fanatics,
and the savage murder of the mathematician Hypatia.
(Bishop Cyril, may you be tormented forever
in your imaginary hell. You and that other dark heart
Archbishop Theophilus. Shame on you all.)
A dense history of such deeds,
but that shrinks into the shadows
when faced with our daily history.
The young officer, my father, 1940,
having to shoot one of his own men,
his stomach ripped open beyond saving,
begging to be put out of his agony.
‘We deceive ourselves with our stories’, someone wrote.
Not this one. How did my father
live with that moment for years and years?
as he quietly tended his allotment, and
taught children mathematics.
She climbed down from the tree a queen.
As we all do, and then set out
across golden stubble to the river.
I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.
I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.
(All poems are re-published here with the permission of the Literary Estate of Lee Harwood.)