It’s a Long Road: a journey through Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems
Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems – references to it marked CP in the text - takes the reader through varying landscapes, and changing obsessions, personal relationships, artistic passions. The metaphor of travel is apposite for a major characteristic of Harwood’s writing, that is, its restlessness, and one he repeatedly uses himself. On page 229 (about half way through this forty year accretion of work) we are warned to expect ‘a long road’; reaching the penultimate page we are reminded still ‘it’s a long road’ (p. 521). It is a journey, characterised not just by mutability and variety, but by what Harwood calls an ‘insistence’ (p. 168). It is
not so much a repetition
but a moving around a point, a line
- like a backbone – and that too moving
(on) (CP 177)
For example, the effect of the numerous times the reader is reminded of the inadequacy of language, particularly to evoke the emotive charge of erotic adventure, is cumulative. ‘You’ – followed by half a page width of silent space – ‘I hardly begin to say’ is emblematic of dozens of such insistences, limit-cases, crisis-points, breakdowns. (CP 463) The confessions of faltering, stumbling words, ‘moving around a point’, or the dozens of literally unfinished declarations of love or wonder, suggest that Harwood has snatched such anti-rhetorical ‘failure’ from the jaws of his greatest triumphs, his wounded poems.
Reading this oeuvre is also a stylistic adventure, a pageant of literary forms, with its readerly delights and surprises. Harwood knows this too. When he writes, ‘My heart weeps,’ and then comments, ‘Who would ever have thought I’d write that?/ “My heart weeps”?’ – he not only presents the troubling sentence twice, he presents its repetition in his frequently used and estranging quotes to defuse the subterranean romanticism – but he also knows he can rely upon a readership of whom he can ask such a question, who have followed his progressive ‘movings-on’ (CP 182), who have become accustomed to the interrogative assumption behind his ‘voice’, indeed recognise this self-conscious, knowing hesitancy as his voice (to play up to that doubtful metaphor).
The stages of this long – unfinished - journey are represented by the sections of the Collected Poems, published by Tony Fraser’s Shearsman Books in 2004. They broadly correspond to previously published books or to sections of those books. Very few poems have been omitted from what is now effectively the canon of Harwood’s work, and these are stylistically weak texts, mostly plucked from the company of poems in the first 96 pages of this 522 page publication.1 More positively, a number of uncollected poems have been added, mostly from the 1970s and the early 1980s, along with some previously unpublished recent work (to which I will return next month).
The White Room ( Fulcrum Press, 1967), Harwood’s first large volume, was already a kind of early collected poems, and began, as does this new book, with early work, called here ‘title illegible/early work 1964-1965’. Most of this was originally published in Harwood’s first pamphlet, with its characteristically self-evasive title: title illegible (1965). A regular attendee at Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshop (and he was later, in 1967, to follow Cobbing as manager of Better Books, an important subcultural London venue throughout the sixties), Harwood was also published by Cobbing’s press. Little of this Writers Forum pamphlet survives the editorial process; this section of early work is dominated by ‘Cable Street’, a flawed but necessary poem, and important for Harwood’s subsequent development in that it is a long text in lyric fragments and prose. It is not unlike Roy Fisher’s near contemporary City (1960), or, only a little more distantly, the later books of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. (It also encouraged others, such as Iain Sinclair, to begin to explore the little histories of London.) The text deals with Harwood's day to day life in the East End (where he lived until 1967, with his first wife, Jenny Goodgame, whom he married in 1961, and their son, Blake, born the following year), balancing the everyday with - to take one central example - the Battle of Cable Street between the fascists and communists, which was played out on the same turf 30 years before. The young Harwood applauds Lenin and eulogises the coming revolution: ‘O Prince your days are done/The Revolution’s come’. (CP 22)
The labour Harwood expended in the mid and late 1960s on translating from the French a representative selection of the ex-Dadaist and Surrealist Tristan Tzara possibly steered him from continuing to use this work as a direct model in his own writing (only a few early exercises in surreal mode are included). He met Tzara in 1963, not long before his death, and Tzara approved certain of the early translations. This body of work also is excluded from the Collected Poems, but several volumes have gathered these translations and its introductions, including Chanson Dada in 1987, for which he wrote a new introduction, and which is due to be republished soon. He also published a Tzara bibliography in 1974. As a part of the burgeoning literary underground Harwood was also a publisher of occasional magazines, (Night Scene, Soho, Horde) whose name changed with each issue, but one was an act of pure homage and assumed lineage: Tzrarad. There was even a subsequent anthology of that name. In his recent In the Sixties, Barry Miles explains: ‘We published Darazt, an anthology featuring a long poem by Lee Harwood, and named after his mimeo magazine, Tzarad (Darazt being Tzarad backwards). Lee was particularly fond of Tristan Tzara. There were some collages by me, inspired by Max Ernst, some photographs of Gala Mitchell naked by Hoppy, inspired by Bill Brandt, and a three-column text by William Burroughs.’ (Barry Miles, p. 64) 'Hoppy' was John Hopkins, who also ran the UFO Club, the centre of underground musical culture, with which Harwood also had some contact. Along with Pete Brown, Spike Hawkins and others, Miles tells us, Harwood read at the first ‘Spontaneous Underground’ event at the Marquee Club in January 1966, on an anarchic bill that included Donovan and Graham Bond, with most of the performers and audience in fancy dress. (When read this passage recently over the phone, Mr Harwood denied remembering any of it, proving, I suppose, that if you can remember the sixties then you weren’t blah blah blah. Or possibly the shame of being on the same bill as Donovan provokes amnesia. (The other day there was a horrible scream from downstairs. I went down there. I asked Patricia what the matter was. She said that Donovan was on Midweek. Why? I asked with incredulity. Cashing in on the Dylan revival, she explained. Again? sez I!). There's also the question of the relationship of Harwood's The White Room with the Cream song of the same title, written by Pete Brown.)
The brief gay lyrics early in the Collected, ‘This morning' for instance, open a theme of erotic longing at forced separation that haunts the entire oeuvre: ‘the pain of my leaving/and my love for you’. (CP, 23) This intensifies in ‘The Man with Blue Eyes’, a section of both Collected Poems and The White Room. This also appeared, under that title, as a separate volume, published by Lewis Walsh and Anne Waldman’s Angel Hair Books in 1966. It won the Frank O'Hara Prize, and heralded Harwood’s arrival in New York and inaugurated a transatlantic exchange that continues to this day. An erotic liaison with John Ashbery (whom he had met in Paris in 1965), and a more general literary engagement with the New York poetry scene at its height, engendered some deeply felt love poetry, including one of the finest meditations upon clandestine gayness, erotic obsession and separation, ‘As your eyes are blue’, which Jeremy Reed has described as ‘a love poem as important to its time as Shakespeare’s androgynously sexed sonnets were to his.’ In those days homosexuality was still illegal. In comparison, the straight love poem, ‘Summer’, demonstrates a similar erotic anxiety, though it can afford to be more graphic (though anatomically questionable, ‘length’ surely a masculinist measure of eroticism):
The damp heat
and discomfort of clothes, a tongue passing the length
of her clitoris … and back again …
erections in the musty pavilion. ( CP 41).
Indeed the explicitness is arguably an over-compensation for the restraint of the, otherwise better written, gay poems with their lack of gender markers, and their focus on detached parts of the body; ‘if only I could touch your naked shoulder’ could easily be read as non-gender specific. (CP 29)
The final ‘Blue Eyes’ poem, 'Landscape with 3 People’, while signalling separation and loss as much as earlier poems, is the first poem to adopt the more obvious narrative, even allegorical, mode that dominates the ‘The White Room (1966-67)’, replete with the mysterious menace that ghosts so many of Harwood’s fictions:
I loved him and I loved her
and no understanding was offered
to the first citizen
when the ricks were burnt (CP 50)
This large section reminds us that Harwood’s sheer output of the later 1960s and early 1970s is staggering. (One hundred and sixteen of the 500 pages were produced before he was 30.) More obvious exercises in a New York mode suggest Harwood was in danger of becoming a card-carrying member of an already fading avant-garde. The tragic death of O'Hara in 1966 might be thought emblematic of its demise, despite the rise of the genius of the second generation, Ted Berrigan. Harwood mirrors the insistent jocular name-checking and casual enjambment of the two poets:
Ted Berrigan has met Edwin Denby.
I don’t know anyone who’s met F.T. Prince.
I wish I could meet F.T. Prince;
maybe I will one day, but it will have to be soon
as he must be getting old. (CP 58)
Ironically, it was Prince – a stylish British poet much admired by Ashbery, and who Harwood did subsequently meet! – who issued the salutary warning that Harwood was ‘pattering on’. This led Harwood to realise the dangers of sheer production: ‘You get a tone of voice going, and it’s very elegant and witty … and then it comes out as yards of material which you just reel off’. (PI p 13) The best poems in The White Room show an opening of this range beyond standard second generation New York work into fictions about colonial vanity, military and naval disasters, outback life, the Wild West, the Muslim East - Harwood has spoken of these as our modern mythologies - and even about the nature of poetry itself. He matches an adherence to New York grace, while characteristically focusing on linguistic failure:
PLATO was right to banish
poets from the Republic. Once they try to go beyond the
colours and shapes, they only ever fail, miserably –
some more gracefully than others. (CP 96)
The influence of Borges’ strange narratives is evident too. Even some of these poems are rather long, and the danger of 'pattering on' was sharply dealt with by the next Fulcrum book, Landscapes (1969). Again the change of style or emphasis is prefigured by a single poem in the earlier volume, this time ‘When the Geography was Fixed’, which was originally featured in The White Room, as well as in Landscapes.
The section ‘Landscapes 1967’ is actually best read as (if not originally conceived of) as a sequence of eight poems that meditates dreamily upon the doubleness of its title: a landscape is a geographical term as well as the name of its artistic representation. The role of artifice is obvious in this interplay of nature and culture, erotic encounter and erotic representation. ‘When the Geography was Fixed’ plays on the conceit that ‘one woman in the gallery… liked the picture and somehow the delicate/ hues of her complexion were reflected in it’ (CP 100). This creates an ontological uncertainty, a sort of palimpsest world, which is an analogue for the mechanisms of consciousness and memory. (It may owe to O’Hara’s own poem of the erased canvas, ‘Oranges’.)
- you paint over the picture and start on
the new one but all the same it’s still there
beneath the fresh plains of colour (CP 108)
‘Landscapes’ is one of Harwood's finest achievements. In contrast, ‘The Picture Book 1968’ is a mixed bag. Its obsession with love and colonialism points towards the thematics of The Sinking Colony, while ‘The Coast 1968’, which was the final part of the Landscapes volume, points towards the stylistic fragmentation of that next Fulcrum book. Half lines and caesurae attempt a new semantic simplicity, while notions of heterosexual love as atomised body parts and the specifics of coastal geography merge to create stylistic complexity.
The whole outline called ‘geography’
meeting at a set of erotic points
lips shoulders breasts stomach
the town dissolves sex thighs legs (CP 125)
‘The Coast’ also announces Harwood’s partial removal to the actual coast, at Brighton, where he worked initially at Bill Butler’s underground Unicorn bookshop, though during these years he led a peripatetic life, taking on various temporary jobs from librarianship to forestry, between Brighton, London, Exeter, and Gloucestershire. His first marriage had broken up by this time.
The poems in ‘HMS Little Fox 1967-1968’ had to wait until 1975 for a larger volume (of that title) to appear. The closure of the important Fulcrum Press in 1973 by its founders, Stuart and Deirdre Montgomery (Stuart is a dedicatee of one poem), meant these poems appear displaced in Harwood’s publishing history. While this at once attests to the prodigious output of these years, the delay in publication may also derive from the fact that the poems obliquely record the ‘morbid masochism’ of the heroin addiction that had overtaken Harwood in these years. (CP 139) It was not just the geography that was ‘fixed’, to use a pun he opens up in the pointedly entitled and barely encoded ‘Chemical Days’:
‘The fix’ can only mean
the man with two blue flags who stands all day
on the cliff top. (CP 133)
His attempt to escape this ‘fix’ is charted most poignantly in ‘Love in the Organ Loft’, a poem dedicated to Marian (O’Dwyer). ‘Watching over my’ sleeping ‘love’ like one of Picasso’s minotaurs, the narrator fights not just the drug as he
double(s) my usual intake
to feel without compassion my brain wince
under chemical blows,
but the disjointed fictionalising that this evokes, or produces through confusion or hallucination:
I mean what is happening? – NOW! Do you see
what I mean? – like does the cathedral nestle
in the sky’s warm lap?....
This parable can be used for most things – think of a river … (CP 138)
This ‘almost indefinitely transferable allegory of “feeling”’ (to use Prynne’s term for this aspect of Harwood’s work) contrasts so much with the coterminous poems of ‘The Coast 1968’ that one must note this as the beginning of what Harwood later called a routine: ‘I can see my work does seem to swing this way; it’s a sort of puritan-cavalier routine. I suddenly wanted to cut the crap, and stop being a tap-dancer, and try to talk straight’ (PI p. 13), a stylistic oscillation between plainness and baroqueness, notational realism and elaborate fictiveness, a battle between the influence of Creeley and Olson on one hand, and Ashbery and Borges on the other. ‘Love in the Organ Loft’ explicitly equates the plain style with health and artifice with addiction, abjection, and evasion. More generally, there is another dichotomy at work within the ‘routine’. It is difficult not to see it sexualised as a dialectic between ‘straight’ talk (which, remember, is Harwood’s own word) and Ashberyean gay camp. Harwood’s term ‘swing this way’ echoes the (admittedly inaccurate) demotic marker of bisexuality: to swing both ways. Even amid the most baroque fiction, a telling line of straight talking has it: ‘I loved him and I loved her’ (CP 50). But then Harwood’s work is full of collapsing binaries. As he confesses in a recent interview, reversing the polarities of his writerly ‘routine’: ‘At times the personal is the fiction and the elaborate stories … are the real thing.’ These are not be the only times that one can observe a personal dimension behind what is represented by Harwood as stylistic preferences.
Despite the establishment of the puritan-cavalier oscillation, The Sinking Colony (the final Fulcrum book of 1971) experiments further with fragmentation, again resulting in one of Harwood’s great (but admittedly not characteristic) poems, ‘Animal Days’, another narrative of colonialism and erotic obsession. It is pared down, but not straight talking exactly, because it is a variety of cut up. Despite the inevitable nod towards the techniques of William Burroughs evoked by the term (and although Tzrara is often cited as the originator of this brutal form of collage) the model actually was Ashbery's collage poem ‘Europe’ from the controversial 1962 volume, The Tennis Court Oath, which has one section reading in its entirety: ‘I’m on my way to Hull/ grinned the girl.’ (135) Harwood's poem seems located anywhere but Europe, let alone Larkin’s Hull:
the indian chiefs
what are the wounds, anyway, and their cost?
In the morning everything is white
low clouds trail across the upper pastures
and the valley is thick with mist
‘sometimes their canoes only hollowed-out tree trunks’ (CP 150)
Fragmentation and collage seem suitable forms to evoke what a later colonial poem calls ‘confused longing’ amid such a world with its numbed calendars of pain. (CP 201) But in another poem, ‘Linen’, such intensely isolated shards of truncated utterance enable a gesture of readerly intervention, as if the reader could literally step into the silence and finish the job, although the poem emphatically ends with its own excessive double simile that belongs to ‘cavalier’ New York baroqueness (yet how odd they seem for the sensation of touching skin). We are invited to help the poem reach its figurative climax, but not to provide it, like a Hollywood fluffer.
touching you like the
and soft as
like the scent of flowers and
like an approaching festival
whose promise is failed through carelessness (CP 144)
‘The Big Chop 1969-1970’ (again delayed until 1975 when HMS Little Fox was published by the late Ian Robinson’s Oasis Books) attempts to meld the puritan-cavalier routine, but read in chronological sequence, it seems to contain exercises towards the large scale and major success of the next section ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-1972’, which Harwood himself called ‘the end product, the "flower" of my work to date’, so that ‘The Big Chop’ reads as ‘the roots of that work’ as Harwood put it. (dust jacket HMSLF) In its juxtaposition of poetry and prose (its generic insistence upon its notational quality), ‘The Long Black Veil’ picks up, slightly unexpectedly, on the experiments of ‘Cable Street’. Harwood’s philosophy of composition, his poetics, posits a hopeful ‘presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst - to somehow work together, be one’. (dust jacket HMSLF) Harwood also benefited from ‘an American permission’ (to use a phrase of Geoff Ward’s) to write long sequences, particularly from the influence of Olson’s The Maximus Poems. In its turn, ‘The Long Black Veil’ both influenced, and was influenced by, the contemporary British version of this ‘permission’, which was called ‘open field poetry’ and was proselytised by Eric Mottram and exemplified not only by Harwood’s work, but by projects like Allen Fisher’s contemporaneous Place (Book One). This was a mode that both authors would need eventually to surpass, as the technique of notational bare utterance upon the blank page, the invasion of lyric concision by quotation, page-space a kind of literal mapping, a guide to the territory of experience hinted at, became a fashion. In short, an enabling technique quickly became an imitative style. But the careful plural that Harwood places on ‘informations’, the reminder of complexity, suggests the gains initially to be had from this method. In an indirect passage of poetics within ‘The Long Black Veil’ Harwood writes (or mainly quotes):
The questions of complexity
On Gide’s death Mr. Forster said – ‘I realized more clearly how much he had got out of life, and had managed to transmit through his writings. Not life’s greatness – greatness is a nineteenth century perquisite, a Goethean job. But life’s complexity, and the delight, the difficulty, the duty of registering that complexity and of conveying it.’
The distinctions (CP 177)
This style or technique suited the restlessness that is both geographical (we pass from Brighton to California) and thematic. ‘The Long Black Veil’ borrows its title from a country and western song about loving ‘my best friend’s wife’. In an unpublished part of an interview Robert Creeley states: ‘(Lee and I) had a sad number at one point in the later sixties when my wife [Bobbie Louise Hawkins] and he had an intense and frustrated relation…. My wife and I were having extraordinary problems so it was hardly unusual. But she was very moved and drawn to him, and he likewise to her.’ This instability haunts the intense sparks of passion amid a (sometimes literal) ocean of separation: ‘you there/me here’. (CP 184) I have written (twice) elsewhere of this extraordinary poem.
In ‘Qasida Island (1971-72)’ this open field mode was put to good use in shorter tighter lyrics, particularly in the tri-partite poem ‘One Two Three’, with its clear invitation in title and final line (‘Now put it together’) for the reader to enter into the co-production of the utterance. (CP 201) Its openness is a gesture to the reader, different from the intended literal lacunae of ‘The Sinking Colony’ poems. By presenting narratives of gift-exchange, the exchanges of sexual passion and the stiffness of colonial rigeur, it asks the reader to relate all of its parts. It is a gesture of obligation to the reader to initiate an inventive response, the sort defined by Derek Attridge as when ‘the reader attempts to answer the work’s shaping of language by a new shaping of his or her own (which will in turn invite further responses),’ an image of the catalytic response Harwood has often attributed to acts of reading, and – more generally - to acts of social and political change (as I shall show):
Yes, I suppose, fascinated by the delicacy
of the piano part in the first movement
of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio
(‘he sighed… but real enough,
aesthetic coat-trailing aside.
The delight beyond the technicalities
- not pursuing, but there
to be recognised (CP 199)
The apocryphal pamphlet, Captain Harwood’s Log of Stern Statements and Stout Sayings, published in 1973 by Writers Forum, is largely a commonplace book of informations and quotations, mainly drawn from politics (Mussolini to Mao), Poundian modernism and the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination. While such a publication enjoyed only the limited distribution of a little press, it is worth remembering that in 1971 Harwood shared the pages of Penguin Modern Poets 19, with John Ashbery and Tom Raworth and ‘reach[ed] an even wider readership. Even my father had heard of this series,’ Harwood recalls. (Bio. 145) He was also included in a couple of widely-read Penguin anthologies, Michael Horovitz’ The Children of Albion (1969), a gathering of ‘underground’ poetry, and less tribally, Edward Lucie-Smith’s catholic first edition of his British Poetry Since 1945 (1970). (Harwood has, of course, been widely anthologised since.)
‘Boston to Brighton’, a section of the Collected, equates to a second Oasis book (called Boston-Brighton of 1977) but is divided into two parts. ‘Boston’ celebrates the city in the US where Harwood lived in 1972. It was also the home of his second wife, the photographer Jud Walker, whom he had met while a writer in residence at the Aegan School of Fine Arts in Paros, Greece, and whom he married in 1974. It ranges from an ironic found poem about Kennebunkport, (which is all informations) to bare lyric notations, but the two modes are not otherwise juxtaposed or, one it tempted to say, made complex, as they had been in ‘The Long Black Veil’. The second part, ‘Brighton (1973-77)’, celebrates the British city Harwood and Walker settled in, and where they had two children, Rafe, born 1977, and Rowan, born 1979. It includes the minimalist straight talking of ‘Chên’, derived from a reading of the I Ching:
or rather hoped for (CP 226)
It also includes a successor to ‘The Long Black Veil’, ‘Notes of a Post Office Clerk’. This extended text is only excerpted in The Collected, which suggests a measure of authorial dissatisfaction. Indeed, in 1993, Harwood himself called it ‘a worthy but dull attempt’. (Bio, 149) Harwood used the style of ‘Chên’ to develop the mappings of the earlier work (quite literally there are maps) of the Sussex coast where he lived and worked as a post office clerk, an occupation he carried out intermittently for 19 years.
Indeed, a sense of civic and family obligation pervades this period’s writings and partly accounts for their heavy literalism, their optimism in ‘clarity’. In ‘The Notes of a Post Office Clerk’ we read, that ‘now in England 1975’ there exists ‘a list of simple, practical, and just acts, /moves towards a real “socialism”’. (CP 253) That list was Harwood’s own political manifesto and, although excluded from the published poem, it appeared in full in a magazine publication of earlier drafts, advocating a fairly radical socialist equitable incomes and fiscal policy, major political reform and a utopian commitment towards catalytic social change, a hint of which survives into the published poem: ‘The steps that could change this, that could be taken now, open a few doors and windows, start the change that would produce changes as yet unknown.’ (CP 253)
During the mid to late 1970s, Harwood was actively involved in politics, as a union official and as a member of the Labour Party during its most radical years, now often derided, and he stood as a candidate in local elections (unsuccessfully). He was no more immediately successful as a member of the Poetry Society General Council, being drawn to negotiation as a strategy rather than conflict when the Arts Council began to object to the changes Bob Cobbing and others had spearheaded, after a radical take-over and make-over of the once moribund organisation. As fellow poet Elaine Randell said, ‘Along with Lee Harwood and Roy Fisher at that time, I personally felt that we could work within the constraints, that the money [for promoting radical poetics] was the important thing and that things would adapt if tempers and personalities calmed down.’ Such a hope was vain and all three, along with Harwood’s publisher Ian Robinson, suffered ostracization from certain quarters for not joining the walkout. The judgement of history may be on Harwood’s side. (Peter Barry’s forthcoming book The Poetry Wars, Salt, promises to open up this sore on the body poetic again, and threatens to have new things to say.)
The one exception to the stylistic austerity in Boston Brighton is the prose piece dedicated to Jud, entitled ‘Old Bosham Bird Watch’. Its opening
out of nothing comes...
nothing comes out of nothing
cut / switch to…. (CP 230)
suggests a recovered delight in language's ability to create ex nihilo, through fictions, through juxtaposition, though the details here are more domestic and local, less mythological, than those of the 1960s. The metaphor for erotic obsession and wider knowledge, as ever, is one of movement: ‘That I love you, we know this, parting the branches and ferns as we push on through the wood.’ (CP 231) The re-discovery of prose was to be crucially important for Harwood in the next few years.
Next month this review continues with a look at the emergence of the mature Lee Harwood. Read it here.