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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Robert Sheppard: On Tom Raworth: The Speed of Writing and the Poetics of What is to One Side (IM TR 3)

In 1989 Tom Raworth commented on the focus and purpose of his poetry:

At the back there is always the hope that there are other people ... other minds, who will recognize something that they thought was to one side or not real. I hope that my poems will show them that it is real, that it does exist.’

The implications of this poetics is felt throughout his work. But during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Raworth seems to have been working through, at times in quite a tortured way, the implications of wishing to expand his range, in serial texts that became less immediately phenomenological and more imbedded in the language as it is produced. They are more meditative, more logopoetic, in Pound's sense, of the intellect moving among words. They are at once more self-referential, and self-definitional. ‘Tracking (notes)’ states




This questions the assumptions ordinarily placed upon the plural personal pronoun, the important verb ‘to be’, and upon the nature of time. The last of these haunts a number of these works of the early 1970s, not least of all because spontaneity and process raise issues about temporality. The poem seems to be asking where ‘are we now?’ an issue that pervades the prose passages, in more social and aesthetic terms:

things of your time are influenced by the past. the artist can only go on from there and see the situation as it is: anything else is distortion.....i stick with de Kooning saying ‘i influence the past’ - and it is not important for the work of a time to be available in the mass media of its time: think of dickens on film, dostoyevsky on radio.

The past is only activated by, realized in, the present (‘what's done/is’ as another of the brief poems has it). Raworth reverses, and makes egalitarian, Pound's notion that artists are the ‘antennae of the race’, not in some reductive suggestion that everybody is an artist, but that the required nature of education is to open everybody to the age's aesthetic messages, whatever the medium:

within everyone is an antenna sensitive to the messages of the time: art is beamed to these antennae. education should tune them : instead they are smothered with phony ‘learning’. the past has no messages (yes it has - whispering smith’s harmonica and a dog howling in the night).

Characteristically, Raworth cancels his own arrogance when it threatens to elevate the ‘now’; the non-Proustian anti-epiphany of the narrator’s memory is comic but decisive. We also face a revision of his earlier insistence upon the intuitive as against the intellectual (or intelligence), as long as we recall that inert factual learning, or research, is different from the vitality of the ‘beamed’ art.

not rejecting knowledge but what (as in research) passes for knowledge and is but an illusion. the words (knowledge, intelligent etc.) must be redefined, or new words coined.

In a slightly later sequence, ‘The Conscience of a Conservative’, one section reads:

but not

The ironic impossibility of imagining a state of non-knowing without some knowledge of the imaginary and of the concept of being is not stated but felt in the segmented lineation. Amid these ‘snapshots that are interiorized both in their presentation of experience and their dissection of the phrase or even the single word’, as Geoffrey Ward puts it, the prose meditations on poetics implicitly demonstrate the inadequacy of the notational mode which they interrupt. They interrogate the difficulties of poetic expression in a world in which the discursive is undercut by the speed of contemporary technology and in which development of ideas is replaced by immediacy of image. Yet even the famous ideogrammic method of the juxtaposition of fragments, of Pound, which serves Lee Harwood well in The Long Black Veil, for example, is rejected:

the connections (or connectives) no longer work - so how to build the long poem everyone is straining for? (the synopsis is enough for a quick mind now (result of film?) you can't pad out the book).

That celerity and quickness might be part of the answer rather than the problem for Raworth is intuited:

                        all week I’ve (week) felt
                        the speed of writing
                        explanation rejects my advance

Practice, this implies, outstrips explanatory poetics (if there can be such a thing) but it also recognizes that velocity as a scriptural equivalent of mental celerity might ground the poetics of what is to one side.


I have written critically of Tom's work a great deal but here's a relaxed take on his extraordinary 14 liners, written after the work discussed above.

See also from my abandoned novel Thelma here which features Tom Raworth as a character, and my 1999 poem for him, posted I.M. here