Saturday, August 22, 2015

Robert Sheppard: A Laugh with Lee Harwood

This little talk was delivered at the ‘Wine, Canapés and Laughter’ afternoon to celebrate the life of Lee Harwood, organised by his children Rafe and Rowan, in Brighton on 20th August 2015. There were about 130 people present, an alarming number of them poets. 

Friends of Lee Harwood

I want you to imagine Lee sitting alone at any desk you imagine him sitting at, late at night, a recently poured and quite decent glass of single malt to hand, and his finger poised over the controls of a CD player. When he is ready, perhaps a sip or two in, he releases the sound and sits back to savour the experience.

What do you imagine he will hear? Erik Satie? Thelonious Monk? Some unpronounceable Greek diva foisted on him by Kelvin Corcoran!?

No; it’s an old BBC recording of Listen with Mother. As the programme progresses, Lee smiles, chuckles, and finally is roaring with laughter, at this partly nostalgic, partly camp, but wholly comic, reprise of the radiophonic simplicities (or sublimities) of the 1950s. He will continue laughing long after the CD finishes. Let us leave him there, ‘sitting comfortably’, full of mirth, and perhaps contemplating a second malt.

Lee smiling

Laughter –this afternoon’s elected purpose – runs in the family. The last time I read with Lee was at a Blue Bus reading in London a couple of years ago. Rowan was there. Some way into my reading she started to laugh. In the interval I asked her what she was laughing at. She replied that she suddenly noticed that Lee and I were both wearing what I think she called ‘the poets’ uniform’, since we were – Lee more elegantly than I, of course – in almost identical blue shirts and blue jeans. That’s why I adopted this outlandish motley this afternoon. [Indicates self and points at Rafe Harwood similarly attired, though he with Harwoodian waste-coat.]

I have many memories of Lee as a friend, but most obdurately refuse to come to the surface for rediffusion. They are in denial. So it is best that I turn to my role as a critic of his work, but even this is replete with personal association. In December, I posted this unexpected and complex aside on my blog (from this post):
I had a strange thought working on Lee Harwood's work: during the time I write about him, I kind of feel that I am in communication with the man himself. I mean this literally. In periods of work I don't feel the necessity to phone him or write to him, and it's a surprise to find that I haven't, because I feel it's already happening. Perhaps it's a personal by-product of an effect William Rowe describes in his Three Lyric Poets: 'When Harwood explores intimacies of feeling almost too delicate for the voice to sustain, he deploys the hesitancies and gaps of everyday speech, the places where meaning breaks down into the sheer lapse of lived time.’ (p. 7)

The piece I was writing I call ‘The Gentle Art of Collage’. I’ve been rightly admonished by Peter Robinson for saying that Lee’s poetry forces the reader to co-create it, and my title is my way of atoning for this misattribution of coercion to the poetics of gentle persuasion.

I want to finish by reading a poem that I have often used – and Robert Hampson tells me he’s also used – to demonstrate as many Harwoodian qualities as possible in one poem. Extended in its title, ‘One, Two, Three’ is an invitation to the reader to gently assemble its 3 parts, and in it last line to assemble the elements of each part.

Lee used to refer to this poem as ‘that poem you seem to like’, as though he wasn’t convinced of its qualities (or mine!), but to me it perfectly articulates a unique set of contrasts that Lee himself called his ‘puritan-cavalier routine’. Between intimacy of address and distance from the separated other; between the seductions of artifice and the realities of the life-world; between focussed detail and sudden jumps and gentle juxtapositions; and in particular, in this poem, between historical knowledge and present experience, between horror and delight.

Are you sitting – standing – comfortably? Then I’ll begin….

[then I read 'One, Two, Three', a poem easily found in Selecteds and the Collected
Robert Sheppard 20th August 2015

Tom Raworth was mainly outside the building - I was inside! - but took some photographs: here. And here.

My i.m. with links to other Lee Harwood posts may be read here. Nicholas Johnson's obits may be accessed here.

Poems i.m. may be read here. And others here.