Saturday, December 12, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Commitment to Openness (Roy Fisher, Harwood, Raworth)


Roy Fisher: Poems 1955-1987, Oxford University Press.

Lee Harwood: Crossing the Frozen River: Selected poems, Grafton Paperback.

Lee Harwood: Rope Boy to the Rescue, North and South.

Tom Raworth: Tottering State: Selected poems 1963-1987, Grafton Paperback.

When a comprehensive literary history of late twentieth-century British poetry is undertaken, it will have to take account of various writers who have not conformed to the still dominant norms offered by the Movement.  Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth have all refused the orthodoxy; each has a commitment to a poetry that emphasises its own procedures, which explores reality in language, rather than through it.  Writing, for them, need not be tied to realism or social perspectives; to varying degrees, they have felt obliged to break the paradigms that generally define what poetry will be, and have not been afraid to assimilate European and American modernism.

Roy Fisher’s work has been acknowledged as some of the best of the last thirty years, though so often in partial accounts that hint at, or openly regret, his formalism  while comfortably concentrating on his ‘English’ empiricism.  His writing encompasses the Angst-ridden perceptual realism of City, and the surreal prose narrative, The Ship’s Orchestra.  The essential point is that what generates the brilliance of Fisher’s writing is precisely that tension between formalism and realism, experiment and empiricism.  Poems 1955-1987 is an expanded, paperback version of Poems 1955-1980.  Despite Fisher’s identification of the poet as a ‘spy’ or, less subversively, as a ‘witness’, what has developed in the twenty-four new poems printed here is an anecdotal ‘voice’, even if it is distanced, as in the humorous ‘The Lesson in Composition’: ‘I could feel slighted / knowing my own work hardly ever mentions me, except / by way of some stiff joke like this one.’

This section contains some of Fisher’s finest poems, some of which extend or re-examine previous successes.  In ‘The Home Pianist’s Companion’, Fisher takes the same attitude to involuntary memory as in the terse lyrics of the 1970s.  He still avoids the ‘comforts’ of a falsifying nostalgia, but he allows himself a more discursive explanation of the processes of association experienced while playing the piano.  He reflects on the value of early childhood memories, a value which combines the surprise of specific details with the anarchy of memory’s unpredictable realignments:

reminding me

what it was like to be sure,

before language ever

taught me they were different,

of how some things were the same.

In Lee Harwood’s Crossing the Frozen River there is also a productive tension: between his desire to write as simply and honestly as possible and his taste for baroque and fictive.  This collection shows the excellence of his best work and the diversity of its attempts to delight the attentive reader.  Early poems tinged reality with dream, in a controlled surrealism that is still present beneath the most elaborately constructed of his later fictions.  The ‘voice’ is so frequently that ghostly presence, the fictional narrator.

Harwood’s aim is to leave the text open, to enable his readers to participate in its creation of meaning, to force them to make connections between disparate fragments.  This, combined with his eroticism and concern for the meaning of human relationships, makes for a poetry at once distanced and intimate, unique in British poetry.

holding a young rabbit in my hands

walking across the stubble in the late afternoon

soft fur                           shocking like the heart-beat

the dark river                                and angry knights milling

in the courtyard

setting it free in a hawthorn thicket

safe from the dogs

at night the land so bare                             ‘rustles’

‘They have no tradition of keeping their colonies neat.’

‘I care for that woman’ the song began

This style culminated in the expansiveness and openness of the book’s longest text, ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-1972’.  Since then the juxtapositions have become less abrupt.  The ‘assorted stories’ of ‘Dream Quilt’ are presented in a wide-ranging sequence that still requires the reader to assemble the sum of its parts.  In his latest poems - and there are more in Rope Boy to the Rescue - there is a new romanticism that, in the imaginary ‘song cycle’, ‘Gyorgy Kurtag meets Sandy Berrigan’, achieves a lyrical combination of directness and artifice: ‘Naked heart to heart could warm us, / yet my fears, our fears, freeze us.’

Tom Raworth’s poetic iconoclasm has been total.  From the start, his refusal of certain conventions of artifice and his invention of new ones has caused his extraordinary work to be neglected in Britain, a state of affairs now happily rectified by the publication of Tottering State.  Early poems were often a combination of Olsonian projectivism and a surrealistic concentration on the quirkiest of everyday perceptions that normally remain unsorted by our minds.  The poems are not afraid to refer to themselves, or to delete or revise themselves, though always with Raworth’s mercurial wit.

Recently Raworth has favoured long poems of short (even one word) lines, as in Writing and ‘West Wind’.  Like subliminal messages on film, the lines flicker past the reading eye: the sudden jumps in point of view and discourse are alarmingly unpredictable.  As in Harwood’s work, the reader has an active role to play, though here it is constantly to revise deductions and predictions, each poem a ‘tottering state’ of referential acrobatics:

‘beware of the bomb’

nailed to our fence

a little

skeleton rattling

the romance

of the politics

of romance


a muscle remembers

saved by the breaks


of black spider motion

All three of these writers exemplify the best of a certain tradition in British poetry.  Raworth’s work, with its energetic juxtapositions, points to where that tradition might be heading.

1989                                                           Times Literary Supplement, 10 March 1989

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.