Monday, September 04, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Behind Blue Eyes: John Ashbery and Lee Harwood

John Ashbery and Lee Harwood in 1965

Lee Harwood’s first book-length publication in Britain was The White Room (1968), published by Fulcrum Books. The section collecting the poems from The Man with Blue Eyes, his award-winning New York publication, which appeared from Lewis Warsh’s and Anne Waldman’s Angel Hair Books in 1966, opens with Harwood’s first mature poem, ‘As Your Eyes are Blue’, dating from 1965; while it is influenced by the New York school of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, a good many of the salient features of Harwood’s subsequent work are also displayed here. (I analyse it elsewhere.) In a short piece Harwood recalls the US volume from which the poem came, and seamlessly moves from outlining influences, including Ashbery, to outlining his own Ashberyan poetics:

There was Tzara, Dada, shaking language up, piling things up, which I’d never seen done before. And Borges - where he writes stories which pull you in, and then he pulls the rug from under your feet. So you’re continually not sure, and you’re having to think it through yourself, so that you are always involved in these processes.I had all that to feed into, but I couldn’t use it effectively in my own writing. And then in the mid-sixties, meeting John Ashbery, suddenly it clicked into place with his approach to writing: that idea of creating a text which is meant for other people to use, and where the ‘I’ and ‘you’ and all that, were floating and shifting around. As Ashbery said in that 1972 interview in the New York Quarterly: ‘The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. “You” can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I’m addressing, and so can “he” and “she” for that matter and “we”, sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn’t really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what’s the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry which I again feel is means toward greater naturalism.’

‘As Your Eyes are Blue’ is a love lyric, addressed from a shadowy ‘I’ to an insistently addressed ‘you’; gender is unspecified, but certain clues suggest the poem is a covert homoerotic lyric. Hesitancy and textual discontinuity are both evident in broken utterance and syntactic rupture from the start.
The earlier gay lyrics in ‘Early Work’, ‘This morning’, for instance, inaugurate a theme of erotic longing at forced separation that haunts the entire oeuvre: ‘the pain of my leaving/ and my love for you’. This intensifies in ‘The Man with Blue Eyes’, the second section of The White Room, which heralded Harwood’s arrival in New York, thus initiating a transatlantic exchange that continued all of his life. An erotic liaison with John Ashbery (who he met in Paris in 1965), and a more general literary engagement with the New York poetry scene, engendered some of this deeply felt love poetry, including the one I mention above, 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’. During ‘its time’ homosexual acts were illegal, of course, something we are aware of in this 50th anniversary of decriminalisation. Note the restraint of the gay poems, not just with their lack of gender markers, but in their focus on detached parts of the body; ‘if only I could touch your naked shoulder’ could easily be read as non-gender specific, or as heterosexual by default, although like Polari (Lee was a great fan of Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne) it signifies to those ‘in the know’.
Harwood’s output of the 1960s is prodigious; 116 pages of the 500 pages of his Collected Poems were produced before he turned 30, in 1969. Exercises in extended New York mode suggest Harwood was in danger of becoming a card-carrying member of an already fading avant-garde. The death of Frank O’Hara in 1966 might be thought emblematic of its demise, despite the rise of the genius of the second generation, Ted Berrigan, and – in the 1970s – Ashbery’s rise to fame. (It’s difficult to remember a time when nobody was interested: but the 1970 Penguin Modern Poets, with Ashbery, Harwood and Tom Raworth rubbing shoulders, was a pariah volume in its day!) Harwood mirrors the insistent jocular name-checking, as well as the casual enjambment, of the school, but utters a longing for a British precursor, F.T. Prince:

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.

Ironically, it was Prince – a stylish British poet admired by Ashbery – who issued the warning (when they did meet) that Harwood was ‘pattering on’. Harwood realised the danger: ‘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.’ This account is, however, slightly reductive. The best poems in The White Room extend their range beyond standard 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 modern mythologies - and even about the nature of poetry itself. Poets, characteristically for Harwood, ‘only ever fail, miserably –/ some more gracefully than others’, which is at least a better credo than the bitter Beckettian one of failing better, I feel, with the inclusion of that camp ‘grace’.  
One later work, The Sinking Colony, is a poem which offers up those British certainties to a textual disruption so great that they begin to turn into their opposites, into pastoral or romance, while yet the terror still pervades the text, the worse for being undefined. It is almost as although the words are punctuating silence, or scissored page space; it was influenced specifically by Ashbery’s collage ‘Europe’, a text which has tended to embarrass critics who want to turn him into a Wallace Stevens for our time. So in a sense, Lee followed the wrong John Ashbery.
But I also remember Lee Harwood being asked at a reading (somebody must have read an Ashbery poem) why there were narcissi in both poems (from the mid-1960s). Lee answered, ‘We were looking at the same landscape,’ which suggests the immediacy of the writing collaboration.
I only met Ashbery once, and for a brief moment, before a reading was about to begin: I had barely enough time to clock those blue eyes.

Robert Sheppard

PS This piece is a bitzer put together for the occasion but Ollie Hazzard has considered the Ashbery-Harwood (and Prince) nexus in more detail here:

My review of Lee Harwood's Collected Poems in two parts here and here. On later works here; on recent works here. And an earlier gift to him here. A later 'Laugh' with Lee Harwood may be read here.

Access obituaries here. And news of the British Library Harwood Archive here. And a piece i.m. here.