The poet steamed

Iain Sinclair

  • Collected Poems by Tom Raworth
    Carcanet, 576 pp, £16.95, February 2003, ISBN 1 85754 624 5
  • Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth edited by Nate Dorward
    The Gig, 288 pp, £15.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 9685294 3 7

Tom Raworth, according to Marjorie Perloff, is the ‘oldest living open-heart surgery survivor, treated in the UK in the first round of heart operations conducted there in the 1950s’. Highlight the ‘survivor’ bit. The last poet left standing in the saloon. (Think Gregory Peck in Henry King’s The Gunfighter. Grave moustache succumbing to gravity.) Many myths surround the man, among enthusiasts, cultists and close readers, and this has always been one of them: Raworth is unwell but never incapacitated. The moustache may be a little greyer than the version flourished in early snapshots – the cover of A Serial Biography, the Barry Flanagan etching from Act – but this is still the same mouth, the same disguise. The same bite. The lights are on and there is somebody at home. The speed of eye/ear/mind remains, absolutely, that of a particle accelerator. Heart is everything: the contrary of cash. ‘money talks,’ Raworth asserts. ‘i just don’t understand.’ He often writes – and at public readings always performs – in lower case. The delivery is so swift you don’t notice the tremble in the air until later, when the grenade goes off. Statements coming at you, one after another, without qualification or hierarchy. Parataxis, the late-explainers call it. No flimflam. Don’t wink at the camera until the camera winks back.

Ben Watson, a contributor, like Perloff, to Removed for Further Study (a clutch of bright-eyed and slightly foxed Raworth exegetists, decent folk who are well aware that they are probably talking to themselves), fingers Raworth as ‘a teddy-boy Modernist’. This is pretty good, reminding us that the story goes way back, long before the poet’s emergence in the 1960s with a succession of crafted and customised books, objects so desirable (so distant now) that, in memory, they seem edible. The smell of quality glue. Sour-cream paper with a tidemark like an invisible tattoo: the sacred papyrus of the state-sponsored leisured classes, students, ex-students, dole bandits and freeloaders with the habit of literacy. Young lecturers, intense in leather jackets, peddled Raworth. ‘Read Raworth and Harwood,’ they said. ‘They’re the best we have.’ And there they were, Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood, linked in a Penguin, like Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn before them, markers for a generation. So where did it all go wrong? (Not for the poets, for us.)

Raworth’s first proper book, The Relation Ship, was published by his own Goliard Press in 1967. Three illustrations by Barry Hall. ‘Off-set printed, then blind-embossed and hand-coloured by the artist’. Four hundred and fifty copies hard-bound. ‘Ivory-tinted Glastonbury antique-laid paper’. Hairy boards (like one of Sonny Bono’s Flintstone-style waistcoats) and a tissue jacket. What did that book cost? The price of a Styrofoam bucket of Starbucks coffee-type coffee? Moving, from Cape Goliard in 1971, still had the look: Joe Brainard illustrations and a reproduced Camel cigarette packet: ‘from use’. The full works – chocolate-brown cloth, Brainard dustwrapper, author photo (flat cap, jeans, sandals, thumbs-hooked-in-belt) – yours for £1.50. Shamefully good value. You owed it to the poet to make a decent fist of reading the thing. Now, in an era of cut-throat discounts, peel-away stickers, promotional windows paid for by publishers, poetry is an obligation. An early Raworth was just what it said it was: an exhibition of itself. Fifty or so pages of the poet’s time.

My own Raworth addiction, let’s get that out of the way, goes back to the start (mine as reader, his as writer): Better Books in Charing Cross Road (a shop managed by poets, Lee Harwood, Bob Cobbing), then Indica in Southampton Row (managed by Barry Miles), and, finally, the last rites for serious poetry-grazing, Compendium in Camden Town (Nick Kimberley, Mike Hart). The system worked. The managers knew what they had and knew what to recommend. They took poetry books from obscure presses (run by poets) as trade. No money changed hands. Three of my titles for one of yours.

‘Manner,’ Ed Dorn says in his extensive jacket-notes to Raworth’s only published novel, A Serial Biography, ‘is what the English have had and what they have largely become. Detail is for instance death to the American tongue.’ Manner and class, bedevilling our screens with Evelyn Waugh revisions and soapy TV scrapings from the heritage catalogue (country houses, clothes that fit too well), is no part of Raworth’s remit. He’s all detail, all darting quickness. Drainpipe trousers, winklepickers and the sod-you edge of the premature suburban Mod. Raworth, uniquely, is both Ted and Mod: the rock’n’roll romanticism of Jack Kerouac with the unblinking stamina of the Soho cruiser; jazz and flash tailoring. ‘I learned to always strike the first blow when the tension mounts . . . and once that’s done, to never relax the pressure.’ Too much time on railway platforms, an Evergreen Review in the raincoat pocket (the San Francisco issue). ‘Eating methedrine tablets by the handful and weighing 120 lbs.’

It soon became apparent that Raworth wrote some of the best prose on the shelf; that his books, even before A Serial Biography, which masqueraded for marketing purposes as a ‘first novel’, were terse fictions, novels without the fuss. ‘The instinctive pronominal multiplicity of experience running thru the field of sense. Everybody is him.’ (Dorn again.) Saccharine consolations of narrative, what-happens-next, were not what Raworth did. (‘The narrative line,’ he wrote, ‘is only as boring/as what’s hung on it.’) Everybody is him: I/he/they. Everything is happening now, memories, overlapping lines of quoted and misquoted film dialogue, a replayed and perhaps revised childhood and adolescence: the ‘continuous present’. So there are narratives within narratives: a sticky assignation with a German au pair, a stolen lorryload of scrap, something happening in Spain. And the author walking towards it, always moving forward, towards whatever it is that is coming, the small crisis:

From the hill the road sloped down and to the right. A dark grey bird with an orange beak skimmed across, paused on a wooden fence, shat, then continued its curve as the blob fell. All the way on the tube he kept thinking of the line ‘And we walk through the valley of fables where the eagles lie.’ It was going to rain. The colours of the flowers hurt his eyes.

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