Toss the monkey wrench
- Collected Poems by Lee Harwood
Shearsman, 522 pp, £17.95, May 2004, ISBN 0 907562 40 X
Fulcrum Press, a small poetry publisher, operated out of 20 Fitzroy Square in London between 1965 and 1972. I don’t know of a more important or influential publisher of poetry in recent history, or one which achieved so much in so narrow a window of time. The press was founded by a 26-year-old physician-poet from what was then Rhodesia called Stuart Montgomery, the author of a remarkable long poem entitled Circe, adapted loosely from the Odyssey and clearly influenced by Basil Bunting. If Fulcrum had achieved nothing else, the publication of Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts in 1966 and his Collected Poems in 1968 would have secured its importance. But the Bunting books were only two of more than thirty volumes of adventurous and neglected poetry in the late Modernist tradition from both sides of the Atlantic.
Of the Americans, Fulcrum published three volumes each by Edward Dorn and Gary Snyder, the early work, which has proved to be their best and most enduring. Fulcrum also published two important early collections by Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg’s Ankor Wat and, most significantly, two volumes by Lorine Niedecker, North Central and My Life by Water, and George Oppen’s Collected Poetry. Of British poets, apart from Bunting, Montgomery published four collections by Roy Fisher, one by Ian Hamilton Finlay, David Jones’s The Tribune’s Visitation, an early collection by Christopher Middleton, and three by Lee Harwood.
The publishing provenance of an outsider poet like Harwood can tell you a lot about his work: Fulcrum, Oasis Books, Pig Press, Galloping Dog, Paladin, Slow Dancer, North and South, Leafe Press, Shearsman. These small presses sustained the best of British (as well as some American) poetry during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Without them British poetry would be unspeakably dreary – as it was, for the most part, before the explosion of small publishers in the 1960s. The one anomaly in Harwood’s bibliography is his inclusion, along with John Ashbery and Tom Raworth, in Volume 19 of the Penguin Modern Poets series, published in 1971. The groupings that Penguin came up with in this admirable series tended to be hit or miss. But the combination of Ashbery, Harwood and Raworth is an interesting one. At the time they would have seemed rather similar, not least by virtue of their strangeness, difficulty, exotic un-Englishness – their assertive avant-gardeness.
However unwelcome it sometimes seems to have been, Raworth and Harwood’s work shows that Modernism did wash up in brackish deposits here and there on Britain’s shores, and that it mated with nativist traditions to produce unpredictable, often eccentric, and sometimes remarkably hardy offspring. Harwood’s literary influences are a curious melange, as these Anglo-Modernist hybridisations tend to be:
I think I was in my teens very influenced by Pound – his real precision and the clarity of the pictures he created, and then a year or so later it was the structure of his Cantos that gave me a green light. The collage technique seems to provide a so much more accurate picture of how the world works – a weave of conversations and ideas and history and all the interruptions and half-said bits . . . Then my discovery of Tzara – I’d never seen anyone do such things with language before, such freedom and such an apparently illogical force that really works and has clear emotions that hit some deeper resonances in us. There too the use of collage. And then of course with the beginning of the 1960s there was all the more recent American poetry. O’Hara, yes. But John Ashbery was really pivotal for me in shifting from what I now consider as verse to writing poetry. It wasn’t so much his writing – though I did love his tone of voice and his style (as a man) – but that he showed me how writing was like creating a world (like a toy theatre, like a Cornell box) that a reader is invited to enter, wander around in, and add their own two cents to.
Harwood is fond of using stories in his poems, stories that are often rather like fables, and loom up out of nowhere in poems which appear to be about something completely unrelated. Quotations, too, appear throughout his work, often again with no apparent connection to what has preceded them or comes after. Natural history writers such as Gilbert White are of particular importance to Harwood, whose territory ranges freely from cities and dream-like landscapes to the South Downs of Sussex and the mountains of North Wales, places often treated in a straightforward, naturalistic vein. Sometimes, however, elements of the above – or all the above – are blended, resulting in poetry that approximates the strange or extreme dislocations and transitions of dream life.
these hot afternoons ‘it’s quite absurd’ she whispered
sunlight stirring her cotton dress inside the darkness when
an afternoon room crashed not breaking a bone or flower.
a list of cities crumbled under riots and distant gunfire
yet the stone buildings sparkle. It is not only
the artificial lakes in the parks . . . perhaps . . .
but various illusions of belonging fall
with equal noise and regularity
how could they know, the office girls as well
‘fancy falling for him . . .’ and inherit a sickness
such legs fat and voluptuous . . . smiling to himself
the length of train journeys
I suspect that Ashbery, whose work appeared beside Harwood’s in that volume of Penguin Modern Poets, made the greatest impression on Harwood. But if Harwood reminded people of Ashbery in 1971, I doubt he would now. Ashbery is far more polished, and a good deal more playful. His poetry has a distinctive and brilliant deadpan humour, which more often than not works its trick by sending up stale locutions or the detritus of pop culture. Ashbery is by far the more abstract poet, and while his poems take many unpredictable, often breathtaking turns, they have a beginning and an end, and even at their most brilliant and unpredictable are beautifully made objects, emotionally chilly. His poetry never risks getting caught out as being less than masterfully assembled: it is all deft stunts, elegant feints at engaging subject-matter head on.
Harwood’s poetry, on the other hand, is all about risk and getting caught out. And much of it fails in the way Ashbery’s never does. When a poem is beginning to turn beguilingly pretty, he tosses a monkey wrench into it:
To walk out one January morning across the Downs
a low mist on the hills and the furrows coated with frost,
the dew ponds iced up.
The cold dry air.
And the sudden excitement when a flock of partridges starts up
in front of you and whirrs off and down to the left,
skimming the freshly ploughed fields.
‘O ma blessure’ groan the trees
with the wounds of a multitude of small boys’ penknives.
No, not that –
but the land, the musics, the books
amongst the foolish rush and scramble for vainglory,
talk or noise for its own sake, a semblance of energy
but not necessity.
Throw your cap in the air, get on your bike, and pedal off
down hill – it’s a joy with no need of chatter,
(‘A Poem for Writers’)
Harwood, like Ashbery and Raworth, is discursive and disjunctive in the extreme, which is one reason the three were grouped together in the Penguin collection, but they are discursive and disjunctive in different ways. Raworth’s poems, for example, are wound much tighter than Harwood’s or Ashbery’s, the transitions between semantic units more violent and abrupt. Raworth is more extreme in his resistance to expectation. He is difficult. Ashbery is not especially difficult, except in his more abstract poetry. He is interested in design: the trajectories and contrails of meaning generate arabesques, much as a performer twirls coloured handkerchiefs. The thing to watch for, his best trick, is the insertion of something poignant amid the dizzying spectacle, thus sandbagging the reader. But this effect is usually well disguised.
Harwood’s poetry proceeds at a deliberate, even tentative pace, accumulating observations in order to create an atmosphere and then detouring inexplicably (he and Ashbery are poets of atmosphere, but atmosphere disrupted). It can be as unsettling as it is intriguing when Harwood suddenly seems to lose interest and changes tack, moving to a quotation or list or an apostrophe to a friend or lover, another writer, or often the reader.
you know even in the stillness of my kiss
that doors are opening in another apartment
on the other side of town a shepherd grazing
his sheep through a village we know
high in the mountains the ski slopes thick with summer flowers
and the water-meadows below with narcissi
the back of your hand and –
a newly designed red bus drives quietly down Gower Street
a brilliant red ‘how could I tell you . . .’
with such confusion
and a general lack of purpose only too obvious
in the affairs of state
‘yes, it was on a hot july day
with taxis gunning their motors on the throughway
a listless silence in the backrooms of paris bookshops
why bother one thing equal to another
dinner parties whose grandeur stops all conversation
(‘As your eyes are blue . . .’)
He also switches from verse to prose and sometimes back again. His poetry dwells somewhere between the two, though much of the work in his Collected is prose poetry. When Harwood does use the verse line, the breaks seem intended primarily to separate or highlight semantic units or to encourage pauses. He often separates out words or phrases within a line to achieve this effect.
As dawn breaks
and make love
againthe sky grey outside
and the birds singing
The sun comes up
You rise and make coffee
The woods so green
We go back to bed and
I can hear your footsteps
going about the house
swhile I sit by the window
of this upstairs room
The diction is plain as store-bought bread. In fact, he is austere with regard to all poetic effects. He is determined not to let heightened language or figuration cloud what he needs to tell us, or what he needs us to find out. Harwood’s is a real heuristic poetry, not merely in love with the notion of the heuristic, and is thus filled with false starts and dead ends.
The voice, like the one Harwood admired early on in Borges, is both impersonal and distinctly his own. It has a childish sense of wonderment about it, both strange and affecting, haunted. It allows Harwood to say things most writers would be unable to say in a poem without sounding ridiculous, like: ‘I’m so happy’ or ‘I love you so much.’
When I say ‘I love you’ – that means
something. And what’s in the past
I don’t know anymore – it was all ice-skating.
(‘When the geography was fixed’)
In the introduction to his friend’s selected poems, Crossing the Frozen River (1988), Ashbery writes that Harwood’s language ‘has a pearly, soft-focus quality one rarely sees in American poetry, and which I associate with poets like Wordsworth and Arnold. The “great poetry” I like best has this self-effacing, translucent quality. Self-effacing not from modesty but because it is going somewhere and has no time to consider itself.’
Harwood has spent his life going from job to job: forester, librarian, bus conductor, postal worker, train porter. He lived out here in the Bay Area in the 1980s and worked as a tree surgeon. In fact, he trimmed my palmetto, releasing, from among the dead fronds, an avalanche of petrified birdshit, which turned the poet temporarily an impastoed white. His work, since the Penguin gathering, has been largely neglected, kept alive by small magazines and small presses, notably Pig Press in Durham, run by the late Ric Caddel, which published four volumes of his poetry in the 1970s and 1980s in strikingly handsome editions. Harwood’s other grand passion has been mountaineering. I don’t suppose that should be surprising in one who enjoys risk and happening on unforeseen vantages. I should think it an excellent pursuit for a poet, if only one had his courage and skill.