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.

Compare and contrast Raworth’s bird with the anachronistic London sparrow (gone, vanished) which puts in a rather showy appearance in the opening sequence of Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog. Amis is working so hard, as is the sparrow, to be live, engaging, on-the-money; the throwaway charm is so affected, so sub-Keatsian, that the inevitable violence that follows makes for a very pretty natural break. ‘A sparrow, a feathered creature of the middle air, hopped onto the bench beside him and, with eerie docility, began to ventilate itself, allowing its wings to thrum and purr, six inches away.’ Good, yes? But too much of a stand-out cameo, a guest star ‘bit’. The Amis sparrow is significant where Raworth’s generic ‘bird’ behaves in its curious way and flies, immediately and without waiting for applause, out of the story. There is much more to tell. Amis can’t leave the canal fauna alone, the nature stuff of Camden. There is a minatory ‘dead duck, head down with its feet sticking up like the arms of a pair of spectacles’. Another vivid aperçu (stopping the drift), like . . . like . . . a well-turned simile from a Martian verse-maker. Raworth and those who have learned from him don’t do similes. Similes diminish narrative integrity by suggesting that this work, this map, is not in itself convincing, or true, and that a parallel world of unsubstantiated ‘likeness’ runs alongside. The simile says: applaud my wit. And, from my prejudiced POV, the fault-line in English culture, poetry v. prose, poetry v. poetry, begins here. Amis is being misread by critics looking for something he doesn’t deliver. He’s not doing realism, telling us about urban life; he’s revising Scoop for the Sunday Sport. A house-broken Martin Rowson cartoon laid out in discrete panels: royals, celebrity arm-breakers, wankers, bad-news TV. An interestingly retro form, dressed with virtuoso passages of domestic hell, that brings the Waugh/Amis (K.) lineage into the tabloid age. Critical consensus and broad readership made their choice long ago: stick with satire, smartly observed behaviourist rants (trashing the proles), small revenges. The Modernist experiment (Mary Butts, Djuna Barnes, John Rodker) was discounted, along with the social realists (Robert Westerby, James Curtis, Alexander Baron), who remain trapped in a ghetto of unfashionable leftist politics and unfashionable locations. The locations – Whitechapel, Notting Hill – have recovered, but the politics have evaporated like a puddle on hot tarmac. We can’t afford to ignore Raworth, who, in many ways, exploits both streams: the business of urban and suburban lowlife with ‘open field’ access to dream, journal annotation, letters to friends, the rags and flags of consciousness. It isn’t that Amis is bad, or off-form in Yellow Dog, or getting paid too much; he does what he does with considerable skill, the skin of things, the neurosis of composition, but he’s telling a tale that really doesn’t need to be told, and justifying this indulgence through souped up prose and too much knowledge of the dead world of authorship: the false authority of public acclaim and denunciation.

And here is the difference: Raworth doesn’t care. The lack of an audience is a blessing. Like Amis, he’s been in the game a long time. He’s well respected, he picks up the readings and the trips abroad: but nobody has really noticed. He’s not a public company. Outside the circuit of small magazines and left-field academia, he’s not news. We’ve forgotten that embedded within A Serial Biography is the material of the British realist novel of the 1950s and early 1960s: the milk train to Gravesend (where nobody drinks milk and the Thames is the colour of an old army blanket); gropes, rucks, petty criminality. And the National Service medical that reveals the flaw in his heart. Raworth grants these swiftly registered particulars no privileged status; before you are sucked into the drama, he cuts away to another fiction, a workplace anecdote about a man who pissed in a biscuit tin. Ego is disciplined through fragmentation, thereby avoiding sentimentality and the style-first presentations of career novelists obliged to shock and surprise. Raworth’s career is being himself, doing what he does, keeping out of it, knowing how and when to say no. (Jeff Nuttall, writing about Raworth in an unpublished book on literary outlaws, has him being importuned by a scrap-metal dealer who wants to get involved with the small press scene. What’s the deal? How does it work? ‘You hand over the cash and fuck off,’ Raworth says. The man goes elsewhere and midwifes the Liverpool Scene. Such is the secret history of English poetry.)

‘Autobiography involves the heart and the head, the body remembers itself as well,’ Lewis Warsh wrote, reviewing A Serial Biography in 1977 (eight years after publication). Autobiography, how the writer stands in relation to his work, is the whole matter. Poets have to find a way to factor immediate perceptions, half-thoughts, the trash and brushfire of consciousness, into form. The short prose book, novella or doctored home movie, as against the redundant long poem, the epic with its powdering of paranoia, madness or Bond-like visions of world domination. ‘Present time is a film,’ Raworth said, ‘and if you are on set in present time you don’t feel present time because you are in it.’

Raworth’s A Serial Biography is not part of the substantial gold brick of the Collected Poems, now excavated by Carcanet. The collection, the object, is a daunting thing. It is a daunting task to handle it, to work a way through its 576 pp. – which are presented as a run (previous titles swallowed up, with no break). This is a double marathon made up of sequential sprints. A relay that takes the reader, hanging onto the baton, to the point of exhaustion. There can be a surfeit of appreciation, applause ringing out in party conference quantities. The hands bleed. And, always, playing alongside this sense of a life, a life’s writing, is the image of Raworth in performance. He is known to read, at the speed of light, entire books. No muttered, apologetic introductions. Kick off and deliver. The late Mike Hart, a fan and promoter of Raworth’s work, described one of these readings to me. The poet steamed. The audience struggled for breath. The poet tipped a glass of water over his head and continued. Many of the explainers in Removed for Further Study make reference to Raworth’s velocity: of thought, voice. Fast-twitch fibres. ‘I just put down what fits and doesn’t bore me to read,’ he explained (in a letter to Gavin Selerie).

We have entered a period when the submerged poetry of the 1960s and 1970s (along with its afterlife) is being gathered up and evaluated. Collections of the notable figures are beginning to appear: J.H. Prynne, Barry MacSweeney, Wendy Mulford, John James, with decent selections of Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher, Douglas Oliver. And glimpses of many others, the reforgotten: John Temple, Anna Mendelssohn. It is a truth, unilaterally acknowledged (Cambridge and environs), that Raworth is the man, the only English poet the Americans read. They like, or liked in the days when lines of communication were still open, his similarities (attitude, energy) and his differences (cynicism, style, cigarettes). The young poet travelled around Europe (his poetry does a nice line in cultural tourism, lots of trains and train windows and Spanish towns in the morning). If, in my conceit, Raworth was working from the beginning on a hybrid form, prose Polaroids sketched as poems, the take was delivered in discrete volumes. The books, when they appeared, were a delight. And that sense, of news in the making, cannot be recaptured. The buttery slab of the Carcanet collection threatens to clog the arteries, stun us with wonders. A necessary breathing space is lost. The small press volumes, with the lush abandon of their time, came with an apparatus of seduction: Jim Dine ink-blots and fingerprints, proper paper and bindings, care, attention, swagger. Poetry puffed its chest (soliciting its own demise). It was still the flipside of pop culture, real lyrics that millionaire rock stars fed on. Ugly things growled in the undergrowth, it wasn’t all Camel cigarettes, film noir and Claudette Colbert pin-ups.

The Raworth poems of those first books – The Relation Ship, The Big Green Day, Act, Lion Lion (painterly-ironic titles) – aspire to the condition of broken stories. They employ the scriptwriter’s present tense, a non-urgent urgency. What happens happens: shaped word clusters frolicking between generous white margins. Speed-reading is the preferred option, but speed-reading in slow motion. In Lion Lion there is even a poem called ‘The "Speed” Novel’.

but you should take those layers off
so it can be just imagination – the ‘speed’ novel
discussion of rapid detail

separating the rings prepared the bases
‘if you think we’re on the run’

The explainers make much of Raworth’s ‘cinematic’ technique and frequently get it wrong, saying, as Ken Edwards does, that pace is achieved through a state of ‘permanent dissolve’. Dissolves, currently the tired TV editor’s friend, take the edge off and slow things down: Raworth’s speed is in his remorseless cutting, statement to statement, no blur, no lingering double-images.

behind the calm famous faces knowledge of what crimes?
rain on one window showing the wind’s direction

Raworth is as precise, as graphic, as J.G. Ballard. ‘Ash fills the fingerprints,’ he writes. Or: ‘the noise of a ring sliding onto a finger.’ Like Ballard, he’s fond of the comforting narcolepsy of cinema (being dead but alert) and of films on television – which he sees as an unmediated stream of mildly provocative irritation. A better class of ennui. The suburbs of the mind. You can yawn and scratch, transcribe a few lines of movie dialogue, turn away to the pattern of raindrops on the window. Television is a useful translation of the Raworth approach; no hierarchy, it’s all dim, gestural, contained: he winnows it down to the three or four images that carry the freight of meaning. He listens to the voices, the lies. ‘The dream lasts an hour in the dream an hour passed.’

The early books are often compared to French cinema. The blurb writer for A Serial Biography says that Raworth’s prose has ‘more in common with isolated sequences of a Godard movie than a novel’. Godard’s movies, of course, were novels: chapters, quotations, drama, romance. Cinema, back then, was more present than literature; cinema and poetry dissolving (not cutting) into politics (theatre). Like Godard, Raworth is fond of quoting from Samuel Fuller (Pick Up on South Street) and Nicholas Ray – and to hell with the subtext. The film-influenced books, westerns watched to survive the low-pressure weather systems of Colchester, shadow Godard’s career curve; until the lushness is burned out of both of them and the audience has to sit up and take notice, drop off, or work for its sustenance. Raworth’s poem ‘Inner Space’ from The Big Green Day has the flavour (the abandon) of Godard’s Pierrot le fou.

in an octagonal tower, five miles from the sea
he lives quietly with his books and doves
all walls are white, some days he wears
green spectacles, not reading

The trouble is that, beyond the oblique references to Dylan Thomas and Yeats, the decadence of the imagery is bleeding from Godard to Dirk Bogarde camping it up in Losey’s Modesty Blaise. Time, no doubt, to move on to television. Godard’s Bande à part is name-checked in the poem ‘Variations’ from Nicht War, Rosie? (1979), and that’s it: change of tone, style, pace. Faster, faster. Heart hammering in its cage. The shift is to single-sentence books, delivered like a bullet: Writing (1982), Catacoustics (1991), Eternal Sections (1993). The austere paperbacks no longer look like artworks; thin lines of text, sometimes one word deep, are set out like something chewed by a dog. Ragged, fierce and unpunctuated.

Forced to look back, in a rare interview (with Barry Alpert), Raworth said of his early books: ‘They smell of vanity.’ Which is harsh. They smell of expensive paper, good cloth and casual patronage. They smell of trains, nervous movement, the sea: ‘the sea, the sea fills the whole horizon.’ The poet is easy in the fiction of his life. He sends postcards to friends. He works as an international telephone operator, indulging his boredom, connecting exchanges in East and West Berlin, playing games. This is a phone operator who hates taking calls. ‘I can’t bear the telephone, never use it.’ Trapped at a writers’ retreat, Yaddo (Saratoga Springs, New York), Raworth labours over letters that might become a book. He flinches when the phone rings (even when he’s called by Ed Dorn, the person to whom he is writing). ‘Letters from Yaddo’, published in Visible Shivers (1987), carries forward the form and material of A Serial Biography, as an abandoned sequel.

Visible Shivers is a hinge book, including short sharp postcard poems (‘switzerland/was neutral/during the third world war’) and texts like voiceprints (‘Juice’), along with ‘Letters from Yaddo’, this great disintegrating novel. The smart decision here was to let the sequence stand, the boredom of routine (got up, had coffee, a cigarette, jogged to the lake), the placement – just like, so it seems, anybody’s diary. With the exquisite surgical skill of slicing in found footage (his father’s letter like a shimmering 8mm home movie). The snowy landscape, the road at the end of the long drive, the cabins: Raworth’s Yaddo is a CIA debriefing camp.

It couldn’t last, this tolerated survivalism. Raworth returned. He came back to England. Just in time for Margaret Thatcher. The cultural historian Patrick Wright, a man with a secret fondness for poetry (holograph Louis Zukofsky on the wall), made the trip at the same time, decanted from Vancouver. Those hazy overseas slots were vanishing and England was going mad. ‘I felt,’ Wright wrote in On Living in an Old Country (1985), ‘as if I had stumbled inadvertently into some sort of anthropological museum . . . I had come back to a country which was full of precious and imperilled traces.’ Raworth’s approach was blunter: he peeled layers of lushness from his language and went into overdrive. Personal quietude, lodged in Cambridge (‘now i watch TV most of the time’), combined with a merciless interrogation of the material that swam through the screen.

looking out through the eyes
at a TV programme
of a monk sealed into a coffin

Collaging, sifting detritus, giving value to trash was Raworth’s method, right back to the handling of a Kurt Schwitters notebook (taken from a glass case in the V&A). TV is the ultimate collage, video-slurry, war soaps, old movies. Junk, watched without prejudice, but with a proper discrimination, becomes prophetic.

sitting in the path
of a high intensity beam
as war
advertises arms
we are pieces
of percentages
through that eye
for credit
is as far
as machines
can trust
what you own
and what you’ll earn

*

a president
with an autocue
‘the book stops here’

The Thatcher effect, the fury of her assault on the ghosts of the 1960s, began a process which is now complete: the death of poetry, the death of TV. The triumph of Rupert Murdoch. A vinegar-spray of mendacity over the plasma screen. The picture doesn’t hold; it melts and drips like a leaking glass negative by Alvin Langdon Coburn. As the poetry gigs dried up and the bills (poll tax, petrol) mounted, those borderline anti-citizens, the poets, went back to radio. Listening, not performing. (Not for nothing was Chris Petit’s 1979 feature film, a melancholy road run between London and Bristol, called Radio On.) ‘Raworth,’ Perloff writes, ‘chooses to think of the writer as himself a kind of radio.’ A medium and a transmitter. Poems were like interference, whispers of the dead. Who else but an insomniac poet would not only listen to Farming Today, but remark on the curiosity of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ being used as background music to an item on crop spraying?

In this epoch, poets were seen as outpatients, special-needs dependents on whom you could not depend. Their words, gabbled, glossolalic, were so much acoustic landfill. Poetry was a sickness. The excitement, looking through Raworth’s Collected Poems, comes from recognising that, despite everything, somebody is paying attention. Staying on the case like a disenfranchised private eye. Listening, actually listening, to the hiss of the radio: translating noise into picture, making it readable. Tom Raworth, as he admits, is ‘a fast reader, but with a lousy memory. I like everything to sink into a sort of compost.’ That which is not remembered stays fresh. The Collected Poems, assembled, unarranged, is the result. It does not, cannot, replicate the excitement of a first encounter with the original books, but those books are no longer to be found: or not easily or inexpensively.

Removed for Further Study, troubled and enthusiastic yatter from friends and readers, is useful, too, in provoking future memories, charting and evaluating what has happened. Raworth never explains, he moves on. As Ron Silliman points out, ‘Raworth generally has shied away from critical writing as such save for obituaries.’ And there have been too many of those. The poet’s continuous present is racing away from him, as he works to keep up, or to overtake. To see into the blue nothingness.

The trajectory of the fan mimics that of the poet: excited reader, accidental collector (values of scarce books climbing), dealer, hoarder. My Raworth editions, when I check them out, carry handwritten dedications to other writers: Piero Heliczer (The Relation Ship), Jeff Nuttall (Four Door Guide), Barry MacSweeney (that more simple natural time tone distortion), Kathy Acker (Visible Shivers). They’re not like the other books on that shelf, they’re coffee-splashed, cigarette-burned, warped, read. But poets’ libraries are dispersed frequently; reassembled, dispersed again. The arrival of blockbuster collections, from Carcanet or Bloodaxe, allows them to dispose of the originals. All those different shapes and sizes. There is a burden in ownership, a responsibility in affection. We are promiscuous. Poetry survivors need living space.

Raworth’s ‘Letters from Yaddo’ sequence finishes with the heart, the operation in all its period detail, the lengthy procedure and trauma from which the poet emerges. The ubiquitous ‘i’ who stalks the early books has become ‘he’. It is ‘he’ who tells the tale. Who takes responsibility for memory.

There is an enormous weight on his chest; he is inside an oxygen tent. Eight hours have passed and the operation is over. He runs the thought through again: ‘this is taking a long time to work.’ He can see no break in it. He screams for them to take him out of the oxygen tent – the clear plastic only a few inches from his face seems to be suffocating him. Two days later, when the nurse is out of the room, he forces himself out of bed and over to the table where, in a drawer, is his file. He reads how his heart was stopped, his blood pumped through a machine: how his breastbone was sawn in half, his heart stitched, his chest sewn up. He reads of the pints of blood poured into him, and how, at the end of the operation, after his heart had been restarted, it had stopped again, and how he’d been given massive shots of adrenalin to bring him back to life. Nowhere can he find the key.