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Mark Ford’s blurb on the back of Lee Harwood’s most recent book of poetry, The Orchid Boat (London, Enitharmon, 2014), inspired me to look up the original review from which it was quoted.
Lee Harwood, who is 65 this year, is still not known much outside the world of small press publications. His twenty or so volumes of poems and prose poems have been issued by tiny, often fugitive presses, such as Pig Press, Galloping Dog Press, Slow Dancer Press, Transgravity Press, and Other Branch Readings. But, like Jeremy Prynne, whose work drew fire earlier this year from the heavyweight academic professors John Carey and John Sutherland, Harwood has cult status among followers of the alternative British poetry scene.
Although a decade has passed since Ford’s smart, sympathetic review, Harwood, a resident of Brighton since 1967, who has managed to fly under the radar in his own country for nearly his entire career, continues to remain all but invisible here. There are many reasons for this, none of which are particularly interesting.
And yet, it wasn’t always so. Like others of my generation (I was born in 1950), who began reading poetry as teenagers in the wake of Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960), I discovered some of what was going in the alternative English and American poetry scene through Fulcrum Press, which published Basil Bunting’s Collected Poems (1968), as well as Robert Duncan’s Derivations: Selected Poems, 1950-56 (1968). The press also published Harwood’s The White Room (1968). Lewis Warsh and Ann Waldman had earlier published The Man with Blue Eyes (New York: Angel Hair Books, 1966), but I didn’t own it until after I bought The White Room. This was my introduction to Harwood, and I have followed his work as best as I could ever since. His work hasn’t always been easy to find, but it is now, which is why I want to go on record about this marvelous poet.
There are sixteen poems in The Orchid Boat, none longer than two pages. After finishing this book and thirsty for more, I decided to go back to Harwood’s Collected Poems. Covering forty years (1964-2004), the Collected Poems is 522 pages long. I highly recommend it or, if one finds that too daunting, read his Selected Poems (Shearsman 2007), which is 140 pages long and includes poems written between 2004 and 2007. One may also find it useful, as I certainly have, to look up Lee Harwood: Not the Full Story (Shearsman, 2008), which contains six interviews by Kelvin Corcoran. My final recommendation is Chanson Dada: Tristan Tzara, Selected Poems (Black Widow, 2009), which contains all of Harwood’s translations of the poet done over a period of twenty-five years.
One reason to read Collected Poems from beginning to end is because, as Ford stresses in his review, “Harwood’s poetry is not only not ‘difficult’ – it is open, moving and exquisitely delicate in its attention to landscape, mood, and the pressures of time and history.”
Ford makes another point in his review, which I think bears repeating:
He makes use of avant-garde poetic techniques not to dramatize a radical skepticism about language or meaning, but in order to recover for poetry the kinds of “directness” or expressive energy postmodernism taught us to distrust.
This directness is what I think Harwood has to offer to readers and young writers who feel like they have reached an impasse.
In the “Foreword” to his Collected Poems, Harwood cites among his early influences Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, who he met in Paris in 1965, Tristan Tzara and Jorge Luis Borges. From these writers Harwood learned about collage and what could be done, as he says to Corcoran: “with fragments and suggestions.” Later, he tells Corcoran that another influence is “Reverdy’s idea of The Daily Miracle–of how amazing all the things around you are when you look at them and step back rather than take them for granted.”
This is one of the keys to Harwood’s poetry–his sharp-eyed, sympathetic attention to the unpredictable drift of the ordinary things, feelings and daydreams that fill our everyday lives because they are not to be taken “for granted.” He is not driven to make a grand statement or be oracular.
This is the last stanza of “letterpoem” (ca. 1965):
lunch-times I sit in the park
watching the sun and damp grass.
there’s no big fiery blast to end this poem,
no sudden revelation – “more’s the pity”
– and even this sounds too neat
While still in his mid-twenties, Harwood quietly and confidently refuses to join the high modernist tradition that includes T.S. Eliot. At the same time, he is not part of another club; he is a man sitting alone in a park. I still find Harwood’s confident acceptance of his unavoidable solitariness inspiring.
Another key to the poetry can be gleaned from this exchange between Corcoran and Harwood.
K.C.: “They are very physical poems, Lee. They are involved with the body, aren’t they?
L.H.: Yes, there is the sexual side.
Later, in the same interview, Harwood states:
I just feel a strong sense of self can be a hindrance. That it detracts from the relationship between the writer and the reader and it imposes the author’s personality, and that moves into the business of authority, which I detest. I don’t think any writing should be an authority, rather than a questioning, otherwise it panders to the writer’s vanity.
This is the conundrum that animates Harwood’s best writing, from poems to prose. There is a strong sense of the sensual, sexual body – male in his earlier work and later female – while at the same time a reluctance to impose any authority upon the relationship.
As Ford states in his review:
His poetry never attempts to coerce us into a particular attitude to life, and indeed even avoids interpreting the experience it embodies. Instead, it creates a space in which perceptions, quotations, overheard snippets of conversation (“Being a working girl isn’t all stars”), clippings from newspapers, outbursts of lyricism or unhappiness, inscriptions copied from gravestones can succeed each other without seeming either merely random or too programmatically shaped.
Later, Ford advances that Harwood’s attention to the details of everyday life is comparable to the writing of James Schuyler, but Harwood’s writing is plainer, less likely to contain an outrageous analogy. While there is some truth to Ford’s observation, Harwood’s mixture of the descriptive and objective is all his own. What comes across is the poet’s sympathy and tenderness, a sense of “the daily miracle.”
The other thing that struck me while reading the Collected Poems was his unabashed interest in narratives and storytelling, none of which resolved into anecdotes or what he called the “author’s personality.” The poems remain open and inviting – they evoke the private thoughts we often suppress, ignore, are ashamed of, or embarrassed by. Harwood isn’t afraid of either courting sentiment or of arriving at the kind of emotional directness we associate with the work of Constantine Cavafy.
To his credit, Harwood took what he learned from Ashbery, particularly the collage poems found in the highly influential The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and opened it onto his own territory, at once playful, tender and unexpected, as in the jump-cuts we enjoy in movies, from the high to the low.
This is what I think readers can enjoy about Harwood’s poetry and young poets can learn from it. There is no correct way to go- you have to make it up as you go along until you finally reach something that is your own. Screw what the academics tell you about doing what they define as the correct thing. Without being either nostalgic or reactionary, Harwood rejected authority in his mid-twenties. His poise is something we can all learn from, as well as his awareness of the isolation it would bring. He recognized that separation was fundamental, an ingrained aspect of human solitariness, which he chose not to ignore.
At the end his poem” Saint David’s Daon the Leyn” (ca. 1988-1993), Harwood writes:
A glint in the sharp spring air
as a young girl wearing her best clothes
walks along an empty country lane
clasping a bunch of bright daffodils.
This, I would say is the exact opposite of David Hockney’s recent paintings of a road turning in the middle distance of the English countryside, their generic viewpoint an imposition of artistic authority as well as a knowing demonstration of the various clichés we associate with painterly brilliance.
Harwood’s poem conveys with extreme pictorial economy a perception that is tenderly sympathetic to the young girl’s vulnerability, solitude, innocence and belief. We don’t know what will happen to this young girl – it is a snapshot of her in time.
Is Harwood’s lack of radical skepticism about language really a cardinal sin? Is straightforwardness a quality that we can no longer have? Is human solitariness an obsolete artifact, joined as we all are by the Internet?
Start with Harwood’s newest book, The Orchid Boat. Here is the second stanza of “Departures,” the book’s opening poem, which was collaged from the poem, ‘The Sorrows of Departure’’ by Chinese woman poet, Li Ch’ing- Chao (c. 1084-1151):
‘Gently I open
my silk dress and float alone
on the orchid boat. Who can
take a letter beyond the clouds?
Is this what can longer be written in a poem because it is neither ironic nor hip? Is Harwood’s compassion something to be dismissed or laughed at? Has poetry really come to that?
Lee Harwood’s The Orchid Boat (2014) is published by Enitharmon Press.