Poetry : Outstanding Books

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For its current issue, The North asked thirty poets to nominate the poetry book that has meant most to them in the past 30 years, with the opportunity to nominate an anthology and a pamphlet should they wish. For me, it was always going to be a toss up between Lee Harwood and Robert Hass and, in the end, it was Hass’s Human Wishes that won out.

Published in 1989, and so just inside the 1986 cut-off point, while being a favourite, it isn’t, in all honesty, my actual favourite of Hass’s work, which is the earlier book, Praise, but that was first published in 1979.

Praise contains what I think are probably among the best of Hass’s shorter poems – “Heroic Simile”, which begins with a reference to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; “Meditation at Lagunitas”, which begins “All the new thinking is about loss/In this it resembles all the old thinking”; and the wonderfully titled, “Picking Blackberries With a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan”. It also includes what is still my favourite of the longer poems – a form which by the time of Human Wishes had become more complex and assured – “Not Going to New York: A Letter”, which begins …

Dear Dan –
This is a letter of apology, unrhymed.
Rhyme belongs to the dazzling couplets of arrival.
Survival is the art around here. It rhymes by accident
with the rhythm of days which arrive like crows in a field
of stubble corn in upstate New York in February.
In upstate New York in February thaws hardened the heart
against the wish for spring.

The pamphlet I chose was Lee Harwood’s The Books, a tiny 8 page booklet published by Longbarrow Press, which comes in an envelope also containing an equally small CD of Lee reading, that was recorded in Brighton in April, 2011.

Not the beginning this time, but the ending …

She climbed down from the tree a queen.
As we all do, and then set out
across golden stubble to the river.

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

I didn’t choose a favourite anthology, because, if I were to stick reasonably close to the truth, my favourites, in so far as The North is concerned, were published too soon.

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Penguin Modern Poets 10: Adrian Henry, Roger McGogh & Brian Patten. 1967
Penguin Modern Poets 19: John Ashbery, Lee Harwood & Tom Raworth. 1971
The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. 1982

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Amongst the other poets choosing their favourites of the past 30 years in The North are Mimi Khalvati, Ian McMillan, Helen Mort, Sean O’Brien and Matthew Sweeney. Amongst the authors chosen, Thom Gunn, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Moniza Alvi and Phiullip Levine.

To find out more about The North and/or to order a copy of the current issue, go to the Poetry Business web site.

Tom Raworth, 1938-2017

Tom Raworth Sept 2015

The first book of Tom Raworth’s poetry I bought was The Relation Ship; a second, 1969, edition of the book originally published by Goliard Press two years previously.  Goliard, later Cape Goliard, being an important small press – vital, at the time – set up by Raworth himself and Barry Hall.  I would have bought it almost certainly at Compendium in Camden Town, discovering Raworth round about the same time as I did Lee Harwood, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn.

It’s battered now with use and faded, but the poems still have freshness and delicacy and precision – you can sense Raworth stepping with care between the words …

THE OTHERS
(for anselm & josephine)

she said nothing
leaned on the stone bridge             the wind
howled in my ear, pause
between the dropping
of the record & the music

dust                      the wind                 the streets
already in shadow

we walked                  someone
playing the piano in a tiled room

oh
said her mother a
mister dante called you
beatrice

And I’m surprised, reading these early poems again now, the extent to which, in some, Raworth sounds like Harwood and vice versa. This is Tom, but it could be Lee – the title, especially.

YOU WERE WEARING BLUE

the explosives are nearer this evening
the last train leaves for the south
at six            tomorrow
the announcements will be in a different language

i chew the end of a match
the tips of my finger and thumb are sticky

i will wait at the station and you
will send a note, i
will read it
it will be raining

our shadows in the electric light

when i was eight they taught me real
writing
to join up the letters

listen you said i
preferred to look
at the sea.   everything stops there are strange angles

only the boats spoil it
making you focus further

Towards the ends of their lives they were both living in Brighton and Hove – the same ships, the same sea. The last time I saw Tom was in September, 2015, when, with others, we were reading at the Red Roaster Café in Brighton, as part of an evening celebrating Lee’s life and work – he had died that July – and that’s where the photograph of Tom at this top of his piece was taken. He may have needed a little help up onto the stage, but, as I’ve said elsewhere, when he read he read like a lion.

The final entry in his blog, dated 23rd January, read …

Last Friday after two days of tests, scans, bone-marrow extraction and so on, our Doctor came in the evening to say the cancer had badly metastsized…to bone marrow, liver, right lung, kidney and small bowel. Nothing to be done except palliative care and that I had at most two weeks to live. So that’s it. I can’t see I shall ever get back here. Emails will reach Val val.raworth@gmail.com who obviously will pass along to me whatever she can. Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run.

He died on February, 8th, the world a lesser place.

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Totally Wired for Sound

Thursday of last week saw the first of what is, for me, a surprisingly long list of readings, mostly of poetry with, here and there, a modicum of prose levered in. Totally Wired is a monthly series that takes place in the Wired Café Bar in the centre of Nottingham, and organised by the poet, Becky Cullen, along with two lecturers from Nottingham Trent University – Rory Waterman and Andrew Taylor – both poets themselves. It’s no surprise perhaps that the majority of the audience are on the young side [let’s face it, anyone south side of fifty or so registers as young to me these days] or that a good number – the majority? – are students from NTU. What is a surprise is how many people are there, extra chairs having to be hauled up from the back of beyond, so that by the time Andrew has gone round collecting the names of those poets who want to read from the floor and the event is due to begin there’s a real sense of being squeezed up close to one’s neighbour and sharing their air – in my case, that of my  daughter Molly Ernestine, who’s come along for moral support and is prepared to step into the breach should I falter.

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The first four readers do two poems each, good poems read well, and, after an introduction from Andrew, I’m on. One of the most difficult things for me, when working out which pieces to read, is what to begin with. It doesn’t want to be too long, too obscure, too – for God’s sake – too dull. I used to make a habit of kicking off with “What Do You Say?”, a sort of riddle of a poem, to which the answer is the saxophone player Roland Kirk – which is fine when I’m doing a poetry and jazz gig with the band, but less successful otherwise – most people tend to scratch their heads in mild bemusement and I can’t say I blame them.
So, emboldened by the fact that not long since I was in Nottingham to take part in a Frank O’Hara tribute at the Five Leaves Bookshop, and surmising there may be more than one or two O’Hara fans in the audience, I opt for “Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”, which is exactly that and turns out to have been a reasonable choice.

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After a pause in which I take the risky step of asking people not to applaud after every poem (as if!) on the grounds that I could probably fit in another poem in the time lost, I make my way through the remainder of my twenty minute set. You can see, feel, the audience listening, responding in what I think of as the right way – a couple of laughs in the right places – and I can relax and enjoy what I’d doing.

At the interval, Molly hustles and sells the relatively few books we’ve brought with us; I chat to friends, drink another (seriously good) flat white, and wait for the second part of the evening and half a dozen more readers – a good number reading for the first time – and it’s a real pleasure to hear so many good new poems – some humorous, some heartfelt, some both.

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I say my goodbyes, shake hands, and Molly and I set out for the station and the London train, the sounds of poetry and the strong sense of having had a better than good time reverberating around us.

For those who like to keep abreast of those things, this is what I read …

“Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”
“Apples”
“Slow”

“Apparently”
“Winter Notebook” [Also with quite a few changes]
“Chet Baker”
“The U. S. Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.”
“Curve”

… Nothing too unusual, save for “Slow”, a poem I dedicated to Lee Harwood and Paul Evans, and which I thought to read after receiving a positive comment about it from John Kieffer on this blog, and the little poem set in the Botanical Gardens in Washington D.C. – as I said, the last thing you might expect coming out of. D.C during the week of Trump’s inauguration is a love poem.

The U.S Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue of that morning’s watering,
green hose slack within the leaves.
We used to come here, safe, and sit
not touching, humidity high in the nineties
and helicopters hovering, a block beyond the Hill.
In the display of medicinal herbs, I break
small leaves into my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding; foxglove
for the muscles of the heart.

When we meet again a year or more from now, by chance –
the departure lounge at Heathrow, hurrying
along the platform at Gare du Nord,
and your eyes as, uncertain
whether to offer your cheek for a kiss,
you hold out, instead, your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies I have long carried:
the knowledge that, nurtured, passion flowers
in the darkest places.

The keen-eyed will note that’s been trimmed and altered a little since it was published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

The next poetry reading I have coming up is at Words & Jazz, Downstairs at the Vortex, in Dalston, East London, on Thursday 23rd March, after which I’m back in Nottingham on Wednesday, 12th April for an evening of Poetry & Jazz at Bromley House Library, with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass). Then, on Friday 28th April, I’m at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden [or, just possibly, at Bar 48, Brixton, please check] for Fourth Friday, where I’m hoping to be reading alongside Debris Stevenson, with two sets from singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.

On Tuesday, 23rd May, along with Leah Fritz, Danielle Hope and others, I shall be reading at Primrose Hill Library, North London, in a benefit for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, and on Thursday of the same week, the 25th, I’m reading with the John Lake Band as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe.

Oh, and I might sneak a few poems into my session at Almondbury Library, Huddersfield on Thursday, 9th February, when I’m talking about my 40-odd years as a writer.

 

 

 

Poetry 2016

For memorial reasons, I’ve read, to myself and, occasionally, aloud to assembled others, a lot of Frank O’Hara this year. I read quite a lot of O’Hara most years. And I’ve read a little Robert Hass more days than not.

This list recognises the other poetry collections I’ve read and enjoyed most in the past twelve months.

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  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9 (2014)
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream (Clinic, 2016)
  • Sam Buchan-Watts : Faber New Poets 15 (2016)
  • Matthew Caley : Rake (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Janet Fisher : Life and Other Terms (Shoestring, 2015)
  • Marilyn Hacker : A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015)
  • Lee Harwood : The Books (Longbarrow Press, 2011)
  • Ian McMillan : Jazz Peas (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them (Chatto, 2016)
  • Peter Sansom : Careful What You Wish For (Carcanet, 2015)
  • Judi Sutherland & Jim Burns : Dark Matter (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2016)
  • Barry Wallenstein : Drastic Dislocations (New York Quarterly Boks, 2012)
  • Matthew Welton : The Number Poems (Carcanet, 2016)
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Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015

 

James Schuyler Again …

… or you can’t keep a good poet down. I’ve blogged before about James Schuyler and the combination of pride and pleasure it gave me when Slow Dancer Press was the first to publish his Last Poems in their entirety in this country, together with an afterword by the British poet, Lee Harwood.

At the time of writing that, April 2015, I thought there were no more than a few copies of that edition remaining, but, lo and behold, in the long overdue act of clearing out one of the cupboards in the room I rather grandly refer to as my office, what should I find but a treasure trove of Last Poems. Thirty copies, to be exact.

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For those of you to whom Schuyler is little more than a name, one of the lesser lights perhaps of the New York Poetry scene that congregated around Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, this collection of late work – if read together with, say, the earlier, and quite wonderful, The Morning of the Poem – attests to the breadth and depth of his poetry, the meticulousness of his style.

The following comes from Harwood’s essay …

Schuyler was bemused and fascinated by the world.  Whether it was the “icy spaces” or “rain quilts the pond” (Rain) or describing the play of light on “a rainy April morning” in The Light Within, he looked and relished what he saw and the words he chose to describe what he saw. As he wrote more directly in the title poem of his earlier book A Few Days

“Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
not come again”

It follows naturally from this that a reader of Schuyler’s poems nearly always finds himself or herself in the present.Not a narrow present, but one that includes asides, memories, double-takes, and all the vivid associations that pour into the brain in a few minutes. Reading one of James Schuyler’s poems often feels like looking over his shoulder as he writes. The process is open to view. In fact the “process” is very much part of the poem. It’s akin to listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and Beethoven’s piano sonatas too). The way Gould tentatively plays the notes, searching his way through the music, as though recreating Bach’s thinking and progress as Bach builds a piece. As though making it up as he goes along. It could go this way? or that? no, this way. In his poem Shadowy Room Schuyler touches on this.

“Perishable perfection
of Glenn Gould playing
Bach purls on, oblivious
of interruption, building
course on
course, harmonious
in all lights,
all weathers …”

Copies of Last Poems are available from Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH     Phone: 0115 8373097   Email: bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Tom Raworth & Others

Foolish it might have been to take my rucksack along to the recent Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall, but how else was I going to take my trusty and, by now, well marked up copy of Out of Silence needed for my 11.00am reading, not to mention a bottle of water, box of Strepsils, sports pages of The Guardian, et cetera? As soon as I saw the number of stalls packed into the room, each of them packed with tempting publications, I made a quick promise to myself that, rucksack or no rucksack, I would buy three books and no more.

The first was easy. Across the aisle from my own publisher, Smith/Doorstop, was (were?)Nottingham’s own Mother’s Milk Books [aim: to celebrate femininity and empathy through images and words, with a view to normalising breastfeeding], one of whose authors, Ana Salote, I met earlier this year at Lowdham Book Festival and shared a pleasant train journey with on the way home, so her book, Oy Yew, was my number one.

Soon after that, I spied poet/publisher Tamar Yoseloff at the table consigned to Hercules Editions, the small press she runs with designer Vici MacDonald. Their books are beautifully designed limited editions, perfectly marrying images and words, and the only one I didn’t already have a copy of was right there in front of me – Ormonde, by Hannah Lowe, which documents the story of the ship which, in 1947, and thus pre-Windrush, brought her father and other Jamaican immigrants to this country.

Tammy, of course, I had first met with my publisher’s hat on, when Slow Dancer Press published her 1994 chapbook, Fun House, and then, in 1998, her collection, Sweetheart. [Love that Jamie Keenan designed cover!] Her New & Selected Poems, A Formula for Night, will be published by Seren Books later this month.

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But on to number three. And yet again it was remarkably easy. The minute I drew level with the Carcanet Press table, my eyes were drawn to the nicely quirky cover of Tom Raworth’s As When, a fat and judicious selection ranging from his first collection, The Relation Ship, published by Cape Goliard in 1966 to Structure from Motion, published by Edge Books earlier this year. 139 poems, 248 pages, £14.99 – do the maths. A bargain, right. A bargain and a delight.

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When I got home, I looked for my original copy of The Relation Ship and there it was. Creased and battered, read and reread. Favourites asterisked or underlined. I imagine I bought it in Nottingham in 1975, either there or at the much-lamented Compendium in Camden, round about the same time that I bought Lee Harwood’s The White Room.

It was at a reading for Lee Harwood, held at the Redroaster Coffee House in Brighton last month, that I met Tom Raworth for perhaps the second or third time. I’d heard he’d not been all that well, and, in truth, he approached the stage with care, but once behind the microphone he roared like a mighty lion. The Raworth roar, once heard not easily forgotten. Like the poems.

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Photo of Tom Raworth: Andrew King andrewkingphotography.co.uk

 

Lee Harwood Night

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Put 15 poets in a room and ask them to read for just three minutes each – every organiser’s nightmare. But that’s exactly what Michaela Ridgeway, putting on a Pighog night in honour of the late Lee Harwood, did yesterday at Brighton’s Redroaster coffee house, and, against all poetry reading odds, it worked. Starting promptly at 8.00pm (in itself some kind of first) the formal part of the evening wrapped up at 9.15, just five minutes behind schedule.

Readers had been asked for either a poem of their own, dedicated to Lee or associated with him in some way, a poem of Lee’s and, possibly, a brief anecdote. Ken Edwards, with a new piece of writing, managed, superbly and with great humour, all three in one. Some of those reading had been part of a monthly poetry group that Lee had guided for years; others – Richard Cupidi, Paul Matthews, Tom Raworth – were very much a part of Lee’s past, his poetry, and his Brighton life.

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In the absence of Robert Sheppard, editor of the comprehensive Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, I had been asked to introduce the evening, which I did, harking back, in part, to the first occasions on which I would have hear Lee read – at the ICA or the Roundhouse in the mid-70s and likely in the company of Libby Houston, Carlyle Reedy and The Liverpool Scene.

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In an interview I did with Lee for Slow Dancer magazine, he talked about one of Soho’s iconic early coffee bars, Sam Widges, where he used to hang out in the early 60s with the likes of Pete Brown, Libby Houston and Spike Hawkins, and where, for the first time, he came across the poetry of Tristan Tzara, a major influence on his writing. One of the few places that then stayed open through the night, I would sometimes fetch up there in the early hours after an all-nighter listening to Ken Colyer at Studio 51 – a style of music that, as Lee was quick to point out, he had long left behind.

I went to listen to Ken Colyer when I was fifteen or sixteen, but then I converted to Charlie Parker and after that it was all modern jazz – Monk, Parker, the Jazz Messengers, Gillespie and then British bands, especially Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, whose music really hit home. I can’t explain why. I just loved it. And I suppose for the same reason I loved the writing of Tzara and Pound and later on Borges, Patchen, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on. It was all the same cloth really. It was the same with painting. I loved Kandinsky – a range of forms floating on the canvas and in some way bonding.

Slow Dancer 30, Summer 1993

Appropriate then, that the last time I heard Lee read was at Shoreham WordFest in the autumn of 2014, when we were both performing with John Lake’s fine little four piece jazz group. Lee hadn’t worked with them before, but a mutual understanding quickly grew between them at rehearsals and on the evening itself the blend of music and words was just about perfect. It was great to see Lee in such fine form and clearly enjoying the experience as much as he did. If there had to be a final memory of him, this, for me, was about the best it could be.

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James Schuyler: Last Poems

I’m following a link here: one that takes me from my previous post – A Question of the Light – to a visit made this Sunday just past to Monk’s House in Sussex, once the home of Virgina and Leonard Woolf, and from there to James Schuyler, perhaps the least celebrated of the New York Poets, an Anglophile who never set foot in England, but who was fascinated by the English countryside and English gardens and read about them continuously, amongst his favourite sources being Virginia Woolf’s diaries.

One of the books I am most proud to have published under the Slow Dancer imprint, is Schuyler’s Last Poems, which brought into print in the UK for the first time thirty poems written towards the end of his life, along with a perceptive and affectionate afterword by Lee Harwood.

Here’s one of the poems …

The Light Within

and the light without: the shade
of a rainy April morning:
subtle shadows
cast backward by lamplight
upon daylight,
soft unforceful daylight
the essence
of cloud cover
descending mistily into the street:
and the unwhitely
white surround of a curling photograph
models itself
as north light
modeled the face in the photograph:

and against a window
a tree shows
each lightly tinted leaf
another shadowy shade, some
transparently, some
not: and, in the corner
the dark bisected
by the light that falls
from without (created
by its absence)
lies luminous within itself:
the luminous dark within

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Lee Harwood: 6 June 1939 to 26 July, 2015

 

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I’m still in shock after hearing of Lee Harwood’s death yesterday. A friend for a good number of years, Lee was a singular and fine poet, one whose work synthesised the early influences of American writers of the New York School, John Ashbery in particular, and the European surrealism of Tristan Tzara, into something that somehow embraced the breadth of the world while maintaining, it seemed to me, something quintessentially British, English even, at its heart.

I first came across Lee’s work in Nottingham in 1975, when I bought a copy of his Fulcrum Press collection, The White Room, and went on to proudly publish two books of his poetry – In the Mists: Mountain Poems and Morning Light – and one book of prose – Dream Quilt: 30 Assorted Stories – with Slow Dancer Press.

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I was especially proud when, in 2013, being out of the country himself, Lee asked me to collect on his behalf one of that year’s Cholmondeley Awards, given to poets by the Society of Authors for their body of work and overall contribution to poetry. Of Lee, in the programme, it said the following:

His poetry is lyrical, humane, amused and precise; it is hospitable, but never superior. His active internationalism has had an influence on decades of British Poetry.

One of the last times Lee and I got together was in the autumn of last year, when we were both reading with John Lake’s band at the Ropetackle Arts Centre as part of the Shoreham Wordfest.
The only previous occasions Lee had read with jazz musicians, he told us, was back in New York in the 60s when he was a young poet in the company of some of the classiest bebop players of the day. Be that as it may, he read beautifully, clearly enjoying the manner in which the musicians responded to the particular rhythms of his poems, the band building some beautiful and appropriate architecture around two of his pieces, Brighton. October and Gorgeous – yet another Brighton Poem. 

This is the beginning of “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, one of the poems from The White Room, and one that, when I first read it, simply took my breath away …

As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you,
and cities apart, yet a roof grey with slates
or lead, the difference is little
and even you could say as much
through a foxtail of pain                      even you

And these are the final stanzas from “Sailing Westwards”, one of the poems in Lee’s last collection, The Orchid Boat, published by Enitharmon in 2014.

On the vast beach at Harlech
scattered with tellin shells and razor-shells,
dunes topped with marram grass behind me
and the dark blue grey mountains behind them,

and the flat silk sea spreads out in front of me,
over and far beyond the horizon.

Far beyond the horizon now, indeed.

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