Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015.

I first came across Lee Harwood’s work in the 19th of the excellent Penguin Modern Poets series, purchased in 1971 when I was teaching English and Drama in Andover, Hampshire, and just beginning to send a little work of my own off to small magazines. Sandwiching, as it did, Lee’s poetry between that of the American John Ashbery – along with Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the best known of the New York Poets – and the British, but, like Lee, quite strongly American influenced, Tom Raworth, the selection opened me up to a new set of influences, a new range of possibilities.

From Andover, via Stevenage, to Nottingham, source of my first Harwood collection, The White Room, which combined some of the major poems from Penguin Modern Poets – “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, “Landscape with 3 People”, “When the Geography Was Fixed” – with many others quite new to me and equally beguiling. Poems with stanzas underlined, scribbled down in notebooks, poems asterisked and starred, committed to memory. Poems I hamfistedly used as models, ending up with so many poor imitations. So much so that when I went as a participant to my first ever Arvon poetry writing course at Totleigh Barton in Devon – driving down from Nottingham in the midst of that amazing hot summer of ’76 in my green Citroen 2CV – the work I presented to the tutors at our first meeting must have read like the discards from Lee’s waste paper basket.

Without ever, I think, losing it altogether, that influence lessened with time. Truer to say, perhaps, I found a way of aligning it with that of Frank O’Hara, the two voices strongest at the back of my mind, until that day in 1993 when I first heard Robert Hass reading his poetry – but that’s another story.

I met Lee and we became friends …

Walking with Lee along the front by the sea,
ruins of the old West Pier, shift and change
of house fronts between Brighton and Hove.
Small cups of coffee, thick and black; we go out
for focaccia and cheese and bring them back

… and I was proud to publish three collections of his work with Slow Dancer Press: Dream Quilt – 30 Assorted Stories (1985); In the Mists – Mountain Poems (1993); Morning Light (1998).

Here is one of my favourites of Lee’s poems, “Gilded White”, the opening poem in Morning Light.

The last time I saw Lee we were both reading with John Lake’s jazz quartet at a small festival in Shoreham, not far along the south coast from where he lived. If there had to be a last time, I’m happy this was it, Lee’s voice soft yet clear over the shifting rhythms of the music, so clearly, so identifiably his.

In the September after Lee’s death, I was proud to be invited to read alongside Tom Raworth and others in a celebration of his life and work.

Tom Raworth

James Schuyler’s “Last Poems” … free for National Poetry Day … and after

Okay, here’s the thing. Back in 1999, when Slow Dancer Press was both still in its prime yet about to fold, we published, for the first time in this country, James Schuyler’s Last Poems. Schuyler, along with John Ashbury, Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, was one of the New York Poets – perhaps the least well known but far from the least. As Ashbery himself said, “Schuyler is simply the best we have.”

I won’t pretend that Last Poems contains his absolutely best work – that, I think, would be found in The Morning of the Poem from 1980. But what there is here is enough to give a strong sense of the keenness of his observation, the delicacy and precision of his style and the breadth of his interests, ranging from the jazz singer Mildred Bailey to the lives of birds, the glories of roses, the shifts and sorrows of the seasons.

Along with Schuyler’s poems [and yet another of Jamie Keenan’s wonderful cover designs] the book includes a six page Afterword by another fine poet, Lee Harwood, in which he writes about Schuyler’s work with affectionate understanding, and which would be worth the price of the book itself. If you were paying for it, which, in this instance, you’re not.

I’ve got a half dozen (or so) copies to give away in celebration of National Poetry Day – and because they should be being read, not gathering dust on my shelf. Just email me at john@mellotone.co.uk with your mailing address and I’ll send you one by return. Can’t say fairer than that.

Schuyler 1

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.

schuyler

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

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

schuyler

 

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