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.