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

It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Poetry : Outstanding Books

h-wishes

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.

mod-poets

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

p-m

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.

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