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.

Harwood pic

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Jazz Journal Poetry Review

Jazz Journal – until recently the best-selling magazine at Foyles flagship shop (try saying that when you’ve had a few) in Charing Cross Road – has, for some time now, been generous towards my fiction, the Resnick series especially, in its review pages, and now said generosity has extended to poetry. Here’s Mark Gardner’s recent review of Out of Silence.

Known primarily for his series of 20 jazz-tinged novels, John Harvey is also an accomplished poet. This latest collection of verse draws from two previous collections, Ghosts of a Chance and Bluer Than This, besides including half a dozen new poems. More than a few of the contents have a strong jazz flavour, not least Blue Monk, Charlie Parker in Green Shoes, Chet Baker, Ghosts of a Chance and You Did It! You Did it!. The Chet Baker piece centres on the trumpeter’s last night. Was it suicide or accident when he fell to his death from a hotel window? Harvey gives a more imaginative explanation” “He knows this is one of those/rare days when he can truly fly.” Oklahoma Territory provides a picture of the tough life on the road. The new poems are about love, life and death: the capturing of lost moments which is what all poetry strives to do. Harvey never uses one word too many or one too few in his vista of insights.

Grace Notes

Daughter’s in Nottingham today with one of her pals, looking  round the University ahead of deciding where to apply come autumn, and I shall be up there tomorrow, spending the afternoon at the esteemed Lowdham Book Festival, helping to launch These Seven, the new collection of short stories from Five Leaves which is a key part of the Nottingham Big City Read and a small part of the city’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

As part of that bid, the Notts City of Literature web site is featuring a Poem a Day (well, most days) with Nottingham connections.

Mine – a ‘version’ of the poem “Grace Notes”, recalling listening to jazz in a venue long gone – can be found here. If you’ve a few minutes, please give it a try.

Portrait of My Father

My father, Thomas Harvey – Tom – Togger to his friends – died 31 years ago today, aged 78.

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SUNSETS

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit ‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back
until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

from OUT OF SILENCE New & Selected Poems (2014)

Out of Silence

OUT OF SILENCE, my book of New & Selected Poems, published last year by Smith/Doorstop, is now available as an ebook for £5.95.

I wouldn’t be mentioning this, except it’s a book I’m especially proud of, and although only six of the poems are actually new, I like to think they’re pretty good – one in fact, “Winter Notebook”, just might be the best I’ve written so far.

There are reviews by Rosie Johnston & Norbert Hirschhorn on London Grip here …

There is also a review by John Lucas in PN Review No. 22, which is only available on line to subscribers, but which I can give you a taste of here …

“Harvey’s voice is very much his own, rueful, comic, engagingly informal … how good a poet he is of the passing moment, its unexpected pleasures …”

So, if you’ve been meaning to get hold of a copy but have never quite got around to it (or want a second copy for your Kindle!), you can buy the ebook from Amazon … or from the publisher …

The print version, of course, is still available, and I notice Foyles have it on sale for £7.76 if you order on line from Foyles …

Alternatively, if you’d like a signed copy, with or without dedication, at the cover price of £9.95, send me an email at john@mellotone.co.uk

Harvey-Out of Silence