Barry MacSweeney : Hellhound on His Tail

Desire

Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines,  Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.

Wolf Tongue

Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction,  is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”

One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.

I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.

The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”

This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …

curlew chatter
crescent beaks
ragged wings swoop
snipe song

we catch a hen
playing lame
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
which pours
& fills this skull

schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
purity strength
not fascist Aryan
dangerous claptrap
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
moss grows
in cracks
we don’t know

Blackbird dedication

Blackbird

By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.

In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …

Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.

MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …

… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.

Or, as he says in the poem, his words …

have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust

Black Torch

Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special,  with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet – Started  September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …

Undefinitive takes
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full

A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.

McSw Special

Ranter

Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.

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Now’s the Time … Again

A swift return to the first Resnick story, the opening section of which is reprinted in the previous blog … and here comes the ending. Don’t worry if you still have the whole thing to read and want to avoid spoiling the denouement, the final surprise. There is no surprise. “They’re all dying, Charlie,” is how the story begins and that’s how it ends. How most stories end, I suppose.

The maitre d’ at Ronnie Scott’s had trouble seating Resnick because he was stubbornly on his own; finally he slipped him into one of the raised tables at the side, next to a woman who was drinking copious amounts of mineral water and doing her knitting. Spike Robinson was on the stand, stooped and somewhat fragile- looking, Ed Silver’s contemporary, more or less. A little bit of Stan Getz, a lot of Lester Young, Robinson himself had been one of Resnick’s favourite tenor players for quite a while. There was an album of Gershwin tunes that found its way on to the record player an awful lot.

Now Resnick are spaghetti and measured out his beer and listened as Robinson took the tune of ‘I Should Care’ between his teeth and worried at it like a terrier with a favourite ball. At the end of the number, he stepped back to the microphone.”I’d like to dedicate this final tune of the set to the memory of Ed Silver, a very fine jazz musician who this week passed away. Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’.

And when it was over and the musicians had departed backstage and Ronnie Scott himself was standing there encouraging the applause – “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson”- Resnick blew his nose and raised his glass and continued to sit there with the tears drying on his face. Seven minutes past eleven, near as made no difference.

That Gershwin album – The Gershwin Collection – was used as background in a number of scenes in the television version of the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, one of the two in which Tom Wilkinson played Charlie. [And before you start asking, neither Lonely Hearts nor Rough Treatment are commercially available and the BBC have no plans, apparently, to repeat them. Please don’t ask me why because I don’t know.]

Towards the end of the 1990s, I booked the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street for a Slow Dancer Press publication party and booked Spike Robinson as the evening’s featured guest, sitting in with the Nottingham-based band, Second Nature, in place of their leader, Mel Thorpe. And so came to pass one of my proudest moments, when I got to climb up on stage, take the microphone, and say, “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson.”

Spike Robinson died of a heart attack just a few years later, at the age of 71.

My friend Tony Burns, whose band played opposite Second Nature on that occasion, died in 2013 at the age of 72.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Spike

 

 

Out of the Archive: a Slow Dancer Reading

A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …

Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.
 

Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.
 

From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.
 

At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

Criminal Favourites

Gumshoe

Hmm, a friend remarked after perusing my recent listing of the 50 books I’d most enjoyed reading since the turn of the century, not a lot of crime fiction here – for a crime writer, especially. To which I might have replied, that in itself might be reason enough. And besides, if you stretch the definition a little there are five. No, wait, six.

But here, to set things right, or achieve some sort of balance, at least, is the list of my favourite relative recent crime novels, ones I’m likely to read again … and again.

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs
3. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark
4. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes
5. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss
6. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
7. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies
8. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
9. Bill James: Roses, Roses
10. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River
11. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava
12. Laura Lippman: The Innocents
13. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
14. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker
15. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
16. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour
17. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil
18. James Sallis: Drive
19. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna
20. Neville Smith: Gumshoe
21. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
22. Peter Temple : Truth
23. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side
24. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels
25. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss

Two of those, you’ll notice, published by the late lamented Slow Dancer Press. The marvellous cover design the work of the excellent Jamie Keenan.

Angels

 

Still Being Frank …

Running a theme here, and with a one day symposium on O’Hara’s life, work and friends at the ICA on Sunday, 24th July, there may be even more. But for now, following up on the previous post’s recent poem from Out of Silence, here are a couple more that somehow didn’t make it into the New & Selected. (Wonder why?) The first comes from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998), the second from Taking The Long Road Home (Slow Dancer, 1988)

Seven Year Ache

“There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last”
Frank O’Hara. “Poem”(“And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock”)

Listening to the radio this afternoon,
thumbing through my well-worm life
of Frank O’Hara, its pink and purple annotations,
I notice Top Hat is on TV in time to see
Fred and Ginger shelter in that convenient bandstand
and marvel at the way she mimics so perfectly his routine.
And I think of the young O’Hara watching them for the first time
from those red velvet seats of the Worcester Warner’s.
How he loved them!  Ginger’s ‘pageboy bob’, Fred’s
‘peach melba voice’. Watching them now,
I hate Astair’s dinner-suited smugness,
the certainty he’ll get the girl at the end.

Last night, and then again today, I’m taunted
by the bizarre easiness of dying. O’Hara at forty
knocked over by an errant jeep on the beach,
his mother, frail from hospital and drying out,
tumbling yellow roses into his grave. Such waste!
Each day that’s lived is lived in hope and in regret.
We die each day and not from love but lack of it:
the pull of your hand away from mine, the turn
of your face aside. Whatever flowers you throw
on that fresh-turned earth will carry with them,
bright and unremarkable, the stench of what was missed.

 

This & Then That

the day is full of possibilities

we can climb the hill into the city
& pass the girl with blue eyes
coming back down
camel coat like a bathrobe
on her shoulders
sleep and love in her eyes

our bags packed with spiced sausage
& cheeses & strong with the smell
of fresh coffee
we sit and eat a slow, late breakfast
you read one of the folded papers
while I wait a little breathlessly
for the waitress to dip low
skirt peeling back from her legs
like fine blue paint

you stop me with a smile

Dave gets up from piano practice
tousle-haired kids draw men like stars
we talk of Rothko, Frank O’Hara, the blues:
Gill out, getting on with life

later we take the cat for a walk
around the park
check out the evening movies
I can tell from the look in your eyes
we’ll be in bed soon
sunset back of the trees

Nancy Nielsen 1930 – 2016

Nancy Nielsen, who has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, was one of the most formidable women it has ever been my pleasure – honour – to have met. Accomplished, clear-headed, rarely one to waste time or words unnecessarily, if you had the good fortune to be accepted as a friend, you felt it was something you had earned. Something to be cherished.

Nancy was a dedicated and hard-working conservationist – with a particular interest in the coastal area of Downeast Maine where she lived – a botanist, educator and – far from least  – a poet. I got to know Nancy through her partner and fellow poet, Alan Brooks, initially when Alan was living in England, and then, later, on a number of happy and memorable visits to Stone Man Farm, their secluded home on Straight Bay outside Lubec.

It was with Alan’s help, advice and encouragement that, in 1977, I began editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine, which was to feature both his own and Nancy’s work, and in 1984, in conjunction with Stone Man Press, we published a book of Nancy’s poems, East of the Light.

This poem comes from that collection …

Sometimes In The Summer

Sometimes in the summer
dusk, dark
all the hidden, sought, found
children quiet
screen doors
slapped
closed
cicadas
my grandmother said come
and we carried the linen
cutwork
roses, fine rolled hems
stitched, laid by in chests
used, darned
into the garden,
where for years linens were spread
to whiten
in dew
in moonlight
we laid them on the grass
the paths
between pale shapes
of nightblooming flowers
sometimes
my grandmother smiled
on her knees
her rough hands smoothing
linens
breathing the flowers

And this, from the poetry blog, Salt and Stone Poetry, on which she and Alan published and shared their work, is I believe, the last poem that Nancy wrote …

Oh, Who’d Leave This World

When the wind
that wind
wind from the sea
salt and wrack
lifting the meadow grass
ghosting with fog

or where
racket of crows
caw and caw
dipping
into the wind

Who’d set aside the book
this book any book
so filled with life
book on the table

Side by side
we talk of the stories
wind from the south

The wind outside
salt marsh wind
wind from the sea

who?

Alan will continue to post Nancy’s unpublished poems, along with his own work, on the Salt and Stone Poetry blog …

A full obituary can be found here, from the Bangor Daily News

 

Crime Vault Live

The 4th instalment of Crime Vault Live, a monthly podcast in which Michael Carlson and Mark Billingham, amidst considerable banter, discuss and dissect whatever’s new on the crime scene horizon – books, films, TV shows – in addition to harking back to the glory days of yesteryear [is that where I come in?] is now available (you can link to it here).

Subjects for discussion this month included the new biography of John LeCarre, the movie, “Black Mass” and the novels of George V. Higgins – in the midst of which Mike and Mark quizzed me about my writing, old, new and, yes, forthcoming.

It was a lot of fun to make and I think that comes through.

Mike Carlson has written about this episode on his invaluable blog, Irresistible Targets. Here’s part of what he had to say …

Mark Billingham and I greet John Harvey, one of the greatest of British crime writers, creator of Resnick, and as I point out, in many ways one of the last of the old style pulpsmiths. And it’s the place John makes a stunning announcement about an unexpected new novel! It’s a wide-ranging show highlighted by our INTERROGATION of John. I managed to avoid discussing his Clint Eastwoody western series, Hart the Regulator (of which I have a complete set of the old paperbacks) which has books with titles taken, as this blog’s was, from John Stewart. Nor his excellent but now overlooked stand-alone thrillers Frame and Blind, and I spared you further discussion of his poetry magazine Slow Dancer (where I first encountered John when he printed some of my poems) and we should have talked about his own poetry. But listen to his take on the introduction of Paul Christopher in one of Charles McCarry’s novels.

You can read the rest here … and I commend it to your attention.

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.

COV_sweetheart

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.

51gchhgNbPL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_

 

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.

rsz_pighog_harwood_150924_210229_a

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

 

Lee Harwood: 6 June 1939 to 26 July, 2015

 

Unknown

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.

S D 3

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