Tom Raworth, 1938-2017

Tom Raworth Sept 2015

The first book of Tom Raworth’s poetry I bought was The Relation Ship; a second, 1969, edition of the book originally published by Goliard Press two years previously.  Goliard, later Cape Goliard, being an important small press – vital, at the time – set up by Raworth himself and Barry Hall.  I would have bought it almost certainly at Compendium in Camden Town, discovering Raworth round about the same time as I did Lee Harwood, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn.

It’s battered now with use and faded, but the poems still have freshness and delicacy and precision – you can sense Raworth stepping with care between the words …

THE OTHERS
(for anselm & josephine)

she said nothing
leaned on the stone bridge             the wind
howled in my ear, pause
between the dropping
of the record & the music

dust                      the wind                 the streets
already in shadow

we walked                  someone
playing the piano in a tiled room

oh
said her mother a
mister dante called you
beatrice

And I’m surprised, reading these early poems again now, the extent to which, in some, Raworth sounds like Harwood and vice versa. This is Tom, but it could be Lee – the title, especially.

YOU WERE WEARING BLUE

the explosives are nearer this evening
the last train leaves for the south
at six            tomorrow
the announcements will be in a different language

i chew the end of a match
the tips of my finger and thumb are sticky

i will wait at the station and you
will send a note, i
will read it
it will be raining

our shadows in the electric light

when i was eight they taught me real
writing
to join up the letters

listen you said i
preferred to look
at the sea.   everything stops there are strange angles

only the boats spoil it
making you focus further

Towards the ends of their lives they were both living in Brighton and Hove – the same ships, the same sea. The last time I saw Tom was in September, 2015, when, with others, we were reading at the Red Roaster Café in Brighton, as part of an evening celebrating Lee’s life and work – he had died that July – and that’s where the photograph of Tom at this top of his piece was taken. He may have needed a little help up onto the stage, but, as I’ve said elsewhere, when he read he read like a lion.

The final entry in his blog, dated 23rd January, read …

Last Friday after two days of tests, scans, bone-marrow extraction and so on, our Doctor came in the evening to say the cancer had badly metastsized…to bone marrow, liver, right lung, kidney and small bowel. Nothing to be done except palliative care and that I had at most two weeks to live. So that’s it. I can’t see I shall ever get back here. Emails will reach Val val.raworth@gmail.com who obviously will pass along to me whatever she can. Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run.

He died on February, 8th, the world a lesser place.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Lee Harwood Night

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Put 15 poets in a room and ask them to read for just three minutes each – every organiser’s nightmare. But that’s exactly what Michaela Ridgeway, putting on a Pighog night in honour of the late Lee Harwood, did yesterday at Brighton’s Redroaster coffee house, and, against all poetry reading odds, it worked. Starting promptly at 8.00pm (in itself some kind of first) the formal part of the evening wrapped up at 9.15, just five minutes behind schedule.

Readers had been asked for either a poem of their own, dedicated to Lee or associated with him in some way, a poem of Lee’s and, possibly, a brief anecdote. Ken Edwards, with a new piece of writing, managed, superbly and with great humour, all three in one. Some of those reading had been part of a monthly poetry group that Lee had guided for years; others – Richard Cupidi, Paul Matthews, Tom Raworth – were very much a part of Lee’s past, his poetry, and his Brighton life.

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In the absence of Robert Sheppard, editor of the comprehensive Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, I had been asked to introduce the evening, which I did, harking back, in part, to the first occasions on which I would have hear Lee read – at the ICA or the Roundhouse in the mid-70s and likely in the company of Libby Houston, Carlyle Reedy and The Liverpool Scene.

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In an interview I did with Lee for Slow Dancer magazine, he talked about one of Soho’s iconic early coffee bars, Sam Widges, where he used to hang out in the early 60s with the likes of Pete Brown, Libby Houston and Spike Hawkins, and where, for the first time, he came across the poetry of Tristan Tzara, a major influence on his writing. One of the few places that then stayed open through the night, I would sometimes fetch up there in the early hours after an all-nighter listening to Ken Colyer at Studio 51 – a style of music that, as Lee was quick to point out, he had long left behind.

I went to listen to Ken Colyer when I was fifteen or sixteen, but then I converted to Charlie Parker and after that it was all modern jazz – Monk, Parker, the Jazz Messengers, Gillespie and then British bands, especially Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, whose music really hit home. I can’t explain why. I just loved it. And I suppose for the same reason I loved the writing of Tzara and Pound and later on Borges, Patchen, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on. It was all the same cloth really. It was the same with painting. I loved Kandinsky – a range of forms floating on the canvas and in some way bonding.

Slow Dancer 30, Summer 1993

Appropriate then, that the last time I heard Lee read was at Shoreham WordFest in the autumn of 2014, when we were both performing with John Lake’s fine little four piece jazz group. Lee hadn’t worked with them before, but a mutual understanding quickly grew between them at rehearsals and on the evening itself the blend of music and words was just about perfect. It was great to see Lee in such fine form and clearly enjoying the experience as much as he did. If there had to be a final memory of him, this, for me, was about the best it could be.

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