Friday, 8 February 2008

Simon Turner - Close Encounters (1) - Lee Harwood, 'Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem'

Lee Harwood has become a definite fixture in the pantheon of poetry gods who've influenced the way my work has developed over the years, but my discovery of his work was, in a lot of ways, a stroke of good luck. His poetry had been recommended to me by my uncle, who had seen him read a couple of times. Harwood's name, however, was completely unknown to me, though this was the first year of my undergraduate degree and, frankly, I knew nothing. Still don't. But on a whim, I looked for a copy of his collection of the time, Morning Light, in the University of Warwick bookshop and found one [1]. I looked through the list of previous publications at the back: no titles I knew, and no presses either. Obviously I was familiar with the Penguin Modern Poetry series, and had heard of John Ashbery, who was in the same volume as Harwood, but who was this Tom Raworth fellow who made up the trinity? Who ran Pig Press, and why hadn't I ever seen any of their books at the local Waterstone's? Who was Tristan Tzara, and why was Harwood so keen on translating him?

All of these questions would, in the fullness of time, be answered, up to a point, but what mattered right now was the fact that Harwood's work felt like it had dropped out of an alternative universe - which, in a way, it had. I knew nothing at this stage about the aftershock of the so-called Poetry Wars of the 1970s, nor about the internicine struggle between mainstream and experimental poetics that underpinned much of the aesthetic debate about poetry in the post-war years. Nor was I familiar with the important trends in American poetry that had so influenced Harwood's own approach: I loved Williams, liked some Pound, had 'issues' with Eliot, blah de blah de blah, but hadn't yet fallen in love with the Black Mountaineers, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry seemed as alien a landscape as the moons of Jupiter, frankly. Jack Spicer could have been a radio DJ for all I knew, and James Schuyler a copy editor toiling in obscurity for some local interest rag in one of the red states.

What this is all a prelude to is the purity of my reading of Harwood at that time, unhampered by prejudice, not tied down by history and socio-political affiliation. The poems just were, but I knew they were something special; they sang in a way that a lot of contemporary poetry didn't at that time - or, rather, the contemporary poetry I had either found in bookshops, or studied in class. What was apparent first and foremost was Harwood's clarity: the language was so simple, so unadorned, as too seem entirely without artifice, though, as I've come to realise, it's extremely hard to write simply and to write well at the same time [2]. Yet it was also apparent that this style had been worked at, that the phrasing, simple as it seemed, was opening up entire worlds in the space of a few words. Suggesting enormity, rather than showing it.

My favourite poem in the collection at the time - it remains one of my favourites by Harwood to this day - was 'Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem'. In some ways, everything I've written since has been an effort, however oblique, to rewrite that one poem. I've never quite recovered from it. The title alone is worth the price of entry: there's a wonderful deadpan humour to it, entirely at odds with what usually passes for 'humorous' verse. Indeed, that's one thing that makes Harwood's poetry special - his refusal to differentiate between registers, his shifts in tone from the comic or the whimsical, to the darker shades which have always been present in his work.

From the title, let's move - with tubthumping obviousness - to the first line: 'The summer's here.' Which is about as plain and unadorned as it's possible to get. Yet it also does everything a first line needs to, whilst jettisoning the gubbins that a great many poets would feel the need to include. The first stanza goes on:

Down to the beach
to swim and lounge and swim again.
Gorgeous bodies young and old.
Me too. Just gorgeous. Just feeling good
and happy and so at ease in the world.

The trick here, of course, is that Harwood gives the impression of speaking just to the reader: he makes himself an active presence in the poem, whilst at the same time evading an unproblematic use of the lyric 'I'. That is to say that the 'I' is not assumed, but is physically inserted - 'Me too' - into the fabric of the poem, quietly drawing attention to the gap between author and text. I'd call it 'postmodern', but that would give the impression that the poem is all intellectual play of surfaces and depthless reification of the commodified body in a post-industrial epoch, which it isn't. Indeed, what stands out is the sensual quality of the poem, the physical impact of its subtly adjectival method. The sea is 'silky', the air 'soft and warm, / like fur brushing my body'. In some regards, the poem is a collaborative effort between author and reader (or text and reader, more correctly). The poem, rather than simply forcing an impression or narrative upon the reader, actually opens events up for a second degree of experience. The reader becomes a part of the poem not in any passive way, but in such a manner that they are engaged physically with the mechanics of the text. We ask questions: in what way is the sea 'silky'? What is the exact experience of soft, warm air, and how does that relate to the physical sensation of being brushed by fur? Slowly, imperceptibly, the poem enacts a sensual narrative upon the body.

Immediately, though, the sensation of being suspended in the poem - appropriately, given the central motif of the ocean - Harwood pulls the rug out from under our feet by including a dictionary definition of 'gorgeous':

The dictionary says
"gorgeous - adorned with rich and brilliant colours,
sumptuously splendid, showy, magnificent, dazzling."

This succeeds in drawing attention to the constructed nature of the text, rendering all that has gone before a kind of illusion. One might be reminded of the word glamour, which has a similarly duplicitous nature, redolent of both dazzling beauty and deceit. Harwood seems unsure, almost, of the sensual effects of his poem; in some regards, we might read the dictionary definition as preceeding the poem, and the 'showy, magnifient, dazzling' lines which Harwood has achieved as being a response. The poem, Harwood reminds us, lest we fall foul of a too-easy reading, always begins in words, and an untroubled relationship between word and world can never, finally, be achieved.

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[1] This is remarkable, as his books weren't - aren't - easy to come by: Harwood's long been a staple of small independent presses, whose books simply don't get the same degree of distribution and promotion as the big hitters - Faber, Cape, Picador. A shame, as the work being done by the small press world deserves far better recognition than it is currently given.

[2] As a test, try writing like Harwood, or Raymond Carver. It's tough: on the one hand, there's the constant difficulty of making sure your studiedly 'simple' phrasing isn't simply flat and uninspired; on the other, there's the need to constantly check one's tendencies towards the baroque, towards purple euphoria. What results is usually unspeakable.

4 comments:

Emily Hasler said...

Interesting, now going to check out some Harwood quicksmart.

Cheers Doc :)

Steven Waling said...

His Collected Poems are published by Shearsman - and are utterly dazzling.

The first Harwood books I came across were the Pig Press books, in a bookshop in Grassmere.

Utterly marvelous poet. It's a shame that you have to discover great poetry in this way; that such great poetry is totally neglected in faour of nonentities.

Gists & Piths said...

Steven,

Thanks for the comment. I also totally agree. I think the big problem is the myth that anything on the margins is automatically 'difficult' and 'impenetrable', whereas the only reason Harwood isn't read by billions - and he should be - is because he isn't hyped to the skies (and, again, he should be).

It isn't all bad news, though, and what's interesting is that there seems to be a clutch of poets with new collections out who've absorbed Harwood's influence in a variety of ways (Peter Hughes, Ian Davidson, Michael Ayres, all with Shearsman). They're all marginal too - again, though, extremely accessible - but it bodes well for the future: John Ashbery's comment that Lee H is Britain's best kept poetry secret is thankfully, joyfully, becoming less and less true with each passing year.

Simon Turner

Emily Hasler said...

Fortunately, the library of Warwick University does have a copy of Harwood's Collected. Or at least it will do once I have finished reading it and forcing everyone I meet to read it.