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  Tom Raworth, Collected Poems.
Manchester: Carcanet. 576pp. £16.95. isbn 1-85754-624-5

Nate Dorward (ed), Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth.
The Gig.109 Hounslow Avenue, Willowdale, Ontario, ON M2N 2BI, Canada,
ndorward@sprint.ca 288pp. $25 Canadian, $19 USA, £15. isbn 0-9685294-3-7

It’s a great thing to have the poetry of Tom Raworth available in a collected edition from Carcanet Press in their Poetry Pleiade series: it’s significant in all sorts of ways, and it means that something has fundamentally changed in the field we call British Poetry. It would be an understatement to say that Tom Raworth is one of the most interesting and inventive poets writing in English but one must start somewhere. Reading his work is a real and permanent pleasure that keeps on developing. The early poems with their unusual focused attention to real events as they happen (missing out scene setting and explanation) have a surreal quality without the overload and boredom of much literary surrealism. The poems are so much faster than earlier surrealist poems. Little bits of accurate / amusing / unusual / delicate / surprising transcription of the world are patched together, often with the present time of writing and the writing process, to make a new kind of fragmentary lyric open to a rendering of much more experience than had previously seemed possible.

              she came in laughing his
              shit’s blue and red today those
              wax crayons he ate last night you know
              he said eating the cake the
              first thing nurses learn

Inconsequential domestic details build up to an authentic scene without being loaded with laboured comment or pushy significance. In this poem ‘Morning’ there is coloured baby shit, a joke about unwanted erections being slapped down in hospital, and a child holding a cat with a bird in its mouth. The human animal is everywhere chaotic and incompletely socialised, the children curious and inventive, the parents hilarious and a little out of control. The lower case notation and the confident but unusual use of line breaks and spaces is the opposite of official verse culture of that time. It is a series of poetic conventions that one soon learns as a reader: it’s home made but it works.

              but i don’ love
              you she said there were
              drops of sweat
              on the receiver
              warm sun the sky

Here, in ‘But I Don’ Love
’ the ear for speech tone and rhythms, the experience of listening to a telephone whilst looking at something else (so common and unremarkable now), of thinking dividedly therefore, is assembled into a narrative out of the barest but sufficient details of landscape and location. This works to communicate personal relationships from a particular world of outer city sprawl. The allotments and motorway underpasses, a trailing marginal suburbia and its inconclusive scenarios are accurately set down.

The interrupted process of writing, an urgent feel for the speed of perception and an openness to wit and new knowledge was combined in this poetry with a wicked sense of irreverent play. Against this the mainstream poetry of that time (whether self-important confessionalism, Liverpool whimsy, nature brutalism, or ‘see how travelled and learned I am’) seems very dull indeed. Raworth was onto something right from the start. In the sixties and seventies his books were published art objects for the cognoscenti, you had to be in the know to find them, and appreciating them you could feel that you had found something worthwhile, that you knew what was happening. That was the aura that the brilliant publisher, poet and designer Asa Benveniste of Trigram, the main publisher of Raworth, managed to put out. It was a bit like the fine art scene and a bit like the mod scene.

There were Raworth works that pushed the self-conscious writing of poetry through a sort of modernist trompe l’oeil to self destruction: extreme fragmentation, ludicrous disappearing brevity, casual-seeming notebooks, diary poems about nothing happening. All of it was testing the possibilities of writing and consciousness in books such as Moving
and Act. In a way these books were a dead end ­ but they were a comic, self-aware, thoroughly engaged dead-end, as if an intelligence like Beckett’s had grown up a Ted and stuck to poetry itself: cut-down, absurd, wide-awake, funny and sharp.

Every so often it seemed that there might be a breakthrough and that the dull world of English poetry publishing would catch on to this hugely inventive unsentimental and moving poetry. There was a Penguin Modern Poets volume with Ashbery, Raworth, and Harwood together, and much later on a selected Raworth in Paladin (thanks to the bare-faced, job-on-the-line editing of John Muckle and the knowing freelance opportunism of Iain Sinclair) but such openings were all too quickly closed down, the books pulped, the accounts committees reinstated. Our main poetry journals just didn’t get it. Much of Raworth’s work was published by fugitive small presses in UK and USA and the readerships were almost completely separated in those days before email discussion lists and new publishing technologies. Raworth had a career among the West Coast American poets and was published by presses like The Figures, Poltroon and Turtle Island. For a long time he was the only British poet who had any kind of presence in that world and he was not very visible in England because of the dreadful state of mainstream publishing here.

Raworth meanwhile got hold of a new sense of continuity and purpose with his sonnet sequences such as Eternal Sections and Survival and longer short-line poems like Ace, Writing and Catacoustics written (as ever) in lower case but in a new continuous apparently unpunctuated style. Of course for a poet there are always several systems of possible punctuation available; playing one off against another creates the complex of musical and semantic effects that makes poetry move. At the same time that most of the Bay Area poets were writing the works that Silliman would come to describe in his ground breaking account The New Sentence, Raworth focused his extraordinary talents and energy on a new kind of minimalism: abandoning the sentence and relying almost exclusively on the line break to punctuate his writing.

              till you exit the system
              to resume eating
              plays on
              under ground steam
              frozen
              as earth
              blurs out picture
              your country gives you
              metal pieces
              coloured
              by fragility of life
              a belt buckle
              of imitation antique brass
              flickers in as
              though the cuts
              were frame to frame
              while memory nags
              at persistence of vision
              from screen to drawing
              no matter
              what
              is a sudden change
              for in this area
              that cannot be
              labelled a landscape

In this passage from Writing
, bits of language that relate to the physical world we know through our senses (under, ground, earth, metal, landscape) are stretched and adjusted but not quite resolved by modes of representation and perception (picture, coloured, frame, screen, dreaming, memory, vision). The meaning is all potential: pointing towards what is repeatedly deferred, partly adhering to experience but snapping back before any fixed context or verifiable statement can be established. The lines seem to refer back and seem to also arise meaningfully out of a context which is then turned and modified into another meaning that arises in relation to the following lines. This sometimes confusing, sometimes vertiginous process has been noted by a number of writers, the best so far being John Barrell whose Flight of Syntax is well worth reading if you can get hold of it. Raworth’s later poems such as ‘Blue Screen’, ‘West Wind’, and ‘Dark Senses’ critically incorporate recognisable language of our time and turn it into decentred satire. He consistently invents the way forward into meaning-effects we hadn’t imagined. The Collected Poems is a hugely impressive and original body of work, as Robert Creeley says: ‘ “Great” is too small a word for what he has managed to get done’.

I wonder why, after all this time, Carcanet is attempting to come to terms with the most ambitious poetry that we have? Could it be that they see themselves potentially outflanked by Bloodaxe publishing Prynne, Oliver and MacSweeney? Both of these lists have passed through the transition from small press to mainstream but neither has managed to escape looking partial and unbalanced, even dull. Now they seem to be trying to prove that they are more general and representative of what is really happening. Given that they are substantially funded by the taxpayer, that is probably fair enough and about time. For whatever reason it came about, the collected Raworth is a real publishing event and Carcanet are to be congratulated. I do however wish that this book been published in two companion volumes so that it was easier to use.

You might want to get a special issue of The Gig as a companion volume to the Raworth Pleiade. Nate Dorward’s discriminating and intelligently edited journal has been going since November 1998 with new poetry, brief reviews, and a number of focused special issues and supplementary publications. Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth, includes essays and other contributions about Raworth’s poetry by a whole range of contributors including Peter Middleton, Peter Robinson, Marjorie Perloff, Simon Perril, Ron Silliman and Anselm Hollo (to name a few). The specially written contributions are various, from professional academic criticism to memoirs and enthusiasms, all of them worth reading if you want to see what there is out there and what might be interesting approaches to Raworth’s poetry. Editor Nate Dorward supplies a thoroughly helpful select bibliography which ought to alert some librarians and researchers on the lookout. Anyone who wants to know what is happening in poetry needs access to these books.


              ã Tony Lopez, 2003