Collected Poems, Lee Harwood
[Shearsman Books, 2004, ISBN 090756240X, 16, 522pp]


At last, the book that we have eagerly awaited for years – Lee Harwood's Collected Poems. Well done indeed Shearsman – shame on you Faber and Faber!

Why shame on you? Well, as John Ashbery commented years ago 'Lee Harwood is one of Britain's best poets' and, as I am positive that Harwood's work will absolutely stand the long-term test of time, recommendations such as Ashbery's should have been attended to with all seriousness by Britain's major publishing houses. But they weren't, so we carry on and, at last, well done again Shearsman.

What John Ashbery went on to add to his comment was, 'Lee Harwood is one of Britain's best poets and best kept secrets. Perhaps that relative 'secrecy' has something to do with the quiet dignity of Harwood the man himself, in an age when the personality of the poet, like the personality of the politician, has superseded the work itself. Not so in Lee Harwood's case. For 40plus years Harwood has been producing lyric poems and stories of outstanding quality and originality at a distance from all the hoo-hah of publishing and Generations 'New', 'Next' or 'Whenever'. This book is the Real Thing. In an ideal world I have absolutely no doubt that Lee Harwood will be seen as one of the major serious lyric poets of the late Twentieth/early Twenty-first Centuries. How so? It is impossible to summarise but, along with the reading of this magnificent Collected Poems
, perhaps the following manifold reasons may have something to do with it...

Lee Harwood is one of the few poets who has negotiated the tension between direct, honest, personal expression and the techniques of Modernist and Postmodernist literature, which are, let's face it, resistant to such personal expression. Like John Ashbery, he utilises the dream and surrealism in elaborate, even baroque fictions that engage the reader in participatory reading, rather than passive consumption – he coaxes a reader's response and negotiation with the fiction, rather than writing a hidden poetic meaning into his poems. His work is emotionally resonant, erotic, engaged in intimate human relationships and engaged with various sexual politics; sexual politics that have proved to be of enormous significance in our social and political age. As such, his work is a living embodiment of many of the issues of 'the personal is political' from the 60s and 70s, developing these through a further three decades of political and social influence. His work is also rich in the personalised, politicised and spiritual concerns of environmental and ecocritical thinking (a thesis I shall be developing in the forthcoming Salt Companion to the Works of L.H
ed. Robert Sheppard), yet never once does Harwood become the nature poet that many of his Romantic predecessors and late twentieth century contemporaries became – he always has the knack of finding the truth in his own way of saying.

In the introduction to this Collected Poems, Harwood calls all of his poems 'stories'; the large number of prose poems for which he is well known fitting well with this descriptive model. Yet even his lineated free verses engage with narrative – however fragmented that narrative may be at times coaxing the reader into making surprising links and, therefore, intimate revelations and discoveries. Harwood is perhaps one of those rare writers for whom there genuinely are as many interpretations as there are readers. Which doesn't mean that these poems and stories are indeterminate, open-ended free-falls through Postmodernism's mirrored halls; not at all. Rather these writings are honestly intimate and plural at the same time – they pull of that surprising and unique feat of developing Romanticism's idealised 'I' and yet, concurrently ironising it through the Postmodernist lens. Harwood's poems/stories are both honest and fictive, public and private, distanced and present at one and the same time; he is the master of the undercut confession, but never in an arch way; always tender and mindful and for all of that utterly believable. It is that integrity that perhaps most of all singles this work out as work of a truly great poet. It is also in the tension between the poet Harwood and the prose writer Harwood that we read into unique territories in British poetry – at many points throughout his career, Harwood's poems defy the conventions of definition. He has also been important for his translations and for his connections with the New York School, as a publisher and as a cornerstone of the small press poetry revival of the 60s and 70s. Important? I could go on.

What more is there to say? This is a nicely printed volume, with some as yet unpublished recent poems alongside the last two most recent individual collections, making the span of this book cover the remarkable time period 1964-2004. If you don't know Lee Harwood's poems, order a copy of this book immediately and savour it slowly over the long autumn and winter nights that will soon be upon us. I guarantee it will change the way you think about words and the world for the better. If you do already know Lee's poems, well, I'm already preaching to the converted.

                         Andy Brown 2004