To Break My Duck: Tom Raworth
Published this review in the most recent issue of .brief. Having since chatted with the man himself via e mail, I can tell you that Tom Raworth is a nice bloke as well as a good writer.
Buy him a beer next time you bump into him. The picture shows Raworth's Selected rather than Collected Poems, but who cares when it looks so good?
REVIEW: TOM RAWORTH, COLLECTED POEMS, CARCANET PRESS
The last time I visited Sydney I spent hours in one of that city’s many rambling libraries, locating fantastically obscure and fast-disintegrating chapbooks by Tom Raworth. With a fifty-dollar photocopying budget I was stocked for years, until I got unreasonably drunk at the ritual going-away party and unwittingly left my stash of goodies in the departure lounge toilets. (Today, I imagine that the discovery by an airport caretaker of Raworth titles like ‘The Exploding Harpoon’ and ‘Write/Ride/Riot’ would be enough to ground my plane, and to put the whole of Australia on an orange level War of Terror paranoia alert.)
Six years after the disaster in Sydney, the lost Raworth poems have found their way back into my hands, as part of the 500-page Collected Poems issued by Carcanet. Collected Poems contains poems from every Raworth publication except Pleasant Butter, a chapbook which was published in 1972 and seems in the intervening years to have vanished from the face of the earth.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a man who has made a poetics out of speed and chance should sacrifice a slice of his ouevre to accident. One could even argue that Carcanet’s volume is a slightly weird home for Raworth - that the words Collected Poems suggest a solidity and stasis that the poet has never sought. Am I the only one who tends to view a Collected Poems as a tidy archive, and to expect sholarly footnotes at every turn? The only footnotes in this book take the piss out of scholarly procedures. Here are the helpful hints that follow ‘El Barco del Abismo’:
Title from St Martinez Ruiz’s Latin American History lecture on Thursday, May the 9th 1968 at noon. I was so impressed I stopped listening..
First line written on Saturday, May the 11th, 10.30 a.m. while drunk on a coach taking us to Alumnecar to visit am avocado pear plantation. In fact I can’t read my handwriting. Part of it could be ‘i caw too long with’.
Next line Saturday, May the 11th, about midnight. That was a strange day.
Four lines from a Spanish Vocabulary, Sunday, May 12th, about 4 p.m. Something else Roy pointed out in the same book: in a list of words to do with crime, police, the law, etc, was the Spanish for ‘tapered trousers’.
Two lines written by Ben Raworth (4) and sent to me in a letter I read at 10.29 a.m. on Monday, May the 13th.
And then it was May the 14th, when I found the last line in a letter from David Ball at 6 a.m.
Perhaps Raworth is giving slow-coach readers like myself a signal here – perhaps I’m being told to read the Collected Poems as a mockery rather than an affirmation of the conventions of the literature industry. Certainly, Raworth has always found his poetry in the place where poetic conventions collapse into chaos or absurdity, or both.
In his early, often self-published work, Raworth ignored the conventions of postwar English poetry and embraced the wild new styles being developed across the Atlantic. Sixties Raworth productions like ‘September Morning’ and ‘I Die of Thirst Beside the Fountain’ have much in common with the work of the New York School of poets headed by Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. The chatty tone of the poems reminds us of O’Hara, but Raworth shows none of O’Hara’s interest in autobiography, preferring the impersonal abstraction of Ashbery. Raworth’s choice of imagery owed little to either O’Hara or Ashbery, and seemed to look back over the heads of contemporary British poets to the Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century. The romantic sublime has turned ridiculous, but Raworth’s mockery is laced with affection:
open the cupboard
in it the head i wore long ago when i was a soldier my
god, the rain on the night sea
Epiphany, or silliness, or both? In Raworth’s early work attempts to describe scenery or states of mind or to build narrative are continually and artfully frustrated, and each poem becomes a catalogue of false starts, confused endings, and opportunities lost, not so much a ruin as a folly. Critics might scoff at these poems’ ‘artificiality’ or ‘frivolity’, but to me they look a lot like life.
As his reputation and his confidence increased Raworth began to experiment with all sorts of forms, from the haiku to the prose poem, and to weave other texts into his own. My favourite thing in the Collected Poems is the prose poem sequence ‘Logbook’, which ransacks the Boys’ Own Annual school of English literature:
At night in the forest we slept, listening to the sound of our future oars. ‘Let us’, said one of the natives whose language we could speak, but imperfectly, ‘build from these trees a thing which we call a “ship” – from the wood remaining I will show you how to make “paper” – on this “paper” (once we set sail) I will show you how to “write” (with a charred twig from the same tree) – and if your grandmother is with you, this is how we suck eggs.’ From the shore we watched the ‘ship’ approach us. We set sail in small craft to meet the strangers, pausing only to write the pages 106, 291, 298, 301, 345, 356, 372, 399, 444, and 453 of the logbook
Biggles on acid? Conrad on acid? Like all good remixers, Raworth leaves us wanting to revisit the originals.
In Raworth’s work in the late ‘70s and ‘80s there is something like a tendency toward the establishment of a short, fast line as the basic unit of both sound and sense. It is as though the old reluctance to build a ‘serious’ poem has sharpened into something like a proscription. Poems like ‘Box In The Trunk’ offer the reader few concessions:
blue rabbit swirls to ask for bread
everyone finishes the same time
invention was one snowshoe
with two feet on
But Raworth was not content to live for long in rubble like this. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s he wrote a series of long, beautiful, and rather sinister poems which turn disruption into a principle of unity. Here is one of the 111 stanzas of 1993’s ‘Eternal Sections’:
looking for shelter will cause
change to suppose a habit
into the grinders
all were watching their terminals
flowering after the long winter
the search had gone much further
down the project
past the edifices
turned silvery with light
to help her
encased in flames
we hurried along
Here several narratives flash in and out of sight, and seem momentarily to combine. Rhythms are introduced and banished, only to recur. Juxtaposed images ‘charge’ one another with a grace that reminds me of Pound. Raworth’s line remains his basic unit, but it is no longer such a barrier to meaning. The poet has found an essentially simple form capable of almost infinite variation.
Raworth has remained something of a poet’s poet, and it can only be hoped that the Collected Poems will give him the critical attention he deserves. Any comprehensive account of Raworth’s achievement needs to recognise its strange debt to the English intellectual cultural tradition it rebels against. Raworth’s technique is in an important sense empiricist. Often his poems seem to be motivated by a version of Christopher Isherwood’s ideal of the writer as photographer, though Raworth wishes to ‘photograph’ thoughts as much as events and objects.
Raworth’s constant mockery of the conventions of literature is only possible because his poems constantly record images and thoughts that cannot comfortably be contained within the formal and thematic conventions of ‘serious’ literature. Empiricism loosed from the conventions of comon sense and tradition begets a ferociously intelligent nonsense. John Cleese would understand.
The political implications of Raworth’s poetry should not be ignored. Anyone who visits http://www.tomraworth.com/ will find a counter ‘for the number of your genes owned by multinationals’. The poems do not display their author’s sympathies in the same way, but they do display a technique which is subtly but powerfully political. In its relentless critique of the way ‘serious’ literature and by extension bourgeois ideology views the world, Raworth’s poetry reminds me of the young Karl Marx’s call for ‘the ruthless criticism of every existing idea’. Raworth’s critiques may be intellectually ruthless, but they are spiced with humanity and humour. Indeed, the triumph of the long poems of the late 80s and 90s is their ability to combine some of the deconstructive energies of postmodernism with a high modernist constructivism. It’s quite a brew:
tear away whole sections
of what is good
bags of camel hair
a blue that carries further
the unlikeness of dusk and chaos
crossing a stream
where tributaries enter a river
you can’t wait for science
to drain that space of wet earth dry
the face seemed to lack contour
nothing is left but a vast expanse
deep grooves of habit
trodden into the soil
a full moon crossed by a vulture