Guest Review: Thompson On Harwood

Nathan Thompson reviews
Selected Poems
By Lee Harwood

Choosing what to include in the Selected Poems of a poet such as Lee Harwood must be nigh-on impossible. His work is allusive and elusive, multi-faceted and open, and often curiously nostalgic for the present – all in all pretty tricky to pin down. I guess for the editors of this volume there were, broadly, two ways of going about it: either simply pick the “best” poems or attempt to follow the trajectory of the work as a whole.

This team of editors, which includes Harwood himself, seem to have adopted the latter approach. As such, people are going to notice the absence of particular, and anthologised, favourites. Personally I missed the lightness of touch of “Central Park Zoo” and the free-wheeling tenderness, exhaustion and absorption of “Love in the Organ Loft”. But these qualities are to be found throughout this book and these poems are available elsewhere if I want to read them.

And this is an important point: as the first selection of Lee Harwood’s poems to be published since the Collected came out in 2005 it doesn’t need to include all the “best bits”. It’s doing a different job. And as a distillation of the essence and importance of Lee Harwood’s writing, this book strikes me as about as close as it’s possible to get.

Just as the editors of this Selected Poems couldn’t include everything of note (appropriately enough, since presence and absence are recurring themes in the poems), neither is it possible to discuss Harwood’s work from all, or even most, perspectives within the scope of a brief review. So I’m not going to attempt it. If that’s what you’re here for, click away now (Roobarb And Custard is available on YouTube if you’re killing time). Instead I’m going to concentrate on two aspects of Harwood’s work fore-grounded in the Selected Poems that remain constants throughout Harwood’s creative output: story-telling and the poetry’s relationship with the reader.

In 1979, in a poem addressed to Lee Harwood, his friend Paul Evans notes, probably with tongue in cheek, the impossibility of describing the colour-variations of the sea: “It’s no good Lee; it can’t be done”.

But “it” (the second “it”) depends on precisely what you’re trying to do and at what point “it” is deemed to be complete. Harwood’s work as a whole qualifies Evans’ statement, implying that any description of an aspect of the outside world depends on what your expectations are, and who’s helping. “It” can’t be done assertively. But it can be done by suggestive and collaborative means: juxtaposition of phrases; careful use of the physical spaces between words and the mental distance this creates between ideas – the poetic equivalent of engaging with the space between the sea and the tide-line where you know the sea has been – and by accepting that you need help: asking and hoping that the reader will interact with both the words on the page and his or her own mental constructs and experiences in order to create a transitionally “complete” version of the poem or description:

touching you like the
and soft as
like the scent of flowers and
like an approaching festival
whose promise is failed through carelessness

[from “Linen”]

This is, of course, not a concern particular to poetry but one inherent in any form of interaction. And, as such, Lee Harwood explores the gaps in sense that exist as part of our attempts to communicate experience. There comes a point when if you want to share, rather than superimpose, an experience you have to trust the other person’s imagination and let go, taking the risk that the gift may not be accepted or even understood. But for the poet there is the potential gain of creating a new experience for the reader every time he or she reads a poem, since that poem will necessarily shift with the ephemera of the reader’s subconscious mind at every instance of reading. There is also the intimacy (lacking in more didactic poetry, be it Avant-garde or mainstream) and openness that such a shared experience, literary or otherwise, brings. Perhaps this, along with the long and languorous lines, is partly what gives Harwood’s poetry a sensuality, even when the subject matter would seem to preclude it:

A group of men can sit stiffly
for a regimental photo of the survivors of the disaster,
and then try to look neat and alert.

And their children ... ?
living in a calm beyond this knowledge?
It is not so much a question of guilt
on either side, but maybe some form of recognition
which rarely happens.

And the years pass until one generation dies
and their knowledge with them
leaving behind only feelings of confused longing
that quietly spread beyond any conscious resentment.

Now put it together.

[from “One, Two, Three”]

The willingness in Harwood’s work to both share and respond marks it out. All writing is, of course, an act of sharing. But usually there is a power flow from the writer at the top, down through what is written, to the reader at the bottom. The work itself is the medium for something else – a message or what have you, usually set out pretty clearly, or distorted equally clearly (as with so-called unreliable narration). In Harwood’s re-assignation of the roles in this relationship, the spaces themselves, the gaps between the three parties (as with the ellipses in the work itself) are highlighted and become integral. Although interpretation is a necessary part of any artistic relationship, and allowing for differences of opinion and alternative readings, the intentional creative flow (of somebody actively “telling” a relatively passive somebody else “something”) is not usually actively disrupted as a necessary pretext to the act of interpretation itself.

But a Harwood poem responds to the reader as much as the reader responds to it, and the writer is almost disempowered by not being able to be part of this reader response. In its “complete” state the work hovers between that which is written and the reader, who is implicitly asked to add something because it is absent. And only at this point in the process, when the reader starts “telling” the poem what fills those gaps, is a “something”, however nebulous, created.

Thus Harwood’s work tacitly posits that in a healthy reciprocal relationship with the reader a poet suggests and even coaxes, but doesn’t show and tell. As such, posturing and muscle-flexing, whether that of the self-consciously Bardic; that of the “elitist language and technical conceit is more important than communication” camp; or that of the self-appointed movement-style everyman, is refreshingly absent (I should say that the examples here are of course extremes, rather than representative types, before the comments stream begins to bubble).

The interactive aspect of the poems sits well with the collage techniques Harwood often uses in his work – whether that of self-collage – the distancing of opinions implicit in the frequent use of quotation marks, fragmentation, spaces between words, and italics; or the inclusion/collusion of other writers’ words, which provide hiatus, self-checking when on the brink of stating a case too strongly, and most importantly reinforce a sense of conversation, communication and collaboration.

And this concern is still apparent in the new poems of this Selected, particularly in those extracted from the otherwise unpublished sequence “Gifts Received: Six Poems for friends”, in which Harwood responds to the gifts of the title, in this case a Mexican bus ticket (which is printed in the middle of the text):

where language falters near struck dumb
to try to say what matters
and what’s so far from clear so beyond the words

[from “Gifts Received: Six Poems for Friends – 5”]

At first glance all of this may seem to contradict the other preoccupation that this Selected highlights in Harwood’s work – that of storytelling or, perhaps more accurately, story creating. However, Harwood’s stories are rarely conventional. Sometimes they begin where most stories finish. For example in the first line of “Landscape with 3 people” the narrator rides off with three horsemen as if into the sunset of a Western, which is a way of foregrounding the “what’s here now” element of the present, where the future is ambiguous and the past, well, “it was all ice-skating” to borrow Harwood’s own phrase from “When the geography was fixed”. And the tricks and devices of narration are self-consciously highlighted – for example the murder weapon in “The doomed fleet”:

The heavy service revolver seemed somehow too
melodramatic to be real enough for its purpose.
I suppose there was no doubt about efficiency
- only about motives.

The framework is laid out for the reader to assemble, the comprising parts are disarmingly simple, and structural and psychological devices are often presented on the equivalent of a literary sandwich board.

But at the same time the doubt this poetry raises in motives as “explainers” for particular actions or events (even to the extent that the text, by means of collage and other techniques of disassociation such as ellipsis or shifting pronouns, gently dissuades the reader from trusting that “the writer thinks” or “this is about”: the usual tools for straightforward textual interpretation) allows not just for ambiguity but for the reader’s input as party to the all-important creative participation and inherent shape-shifting that paradoxically defines a typical Harwood poem.

This technique allows Harwood to avoid the moralising attitude of much recent poetry, which imposes a coherent and emotionally linear narrative and the appearance of “motive” after the event. In a Harwood poem the narrator doesn’t claim to “see what’s really always there” and it seems strange to suppose that he or she can. You can’t paraphrase many Harwood poems, or reduce many to a usable sound-bite. So the overall effect is to create an open space into which the reader is invited.

As such, because of the apparent bare transparency and the lack of cause-and-effect focussed forward motion in a Harwood text, it is easy to read into it a kind of faux-naivety, but this is perhaps to miss the point. Whatever else, Lee Harwood’s poetry is genuinely realist, as distinct from Realist. Superimposing an “experienced” view, that of hindsight or knowing description (used as a psychological or narrative framework), onto an “innocent” situation is to make a judgement not possible to the person, or character, in that present.

Although this is the stock in trade of Realist writing it may equally be seen to be the ultimate artifice. As soon as a reader is asked to judge, whether explicitly or implicitly, for example in a proscriptive content- focused context, the reader ceases to participate in the present tense of an experience. The spectre of “truth” (if you like – I’m not sure I do like, but can’t express it better today), which is as close as you’re going to get, is in the linearly incoherent, even inconsequential, details and juxtapositions.

A book like this, rightly or wrongly, perhaps invites critics to try to contextualize Harwood’s work. And perhaps they’ll feel it’s quite a break with tradition.

After all, once Yeats had finished hammering his thoughts into a unity, he and his fellow romantic-modernists left behind a whole lot of broken and fragmented thoughts. If you’re a poet you have to do something with them. You can pick up the pieces and try to fashion another unity, like Eliot or Ted Hughes. You can try to pretend that nothing ever happened beyond Yeats’ early work, stamp on the pieces and write apparently detached, well-turned-out poems, adapting traditional Realist approaches to a different era, like Larkin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But you can also do something else entirely. To continue to dabble in slightly spurious images and comparisons, maybe Harwood’s approach to the post modern problem is akin to trying to focus on something at night: you see it more clearly if you look just to the other side of it. And critics might suggest that true realist poetry should reflect, as Harwood’s does, such momentary shifts and flickers, the badly lit but often beautiful ambiguity of most experiences, in which things will happen just outside the window (real and metaphorical), and disconnected thoughts are always going to disrupt the narrative.

Critics aside, this is a book for readers. And it’s a book of beautifully open poetry, written with care (in both senses). If the reader is willing to accept the invitation to communicate, there is about these poems the sense of spending time with an old friend whose goodness and sometimes stoic good humour has won your trust, whose words provide the companionship of:

Obscure silhouettes
That act as possible guides to get home,
To touch familiar things, never taken for granted.

[from “The Artful”]

Nathan Thompson is a British poet.

Editorial note: some of the typography of the quoted texts may be inexact due to formatting for online browsing. When in doubt, refer to the published text.