Two Poems for Tom Raworth and an Instant Elegy

I’m indebted to Peter Manson who, on my posting a short elegy on Tumblr for Tom Raworth, suggested I reproduce here two poems he, Peter, and his co-editor Robin Purves, first published in Object Permanence, no. 3 (Sept 94). These were after Raworth’s work in a quite specific way which I suppose illustrates how I and other writers were working in Oxford in the late 80s.

I was nominal ‘president’ of the Oxford University Poetry Society by then, working toward a mode of writing which in 1994 I would have described as Informationist, and later as polystylist, but which at that point consisted of an openness on the part of a bunch of us to both experiment and, to a lesser extent then, form (in my case in both Scots and English), without particularly aligning ourselves with, on the one hand, the Cambridge/London innovative writing scene, or, on the other, the Oxford/London mainstream groupings.

(This was not so long after the Poetry Wars, so inviting Tom Raworth or Eric Mottram or Robert Creeley to read, as we did, could be and was seen as the sort of gesture that would cause the likes of the late Mick Imlah to keep us at arm’s length.)

We were, mostly, whimsical folks who could be rejected by Reality Studios for surrealist recidivism, and we were certainly far more into O’Hara than the then-fashionable Ashbery, while the non-partisan stance of Morgan had schooled me to be wary of the approval of either Southern British camp, especially given their continued neglect of Scottish writing in the very various forms of W.S.  Graham and Hugh MacDiarmid.

For me, Tom Raworth transcended all these categories and concerns. He had effortless control of the music of discourse, bringing a wholly owned range of tones together in a polyphony that blurred found, mutated and invented phrasing into free-wheeling linked sequences. He broke open syntax in a manner we’d been experimenting with without as yet having encountered the New Sentence.

Most of all, he was fast and funny and remarkable – the work was shapely and graceful, and so in much the same way was he. He was as delightful to be with as to listen to in a reading as he is to sit down and read again this morning. He was not so much a presence as present.

I still clung enough to the Poundian notion of virtù  to recognise he was all of a piece in a manner I still wished I could become. (Though I should by then have recognised the term’s origins in the civic self of  Machiavelli and Aquinas.)

I remember the day after his reading for OUPS we gathered in George’s café in the Covered Market – a no-nonsense establishment of which I mostly recall a single sandwich filling (something with salad cream and sweetcorn and small squares of processed ham), plus large plastic mugs of instant coffee (the refinement of Georgina’s upstairs was still to come). Tom was wearing a soft plaid shirt, and he wasn’t well, but we talked, he and Keith Jebb and Helen Kidd and (I think) George Roberts, and (possibly) Joe Kelleher, and (maybe not) Gwynneth Lewis, and I, happily, for hours.

What we talked about, however, was everything to do with what we thought about poetry (we were more eager to hear anecdotes about US writers than UK ones) and how it was written and how it could be read, and therefore, as far as the memory is concerned, nothing. That he was so sympathetic and low key and encouraging made it seem completely normal.

That it felt normal – that poetry, as opposed to constantly presenting itself as the most important thing in the world, could and even should be normal, i.e. as important and as unimportant as everything else – meant it fed into at least my practice and I think that of others in an extremely direct way.

So much so that over the next week I produced a variation on each of the poems in the two pamphlets of his I’d bought, Heavy Light, and Lèvre de Poche. This was a trying on for size, the learning by imitation many student poets did in the days before Creative Writing.

The sheer what-do-I-do-nextness? of that led me to attempt a contraction of those two echo pamphlets into two poems, which is what I sent to Peter and Robin several years later. Peter later pointed out how, by then, my sense of the direction of my work and indeed the work of certain of my peers (those pesky Informationists, mostly) had veered away from not so much such procedures as the schools of writing they were attached to or claimed by. Which made the Object Permanence publication more of a pivotal moment for me than I had realised.

That is, however, an issue for a subsequent post. This one is about Tom Raworth and the liberty granted by his influence. For that reason, I’ll append that little sonnet I assembled from the tweets I posted while news of his death sank in. Social media is at once emotionally dissociative and intertextually revealing in a manner which I hope, in this instance, he would appreciate.

Two Poems for Tom Raworth and an Instant Elegy

1 Under heavy light

Can damage be described as a sky over sand
laboriously sculpted into the shape of spaghetti
a Sahara Carbonara in which the bacon is camels?
is a question which suspends injury for a time.
A: No, moving through hurt points out
a colour is not influenced by getting thinner,
as skies do towards dawn, or the green
of bottles does if rolled in seas,
the most one can say is
“these are not streets this is not Mexico”.

Healing’s not within the cloud’s palate,
certainly not the one from which the chandelier fell,
nearly hitting Captain Wedderburn, of which
she asked: “was that not the ornate street-tree,
the plum-tree light?” Bella signora, no.
The light flows from and curves toward
the rubber baby buggy bumpers,
dear lady with the flowers in her
lamp-like lap, the dank breast flowers,
her breath from a well: how do you
walk like an egg-timer?
A: Dawn may once have chopped off your fingers,
but here we have a negligible horizon,
it doesn’t reach the ground.

I’m often dreaming I’m learning to swim in your
honeydripping beehive, that I am your locust,
a nice insipid sound on your back
of the sleep like a press of moths to the margin,
smoking out your gorged thoughts,
the blue swirlishoo the shadow of a feedback:
help me towards this colour.

The sun sets inside my stomach like
a night-light in a saucer of water.
I forged the Autumn-fluctuant brands across
the sky delightedly from my eye-cave,
a dariole full of oriole, or
slime-acid windows, a relationship full
of lucid lenticular moments before
the great dune said: “here is a cat”
and then we were a story.

2 Pocket lever

With everything prepared for forwardness,
painting the kidneys, rubbing stones together
over utterings filled with bright bellows
Captain Wedderburn remembered that in America
the dance may have generated a bit of maize.
The daylight concentrated underwater, I passed
a lot of confused gestures that used
to be faces. This bath is so full of water
except it continues oddly inside its hole,
pouring through brown cisterns,
and bronze frog gods go there with chopsticks,
picking human souls out of the waters.
I see a rainbow through the orange juice,
remembering it’s impossible to smell the I,
taking hours over colours like these,
then forgetting the speech
“I still don’t feel well
in Dingle Dell”
branches freshly lopped where they couldn’t fit
that subject in, rivers and mountains
tall stumps with pale stumps on them.

Significant gestures in Spain include
getting a drummer with the evening
bees, porches with the glass-thin stars, this
rose getting too long in the petal, so liquid
collects in the sloughed skin of the light.
Infirmity tastes the radio, shyly
offering what was probably bacon,
so blue, two breaths that never met in reason.
The ladder felt the fierce clasp of his hand
in which my heart is crushed, expanding on a similar theme:
deodorant on
the adorant tongue
in the armpit,
sewers coursed with phlegm and telephone wires
like variations on veins, wet roles, the happy lie.


non-drip ghost

‘gone mental incandescence’

Farewell! You were the best of us –
may Earth 2 or is it 3 thrive and
not go all cybermenny again!
*falls to breakfasting on neighbour’s
brain in the nuclear glow*
Is it Xmas again yet already?
As the old song sings, ‘What’s ciabatta shoe?’
The one at the back is wearing a mask
but you’re already doomed because
the one at the front has let you see its face.
Everything catches me by surprise
he asserted proudly.
I got the chicken shouting blues.
I am sick and tired of being pleased for you.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to Two Poems for Tom Raworth and an Instant Elegy

  1. Pingback: Tom Raworth | absenceclub

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