Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Tom Raworth

1938 -- 2017

A link here to the Poetry Foundation's recording of Tom Raworth reading "Gaslight":

a line of faces borders the strangler’s work
heavy european women
mist blows over dusty tropical plants
lit from beneath the leaves by a spotlight
mist in my mind a riffled deck
of cards or eccentrics
was i
a waterton animal my head
is not my own
poetry is neither swan nor owl
but worker, miner
digging each generation deeper
through the shit of its eaters
to the root – then up to the giant tomato
someone else’s song is always behind us
as we wake from a dream trying to remember
step onto a thumbtack
two worlds – we write the skin
the surface tension that holds
what we write is ever the past
curtain pulled back
a portrait behind it
is a room suddenly lit
looking out through the eyes
at a t.v. programme
of a monk sealed into a coffin
we close their eyes and ours
and still here the tune
moves on


Tom Raworth died this week. He was a giant as a poet, and a gentle, sweet fellow. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was a simple phone call from him -- how he got my number I do not know -- telling me that my book Ketjak was "alright." 

I knew him slightly during the years he lived in San Francisco in the 1970s, was in the audience at New Langton Arts when he gave what may be the shortest talk ever, and was fortunate to see him whenever he came through Philadelphia in recent years. 

I was once told (by a poet I respect) that Americans were too quick to declare him the finest living British poet. Just the opposite, I suspect, the far reaches of the Commonwealth have been far too slow to recognize the wonder of his work. After Bunting, Tom was the Alps. He himself could not have cared less for accolades, but the weak tea that is so much of British conventionalism is just so much piss-water alongside this stronger brew. I will miss him and we will all miss his work & wit.

Here are two pieces I wrote on Tom's work some 14 years ago. 


Read Tom Raworth’s poetry aloud & you begin to understand almost instantly why, or more accurately how, he developed his reputation as – at least until Miles Champion showed up – the fastest reader on the scene. Try reading aloud the following stanzas from “Survival,” a poem in Clean & Well-Lit: Selected Poems, 1987-1995:

later she would walk
asleep on his feet
to the brink of inspiration
with lacquered nails
paused in mid-phrase
discounting – discrediting
the epic sweep of stars
devising stratagems
shrunk back in his head
until the day was filled
creating an illusion
radiating orange lightning
sucked into a vacuum
past ponds, down hills

nothing better than to re-claim
duck with its head swinging
knife – a blue pencil
only bad things that affect
the opposite still she came
a tall black vase
fluttering her arms
always displeased
moving every year
around protected by the wind
shook the plate in front
did not scream when he fell
outside down the stairs
poured all her brains

the adaptations
to differences in colour
associated with food
regarded as the simplest forms
stuck together in lumps
are irrelevant to survival
the struggle towards
countless changes
exhausted from hunger
sounded like water
beginning to burn
or an extinguished star
fading with darkness
smiling at the skull

feelings belonged to the past
his stomach churned
the breeze blew
through thick underbrush
following him around
out onto the highway
and grinned
flailing about
not to touch his cold flesh
you could smell it
from deep in the earth
watching the smoke crawl
from his straining lungs
with its icy purity

The line here represents one phrase, almost as though each were a single stroke that, together, accumulate into a large, complex canvas. In general, the lines contain between four & eight syllables – the two shorter exceptions in the fourth stanza above are the first such exceptions in the poem, which is already 16 stanzas long at the start of this quotation.

A different poet who focused on the phrase might vary the segments of language actually used line by line more than Raworth does: a quick tally of the 56 lines above shows 21 starting with verbs – only one is a variant of to be – with another ten starting with prepositions. It’s precisely this combination of line length & syntax that propels Raworth’s text forward so rapidly. A career of reading texts such as “Survival” in public would speed up anyone’s reading style.

“Survival” is the longest poem in Clean & Well Lit, which – with the exception of the sequence Eternal Sections – represents eight years of writing, post-Tottering State, Like the “14-line poems” of Eternal Sections – Raworth pointedly does not call them sonnets – “Survival’s” 14-line stanzas carry that familiar quantity about them. Raworth’s reluctance to employ the S-word makes sense, as the logic of these stanzas is anything but sonnet-esque. Rather, the propulsion of the language carries the reader ever forward, ever faster. If the syntax does contribute to the onward motion of the language, it never really resolves up to the level of a sentence – those little moments of closure are themselves deferred or displaced.

I’ve sometimes wondered if it is a function of Raworth’s phrase-focus that makes his work so eminently accessible to U.S. audiences & note, just to use these four stanzas as an index, that only the spelling of colour marks his text in any way I think might be recognizable to a Yank as British. Do the British really use phrases differently? I’m not enough of a comparative linguist to know, although I’m aware of the stereotype propagated by so many BBC dramas on U.S. PBS television stations suggesting that fully formed sentences with many dependent clauses are “British” in a way that the more telegraphic, interruptive mode of Yankee discourse is not. Of course nobody in those dramas sounds like Linton Kweski Johnson either, or even appears to have come from the north. Still, the complaint I once got from a young poet with partly British heritage that “there’s waaaay too many ‘experimental’ poets who like to think Tom Raworth is the only poet in England” reflects, among other things, the enormous respect & passion Americans do have toward his work.

Raworth’s Collected Poems is about to be issued from Carcanet in the U.K. & is already available for sale over its web site. Every single blurb for the book is from a Yank.


It’s big. It’s yellow. It’s beautiful. It, in this instance, is the Tom Raworth Collected Poems, just out from Carcanet, making an early bid for the “best book of 2003” sweepstakes. The volume has 557 pages of text, plus some 18 of “front matter” & another 20 given to various indices. At one pound, 13 ounces, it’s a brick. A brick with a cover illustration by the late Franco Beltrametti.*

Not long ago, I had a discussion with poet of my own generation whose work I’ve praised on this blog, whom I informed that I longed to see a collected works of his poetry. He argued, with surprising vigor, against the idea. His primary points were two – first, that as a young poet he had not always known when works should be held back & not published. There was a lot of writing in his first books that, in his opinion, were “not ready for prime time.”** But even more problematic from his perspective was the way in which “collecteds” eliminate shape.

Shape is a question, I agree, with any such gathering, as is detail. Perhaps the most notorious example of how placement can alter & undermine the implications of a text in such terms are the poems from William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All as they were included in his own Collected Earlier Poems. Thus did “red wheel / barrow” become something it never could have been in context, coming as it originally did 78 pages into a dense argument, leading directly to a discussion of knowledge, categories, democracy, education & confusion. There also is a distinction between collected & complete with which all such volumes must contend. Thus there are rumors afoot at the Collected Books of Jack Spicer will some day be supplanted by a much fuller edition. & we have just seen how radically different the new Collected Works of Lorine Niedecker are from her two earlier “collected” poems, T&G and My Life by Water.

There also are discrepancies in this vast edition of Raworth’s – moments that will stop a fond, familiar reader short. For example, the stanza-per-page structure of “Defective Definitions” in Clean & Well Lit runs 4-2-1, though all are quatrains. In the Collected, the stanzas are run together. Raworth himself credits the Clean & Well Lit formatting to “happenstance,” insisting that ultimately there is no such thing as “correct.” Thus Ace is a long thin poem*** in a single column in the Edge Press edition I currently own, yet appeared in double columns in the editions of Tottering State published by The Figures & by Paladin. It doesn’t appear at all in the O Book edition of Tottering State & is again in double columns in the Collected. Indeed, the three editions of Tottering State all differ substantially. The provisional nature of it all is enough to make one suspicious of a project that calls itself Collected.

Which might well be the point. As impressively well-written as these works are – & I’m one who could be persuaded that we live the Age of Raworth – Raworth’s poetry itself argues for a definition of verse as “what a poet does,” a condition that offers quite a bit of latitude. But I don’t think it’s latitude that Raworth is after, nor does his stance have anything to do with an approach to the poem as “art language” the way that David Antin’s performances do. Rather, the books like the poems themselves, are arguments for a perpetual restlessness that amounts to constant attentiveness to the conditions of the real. It’s in this sense that the Collected Poems represents an achievement of major proportion. These works are not “the alps,” as Basil Bunting once characterized Pound’s Cantos, not because the accumulation is not massive, but because there is not a sedentary moment in this book.

* Far more beautiful & colorful than the washed-out thumbnail of it on the Carcanet web site suggests.

** I don’t agree.

*** I originally typed “long thing poem” – it’s that too.