Showing posts with label passing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label passing. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Some 30-plus years ago, the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, concerned at having given its annual book award the previous two years to, I believe, Laura Moriarty and Jackson Mac Low, asked C.D. Wright to judge the 1985 prize, under the presumption that this would take care of any implication that the school was too much in thrall to language poetry. They should have known better than to expect the woman who brought Frank Stanford’s battlefield where the moon says I love you to the world to meet expectations. She picked my book Paradise, thereby initiating what I take to have  been the real prize, a thirty-year friendship with a wonderful person. She was a great writer with a restless, probing intelligence that never settled and was always questing. Although I had not known who she was back in 1985, I was to learn a lot from her, as I expect to do from her writing till the end of my days. The last time we saw each other was at a reading she gave at Haverford College, after which we went to dinner with Tom Devaney, Gus Stadler and others. I’m going to hold the tone of her voice & that lilt of Arkansas accent in my ear forever.

Monday, July 13, 2015

In 1968, Ed van Aelstyn, my linguistics professor at San Francisco State & co-founder of Coyote’s Journal, my favorite poetry mag of the mid-1960s, persuaded me that if I was serious about my poetry I ought to attempt a journal of my own. So, after the strike at State caused every untenured faculty member I respected at the school (including van Aelstyn) to quit or be fired, I dropped out, took a few classes at Merritt College (still in those days in the flatlands of North Oakland) to get the units I needed to transfer to Berkeley and, with the aid of d alexander, sent letters to every poet I was interested in asking for work, getting responses and/or sparking correspondences with Robert Kelly, Larry Eigner, Daphne Marlatt, Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner et al. And then I did … nothing. Which was exactly what I knew about publishing a magazine. I had no clue whatsoever, no money – one could live easily enough on $150 a month in those days, but that didn’t leave one much in the way of disposable income – and seemingly no social skills that would have led me to actually ask somebody who knew more about this process than I. Gradually, the thermometer-like guilt meter began to rise, but once I got accepted into UC, embroiled in David Melnick’s attempt to get post-New American poets like David Shapiro & David Bromige into the campus literary journal Occident & a subsequent project with Melnick to get a portfolio of Bay Area poets into the Chicago Review, the idea of a journal of my own slipped further & further from my consciousness. Then there was Kent State & I found myself among a handful of undergraduates on the steering committee of the Wheeler Action Committee – as the English Department reconstituted as an anti-war project called itself – running a silkscreen workshop in the grad student carrels to support other anti-war groups, climbing out David Henderson’s window to hang the Harriet Tubman Hall banner from the Wheeler balconies, putting in 20-hour days and starting to acquire those aforementioned absent social skills. After the end of that semester, Shelley & I moved to Buffalo briefly, then Trumansburg, & then back to Berkeley where I won my six-year battle with the draft board & we finally called it a day on our five years of marriage.

So, it was in the fall of 1970, while I was living in a dilapidated backyard cottage on 61st Street in North Oakland that I got an unsolicited submission from a San Francisco poet I’d never even heard of named David Gitin. The long repressed guilt thermometer instantly popped up, and was now close to boiling over, not only because I had sat on all this poetry for so unconscionably long, but because Gitin’s poetry was terrific. This was exactly what I had thought a little magazine was supposed to accomplish – putting you in touch with great new poets. While at Berkeley, I’d read all of Pound’s correspondence in microfilm in the UC library & had realized that his impact on modernism & beyond came about no so much because of his own writing – tho I was (and still am) a fan of The Cantos – but because he saw it as his duty to put A in touch with B, X in touch with Y. Somehow I had accomplished this, albeit on an infinitely smaller scale, with my little non-existent journal just by wanting it to be so.

This was the poem that first made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Its title simply is Poem:
color the sky
beyond the door

the stone

the museum

I could see, of course, the heritage of imagism and objectivism in those lines, plus the accentuated concreteness of imagery. If it reminded me of George Oppen’s work, it was the Oppen of Discrete Series, the edges of each image all but chiseled into marble. Running parking lot into a single word seemed exactly the right touch – that absent en dash is at least part of the drama of the final line. That somebody was paying such close attention was what I sought out in poems, and do to this day.

So I wrote to David & told him, yes, I would be happy to publish his work as soon as I figured out how to do that. And I gathered up a few pages of the writing I’d collected, typed them up, hand-drew a logo for my instantly renamed new project & headed down Telegraph Avenue to a copy shop where I printed the first issue of Tottel’s. I didn’t get David’s poems into the journal until the next issue, although I would go on to devote the entire seventh issue of the journal to his work. It was the third single-author issue of Tottel’s, following ones by Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier, and preceding ones by Thomas Meyer, Clark Coolidge, David Melnick & Larry Eigner. I still consider David’s work very much on a par with that list of poets, which readers of this blog will recognize as pretty close to ground zero for my aesthetic choices to this day.¹

David, once I met him, was a tall quiet man with a ready laugh & whose intensity was somewhat hidden by a deep shyness. He gave me my first solo reading ever at a bookstore around the corner  from the former Hotel Wentley & later would also give me my first campus reading as well once he began to teach down in Monterey. I recall taking him to see a midnight show by the Cockettes in North Beach, a side of San Francisco culture that straight men were just starting to adjust to in those pre-Harvey Milk years.  His path to poetry had been an unusual one, picking the University of Buffalo not because Creeley & Olson taught there, but because it was his hometown state college (a path that Lisa Jarnot would replicate a few years later). How he got to San Francisco I’m not quite certain, but he and his first wife Maria soon moved south and David’s already encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and world music became an even deeper focus for him as he pulled back from his engagement with “the scene” aspect of poetry. I recall sometime in the 1970s telling him of the death of Paul Blackburn years before and being shocked that he hadn’t heard, given that he’d been one of the closest readers of Blackburn I’d known. When I was putting together In the American Tree in 1981-2, David’s position was that poetry was “over” for him, he wasn’t writing or sending work out, and that it made no sense to think about him for the anthology.

Happily, that was only partly true – he was writing, but had no real interest in engaging with what he took to be a thoroughly corrupting publishing scene, and for much of the rest of his life he would craft these small, utterly gorgeous chapbooks of his writing – a tradition that readers of John Martone and Tinker Greene will surely recognize – and send them to friends. I read every word of each one, even as many contained poems I might have seen before, or even recycled book titles (Journey in 1997, The Journey Home in 2010). In addition, he would let publishers he trusted – George Mattingly or his former student Dan Linehan – bring out somewhat larger collections. Woke Up This Morning, a 119-page selection of 52 years of work, came out earlier this year, self-published but with a Mattingly design.²

Like Lorine Niedecker, Alfred Starr Hamilton, NH Pritchard, Besmilr Brigham or even Curtis Faville (who reviewed Woke Up This Morning here), David Gitin was an American original, whose commitment to poetry was something quite apart from any commitment to the poetry scene. His devotion to getting the right word onto the page was absolute, leaving no room for sentiment, foggy-headedness or any other manner of blur.

Getting his books & the occasional card or email, I was able to follow David at a distance and like several of his friends, was pleased and not a little amazed when he declared that he’d reconnected with his high school sweetheart Gloria Avner and was heading to the Florida Keys to spend the rest of his life with her. Which he did, passing finally late last month.

While Woke Up This Morning must represent the poems David wanted saved, there are in his other books enough great poems to warrant a volume twice that size, possibly more. In addition to the early pieces you can find online in Tottel’s, Michael McClure has posted several on his website, you can find a few in Big Bridge, and you can find virtually everything on One in particular that I like a lot is “Words,” which I’ve always imagined as a sequel of sorts to that first poem of David’s that I read in 1970:
I leap
from museums
onto passing cars

¹ Too white & too male, I am well aware.
² Woke Up One Morning was published in 1996 and contains untitled what is now  the title poem of  this final volume.