In memory / Lee Harwood (June 6 1939 – July 26 2015)

 

 

For George

with my warmest best wishes,

   these curious stories.

                                    Lee H.

 

 

I’ve found Lee situated in a certain generation of British Poetry Revival poets, or hovering on the margins of Eric Mottram’s London scene. There are his translation of Tristan Tzara, or the well-known connection with John Ashbery and the New York School, and a constellation of connections to British poets such as Roy Fisher, Barry MacSweeney and Paul Evans. You can read better accounts of this elsewhere, most notably in Kelvin Corcoran’s Not The Full Story—Six Interviews With Lee Harwood (Shearsman 2008).

 

(I want somewhere here to fit in mention of Nathan Thompson, who I met through Shearsman’s reading series in London. Nathan was an avid fan of Lee’s work and seemed to have a similar understanding of Lee’s influence on us, not just as writers of poetry, but as people living in poetry, looking for some kind of gentility, grounding, generosity. We talked about Lee a number of times, as well as Paul Evans, a fourth pillar in my confused attempt at triangulation.)

 

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense here to add my piecemeal understanding of Lee’s poetry, poetics and biography. He influenced me more as an idea: his writing reminds me of the scope of shape through which living and writing poetry can happen. Generosity might be a tunnel through which words pour; and anger, and love. The choice to apply a shape of generosity, of giving, perhaps.

 

(I also want to mention Oli Hazzard’s interview with Lee for PN Review. I’d not known about Oli’s connection to Lee when we met, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to make assumption about Lee’s influence on Oli, but I imagine there’s plenty to talk about.)

 

Lee’s poetry brought me into contact with poets, magazines and communities driven by generosity. The early link with long time collaborator, Simon Turner, or with Kelvin Corcoran and Ian Brinton, with collectives based around magazines and publishers in Brighton, or Devon. These people and groups carry a sense of the necessity of friendships, for mutual support and exchanges, translations, experimentation and play.

 

(I quit smoking two months after his death. I haven’t check the facts of his breathlessness, the cause of his death. That doesn’t seem the right way to go about it; this business of living these curious stories.)

 

Not really, then an IMM Lee Harwood, so much as a note to self about what he embodied for me, what his poetry carries through.

 

~

 

A Timeline

 

Circa 1999:

Simon Turner shows me a copy of Morning Light (Slow Dancer, 1998). Some time later I hunt out what I can from the university library, discover some furious early work: Boston-Brighton (Oasis, 1977).

 

November 29 2006:

Simon and I go to the Poetry Café in London to see Lee read for tall lighthouse, a pre-launch event for automatic lighthouse. Lee seems healthy, sharp and happy. His stance toward the audience is full of generosity, the poetry completely different to what I’d read in Boston-Brighton.

 

April 20 2007:

Lee reads for Artery Editions, again at the Poetry Society in London, this time in the Studio for the launch of Gifts Received. The event doesn’t entirely make sense at the time: he also reads from a collaborative limited Artery Edition publication called Poemes, by John Ashbery, Pierre Martory, Patricia Scanlan and Francis Wishart. Much later I learn about his connection with Ashbery.

 

March 5 2014:

Lee reads with Kelvin Corcoran at a nearby school. I join a small fan club of local poets and a group of avid sixth formers, to listen to the poets and ask questions. Lee is breathless, each line delivered slowly, with long pauses between phrases. Listening to him, I feel out of breath myself, as if the room is air-locked. I ask Lee to inscribe my copy of his Selected Poems (Shearsman 2008). He writes: “for George / with my warmest best wishes, / these curious stories. / Lee H.”

 

May 2015:

Enitharmon publishes The Orchard Boat, which would become his last collection.

 

July 2015:

I am working in Warwick University Library, digitising the Clive Bush Audio Poetry Collection. Among the cassettes are two recordings of Lee, one of him reading with Elaine Randell and Catherine Walsh at the October Gallery (October 20 1989) another of him reading translations of Tristan Tzara’s work (a selection from Chanson Dada) in a London pub for the Sub Voicive Poetry series (The Moon, February 17 1990). On a shelf in the office I find a copy of Poetry Review from around 1970, edited by Eric Mottram, containing an extract from Lee’s long poem, The Long Black Veil. I take the copy home to read.

 

On 27 July, I see Ian Brinton’s online message about hearing of Lee’s death the day before: “one of the most careful, sensitive and moving poets of the past fifty years.” Ian’s three part tribute follows at Tears in the Fence.

 

~

 

At work I found an issue of Poetry Review, edited by Eric. You all seemed on first names and any readership beyond that was a blessing. You came from a world of blessings, always, even when you were angry. I wonder about the Lee I first knew—in the Poetry Society’s basement, reading for the tall lighthouse people. Simon was excited. Everything just seems so very rare. Coming at things without knowing and wanting to make that feeling of learning known, to paint something into the room. Like you fell out of the sky. Like your lungs are full of dead trees. Like the painted air needs no introduction.

 

Connections, anomalies, confusions came later. I guess it was emphysema: later. An extract from The Long Black Veil, which I find in your Selected. You were breathless at your last reading, but you were standing still. I found a copy of your early poetry in the library. Simon showed me Morning Light when we were undergraduates. I didn’t understand where I was, but the language made that experience safer. Brighton felt nearer.

 

one of those mornings

            you don’t seem to know

                        what part of the year you’re in

                                    windows firing sunlight back at you

                        and the starlings seem

            to be waking up

everything looking up

 

The font made the poetry angrier. His hands shook as he read, mainly because he was so excited to be sharing a stage with you. Courier? Something typewritten. What did Leicester mean to you by then? You paused, repeatedly, in that small too-cold room. The anger in the early poems surprised me, the sense of you having something to roar about. I’d always taken the measure of each line on the page to be akin to a breath, not a breathlessness.

 

nothing takes against attempts to live,

to camouflage in the real:

 

i didn’t expect you to take off your face

and look like that underneath

 

when i hear your voice, Lee, i can’t help

feeling i want to sound that beauty of pausing

 

The sea all silky. A gorgeous dictionary entry. The air was empty between your lines, as if you were reading on a mountain top, in a too thin atmosphere. Something so very rare might be taken as precious.

 

            and the clouds

switch on the sun

when entering these woods

                                    leaf stage

light spots                      wind’s soliloquy

                                                in the canopy

even here

            distance is impossible

                        your warmth

burnt to a stub

                        ash anguish

                                                so that:

 

The pressure on each line like a blessing. When Tony reprinted the work in the Selected he used a font that makes your work friendlier. The issue is old and hand-stitched, probably printed by Bill on that equipment I heard they had in the basement. Where were they then, Earl’s Court?

 

Robert, Trish and Bob arrive about ten minutes in to the recording. They join you for “L’amiral cherche une maison à louer” and for one of the manifestos, which features all of you saying Roar over and over again. That’s right. Your voice is that of Pyramus, even then.

 

Was it emphysema? I can imagine you smoking as well as I can imagine you wearing a beret in the ’60s. I even believe I’ve seen a photograph of you in a beret.

 

: disturbing / the dust

on the bowl of rose petals

left by someone who is gone:

 

: disturbing

 

: if time is every instance at once

naturalised into the language of experience

 

: my ideas before this moment were the problem :

 

burnt up by unnatural fire / I repeat your absence / with every moment of my being

 

I remember the mutton chops, I remember the black and whites, but they’re almost all black and white. I hear your poems in black and white. I hear each line in monochrome, the emotion is at the surface, austere, meditative. I read the feel of your breast beneath your loose white shirt

 

and it is both you and it is not you dying for lack of breath. Olson wouldn’t have understood this breathlessness. Something I learn about line breaks from hearing you read: they last longer than you ever give them credit for. Does poetry begin in the breast or the gut or the throat? The head or the heart, the breath or the gasp.

 

 

love, my lungs don’t work any more and I’m

 

            hey can you pass me that—

 

                        open a window there’s no

 

            and how long

 

                        much longer

 

                                     ?

 

                                                —please?