Sunday, 6 September 2009

Lee Harwood

Lee Harwood: Not The Full Story – Six Interviews by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman)
The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, edited by Robert Sheppard (Salt)

Shearsman’s publication of Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems in 2004 kickstarted a new wave of interest in a writer who, in truth, should never have been off the radar in the first place. Harwood’s unique position as a direct link between the New York School and non-mainstream British poetry should have been enough, on its own, to keep him in the eyeline of anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry, but these two books help confirm his stature as a major figure.

The Shearsman volume here, published to coincide with a Selected Poems released earlier this year, takes a broadly chronological approach to Harwood’s career, with Kelvin Corcoran leading Harwood gently through his collections.

One of the things that makes it so enjoyable a journey is that Corcoran, himself a fine non-mainstream poet (and like Harwood, one whose work is wonderfully multi-layered but rarely deserving of the dreaded adjective ‘difficult’), eschews too journalistic or academic an approach. Instead, the whole thing reads very much like the relaxed discussion of two friends (which I’m sure it is), and in taking such a casual tack, Corcoran gets as close to the heart of the matter as you suspect anyone might.

Harwood sheds plenty of light on his writing methods, the background to much of his poetry (particularly the contraction and dissolution of the British Empire, obliquely referenced in much of his earlier work), his (thoroughly professional) approach to readings, and his connections to the US avant-garde scene.

Two things struck me. One is that Harwood rarely seems to have thought in terms of the binary division of British poetry that so often gets talked about. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have something to say about how certain sections of the mainstream have ignored or sidelined certain sections of the avant-garde, but he seems acutely aware that both the two main camps are subdivided into countless smaller groupings, and to have seen his own poetry as being exactly what it is, and no other, carrying connections to all directions. When, on one or two occasions, Corcoran does aim a jab or two in the direction of famous mainstreamers, it comes across as unnecessary sniping, not least because Harwood doesn’t get drawn into it.

Secondly, Harwood talks about his dislike of the poet intruding into the poems too much (both when he’s writing and reading them), and indeed his knack of removing himself from centre stage is, I suspect, one of the things that appeals most to readers about his poetry. He mentions the use of personas and multiple points of view to do this, but nevertheless you are struck by how much the Harwood of the interviews resembles the Harwood that you imagine from the poems – deeply humane, incurably curious, quietly humorous, and thoroughly good company.

That’s not to say, by the way, that he’s unsuccessful in taking himself out of the poems – far from it. In fact, I think it just shows how subtly the trick is done, and how deceptively easy he makes it look.

Poems particularly relevant to a number of the interviews are dotted throughout the book, plus a few photographs that largely absolve Harwood of the crimes of fashion and coiffuring that might be expected of a poet whose career stretches back to the early 60s, but for the most part this book does just what it says on the cover, and does it very well.

The Salt volume, on the other hand, collects together an interview with Harwood plus 12 essays from a variety of critics and fellow poets. They all tackle different, sometimes radically different, aspects of Harwood’s work, so while there’s a certain amount of overlap, each is self-contained enough to make this perfect for dipping into.

I won’t even attempt to encapsulate everything that’s here, but I particularly enjoyed Robert Sheppard and Geoff Ward’s essays, the former for its tracing of a Puritan/Cavalier tension in Harwood’s work, the latter for its look at the opposition between wide-eyed innocence and a more knowing, self-consciously literary approach.

Andy Brown’s eco-critical reading of Harwood is probably the highlight for me, though, as he attempts to get to the roots (pardon the pun) of the poet’s relationship with a wider community and with the natural world.

Again there’s an opposition, this time between the city and the country, but Brown also touches upon how Harwood’s poetry often subliminates the self into the landscape. He also set me thinking about how (and I’ve mentioned this before) Harwood often seems to use nature and the rural landscape to remind himself of just how various the world is. While Sheppard, earlier on, talks about Harwood enjoying the “seductions of puritan enumeration” in his listing of bird calls within a poem, you get the feeling that there’s more to it than satisfying a cataloguing impulse.

What else can I say? Nothing really, other than to make the obvious point that if you’ve enjoyed the poetry of Lee Harwood, you’ll also enjoy both these books a great deal, providing as they do a long overdue setting of his work in a wide context.

STOP PRESS: Just before I posted this, I was searching on iTunes for Julian Cope albums. For some reason, the search also turned up Writers At Warwick, from which you can download lengthy interviews and readings from the likes of Lee Harwood, David Morley, and Ann Stevenson. So I did.


Alan Baker said...

I agree with you about the book of interviews - reading that alongside the poems in the Collected has been a real pleasure. What you say about Harwood's attitude to the mainstream/innovative split is interesting. I think it arises partly out of his personality - he's too courteous to start running people down in public -but also, I think he's not a fan of the more severe "innovative" writings, whereas he is a fan of, for example, Anne Stevenson, who wouldn't normally be thought of as avant-garde. The connection with FT Prince, revealed in the interviews, was a surprise to me.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, me too, Alan, I'd never come across that before.