Saturday, March 22, 2008

Companion to Lee Harwood

I've just started reading Robert Sheppherd's Companion to Lee Harwood, a book of essays about one of the best English poets around. The essays - by various hands - look at his work as influenced by the New York School, the transatlantic influences of living in Brighton, Boston and New York, and various other issues. Two essays look at his poems about relationships and the influence of women in his life, from his maternal grandmother to lovers, to other poets such as Wendy Mulford, Elaine Randell and others. There's an essay on his translation of Tristan Tzara, and one on his later poems. And a good bibliography at the back. All ably coordinated by Robert Sheppard's unfussy editing.

What everybody agrees about his work is about its openness. This is not just seen in his use of open form; but in the honesty with which he deals with feelings. He doesn't ever get sentimental, but he doesn't shy away from the personal. In fact, he has said himself that it wasn't until The Long Black Veil sequence that he realised how personal a poet he was. In many ways, he's as personal as many a mainstream poet writing about their personal life; but the results couldn't be more different from the average anecdotal closed form poem. He never comes to conclusions, for instance, and invites the reader in to make sense of the poem alongside him. He will write about a relationship in an open way, exploring its circumstances and feelings, but not giving us his answer to it. He doesn't give us the benefit of his wisdom; he leaves gaps for the reader to fill in. There's nothing "difficult" even in the Borgesian story poems he's also fond of; but the reader is not given the meaning of the poem on a plate; he or she is expected to work for it, to enter the poem like entering a room and wander about inside, figuring out what's in the room for themselves.

It's a poetry I've admired and aspired to for many years, ever since I came across the Pig Press books of his in a bookshop in Grassmere. I think he's wonderful, unjustly neglected like every good poet on the wrong side of the mainstream/non-mainstream divide and recommended to anyone who cares about English poetry.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I wish I could get here more often, but I've been pretty busy.

The second issue of the prison magazine the men started at Whatton is about to hit the cells. I've got a reading at Salford Uni on Tuesday, and a workshop with the students. Then there's the launches of Parameter, The Ugly Tree and Lamport Court, 3 of Manchester's finest magazines, on Monday Night.

I've also been doing some reading. I can thoroughly recommend a translation of Boris Pasternak's My Sister -Life, which I found in an Oxfam bookshop in West Bridgeford. I'm about to start a book of essays about Lee Harwood, when it comes from Salt. I read their Companion to Geraldine Monk, edited by Scott Thurston, and thoroughly enjoyed that.

I also recently read online a very antagonistic review of the anthology, Other, in Antigonish Review online. It was interesting not for the fact that I probably disagree with it; but in the ways that I agree with it. There are aspects of non-mainstream approaches that are no more realistic than the more mainstream ways. Non-mainstream values such things as a plurality of voices, fragmentation and so on, and will tend at times to over-emphasise that in a writer who isn't really all that fragmented; it emphasises "difficulty" but sometimes exagerates that difficulty.

I think the reviewer was almost entirely wrong in his reading of non-mainstream poets. He would mention something in an Alan Fisher poem that sounded, to him, as if it was just some politically correct mention of a London Tube station. But that's where Alan Fisher lives, and he's always written about that place. He quotes a line of one poem as being "bad", which when placed out of context on a page sounds bad. But it's not unlike those preachers cutting and pasting bits out of the Bible to prove that gay people will go to hell. It's out-of-context, and only serves to show the reviewer's prejudices up.

Do non-mainstream critics do the same? You bet they do. I read an article by Ken Edwards where he compared a short magazine poem from early Mathew Sweeney with a dense, allusive poem by Allen Fisher to illustrate the "superiority" of non-mainstream over mainstream strategies. Well, excuse me, but isn't that unfair? Shouldn't we at least compare similar to similar? What would happen if we take a more straightforward Lee Harwood poem and put it alongside Sweeney? Or a more densely allusive mainstream poem (Geoffery Hill?) next to Allen Fisher? What difference does that make to your point?

In the end, the whole thing comes to see like two cats fighting in a paper bag. Non-mainstream writers have a tendency to over-valorise their outsider status. Clare, Blake and others are invoked as "outsiders" - which in a sense they were; but in another sense, they aren't now.

So maybe I'm fence sitting here. Well, more on this later.