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.

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