The Lyrical Gifts of Tom Raworth

  • By David Kaufmann
  • July 18, 2015

A look at the new As When: A Selection

The Lyrical Gifts of Tom Raworth

Even though Tom Raworth is often described as the most American of British poets, most American readers have not heard of him. He was born in southeast London in 1938, left school at 16, and kicked around in odd jobs until he settled into what now seems barely possible — a fully and enviably literary life. For more than a half-century now, he has made a living from reading, writing, and, on occasion, teaching poetry.

Raworth has written a lot. His Collected Poems, which came out over a decade ago, weighs in at more than 550 pages. But the Collected was not complete. It missed a swath of his errant poems that were duly brought into line a few years later in Windmills in Flames.

Whatever didn’t make it into that book has found its way into this year’s Structures from Motion. So there is a good deal of Raworth to be had. And now we have the new, handsomely produced As When (Carcanet), which offers a concise overview of his career. It is a tribute to the poet’s invention and range that, at over 220 pages, this selection seems too concise.

Raworth cuts an interesting and very English figure — the working-class intellectual as bohemian. He lacks middle-class pieties, aspirations, and identifications. His politics seem solidly leftist and Old Labour; his learning is both extensive and idiosyncratic. He wears his knowledge lightly, taking it as a sign of humane achievement, not social status.

Raworth is least pious (and perhaps most “American”) in his rejection of the standard-model, post-Romantic poem. You know the one, because you have read it scores of times. The poet begins with a nicely described landscape or an interesting narrative and then comments on it.

Poetry of this sort works as a kind of handy wisdom literature: It makes the most of reflection. It reaches its highest (or lowest) point in British literature in Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps,” where the poet, “groping back to bed after a piss,” derives the clearest intimations of our shared mortality from a vision of the moon. At the center of the web of this sort of poem lies the imagination of the poet, spinning similes and metaphors that make its whole machinery turn and drive the single, telling moment toward the universal.

This kind of thing bores Raworth. You don’t find many similes in his poetry, nor many metaphors, for that matter. (By way of comparison: a poem by Seamus Heaney or Eavan Boland would disappear without its analogies.) Raworth once noted “that the connections (or connectives) no longer work.” For 50 years, he has consistently offered a poetry of juxtaposition in their place.

Here is the early, relatively tractable “Going to the Zoo.” The poem is easy of access because its last stanza does indeed seem to reflect in the standard way on what has gone immediately before:

shapes that come in the night
three tulips through my window
hair brushed in the next room

the black panther extends his leg
here is the site of the battle of maldon
mum ee mum ee mum ee

the order is all things happening now
no way down through you float in the density
so sensitively turned on the animals

The title gives us a context, though the shapes have nothing to do with the trip to the zoo with the kids. The poem seems quite straightforward for a time. Each line is a phrase and could, if we added the elided verbs, stand as a rather simple statement: The tulips are shapes that come during the night through the window; hair gets brushed.

Things get tricky in the final three lines. They would make more sense if Raworth had written “no way down though you float in the density” (Properly punctuated, such a sentence would read, “No way down, though you float in the density,/So sensitively turned on the animals.”) But he didn’t, and this changes everything.

The poem tells us — and this is a fine Emersonian touch — that the order of all things floats through us, as if experience had us and not vice versa, or as if we were merely relay points in the vast circuit of reality. Thus, though our attention might be turned on the animals “sensitively” (and how are we to read that word?), the action is elsewhere and everywhere, in everything that is going on.

This recipe for poetry — it should chart the order of all things taking place — is expansive. It threatens to burst open the confines of the traditional lyric poem with its carefully tended experiences and self.

Not surprisingly, given his ambition, Raworth has written a number of very long poems. They hurtle forward, each line pared down to a word or two or three. The “I” at the center of these storms — the imagination that in Heaney, Larkin, or Boland orders things together in serried analogies — is displaced by the ongoing rush of language.

Raworth has always written “i” in the lowercase. What might have been a cutesy tic in other poets makes rigorous sense in his poems. The “i” is just one vantage point among many, another thing that is happening now. We can see this in a few lines I have taken almost randomly from his long, rueful account of Thatcherite England, “West Wind”:

gravel and grain
shipped from the hythe
pebbles at deal
grey chip road surface
skirting deserted cars
i smell
my body
nothing to feel with
but the chemicals of thought
divides dis
from uninterest
it is the breeze
this winter
a bird pecks
comes down the tree
world war one
war two
war three

His signature is his breakneck speed. When he gives live readings, he runs roughshod over the line breaks, thus making it impossible for the reader to rest with what she has just heard.

Raworth once wrote that he had had made a “pact, intelligence/shall not replace intuition” (“Wedding Day”). What does this mean? In a notebook entry, he says that “intelligence become reflex equals intuition.”

For him, intelligence indicates something less than reason and more than just plain consciousness. Call it “conscious awareness.” It rests on reflection, not reflex. It is a bit suspect because it is too slow and way too keen on itself.

Intuition, on the other hand, is a physical form of thought, a kind of quick, intellectual muscle memory and an evolutionary advantage if we are to survive. Thus the lightning feints and jabs of Raworth’s poems are meant present the poet’s keenest intuitions. They are also meant to train us as well. The poet is trying to speed up our reaction time, condition us for the world.

He is not too sanguine about that world. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” dreamt of a revolution to come and hoped that the poet’s words will be the very seeds of that revolution (“Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth/The trumpet of a prophecy”).

Raworth’s “West Wind” is a more chastened text, one that gloomily documents the Thatcherite counter-revolution, which turned the modern Welfare State into the postmodern Security State. Raworth’s poems of the past few decades are shadowed by this transformation. While they have become larger in their scope and their heart, they are also darker, more suspicious affairs, thick with references to the various apparatuses of surveillance that surround us.

Commentators have always liked to talk about the influence of film on Raworth’s work, and this makes sense, given the poems’ montages of language and their nervous splicing of phrases and words. A decade ago, the novelist and essayist Iain Sinclair argued that Raworth’s work is about narrative fiction as much as about film or lyric suspension.

He was right, but I would go one further. It might be instructive to see Raworth’s work in light of the sprawling realist novels of the 19th century. Like those great, big, great big books, Raworth’s work presents a map of the times and a chart of our language’s possibilities.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he published an untitled series of 14-line stanzas (like sonnets, only different). These would bid fair to be his version of Dickens, Balzac, and Thackeray, though the poems dissolve their narrative arc into lines and phrases. The series begins broadly, with a fine novelistic sweep:

sentenced he gives a shape
by no means enthusiastic
to what he saw
this new empire had begun

It ends just as broadly, if more bleakly:

a crackle of wood burning
sweeps the whole scene
getting dark in the east
where no sound enters
notice the wires are pulled
by no splendour, imagery or power
vision does more than see
the habit of infinite parenthesis
changes of fashion stumbling
forever over the plains of time.

Notice that though vision does see more than fashion, the end of the poem does not tell us who, or what, is pulling the strings. We know that the prime movers are not abstractions such as pomp or power. If I read him right, we can see Raworth’s old Labour tendencies most clearly here: People — not fate or spectacle — are the proper agents of history.

These fourteeners are not included in As When (though you can find a volume of them online), nor are any of Raworth’s other book-length works, such as ACE, Catacoustics, or Writing. Miles Champion, As When’s editor, did not want to diminish these long works by excerpting them.

I can understand his scruples, though I disagree with them. I worry that As When must necessarily give a very partial view of Raworth’s output and his project. The sheer extent of his writing matters. In many ways, all his poems come together to make a stringent and astringent single poem, full of comic lucidity, terror, and humanity. They serve as an exercise in intuition. They “will illuminate in darkness.”

So, yes, if you have never read Raworth, start with As When. Just remember, though, that this book, admirable as it is, provides the first word on this poet’s exemplary, improbable career, not the last.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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