Thoughts: Collected Poems by Lee Harwood

A buzz from my phone woke me in the middle of the night and Guardian alerts nowadays are like little Gandalfs foretelling disaster, but it was the news that the US trying to deport people based on kneejerk racism has been ruled illegal. Which is nice. But I still couldn’t get back to sleep for worrying.

Let’s talk about poetry instead.

Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is a huge volume, but unlike PJ Kavanagh, whose poems were dense and heavy, Harwood’s work is lighter, more rangy, full of space. He once used the word “mosaic” to describe his style, which is pretty much perfect, at least for his early work. Like a mosaic made from fragments of different stone and bits of pottery and everything that comes to hand, some of his early, most experimental poems seem to be put together from lines that come from different moments, days, stories, people. There’s an energy to them, a rushing quality, like the world is full of so much that you can only talk in these broken sentences and pilfered chunks of textbook prose.

My list of favourites comes mostly from this very early work. As time passed and his style evolved I found it became a little bit more conventional, no more unfinished sentence-thoughts, more abstract, fewer colourful details and images. Our wavelengths synced up a bit again later when he started to write short vignettes and what you might call “prosetry” (though, as Scroobius Pip once said, I’d rather you didn’t), all surreal and weird in ways that really work for me.

Harwood insists several times in his poetry that he isn’t a nature poet and doesn’t really do nature poetry, but maybe age just does this to poets, because he definitely gets more nature-oriented as he goes on. Like Kavanagh, you can track his adult life, though here it’s only flashes and glimpses of children who are born, grow up, write their own stories, are memorialised. He’s upfront about his place in the wider world, weaving in (referenced) lines from elsewhere that he likes, pressing them into place like a particularly lovely fragment into a mosaic, dedicating poems to his friends, namedropping his influences, announcing his imitations.

Even in the middle stretch, when things got so abstract and intimate that I just didn’t have anything to hold on to, there were repeated images and motifs that gave me an impression of Harwood himself through the sometimes maddeningly incomprehensible poems – a love of orchids, a passion for climbing, a love of travel, flashes of politics, preoccupation with tactile sensations. The night as a furry animal, flocks of birds taking flight, the sea, the sun in all of its moods. There were lines that I went back and reread over and over again and I don’t even know what made them so satisfying.

From The Blue Mosque,

And the tanned hands’ very openness –
that revealed pale tender palms
capable of so much love and gentleness
– was an unbearable threat.

I must have stared at those lines for a full minute and I still don’t know why.

I feel like I’m still at the stage of reading poetry when what I like reflects more on me than on the skill of the poet. When I was younger and in the first grips of reading mania, I liked stories in a sort of aspirational sense. However mediocrely written, I liked stories that showed me what I thought I was (brave, clever, loyal) and what I wanted to be and do (mostly befriending magical animals or living in fantastical worlds or saving worlds). Now I value different things in my prose – I can appreciate unlikeable protagonists and mundane lives (though I still have a soft spot for gods and dragons). But I haven’t read enough poetry to get a good handle on technique and all the devices that add layers of meaning. Sometimes I think I can see it, but I don’t feel able to judge that this poet is good or this one bad, or this poem is saying this because of that word choice or line break or punctuation. I like poems that describe things I know or understand or can imagine. I like lazy summer flings and lonely landscapes and certain mindsets and beautiful things.

Favourite poems:

Cable Street
Rain Journal, London June 65
The Blue Mosque
Sea Journals
Wish you were here: Six Postcards
Unfinished opera for Marian
Wine Tales – un roman devin
Dream Quilt

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