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This review is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.PLEASANT BUTTER
The first thirteen poems in Windmills in Flames were somehow omitted from Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2003), but they – like the new poems, which mostly date from the post-9/11 years – are once again proof of Raworth’s uniqueness among contemporary Anglo-American poets. No one else writing today has his eye or ear for the absurdities of the information age, with its seemingly ‘factual’ news reportage, its advertising sound bytes, and its production of the ‘literary’ via prefabricated narrative. Raworth seems to have looked at every image and listened to every absurd commentary coming across the TV screen, the airways, or the blogosphere, and he has caught the intonations and attitudes of mediaspeak with remarkable accuracy and humour.
At the same time, he is, despite the casual demeanor of his poems, an extremely literary and learned poet: echoes of earlier writers or traditional verse forms such as the Popean couplet are always just there beneath the surface. A ‘Birthday Poem’ written to himself on his seventieth birthday, for example, gestures toward A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees’, with the line, ‘now of my three score years and ten’, only to deflate Housman’s elaborate ratios with the conclusion that ‘none will come again’. In the long sequence ‘Caller’, thoughts of ‘nicaragua’ and other late twentieth-century battlegrounds prompt the poet to declare ‘i was ready / for a new / spoon river / anthology of real dead’ – lines that, despite the horrific context, made me laugh out loud, thinking about Edgar Lee Masters’s sad little revelations about the hidden lives of the residents of Spoon River.
Such inventive and witty fusion of high and low keeps Raworth’s ‘windmills’ producing steady gem-like flames. Take the opening lines of the early ‘Continued’: ‘they give it away / with pleasant butter’. Is there such a thing as unpleasant butter? Or has someone misheard the term ‘peanut butter’? Never mind, Raworth reminds us, as long as something is being given away, we perk up. In a neighbouring poem ‘Drop in Existence’, a reductio ad absurdum of one of those ‘science’ reports on the wonders of cell replacement, we read ‘i am lonely for my replaced cells / 1945, 1952 1959, 1966, 1973, 1980, 1987’ – a terse way of saying that there are some things you cannot replace. And ‘Ground Swell’ is a delicious send-up of Sunday supplement romance fiction:
out in the fresh air
captain Phillips hadn’t told her
she gave him two helpings of larks
In twenty words and three sound bytes or text captions, Raworth faithfully follows the romance formula, only to turn it inside out in line 3 with the plural ‘larks’. For what might two helpings of larks entail? It sounds risky. ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway puts it.
No specialised discourse, even that of his fellow poets, is immune from Raworth’s satire: ‘How to Patronise a Poem’, for example, burlesques the jargon of current poetics programmes:
no. the spark comes. we work together. oh it is form, form,
the making of distinctions. form, the shape revealed by the
detection, in all dimensions, of the boundaries of content
Here the source is Creeley’s ‘Form is never more than the extension of content’. ‘all things that live were members of the crew’, the portentous narrator tells us, but when these animals go in ‘two by two’, their coupling must be based on ‘yin and yang’. After all, poets are not ordinary people! And now comes a hilarious spoof of the now solemn orthodoxy that the lyric self is taboo:
then what is left
no matter how you muddy it
and there you are
do you see me?
i am leaving a space
where i was is as bad
Raworth’s ars poetica refuses to give in to the self-importance of the self deniers: its final couplet gamely declares, ‘i have tasted fire / goodbye, pleasant butter.’
In the later poems, the most daily of routines are seen to have a political unconscious. The occasion for ‘Lippitude’ (the noun literally means soreness of the eyes, but it also implies having a lot of lip), is probably the familiar eye-chart test. The opening line, ‘What’s the difference between f’ (pick your own f-word) calls to mind those small print words on the line we can’t make out, but it’s also a play on Derrida’s famed différance, spelled with an a rather than an e to point up the endless deferral of meaning we encounter in the act of reading. Raworth isn’t quite buying it: ‘ruled and governed?’ (line 2) suggests that we had better understand that the two verbs are not the same – at least not in a world that has the adjective ‘talibanese’ (line 4)! Well, there’s a certain ‘cold perception’ no ‘lippitude’ can obscure. And besides, we also have ears: ‘move hearing back and out’, as the final line puts it.
In recent poems, Raworth’s vision has darkened: the minimalist four-line stanzas of ‘From Mountains and Gardens’, for example, take on the Nightly Business Report (NPR) with a vengeance:
Liquid assets, toxic waste, socialised medicine, the daily lurch between bull and bear markets: in Raworth’s ‘catchphrase graveyard’, the only meaningful ‘transfer’ is of epithets: even the nursery rhymes change places, leaving Jill nowhere but ‘downhill’ with the apology (made by Our Leader) that ‘i can’t / be everywhere’.
But there are also lighter moments: the recent ‘Listen Up’ has already made the cocktail circuit – a bravura performance accessible and easy to memorise, given its iambic tetrameter couplets, with their jangling feminine rhymes. ‘Listen Up’ is Raworth’s exposé of Bush jingoism during the Iraq war; it was submitted, he claims (in what may itself be a further spoof), to a website called ‘Poets for the War’ under the nom de plume Ophelia Merkin. Ophelia ‘took over’ the website, says Raworth, until Robert Creeley ‘broke her cover’. Here is the opening:
Why should we listen to Hans Blix
and all those other foreign pricks:
the faggot French who swallow nails
and kiss the cheeks of other males
and Germans with their Nazi past
and leather pants and cars that last
longer than ours…
It continues in this burlesque mode, concluding with the delicious rhyme:
We’ll clip Mohammed’s ears and pecker
And then move on to napalm Mecca.
Such ‘special effects’ are enough to make us want all the ‘pleasant butter’ Raworth has up his sleeve.
This review is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.