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This article is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

Tom Raworth’s Writing
‘present past improved’: Tom Raworth’s Writing
Drew Milne
TOM RAWORTH’S GENEROUS WORK offers many different types of poetry to celebrate, from the miniature to the micro-epic. My favourite is Writing. In the 1982 Figures edition of Writing, seven thin columns form an outsize double page landscape.1  I treasure the way rust from the book’s staples is spreading into the book’s gutter of my copy, as if as a home for metallic lichens. The poem’s opening lines predict as much: ‘spears of laughter / hiss for a time / then clank across / leaving flakes of rust / to fox pages’.

Writing asks for a sustained sitting – ‘make a fascinating / half-hour’ – but it is not so long as to defeat the attempt to hold its entirety within the mind over a reading. It’s a profound tonic. Some of Raworth’s admirers prefer his shorter poems, a form in which he evidently excelled, but Writing is, for me, the apex of his work. There’s not much point extracting chunks of Writing to stand for the whole: it shape-shifts so continuously as to mock that game.

Tom Raworth’s importance to poetry over the last fifty years is hard to overstate. He had the rare capacity of making friends – in person and through writing – across poetry’s rival tendencies. For many, even those who scarcely knew him, he was Tom rather than Raworth. Pivotal within so-called ‘Cambridge school’ and ‘British Poetry Revival’ poetries, he is probably the least academic and the most widely liked British avant-garde poet of his generation. He could also be construed as British and Irish poetry’s most exemplary mediator of North American poetry, both reworking and sometimes influencing the Beats, Black Mountain, New York School and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Needless to say, such labels are mere flimflam: his poetry is of many schools and none. Amid his transatlantic feel for poetic forms, Writing also has a dash of Apollinaire and surrealism – ‘like cubist shadows’ – but his forms are his own.

To admirers, Tom Raworth’s poetry needs no introduction. Impressive volumes of critical readings already exist,2 and sustained critical essays, tributes and reminiscences are forthcoming. For readers looking for introductions, critical discussions nevertheless struggle to characterise the quality and variousness of his poetry. Indeed, a mark of the witty intelligence of Raworth’s poetry is the way it humbles description. Everything gets generalised in critical translation. The surface of his poetry fends off traditional modes of close reading, and is no less resistant to generalisations about underlying theoretical or philosophical tendencies: ‘follow / no idea / comrade citizen’.

His own way of reading his poems was memorably quick, and this quickness might seem characteristic of the poetry. There are many recordings of Tom in full flight, including a reading of Writing on PennSound, which also has videos and a revealing interview with Charles Bernstein.3 He was a terrific performer. His voice provides a lively introduction to his poetry, suggesting agile wit and quick-fire but dead-pan delivery. Tom was not one for lambent wailings, raw revelations and gushing superfluities of reheated emotion. Nor was he much prone to bardic gloom or teacherly sarcasm. His play of tones was sharp, enthusiastic, energetic and yet cool.

Raworth’s performance style nevertheless risks giving the impression that the poetry is all flicker, so many frames per second, catch what you can. Not so. Quickness is only a partial representation of how the poems might be read. Indeed, his performance style can be understood as preserving the poetry’s informal indeterminacy. Rapid recital evens out hierarchies of grammatical or semantic emphasis: ‘living / history/ remembered / fewer teeth / wind rises / feed my lamps / fill my sheet’. The rapidity of non-sequiturs, jump-cuts and juxtaposition prevents any one moment or formal twist offering itself as the dominant note. As Marjorie Perloff observes of his reading of Ace, everything seems as important as everything else. But this quickness is also a mode of misdirection, a way of keeping open the play of possible readings.

Tom’s speed-of-sound style of performance allows listening to blur into heightened but intermittent attention. Attending to the moving scroll of fragments can even feel true to the serendipitous reverie of consciousness, as if we could be freed from the labour of self-consciousness. But we can’t. Read as collage, Raworth’s work offers an intuitive witnessing of otherwise overlooked details, coincidences and correspondences, as if from the movie of our lives: ‘though the cuts / were frame to frame / while memory nags / at persistence of vision / from screen to drawing’. Analogies with other media proliferate without the poetry becoming an inter-medial hybrid. The writing remains alive to all possibilities of art, language and perception. The energy of attention moves on – as if confirming Charles Olson’s dictum that one perception ‘must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!’ – but does so through recursive judgments on what is of interest, what does or doesn’t bore, what matters. Catching language and perceptions on the quick, Writing offers what Andrew Spragg calls ‘a humour of companionship’.

Raworth’s poetry can be read, then, as if Tom’s performance underscores the work’s quick-fire wit. But his masque of collaged differentials also invites slower, more accumulative readings, readings that take note of the decisions and judgments, the omissions and abstractions that make up the texture of his poetry’s knowing condensations. Put simply, Tom knew what he was doing, and what he wasn’t, and not just intuitively. Although he avoided offering a poetics or theory, his writerly practice nevertheless articulates implicit principles of construction. His knowing skill is evident in the comparative absence of traces of literary influence: his occasional borrowings are made new. In conversation, Tom often revealed an exceptionally precise power of recall, and the absence of clumsy repetitions of his or anyone else’s writing speaks to his powers of memory.

Although Writing often foregrounds the doing of writing with a kind of Beckettian informality, the ‘silken thread’ of the book conjures, ‘through clear memories / of similarity / as our propellor / whirs off the spiral / a poem’. Memories of various kinds are glimpsed, Tom’s children – ‘aram without shoes’ – but also the larger political landscape – ‘castro visits / the african front’. But the primary poetic intuition against which memory is measured is the grammar of its reconstruction: how far can writing unlock the way syntax captures and frames representation? Rather than framing the cinema of our memories within existing architectures of language, Tom offers anarchic grammars of memory that refuse to boil down into glimpsed anecdotes of the witty lyric ego. Writing offers its very own written tense: ‘(present past improved)’.

My own impression is that Tom, like his father, had something of what is sometimes called photographic memory, both of people and places, and of languages heard and seen. Remembering when he met someone or where he heard a phrase often seemed to involve full recall of the context. This might be taken as a post-symbolist principle of his poetry: the aura of the word’s contextual associations attends the edges of what remains in the final collage. In Writing this is sharpened by an interest in the particulars of experiences and grammatical frames.

Over and above speed-reading, then, Tom’s poetry also invites readers to develop their own poetics of aesthetic association and memory, tracing not just the fast-moving scroll of his poetry’s apparent present past improved tense, but construing the shared value of memories of experience and language across his poetry. In Writing, for example, there’s a bouquet of flowers running through the text – ‘for morning in the bowl of night / to be, is to be alive / to the flowers”.’ The closing quotation mark here offers ironic citation as the get-out. There are, nevertheless, flowers to which readers might become alive: ‘the scent / of narcissus’, ‘oak   broom   meadowseet’, ‘blackthorn bloomed’, ‘amaryllis’, ‘memories of privet / wallflowers’, ‘blueish red roses’ and so on. Flowers also associate with birds and are mapped on to the poem’s idiosyncratic charting of colours: ‘cyan would the sky be? / i have no colour chart’. These, then, are not flowers of evil, or some imagiste back-door bit of romantic nature-writing, but a writing through that doesn’t delete the possibility of delight: ‘sun stencilled / window frame / on sage? green / carpet / wavering leaves / of a geranium / she stands amidst / geranium maderense / delight / with me / in the red / of this flower’. This poem’s openness to the possibilities of experience and perception would by no means delete any pleasure of yours.

Writing sustains its quick-fire wit across associative intuitions that bristle with scepticism against literary ideology. This surface is nevertheless built, constructed out of the careful accumulation of micro-judgments that write through a poetics of memory that turns on the syntax of memorial construction. There is even a running dialogue with the physics and metaphysics of light and, perhaps unsurprisingly for a London-Irish Catholic, questions of original sin, ‘virus souls’ and theology: ‘solid grace / flattening spite / to a harmless wafer / melting in / to its salvation’. The poems offer not just a flicker book, but also a cinema of memories for readers to associate with and remember. Tom perhaps imagined readers with powers of memory comparable to his own, and also as easily bored or distracted. But the poetry doesn’t ask to be an academic object removed for further study: ‘so i have no time / for a view based on work / he listened intently / separating noise / into possible language / then guessing / into his mood’.

Writing reconfigures found materials in writing and from life, savouring how a present moment lives anew some past improved. The art – ‘art / the television / of the smart’ – is as much in what is left out, knowing how to shape-shift to the still resonating phrase, Letterist coincidence or grammatically-cut jewel. Writing listens for the Duchampian ‘infrathin’ of the delights of memory, the coincidences and overlaps experienced through writing. In making cuts and omissions, micro-judgments of letter and tone are mapped onto social and political implications, with a mischievous eye for the conjunctions of love, delight and ideology.

The judgments that construct his poems remain implicit but can be glimpsed in ‘Letters from Yaddo’ and ‘A Letter to Martin Stannard’. His transcribed observations, caught turns and coincidental overlaps, are edited into an unfolding but dynamic collage. In Writing, the notebook form is glimpsed – ‘ending one notebook with’ – but such moments quickly dissolve into a miniature Proustian cinema of screened memories, as if in a movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Tom himself appears in his pages more like Godard, or Hitchcock, a walk on bit-player in the unfolding movie he edits and directs. The writer also takes the measure of the rushes, improvising the consciousness of everything into something worth reading and remembering as writing. Writing is that writing and well worth remembering.

  1. For some illustrations of the book of Writing, see: See also Drew Milne, ‘“Ill seen, Ill read”: Faultlines in Contemporary Poetics as Ideology’, in Modernist Legacies: Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  2. Nate Dorward, ed., Removed for further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth, The Gig, issue 13/14 (2003).

This article is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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