Monday, February 18, 2008

Lee Harwood

Reading the Bhagavad Gita on the train down from London to Plymouth this morning, it was good to be reminded of the following (in Stephen Mitchell's translation):

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits.
Acts for the action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results
open to success or failure

Having just finished a novel, it's good to be reminded that the act of writing, the creation itself, is the essence of the work. The weight of the marketplace, a publisher's reaction, the prospect of financial reward, all loom to tear away that satisfaction in a job well done if you let it.

Poets seem purer in this regard. Few poets write for real financial gain, and their work, as Lee Harwood suggests, is a gift for others to use how they will. Lee Harwood has just been the visiting poet for our third year contemporary poet students here at Plymouth, giving a reading and answering questions this afternoon. A fine soft spoken man, coming along the coast from his home in Brighton, he offered the guidance of Jack Spicer, an American poet he 'immensely admires', about who you write for. As with the ripples from a pebble dropped in water, first you write for yourself; the next ripple is for someone close to you, someone you love; after that it is for your friends; beyond that is a 'happy accident'. He laughed at the notion of writing public poetry. So aim for the language of normal speech, as though you are talking to someone, but set this in context, so the context of people in the street outside, of the past and the future, to make it real and give room for the reader to find their way inside.
I'm paraphrasing Lee's words in the hope of capturing some of his poetic guidance. For him poetry should never be preaching, and the notion of a poet as a shaman is a bit daft. 'It is most presumptuous to imagine you have an authority, and who would want it?' As for form, he sets the poem down on the page was with musical notation, to suggest how he would like it to sound, to catch the natural rhythms of how he would like it to be read.
He never saw himself as an English writer, finding English literature of the sixties to be 'insular and smug', turning instead to France, to South America, to Borges, and William Carlos Williams, to Ashbery.
Something I didn't know is that John Ashbery writes to the a background of music playing I've never been able to manage that myself. And I am reminded by Lee's intense enthusiasm for Carlos Fuentes (claiming his book Myself and Others is 'stupendous') to venture on reading the man. A friend in Santa Fe last summer made the same suggestion, recommending early Fuentes, before what he was as the Mexican writer's self-importance set in.
There's no sense of self-importance in Lee Harwood ... who exchanges drafts of his poems with Anne Stevenson to open himself up to extra polish. Heading to America in the 1960s he was impressed by the chance artists had over there to go out on a limb, make a real mess, then pick themselves up and start again. Better to go down blazing than just to bob along, and there's always new territory to explore in new ways.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,
I'm trying to contact Lee Harwood as part of my research on a history of Brighton bookshops. He worked at the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton in the late sixties and I was wondering if he might be able to share some of his experiences of that time. If you are still in contact with him, I wonder if you would be able to pass on this note?
Thanks for your time,

john shire

10:09 AM  

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