Lee Harwood New Collected Poems: A Review

New Collected Poems, Lee Harwood, Shearsman Books, 2023, ISBN 9781848618558, £27.50

This new edition of Lee Harwood’s poems, edited by Kelvin Corcoran & Robert Sheppard, adds a not inconsiderable 200 pages to the 2004 collected edited by the poet himself. In part, this is due to the addition of the poet’s first collection, Title Illegible at the start and an additional 60-odd pages of post 2004 work. The remaining additions are poems excised by Harwood from the earlier book but here restored in their rightful chronological positions.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that just over 200 pages, almost a third of the work gathered here, represented work written and published between 1964 and 1970. What we see in the earliest of this work is the emergence of a love poet, but of a very particular kind, one who is interested less in ‘romance’ than in love as an integrating factor in human experience:

you know even in the stillness of my kiss

that doors are opening in another apartment

on the other side of town             a shepherd grazing

his sheep through a village we know

high in the mountains the ski slopes thick with summer flowers

and the water-meadows below with narcissi

the back of your hand and –

What we also see here is the characteristic movement of Harwood’s thought in his poems, as we move from scene to apparently unrelated scene with an underlying cohesion which is a function of the linguistic surfaces of the poems. In their very useful introduction, Corcoran and Sheppard discuss this aspect of the work in terms of Harwood’s use of collage, which derives from his early reading of Pound and Tzara. It is, however, important to note that unlike in the case of, say, Pound, knowing Harwood’s sources would not enrich the reading of the poems. In this, he shares much in common with an early admirer of his work, John Ashbery, like Ashbery, Harwood’s work demands our full attention precisely because everything we need to understand (not the right word) his poems is there on the page, in the words he has chosen to present to us and the order he presents them in. His obscurities, such as they are, are the obscurities of the human mind at work in the world. In fact, he wars us quite early on what not to look for from his tales:

there’s no big fiery blast to end this poem,

no sudden revelation — ‘more’s the pity’

—and even this sounds too neat

The one exception is the ‘Cable Street’, a longish sequence in prose and verse that engages, not quite successfully, with the history and politics of Harwood’s then London home area.

With the poems of ‘The White Room’ sequence, we see a step up in ambition and quality in poems that are generally extended narratives that owe a good deal to Borges (an acknowledged influence) and to film makers like, say, John Heuston, using that name as a kind of shorthand for cinema in which slowness and space are significant narrative devices. The crucial factor is that these poems are fictions, things made out of words; they are not to be confused with the genre of anecdotal poetry that pretend to tease out a ‘significant moment’ to present some kind of personal insight of poetic ‘importance’ in a simulacrum of conversational realism. Harwood’s process is entirely different to this:

If you will accept this story for what it is,
then you may well be amused or even pleased;
the actual reality is of no importance.

The facts and words – even whole lines –
could so easily be seen as matters of pure style.

The fictive ‘I’ of these narratives is no more or less real when the poems relate apparently fictional matters than when they deal with situations that are clearly invented or borrowed. These are poems of inconclusiveness, hesitation and uncertainty, and this is reflected in the versification, How are we to parse, for example, these lines already quoted?

If you will accept this story for what it is,

then you may well be amused or even pleased;

the actual reality is of no importance.

Are the first four syllables unstressed? Or should we stress ‘you’ or ‘will’? These various readings coexist in the mind of the attentive reader, shifting the sense as the sound shifts. And this sonic variability recurs throughout these lines, the poem they come from, and the entire book.  It is part of the weave of Harwood’s work, enacting the movement of the poet’s mind as it navigates the poems.

With the turn of the decade, there’s something of a step shift with the long poem sequence ‘Long Black Veil’, which opens with epigraphs from Pound and Gide, odd bedfellows in a way, but the quotes on the need to understand the process and for fellowship are very pertinent. The poem represents one side of what the poet described as his ‘puritan-cavalier routine’, although one could argue for a degree of interpenetration between the two facades. In any case, ‘Veil’ represents a move away from the elaborate syntax and longer lines of the preceding narratives towards a more “direct treatment of the ‘thing’”. In a frame of a log of a trip through North America that is also a love poem to a woman who happens to be married with children, the poem also incorporates visual elements, specifically a glyph that I take to be Horus and quotations that are directly attributed, moving them from being elements in a collage to acting more as commentary on the passages around them.

It’s a fine poem in itself, but ‘Veil’ also prefigures the extraordinary Boston to Brighton the collection (in many ways an extended serial poem) that is the culmination of the first phase of Harwood’s work and also one of the finest achievements of the British Poetry Revival. The book is divided into two sections, ‘Boston 1972-1973’ and ‘Brighton 1973-1977’, the shorter opening section reflects the almost tourist experience of living somewhere for a relatively short time. After some verse poems that establish the narrator as discoverer, the section concludes with a set of prose poems that mirror the language of tour guides, which I think of not so much as ‘found’ poems than as ‘sought’ ones:

3 gas stations, a library, post office, several churches. 2 general stores, a drug store, hardware store, and a large number of summer shops filled with ‘artistic’ bric-à-brac, and a couple of restaurants and hotels.

Take your choice

The matter-of-fact tone is then, in the Brighton section, applied to material that is more personal:

In the closeness that comes with shared actions. From keeping a room clean, keeping clothes clean, cooking a meal to be eaten by the both of us. In that closeness, maybe on the edge of losing something gaining something. Questions of clarity and recognitions.

Here the fictions are less elaborate than in the earlier work, but perhaps more complex in that they blur the lines between the real and the fictive (both words should probably be in quotes) paradoxically by virtue of the greater surface clarity of the text:

sometimes there is

the need

                to explain

make that mark


This move towards a more direct voice means that the syntax and rhythms of the verse poems are more readily parsed, with the result that a different, but no less rich, verbal music emerges:

stuck in the basics of survival
rather than the trivial

the ground to work from

the light slowly failing, as
they say, so I can no longer
see this page clearly

stuck in the basement of survival
I reread this as mistakenly

The alliteration on ‘s’ provides a sonic thread round which patterns of assonance are woven in ways that enact the process of dimming that is the semantic structure.

The final poem in the set, the long ‘Notes of a Postal Clerk’, drawn from Harwood’s life and work in ‘London by the sea’,  closes the circle by including passages that echo the postcards from Boston and embedding geological diagrams of the Sussex landscape. There is also something of a return to the political concerns of ‘Cable Street’, more successful because they are integrated into the wider concerns of the text:

For three years
my lady and me
have lived in one room

I’m sick of living in one room
I’m sick of being poor
I’m sick of the rich taking from the poor
(and them pretending not to even know it!)

I’m sick of the rich.

It’s telling that this exploration of the personal is followed by Wine Tales, a collaboration with fellow poet Richard Caddel that uses wine labels as prompts for texts that mostly resemble traditional short stories.

Thereafter, it is possible to read Harwood’s mature work as a process of integrating the puritan and the cavalier in work that blends both tendencies neatly. This can be seen straight away in ‘Six Postcards’, the opening poem in All the Wrong Notes. Here the postcard form is used to meld the factual and the fictive in organic wholes, the place in the poet and the poet in the place.

One very striking thing is the number of poems that are addressed or dedicated to named individuals: friends, fellow poets, artists, and members of the Harwood family. Indeed, the mid 1980s volume Dream Quilt: 30 assorted stories includes a number of pieces written by his son Rafe. This reflects, I think, a belief in the social importance of writing, in poetry as a kind of small-scale social glue or a set of interactions with others as part of Harwood’s wider dialogue with the world. Some people have just one or two poems, others, such as Paul Evans and Harry Guest reappear across the years, and some of the most moving poems of the late 80s and early 90s were occasioned by Evans’ death. The twin poles of Brighton and the USA also recur, and there’s a steady stream of ekphrastic poems that again form part of that same dialogue.

But for the reader who is already familiar with Harwood’s work, the inclusion of the poems written or published after 2004 that make this new Collected an essential book. And yet I realise that most of this review focuses on the early work; my excuse is that there is a rare sense of consistent continuity about Harwood’s writing, with a kind of blueprint laid out in the work of the first 10 years which the later work builds on.

And so, I’d like to conclude this all-too-short review with two stanzas from ‘Palaeontology’, a poem included in The Orchid Boat 2008–14:

Was this where you expected to end up?
lost or mainly so? in a dream?
Planks scattered on the ground,
cement smeared shuttering just left.

But the night not that frightening,
the landscape well known despite the strangeness.
Been-here-before one way or another.
To push on past weariness, but with so much baggage.