Lee Harwood’s poetry presents a haunting pleasure to the reader – images and openings for response that cohere into uniquely graceful structures of meaning and emotion. It constructs worlds for the reader to inhabit – yet also pointing to that shared world we all inhabit.
Harwood, though born in Leicester, was brought up in and around London, and educated there at Queen Mary College. He has engaged in a wide range of occupations, including post office clerk and railway worker, and has lived mainly on the South Coast at Brighton since the late 1970s. He was active in the movement creating a new poetry in England in the 1960s and 70s, as magazine editor, bookseller and poet, making a particular contribution to this through his contacts with the New York School and his interest in Dada poetry.
Lee Harwood’s poetry is to be experienced very directly for a writer who is undoubtedly a modernist, even postmodernist. The poems present images, often of great clarity or beauty, and direct emotions and comments. Sometimes there is a clear location to the poem, sometimes it is placed in a more purely cultural landscape, whether from high or popular art. What makes his poetry so fascinating is the double life these images and feelings possess – as what they are, and as counters in the complex interplay between the poem and its reader. Such poems are very subtle machines, more software than mechanisms, that possess their own consciousness of themselves, of both their own truth and facticity, and also of their status as just words, tropes or counters – just as a painting can be both icon and brushwork.
His poems can both deal in a precise physical world around him, whether Brighton, or a Welsh mountain – and with exotic and distanced places and times. Both are equally valued, equally experienced – because the focus of attention is on the creation of the poem by the reader. His poetry’s openness has from the start been one of its consistent and strongest qualities, with typical devices like leaving descriptions unfinished (“It was spring and our garden was thick with primroses/ Each morning I would go out and . . .” from ‘Question of Geography’), or placing phrases in quotation to remind us of their always already quoted nature (a powerful postmodernist reading of Harwood could lead from this). A beautiful or moving world is created for the reader to actively dwell in, but its function is to point to our actual shared world.
The poetic form of his texts is rarely compulsive or strong – they are often based on montage, with loose lines whose rhythm represents the inflections of a meditative and self-aware voice (he is a very communicative reader of his poems). It is important always to be aware that Harwood’s are highly worked and deliberate poems, whose casual demeanour is a self-aware act, a stance. This stance of shared common pleasure in the grace of being alive is both political and personal – which the poetic blends.
There are parallels to this stance in the work of the first generation of the New York School, in O’Hara and Ashbery and Schuyler. Harwood was in close contact with these writers in the 60s (and since), and also with Tristan Tzara and the last survivors of the Dada Movement (he has extensively translated Tzara). Add to this a Poundian sense of the poem as a montage of images pointing at an absolute meaning, and Harwood’s position in English poetry is clarified. He has been a pioneer in renewing English poetry, combining consistently a devotion to locality and society with a challenging and subtle poetic practice.
Collected Poems 1964-2004. Shearsman Books, Exeter 2004, collects work from all the various volumes so far:
title illegible. Writers Forum, London 1995. Reprinted 1996.
The Man with Blue Eyes. Angel Hair Books, New York 1966.
The White Room. Fulcrum Press, London 1968.
Landscapes. Fulcrum Press, London 1969.
The Sinking Colony. Fulcrum Press, London 1970.
Penguin Modern Poets 19. With John Ashbery & Tom Raworth. Penguin, Harmondsworth 1971.
Freighters. Pig Press, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1975.
H.M.S. Little Fox. Oasis Books, London 1975.
Boston-Brighton. Oasis Books, London 1977.
Old Bosham Bird Watch. Pig Press, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1977.
Wish you were here. With Antony Lopez. Transgravity Press, Deal, Kent 1979.
All the Wrong Notes. Pig Press, Durham 1981.
Faded Ribbons. Other Branch Readings, Leamington Spa 1982.
Monster Masks. Pig Press, Durham 1985.
Crossing the Frozen River: selected poems. Paladin, London 1988.
Rope Boy to the Rescue. North & South, Twickenham 1988.
In the Mists: mountain poems. Slow Dancer Press, Nottingham 1993.
Morning Light. Slow Dancer Press, London 1998.
Evening Star. Leafe Press, Nottingham 2004.
Wine Tales: Un Roman Devin. With Richard Caddel. Galloping Dog Press, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1984.
Dream Quilt: 30 assorted stories. Slow Dancer Press, Nottingham 1985.
Translations of Tristan Tzara
Selected Poems. Trigram Press, London 1975.
Chanson Dada: selected poems. Coach House Press / Underwhich Editions, Toronto 1987.
The Glowing Forgotten: A Selection of Poems. Leafe Press, Nottingham 2003.
Chanson Dada: Selected Poems. Black Widow Press, Boston USA 2005
Landscapes. Stream P1202, London 1969.
The Chart Table, poems 1965-2002. Rockdrill 3, London 2004.
British Electronic Poetry Centre
Page on British Electronic Poetry Centre (BEPC) with poem ‘Linen’ (also as MP3 audio).
Readings: Response and Reactions to Poetries
Lee Harwood in conversation with Aodhán McCardle on Readings: Response and Reactions to Poetries.
Exultations and Difficulties
‘Review of Collected Poems’ by Alan Baker on Martin Stannard’s blog Exultations and Difficulties.