Saturday, January 09, 2016

Lee Harwood again

Central Park Zoo, 1967 (Photo by Garry Winogrand)
[Image source:]

I've been reading Robert Sheppard's pieces on Lee Harwood's poetry, and as a result have a bit more context for the early poems I'm reading in Penguin Poets 19.

Review of the earlier part of the Collected:
Review of the later part of the Collected:
Three sequences in Morning Light (1998):
Review of The Orchid Boat:
A reflection on the above:
Poem dedicated to Lee Harwood:
A laugh with Lee Harwood:
In Memoriam:

The "Three sequences" piece ends with this, part of a list of features that may be said to characterize the world of Harwood's poetry:

a bit of camp (or the occasional kitsch ‘bad’ line) thrown in to unsettle the certainties of received discriminations in life and in the art

That's something that can be abundantly illustrated from "The Doomed Fleet".

This 'exciting narrative poem' (Harwoodian quotes) begins:

The entire palace was deserted, just as was
the city, and all the villages.... 

Not "the palace" but "the entire palace" (gosh) ... and that conversational but slipshod "just as was"... these are little opening hints of what's to come.

By the start of section 3 we're in full-on helpless-author mode.

Grey waves slapped against the sides of
the iron grey battleships. Seabirds screeched
above the wind; they don't sing.
Even the ships appeared deserted, except
for the occasional dark figures that would
hurry along a deck and then disappear
through a hatch-way as abruptly as when they first

The grand if somewhat hackneyed description is never quite in control of itself. In the first sentence, an ill-advised choice of plurality spoils a clear image; then the seabirds are improbably located "above" the wind; now comes the deliciously wrong but somehow comprehensible "Even"; and finally the clause about the dark figures, which gets itself in a tangle so that, in the end, the figures disappear at the very moment they appear. Even the decision to hyphenate, or not, seems chaotic.

The syntax is trying so hard! - too hard - but it's constantly undone by time and precedence and geography and multiple entities: it's all too much. You begin to understand "The Doomed Fleet" as a writing assignment.

Harwood, like Ashbery ("It was raining in the capital"), saw the possibilities of disastrous writing. Because, isn't all writing disastrous, really?

And a funny thing is, that as I was sitting here and teasing out these various stylistic infelicities, the attention made me focus on the image: the dark figures leapt to their syntactically improper life -

hurry along a deck and then disappear

- leapt, in a way they certainly never would have done if the grammar had been in order.

Though it did occur to me that what I was vividly imagining, and probably what Harwood imagined too, seemed a hell of a lot more like the multiple decks of a well-lit passenger ferry than a  gloomy single-deck battleship.

USS Alabama, in service from 1943

[Image source:]


With David Bowie's death (yesterday) there's some hive-thinking about bisexual artists going on. I'm a bit taken aback by the intensity of people's love. I discover (as it were for the first time) that, passionate 70s music fan as I was,  he was someone I never really followed, and that if he meant a great deal to me it was only for a very short time, when I was 13. I think the only records of his that I ever bought were three successive 45s: "Jean Genie" (backed with Ziggy Stardust),  "Drive-In Saturday" and the reissued "Life on Mars?". Yet I did know the Ziggy and Aladdin albums quite well. I must have long-loaned them from school-friends, Anthony Aloof maybe, or John Vincent Scott. (Thereafter, David Bowie perhaps seemed a too predictable music pigeon-hole for the likes of me: so I gravitated to the harsh obscure (Can, Beefheart, Hammill) and to other people's mainstreams (Beach Boys, Dolly Parton, Al Green).

I don't really know if Lee Harwood should be labelled bisexual or not. Maybe that's part of what bisexuality is all about. But I associate Lee's hypothetical bisexuality with his binary focus, the effect that Sheppard quotes him as calling cavalier vs puritan.

Sheppard again:

An erotic liaison with John Ashbery (whom he had met in Paris in 1965), and a more general literary engagement with the New York poetry scene at its height, engendered some deeply felt love poetry, including one of the finest meditations upon clandestine gayness, erotic obsession and separation, ‘As your eyes are blue’, which Jeremy Reed has described as ‘a love poem as important to its time as Shakespeare’s androgynously sexed sonnets were to his.’ In those days homosexuality was still illegal.

(Reed said this in 2005, but I haven't found out where because Sheppard's The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood is only searchable in snippet view.)

It's tempting  (volley of sexuality-stereotypes on the way...) to associate the gay side of these poems with the urbane, with art, museums, New York; the het side with Harwood the climber, and the frequently adventurous scenery of his poems, the recurrent three horsemen, etc.   Or, as in this case, the iron grey battleships.

The poems tend to regard such Boy's-Book scenes (the Argentine, the wild tribesmen of the hills, etc) as ridiculous but it won't leave them alone.

Rupert Bear is a fighter ace.

Harwood takes the voice of Mrs Skewton and transforms it; for him, being "all heart" is a serious proposition.

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