Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lee Harwood, "Question of Geography"





"Question of Geography" has a three-part structure. The structure trembles a little, it's alive - "I can't remember... the details obscured..." - but for the purposes of now we'll stick with those three parts. Each describes a landscape experienced by Harwood at some time in his young life: call them "once", and "another time", and "now". This analysis makes the three seem more disentanglable than they really are. Really, the poem's discovery is a continuous argument. Nevertheless, here's the middle bit.

Ridge in the distance       everything the same
as before                  it must be
The moors edged with pine woods
in the south-west province     a repetition
but the cathedral town unchanged
It makes no difference who was there
all inevitably reduced to the question of
geography or memory


The text operates not with particularity but with the suggestion of particularity.  The landscapes are all different, that's the point of them, yet they must, we feel, have a lot in common with each other. (The repeated idea of a ridge-line confirms this.)

In this middle part of the poem the particularity of what is seen becomes momentarily clearer ("moors edged with pine woods"), just when the particularities of time are at their vaguest: we could easily suppose this was a scene being glimpsed in the present, until mention of the third scene dispels that idea. When, then? Unlike the two outer scenes, it isn't connected with a time of year.

Ashbery and Harwood are both very fond of the phrases "a question of" or "a matter of". They use the phrases in a gorgeous myriad of ways. But to generalize, these phrases assert a fixed point (e.g. geography, in this case) but not a proposition, only a preoccupation.

Never more subtly than here, when the postscript "or memory" immediately undercuts the apparent definiteness of the title phrase, and instead seems to shimmer with all of the earlier elements that were not geographic. I'll come back to that.

At the end, the poem gestures at drawing together its threads and making manifest its discovery, at least about how the two remembered landscapes underlie the present scene.

the others seeming somehow irrelevant in the present excitement
but still real like a very sure background
- you paint over the picture and start on
the new one      but all the same it's still there
beneath the fresh plains of colour

That last line resonates with hidden energies. It makes us pause for a long moment.

But the poem is not in fact purely about landscapes. All around its edges, reticently undefined, are other people. "our garden".. "house" ... "months gone by"... "a repetition" ... "It makes no difference who was there". These very faint footfalls, the experience and the thoughts inflected by other people, become amplified after reading other Harwood poems from the same era.

It matters because it changes the subject of the poem. The poem is not only about change of landscapes but about a lifestyle of impermanence, a lifestyle without "marriage" or "family" or "home", but with changing lovers and changing places. If there's even a certain briskness in that "you paint over the picture", then you might wish to call it a poem about ending relationships. Further, it's a poem about viewing the permanent, "the cathedral town unchanged", from the perspective of impermanence: already with a tint of the ridiculous about it, or at best experienced as "the present excitement".  It's one of the quietest, but one of the defining, British poems of the 1960s.


 * "the south-west province".  Harwood uses the expression several times in poems of this era. It momentarily unsettles location by calling up some Waleyan translation of Li Po; maybe it's Harwood's light-touch joke. But there's no real disguise: you don't get cathedrals in Sichuan. In Harwood's poetry, generally, it isn't about reserve (far from it), it's all about reticence. Which makes so much possible in these poems.

That is, if the distinction between "reserve" and "reticence" can really be maintained. That's one of the questions we need to be asking about Harwood today.


Harwood reading the poem (very beautifully, too)

The full text of "Question of Geography" isn't available on-line.

But here's some poems that are:

"Soft White", "The Final Painting", "The 'Utopia'", "The Words"

"Forestry work no. 1", "Love in the organ loft", "The nine death ships", "Boston Notebook: December 1972", "Massachusetts or On visiting Walden Pond, 1st January 1973", "Portraits 1-4", "The destruction of South Station, Boston", "Nineteenth Century Poem", "Boston Spring", "Old Bosham Bird Watch", "Portraits from my life", "London to Brighton"

"Claret label", "A poem for writers", "Bath-time", "Text for two posters by Ian Brown", "O, O, O,... Northern California", "Coat of arms on wall in ancient city", "Hand from an Exeter cloud", "Summer Solstice", "The artful", "Waunfawr and after", "Cwm Uchaf", "On the ledge", "For Paul/ Coming out of winter"

Mark Ford in the Guardian, celebrating the Collected Poems, and quoting "Rain journal: London: June 65". 

Lee Harwood (photo by Elsa Dorfman)

[Image source: http://archive.elsadorfman.com/housebook/flagg-street-III.html]

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