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Lee Harwood II The Miracle of Existence

Lee Harwood II  The Miracle of Existence

In January 2010 I gave a talk at Eltham College Literary Society alongside Lee reading his poems and these bullet-points are extracted from some notes I used as a handout for the boys.

• The epigraph to HMS Little Fox (Oasis Books 1975) is taken from Pound’s ‘Canto 77’: ‘things have ends (or scopes) and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows/will assist yr/comprehension of process’
Pound’s lines are accompanied by the two ideograms placed at the head of this blog.

• ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72’ is the opening poem in the collection and Lee’s own notes on the cover account for the ordering of the poems in the volume:

‘This collection was written between 1967 and 1972. The work really has its seeds in my book The White Room (1968), and also is where The Sinking Colony (1970) left off, even though some of the work here was written at the same time as the work in that book, and a few poems even before that time. (I want to state here my sense of this continuity.) It is a development from there—towards a greater complexity and range. Not only containing varied information, but having an energy and necessity as well. The two qualities—presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst—to somehow work together, be one. The collection is set out to be seen the way you see a plant. It begins with the sequence ‘The Long Black Veil’, the end-product, the ‘flower’ of my work to date, and then moves on down to the origins, the roots of that work, the earlier poems and the poems written at the same time as I was writing ‘The Long Black Veil’. The whole book is one crystal in which things ricochet back and forth, echo and re-echo. In which light enters and bounces out again changed in form and direction. And the crystal itself alive and growing.’

‘There are very many references to enclosed spaces/gardens/cloisters in your work, right from the early days up until now. What are these metaphors?’

This question was asked in an interview with Andy Brown in The Argotist Online, August 2008 and in reply Lee related this sense of an enclosed space to a comment made to him by Douglas Oliver: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’ and it is one of Lee’s finest qualities as a poet to make this ‘clearing’ more than something metaphorically abstract. In the same interview he referred to a ‘Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid—the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place.’

• Charles Reznikoff, a Jewish New York poet 1894-1976 wrote the lines

‘Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.’ (Jerusalem the Golden, 1934)

• The Objectivist poet George Oppen was deeply moved by these lines and wrote to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan in February 1959: ‘Likely Rezi could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.’
Late in the Second World War while he was driving a truck in a convoy, Oppen came under enemy fire and was forced to dive into a foxhole. Two other men also leapt in the foxhole, and both were killed, while Oppen was seriously wounded from exploding shrapnel:
‘…found myself trapped in a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt’s little poem—‘they flee from me’—and poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.’
(Letter to Milton Hindus, late Spring 1977)

• In the first interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008), Lee referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, he placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of objectivity:
‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’
In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’; ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’; ‘building up, like a chemical build up’; ‘a bundle of voices’; ‘getting to know the building bricks’; ‘an interest in displaced locations’ and ‘incomplete narratives’; ‘the heaping up of fragments’.
With reference to this last comment I suggested that the pupils might want to look at the accumulation of fragments in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the ones he shored against his ruin. I also recommended them to look at Eliot’s 1919 essay on Hamlet: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

Part III of my Lee Harwood memorial will continue tomorrow.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2015

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