Tom Raworth - an encomium

Tom Raworth, who died early in 2017, was in 2015 awarded the NC Kaser Lyric Poetry Award. This unsolicited award is given in memory of the Austrian - Italian poet N C Kaser by his northern Italian town of Lana. It is funded partly by local council, private funds, and the Austrian Cultural Council. The award winner in time customarily suggests to the awards committee a poet they think deserves to be the next recipient, the proviso being that this person must be from another country to their own, and that at the next awards ceremony they read a eulogy or analysis attempting to portray why the new recipient is a good choice.

The award was made to myself in 2012 on the recommendation of the Norwegian poet Øyvin Rimbereid; I in turn as a Scot recommended English poet Tom Raworth as next recipient. He was too ill to travel to Italy but sent a video made at home for the occasion which was played at the 2015 ceremony.There was a reading of Tom Raworth's work which included the poet Ulf Stolterfohlt reading German translations. I read the following encomium.

 

 

"My idea is to be completely empty and then see what sounds"

                                                                                                            —Tom Raworth

                                   

an enconium

on the occasion of the presentation of the NC Kaser Award

to Tom Raworth

 

It is an honour to be back in Lana on the occasion of the presentation of another NC Kaser award. An award which commemorates a poet who was solid in his commitment to his own language and culture but brave in making art which crossed the artificial boundaries of historical geography and questioned the boundaries of form. I say that when N C Kaser is described in these terms, no poet could more fittingly receive an award in his memory than the poet Tom Raworth.

For more than fifty years Tom Raworth has composed, performed and published poetry from his native England throughout Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. It is no surprise that as part of his travels this is not even his first visit to Lana. His crossing of boundaries in his life and art, his unceasing questioning of form, has been done with a consistency that is not flashy, not attention-seeking, in no way the projection of a romantic publicly questing poetic ego. Instead a quiet, enjoyable, intelligent, curious, endlessly inventive questing interrogation at the points of intersection of language, at the points of intersection of cultures: a creating artist, a makar to use the old Scottish term, present in language-in-process at the point of his art, at the point of witnessing what he is making and what he is allowing to be witnessed. Making his own music of form and shape and semiotics. Of image and text, a testimony. Without fuss, without clamour, without coded plea to be of singular importance or seeking any necessity of favourable recognition.

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In my own life as a poet Tom Raworth stands as the abiding figure of poetic integrity, a master of language who has set down in process and progress a poetry which reaps and skims and plays on and with the constituents and semiotics of language and sign and the integers of cultural intercourse; who steadfastly refuses to deploy epiphanising syntheses that would wring valedictory moral profits from structures created. Yet in the tableau of his total art he embodies a moral strength and purpose beyond the reach or discussion of that conservative traditional mainstream that ascribes language a naming function as grasper and coloniser of all that is, in a shared commonwealth of experience whose value and significance waits on the artist to reveal it through epiphanies of revelation. Such an undertaking makes for art as philosophically profitable commodity, and such an undertaking the work of Tom Raworth root-and-branch rejects.

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As early as 1961 he brought out from his basement flat in London the first issue of a poetry magazine Outburst whose contributors included the Americans Ed Dorn, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Anselm Hollo, Fielding Dawson. It was a groundbreaking period in American poetry and the prosodic breakthroughs that figures severally made had bearing on the whole concept of democracy and the poetic-artistic voice, the relation between writer and reader, between artist and audience, the nature of cultural and social-aesthetic values supposedly given as bedrock and backdrop to literary art. Raworth was from the outset a core pioneering artist in Britain picking up from the work including the in its time revolutionary anthology of the previous year, The New American Poetry edited by Donald M Allen in 1960.

Behind this midcentury flowering of new American poetry stood the now elderly figure of William Carlos Williams whose five-part Paterson combined poetry and prose set in his local city traversed by the river whose waterfall stood as the river of language itself in the here and now:

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In this new poetry value was discoverable, linguistic art could be composed in the artist's own place of being with their own eyes and ears and breath in the present; history, the road into the past, could be measured from that place. To start from where one was and to lead outwards, educere—the true Latin root etymology of the word education. Not to accept set aesthetic-cultural value as innately and intrinsically existing elsewhere in space and time nor to task one's supposedly zero-value self with that value's acquisition that it might be accreted onto one's being—and one's art. The new poetry was travelling in the opposite direction. It was not about America as such. It was about the democratic nature of the person and the invidual artist, and the opening of possibilities in the nature of art. And Tom Raworth was in there right at the beginning in England, linking with those overseas with whom he could enjoy and recognise these freedoms.

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Varied line and severally measured internal spacing of words could direct the pace of internal articulation, the process of form discovering itself in the act of reading and therefore the act of making. For this "form as no more than an extension of content" (Creeley) there was specific liberation in England for poets such as the London-accented Tom Raworth or the Newcastle-accented Tom Pickard. Not to particularise their own diction, but to escape the rigid identification of iambic metric cadence in the culturespeak accented values of the dominant cultural class. The new American poetics was a liberating force for freeing a young generation from such constraints of internally-colonised forms in England, indeed Britain as a whole. American music and jazz offered like liberation, the Flamingo Club in Soho being one place the young Tom Raworth enjoyed the latest modern jazz and music.

It's maybe appropriate here to mention the experience I had four years ago when I was preparing to review Tom Raworth's collection Windmills in Flames. I was walking along Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and there was a busker playing a saxophone with great skill. I had seen him a couple of times before though had no idea of his name or where else he played or plays. He could have been hired at any concert gig for all I could estimate, he was really brilliant, totally on top of and at ease with his art. Just playing away, the music filling the air and people like myself going by or stopping for a bit then going on with their business, it was just something that was happening in the world he was sharing, a Saturday afternoon in Glasgow. The music he was making was so good and seamlessly easy and inventive, he may indeed have been taking time in the street to make some money, or even just time in the world to share his music—or both. It followed me down the street until I was out of earshot. And it just occurred to me, that's Tom Raworth somehow. It's not to say that what i was listening to was what Tom Raworth's poetry was about. But just that whatever I would say in my review, I could never say it as truthfully as the music was saying it, was doing it, then. And that applies to now also.

But what did I say in my review? Windmills in Flames was fifty years on from that early poetry magazine and that last quoted poem. It was the second Carcanet publication seven years after their Collected Poems which ran to 570 pages, and even then was incomplete. It could not possibly present the complete outcome of half a century of small press publications, occasional larger anthologies, sundry visual collage, concrete work, joint anthologies, booklets with handwriting and drawing, an internet website world of jpegs and downloads and critically altered text and image, graphics, poetry, poetry, poetry. It could not present the space and intimacy and the context that each of these sundry works established for themselves in and around themselves over that fifty years, in their individual manner of production. That counted, was part of the deal. It always is part of the deal, that's part of what "form is no more than an extension of content" actually means. The space round the poems in a small booklet in the hand is different from the space round poems in a tightly bound large volume. It was like that for Emily Dickinson making her work at home, she is part of the tradition. Not for nothing did Tom Raworth indicate on the contents page of that 1961 magazine "hand typeset by the editor." There might be no ego in the work, but it was produced by hand.

A lifelong handmade collection of multi-varied poetry forms, short and long, simple and complex, a type of poetic-visual-musical series set in motion and play each setting out from the formal establishing parameters of the foundation opening line, chosen to the occasion and the moment in hand. A seamless music of language molecules, unravelling interplay of discrete line-units each of larger-possibliities-of-meaning, each to each wrested from a meaning-complete-somewhere-else context in other possible occasions of instance. The world is all that is the case, and these are items picked up from its linguistic itinerary. But where Williams wrote of "the roar of the present" in his waterfall this is one artist's shaping of and discourse with that Present language. Enjoy it, or move on and enjoy something else. Maybe put something in the hat.

Enjoyed is the word that counts. The widespread critical disease of hyperarticulacy in the face of art can make intellectual account of individual response supposedly essential for the validation of private response as justified or authentic. Such notions are partly what Williams had in mind I feel when he described the publication of The Waste Land in 1922 as though a powerful work of art a disaster for contemporary poetry as Eliot had "given the poem back to the academics." But even towers of intertextuality can be enjoyable, so long as the purpose of art is not understood to be a lifetime spent in explication of their meanings. It's good to remember Pound's response to Joyce's Ulysses, which he merely said was one of the funniest books he had ever read. Between one artist and another that response really is quite enough.

Being in a position more than once to ask Tom Raworth to come to Scotland to give a public reading of his work has given me and those who heard him each time great pleasure. A highlight too has been hearing him over the years at festivals, and my reading the work on page and on the screen. My own work on internet in recent years has taken my poster poetry into another area, the language of political image and attacking the semiotics of the ubiquitous public-relations perception management in the news industry. This can at a practical level involve photoshop and text to recast language. And looking at my own attempts this past few years, attempts that I largely stand by fine enough without banging a drum about them; nonetheless when I look at what Tom Raworth has done here and has been doing for years on his site, it's hats off: I know my better when I see it and there is no competition or edge there in saying so. Good art like love there can never be enough of, there's always room for more. Tom Raworth's work, its shaping and completion, its what I would call instinctive grace of visual structure that I think of in the same way I really like Matisse, it simply is there as an integral part of the making, part of the fingerprint of the artist. And the intellectual acuity of the visual work here is the same fresh and original acuity that is in the discrete units of language that fill up the interstices of all the poetry on the page. It's what makes it not boring and always interesting, always fresh in the moment as being the moment of origination. As I say, he is a master of language. But this does not surround him with incense. He is a master of language the way my dad was a railwayman and drove trains, the way my brother was a bricklayer and laid bricks.

Olson called Creeley "The figure of outward". Tom Raworth is for many that figure in contemporary poetics. But his sourcing like his influence is not only from England and America; the European mainland where he has often read is the homeland of his art too. When late-nighting at the Flamingo Club those years ago and making his way in his own poetry with awareness of the new poetics of America, he was, he has said in interview, being opened up to surrealism, dada, Jarry, Schwitters, Rimbaud, Appollinaire. The poet John Ashbery—whom Tom Raworth on his website mentioned not long ago that he likes— wrote regarding Rimbaud in the introduction to his 2011 translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations:

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There is something of this in those freshly-serialised discrete line-units of language in aspects of Tom's poems. But let me not make too much of it. Above all let me avoid moving from Ashbery's word "modernity" to consider using that virus of contemporary academic discourse, the word "modernism." In the last twenty years the words "modernist" and "modernism" have become the catchall classification for anything and all that which seems to aim to resist classificiation in the first place. But if the resistance to classification is the place of freshness, the place of being-in-the-present, the place where art and the experience of art has not been cauterised into stasis and colonised government-approved property; then such classification can seem merely the exasperated trump-card resort of the classifying coloniser to shackle the self-declared unclassified ungovernable.

And with respect to Tom Raworth's poetry, no English poet's work has seemed more resistant to the synthesis of critical summation. And no poet's work indeed seems more to have established resistance to synthesis as part of its very ongoing micropoetic drive. But yet to myself no English poet has shown himself more exact and exacting in insight to the politics of power in the developed world. It would be wrong to ascribe this to covert synthesis by default. The evidence is presented, on the hoof as it were, in the tirelessly ongoing discovery of an occasion of language.

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Or such as the passing clusterlet thrown up in the music of linguistic platelets

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As I indicated at my opening, it is an honour to be asked to speak of Tom Raworth on such an occasion, as the previous recipient myself of the award now linked to Tom in this matter. It is enhancing this award established in memory of NC Kaser: an award which does not, like so many other awards, confirm the artist as a member of some conservative elite whose work is now given the imprimatur of public approval by the establishment. Rather it is an award in memory of one who dared in his art, and who died not in prosperity, as prosperity is not the usual reward for those who dare in their art. But their legacy is that which the people can treasure, and which other artists can find as source of inspiration. Fitting and enhancing again that the committee trust art enough, trust artists enough, that the recipient of the award should be asked to name from a country beyond their own a suitable poet to whom the award can be handed next.

I thank all connected with the award for the good it has brought me and the wee boost to my own confidence and wallet which is a fine thing for any poet to receive. And I wish Tom Raworth satisfaction in getting this award and thank him personally for all the pleasure and inspiration his work has given me.

Last words from Tom Raworth:

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