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Lee Harwood Interview


Lee Harwood is widely regarded as one of the finest poets working in England today. His Collected Poems, which spans 40 years' work, was published in 2004 by Shearsman Books. He has published over 20 volumes of poetry and prose, as well as translations of Tristan Tzara. His work has also been widely anthologised. He has spent the majority of the past 35 years living in Brighton. John Ashbery says of him: "Lee Harwood is one of Britain's best poets and best kept secrets". 



Andy Brown is Director of the Centre for Creative Writing at Exeter University. His recent books are Fall 0f the Rebel Angels: Poems 1996-2006 (Salt, 2006) and Goose Music, co-written with John Burnside (Salt, 2007). Previous books are Hunting the Kinnayas (Stride, 2004), From a Cliff  (Arc, 2002) and of Science (Worple, 2001, with David Morley). He edited The Allotment: New Lyric Poets (Stride, 2006) and Binary Myths: Volumes 1&2 (2nd edition, Stride, 2004). Andy Brown was originally an Ecologist, a discipline that informs both his poetry and his criticism, which appears in The Salt Companion to the Works of Lee Harwood (Salt, 2007). 



AB: In the Foreword to your Collected, you refer to all your work – poems and prose – as ‘stories’?


LH: Poems are stories too! The whole history of poetry is all to do with telling stories. Right from being a child, one has this deep need for, and pleasure in, being told a story. At different times in one’s life that story can be more elaborate; have finesse. Though I enjoy Gide’s work and all the games he plays with you, it’s still the same process. As a kid my mother’s father was a great yarner, and he’d sit with a group of men and tell a story, let’s say… about a terrace of houses. One of the houses has a bow window… and he would go and tell a story about why it had one. ‘And what happened then, Arthur?’ and he’d say, ‘Ah, now wait…’ and then these endless asides… and the bow window didn’t matter at all, it was just an excuse for being lulled by his story! Although work may be personal, equally, it’s a story. Like in O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, he says to you ‘Let’s watch this man called Frank O’Hara and see what he’s doing’. That’s being told a story.


AB: The first theme I wanted to discuss with you was military in nature. There are quite a few references to armies, commanders, naval fleets, manoeuvres etc. throughout your work. Is that a theme you recognize?


LH: In the early work, yes. Growing up with my father away at the war for the first six years of my life, like most of my generation; it obviously would leave a mark. And it was there in the books, the comics, the films. Families shared the same mythologies. It became one of the threads I used. Whether it be a colonial administrator imagined, or a ship’s officer in ‘The Doomed Fleet’, it’s this thing of people just trying to do their job and keep some decency about them, whilst the whole system is geared to erode that. There’s one bit in ‘The Sinking Colony’ about a soldier getting his men off at Dunkirk – that was my father, clinging to the sides of this harbour-arm with his platoon, making sure they brought their equipment back, because that was what you had to do. You couldn’t lose your equipment! It was absurd, though it wasn’t. A meticulous country maths teacher doing his best in a horrific situation.


AB: Is it possible to write convincingly about these matters now? Save for the news, most writers are highly separated from war issues today and, apart from the obvious marches and protests, there seems to be a great deal of political ennui around. Is writing about such things too messy, too political, and too overt?


LH: I never had the urge to write directly political pieces like that, because that could almost be voyeuristic. Possible exceptions in my work are ‘Cable Street’ and ‘Dreams of Armenia’. Back in the 1960s, a lot of pressure was put on poets to write anti-Vietnam war poems. Most that were written were just tub-thumping bad verse. Jack Spicer said that if you wanted to write a poem about the Vietnam War, don’t!  Write a letter to the newspaper instead. That’ll have far more effect than making yourself feel good by writing a poem, which will be read by only a small group. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just nervous of it, as it can easily slide into that thing where poets see themselves as spokespersons for the tribe, or shamen, or priests, or whatever, and we’ve got enough of those people around elsewhere, so I don’t have any time for that. Contrary to Auden, I think it’s more of a happy accident when poetry does ‘make something happen’, but I don’t think one can make a program for it. If you’re going to talk in terms of poetry affecting people, it’s on a more intimate human level… like reading Cavafy, who does deal with political histories… in the act of reading and thinking about what he lays in your path, the reader can only be made more aware and more sensitive to political issues, but it’s not written with a direct ambition to be a protest.


AB: Performance poetry is clearly very ‘issue-led’. Does that work do anything for you?


LH: No. I mean there’s plenty of room in the field! For a lot of people it’s a very exciting and good thing, but I’m not really interested in it. It’s a bit like some pop music in a sense, where its force lies in the immediate impact. I’m more interested in work that has a delay fuse on it; that you have to think about and wrestle with and go back and forth with.


AB: We talked about painting earlier. Right through the Collected Poems there is a fascination with painting and representation. Have you been a painter?


LH: Yes. I was self-taught, but I wasn’t any good. I painted until my early twenties. In a way, one could neatly say that a lot of my poems are substitute paintings; painting by proxy; creating pictures – pictures that change. I’m not alone there – Ashbery was a very good painter. I’ve seen some of his work and it was very fine. He put it aside.


AB: Your poems ‘The Utopia’ and ‘The Artful’ play with painting within a painting. It’s a technique that allows you to slip through sliding doors in your poems?


LH: It’s the sort of thing you can do in films, which I enjoy, and why shouldn’t poetry be able to pull the same ‘tricks’, keeping you on your toes, so you’re not going to settle back. It’s continually shifting: Now You See it, Now You Don’t.


AB: That’s part of your continual dialogue with the reader, about which much has previously been noted?


LH: Yes, that back and forth, and questioning what’s been written, and how the writer is seeing it, and how the reader is seeing it, so it’s not another exercise in being entertained by looking at a static picture.  Okay, that can sometimes expect too much of a reader, but it hopes that an event takes place. I think of poets to whom I keep coming back, and I love the fact that I’ve been given this run around.


AB: In ‘Landscapes’ you specifically ask which is more real, representation in painting or in words? Is Ut pictura poesis a useful concept for you? Are painting and poetry parallel arts?


LH: Yes, but there are various physical differences, and I so envy the solidity of painting! This thing is there! The colour’s there! It’s just marvelous. Whereas words are so flimsy and so easily shot off somewhere else. As soon as you put a word, a symbol above a thing, you’re getting one step away from it; whereas a painting is undeniable. So in that way they are different, but often the effect they have can be the same. Some paintings are more studied than some poems and vice versa. Howard Hodgkin’s paintings are continually shifting as to what is in the forefront and what isn’t, and some poems can be very much a straight line from A to Z and that’s it.


AB: In your work, the twin themes of ‘Painting’ and ‘the enclosed garden’ are brought together in your poem ‘Evasive Action: like an enclosed courtyard by Crivelli’. Was that poem an ekphrastic exercise – writing about a painting?


LH: I thought the most vivid representation of the thing I was thinking about would be one of Crivelli’s paintings. They are marvelously beautiful, but equally brutal things can be happening in them, like martyrdoms, murders. Their prettiness, in the best sense of that word, belies their subject. There’s no way round that. (Well, yes there is a way round it, Rembrandt got round it!) When you do start writing you have various things in your head, including a painting you’ve seen, which can filter in. I hope my work isn’t full of art references, but equally it would be stupid to believe that we’re some kind of Gary Snyder backwoodsman and that we never listen to music or look at paintings or read difficult books. That’s part of life too.


AB:  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?


LH: Melville uses a similar theme. And Doug Oliver wrote to me once: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’. There’s a Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid – the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place. They are places of peace and tenderness. I don’t mean stagnant peace, but where you felt safe. And a sense of tenderness there: loving tenderness, or wider than that… In ‘The Fern Cabinet’, the first line comes from Melville and he talks about when whales have young, they form a circle around them to protect them and for some strange reason the water in this inner circle is always very calm. So there’s all this harm going on outside but inside there’s this amazing calm, like a courtyard…


AB: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing…’


LH: Yes, yes.


AB: There is also a recurring image of ‘the distant city’ throughout your work.


LH: Yes, but they are used differently. You do need the city; it does have great stuff –company, music, books, all these things that stimulate you just as much as a mountainside. And there are other poems where ‘the distant city’ is where a loved one might be and yet there’s this big separation: I’m doing this here, and yet meanwhile, you’re doing something else there, but we’re on the same planet. There’s an example of this separation in ‘Qasida’, and many other poems too!


AB: In your poem ‘The Book’ we read the phrase: ‘being a city dweller by nature’ which ironically brings nature and culture cheek-by-jowl…


LH: It wasn’t conscious!


AB: I wonder which you think you are, a city dweller by nature, or a nature dweller in the city?


LH: Most of us live in some sort of city/town, whatever. None of us can quite be crofters… there are some.


AB: There’s a tension in your work between that anticipated idea of ‘coming home’ and, conversely, the denial of it; ‘being in the here and now’ only. You wrote in ‘Notes of a Post Office Clerk’: “There is no home and that the hardest to admit that we’re here, naked, alone”? Is there a home in ‘the distant city’ or is the home ‘here and now’?


LH: Well, my interpretation is that it’s got to be the here-and-now, whether you like it or not! That’s the real. Camus talks about this very interestingly in ‘Return to Tipasa’; he touches on the amazing thing of being aware of the present; suddenly walking around a street corner and just seeing the bay below, and “…an exquisite dew falls on our heart and then vanishes. But what freshness lingers and this, always, is what the heart needs.” I mean these moments are so important…


AB: ‘The luxury of being alive’ as you write in ‘For Paul’; or in ‘Old Bosham Birdwatch’, the ‘ecstasy’ of being in the moment, the place.


LH: That for me is very real, because for so much of one’s time you’re racing around thinking what you’re going to do, or things that have gone wrong in the past. You’re all over the place except in the immediate… and if you are able now and then just to stop and realize that, then it makes such a difference. There are various poets who capture this beautifully – some of the Objectivists, showing the tangible world around us. ‘Distant cities’ are, in a way, a fiction; it’s a very seductive idea, but it’s not necessarily where you’re going to end up.


AB:  This idea of ‘presence’ shares a lot with Creeley who got to his ‘presence’, one way, through a focus on quotidian ‘things’. How do you create this presence?  


LH: For me, there’s that thing of Daffy Duck, in the cartoons and he’s got this big heap of gold in front of him, and he says, looking at the camera at the end: ‘I may be a little duck, but I’m a greedy little duck’…. or maybe it’s ‘a coward’… ‘A greedy little coward’. Creeley is terrific in the immediacy of his work, but that Puritan in him, that whole New England thing, for me is too limiting. I want more. I’m greedy! I want that, but I also want poets like Ashbery, and a whole heap of things that are more complicated and fun. So if one’s going to create a text I do want that intensity of the moment, but equally I want other things. To make that ‘presence’ thing the only thing in your life would be really limiting. One wants town, one want country, and opera, exhibitions, whatever, clambering up a rock face, mountains, all of it. And more!


AB: Yes, the mountains, I was going to come to those.


LH: Being in the mountains, beside it being stunningly beautiful and continually changing, you just have to pay total attention to what you’re doing; to the rock in front of you; to where you put your hand or foot next. It’s amazingly relaxing, because you can’t think about other things. And so even though it makes physical demands, your attention is just on the present. That’s very exciting. There’s a lovely quote Paul Evans sent me years ago, on the dust jacket of some sort of mountaineering book: ‘Great men nearly always have real weaknesses, great mountains have not. Familiarity with a great mountain never breeds contempt. It opens up new sources of wonder, adventure and delight. However many times its ascent has been made, adventure is always awaiting us on its steep sides and in the infinite variety of weather it provides to baffle our well-laid plans and disturb our assurance.’ I love that thing about ‘baffling our well-laid plans’. It’s what I like art to do too. It’s the same thing being in the hills. You never know what’s going to happen…. I’m about to become a mountain bore, we should move on.


AB: Throughout your work there have been mountainscapes, and landscapes, but there’s also always been a terrific fascination with the sea. I’ve noticed that in your most recent poems you’ve started going under water. That interests me as a movement.


LH: Yes, I love being by the sea for its continual changes and the fact that if you walk beside it, it soon puts things into perspective. A friend of mine started doing sub-aqua and was telling me stories about it, and I began looking at more books. And then Kew Gardens got a section in the palm house of all the plants that grow underwater in different sorts of seas, and I loved that. And so I guess that it was my fascination with the sea and just taking another side of it.


AB: Have you ever been sub-aqua?


LH: No, I’ve swum with a mask, but never with tanks. That’d be lovely.


AB: We’ve talked a lot about settings, landscapes, courtyards, and other scenes and places, but what about the specific details of those locations. Animals and plants. You have a fascination, as many poets do, but you also have these very ironic lines: ‘It’s the first time I’ve written nature poetry’ and ‘This isn’t nature poetry’?


LH: Yes they are ironic! The first was a joke, playing with the idea that there was a whole brand of Georgian verse: people who got the train down, went for a short walk, then got the train back and they wrote poems about the countryside without actually knowing how it worked! The other quote ‘this isn’t nature poetry’ – when you talk about natural history, it’s real. It’s not some sort of poetic convention called ‘nature poetry’. It deserves respect just as much as urban settings deserve respect. I feel that one should not be embarrassed to want to write about the countryside, even though the bulk of poetry produce now has an urban setting.


AB: I’m so pleased to hear you say that, and to hear you using the word real too. I wonder how you feel about the more experimental tendencies in poetry to turn away from the real world and to move into the world of language-and-language-alone?


LH: There’s a presumption and kind of arrogance that anything that isn’t urban and heavily politicized, isn’t worth attention. They have this sort of anger in their poems – they never take a day off! It’s as though writing about the countryside is seen as escapist. It isn’t. It’s as real as any street corner. I’ve worked in farming. I’ve worked as a tree surgeon. I’ve done this stuff. I grew up in, not deep country, but country enough. It’s just as valid – why should I be excusing myself – I’m not ‘escaping’; it’s part of the world too. I wrote this thing called ‘Visits to Mountains: a colour chart’. There are three lengthy descriptions of different climbs. And then the fourth one is called ‘If you think this is just description, it isn’t’. It’s saying, don’t think of these as just describing mountains therefore we don’t need to pay any attention to it it’s not anything real it’s just nature description. There’s far more going on here than you are too easily going to dismiss.


AB: Another theme that goes across your work is ‘decay’. ‘Air clamps’ even invokes decay: ‘And decay gradually eats at the structures… we hope’. What is all this decay about?


LH: I’m not so sure what I meant by ‘decay’ in some of the earlier poems, but I do know that in the later poems, such as ‘Air Clamps’, it’s about being relieved; finding a pleasure in knowing that nothing is there forever. In that poem, the fancy building is going to fall down. All this grandeur has got its comeuppance eventually. There’s one other poem in ‘Take a Card, Any Card’, called ‘Ikon’, which ends up with an image of faded angels and an evolving mollusc. Creatures are continually evolving. We’re just a passing thing. There’s a marvelous book called ‘The Earth: an Intimate History’ – these strata and the Earth’s crust are continually moving and changing and shunting around – and the author, Richard Fortey, says: ‘Mankind is no more than a parasitic tick, gorging himself on temporary plenty, while the seas are low and the climate comparatively clement. The present arrangement of land and sea will change, and with it our brief supremacy’. That thing about change; it’s a chastening thing for human arrogance. But it also means that, sometimes, one might feel that everything’s a total mess, but a couple of days later it will have all shifted.


AB: That personal perception of how things change – can we focus for a moment on the public/private interface in your work, much celebrated. Robert Sheppard has called your poems ‘distanced and intimate’. How do you get so much of yourself into the poem, and yet keep out the intrusive self?


LH: Writing has got to be a matter of necessity. You’ve got to write because it matters, and you have to. What makes some people write and some people not, is not that the writer is different, or any brighter, it’s just that you have this neurotic need to make marks on a piece of paper. But it does have a useful side in that it brings pleasure, whatever, to other people. So, that personal link has to be there but, equally, if you’re going to be effective then for other people to be able to use it you’ve got to be able to step beyond the personal. And that’s where the craft comes in to give it a sense of perspective. And that ties in with stories – it isn’t some sort of egotistical exercise. It may be egocentric in the sense that it is spurred by maybe a personal experience, but showing the voice in context – that’s very important – and in conversation with other voices in a landscape and with continual changes as well.


AB: ‘Just Friends’ does this very well. On the one hand it reads as a completely autobiographical poem; on the other hand there’s this rhetorical device that creates the distance. I admire that greatly, but one could argue The Devil’s advocate and say that the device is a way of avoiding writing out the whole of the truly personal stuff?


LH: Oh! (laughs) Each one of the lines in ‘Just Friends’ is like a cameo, but it is variously a movement of changes, not just a set of repetitions. Probably if I wrote it now I wouldn’t have the last line, because it’s obvious from the text. ‘The whole of the truly personal stuff’ is sometimes best left out. The reader deserves a bit of room too.


AB: You write somewhere of ‘this being an honest statement, or at least as honest as I can force the words to be’. This suggests that language resists what we are trying to say. Does that resistance offer you a positive way forward, or is it an annoyance for writing the public/private poem?


LH: Language can never give you the full story or picture, and it’s very inadequate in many ways, but it’s all we’ve got and you just have to do the best you can. I think there are writers who help one – not that you are copying them – but their precision sets ‘standards’ one admires. The struggle involved is to get language that is precise and not sloppy. Like that Elizabeth Bishop poem ‘The Moose’, she gets it just right! That is so impressive.


AB: In some of the poems ‘Words just aren’t good enough’, the moment being expressed often as being ‘beyond’ or ‘near beyond words’. You’re a poet, but the words aren’t good enough to serve you?


LH: Yes, there are these areas of experience where the words just aren’t going to do, and you just have to get as near as you can and accept and respect that this is part of being a human being. You fumble. Not that you’re glorifying it, but to know that there are various times when silence is the only thing. This beautiful thing, very late Ezra Pound, I can’t remember it perfectly offhand, but he say’s something like ‘there’s a time to talk, and there’s a time to be quiet’. Sometimes being quiet says more. Sometimes when I’ve used the trick of leaving half-finished sentences, it can be that thing of bringing the reader in to the poem to complete a line, but equally it can be to realize that you cannot put in words what the next thing should be.




copyright © Lee Harwood & Andy Brown