Lee Harwood Interviewed in Leamington Spa, on 29th November, 1980

The poet, Lee Harwood, died five years ago today.  I interviewed him when he came to Warwick to give a poetry reading and workshop. He was staying with Tony, a friend of his and a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the time. So, I interviewed him in Tony’s flat, not far from where I lived. Due to this quirk of location, the interview didn’t fall under University of Warwick copyright, as did the other interviews with poets that I conducted between 1980 and 1984. They were collected as the Contemporary Poetry Archive, which I curated. Many years later, they were retrieved from oblivion to form part of the Clive Bush Digital Collection held by the University of Warwick Library. If you have access to that collection, you will see and hear me interviewing a number of British and American contemporary poets.
Here’s what I looked like in 1980:

Helen ca 1980 _ 1

(Tape starts mid-conversation after breakfast)

L.H.        Yeah, with Pound, you can read him without having any knowledge of the Classics or anything; because if you read more than a few Cantos, you know what that name represents for him; it’s a quality of behaviour, or whatever, and so there’s no need for explanation. Equally, if you do know a little bit, it makes it even richer.

H.M.W.                Right.

L.H.        I wouldn’t have that same pretension for my own work, because I don’t interlace that sort of learning with it.

H.M.W.                You said last night (during your reading) that you didn’t make a distinction between poetry and prose; that you sometimes wrote words which went right to the margin, and sometimes you wrote shorter lines. So how do you decide if the words are going to go right to the margin or not?

L.H.        Well, it’s all to do with notation. What I said was, I see myself as a writer who is making texts — not in the French sense, the new idea of pure language — but a piece of language, writing; and within that text you’re going to want to have various tones of voice, various speeds. And so, the way you can convey this to a reader, as opposed to a listener, is by putting it down on the page in a certain way that will suggest that. You see this in other writing: there’s someone like Robert Creeley, with his little, short, two or three words to a line, and very short three or four line stanzas, which accurately conveys the very tense, abrupt way he reads those texts. And the opposite line would be someone like John Ashbery, who has these very long lines that have almost like an anti-ending. Each line isn’t a unit; it makes you go on to the following one. So, in fact, the poem could be written on one long strip of paper. And that again accurately conveys his tone of voice when he reads, and the tone of voice, presumably, he’s trying to make in the poem, which is that of a slightly monotonous, story-telling, which goes on and on and on. Of course, it isn’t that simple story; but it’s that sort of tone he’s trying to get. And with myself, in say, things like the Wish You Were Here pieces: the top parts were often set as what people call ‘poetry’, with certain, short lines, and space around, to convey the way they’re meant to sound; and the bottom bits, which were like comments on the top, were set as ‘prose’, which of course goes from margin to margin; and the voice changes from the top to the bottom, and it becomes just a straight narrative.[1]

I think the distinction between poetry and prose, say for me, and I think for most of my contemporaries, is an unreal division. It’s no longer meaningful. I mean, are Borges’ short stories poems or are they fiction? And equally, are not some of the long poems you get today really sort of novels? They’re no camps anymore, thank God! I’m very happy working like that.

H.M.W.                The short line: you say Creeley uses it to get a certain terseness, and tension. Do you sometimes use it to actually make that blank space, after the words have ceased, be a significant silence? Often, you say something, you notate something, and then you don’t complete the sentence.

L.H.        ‘Significant silence’! I don’t mean to be that awesome! But I know what you mean. I have written various texts which are very bare; I like a few words scattered around the page. The idea is that you should just say the few words that are a block, and then a silence, and then the next block. And hopefully, the way you lay it out on the page will suggest the length of silence and so on. One can never notate completely accurately; you can try to hint at it. But the thing about leaving off a sentence half way through — either, on the page, it just stops here; or, I may use the technique of just three dots after the word — that’s not just to do with silence, that’s more pushing the listener to complete it. It’s hoping that the listener, or the reader, is going along with you, and suddenly you step back, and they have to keep going. So you are forcing them into collaborating in the poem. A corny example is a poem of mine called, ‘Linen’, in The Sinking Colony, [2] where at the end, the voice, the narrator in the poem, is saying: ‘The feel of skin, the touch, and it’s like …’, and then there’s a very full stop. And it’s like — so and so, and it’s like … The idea, crudely is that each of us has our vivid symbol, idea, of what that particular sensual experience is like. You know: soft as silk, soft as velvet, soft as a flower, soft as a cat’s fur, or whatever. And so, if the person puts in their own personal symbols, or whatever, the text becomes a shared text much more. You make the poem together. Without being doctrinaire, it ties in with an idea I’ve always had in my work; well, not always, but certainly for the last ten or fifteen years: the idea of basic insistence on respect for other people, for one’s reader, and a refusal to move towards that thing of the poet as guru, poet as preacher, which I find completely obnoxious. It was one of the sad sides of the ‘Beats’.

The ‘Beats’ opened so many doors, and started things. But there’s a quality of the ‘ranter’ in the beat poets; which got the listener by the lapels, and said: ‘Listen! I’m going to tell you where it’s at, man!’ And nobody can tell you where it’s at, because we’re all in the same boat. So I’m counter-acting that. I think I learnt the trick from Ashbery. He did that. Well, it was close to that; using disjointed, broken-off sentences, which again in another sense connect; which of course is a far more accurate notation of thought. Because we don’t think in grammatical sentences or straight lines. We sort of jump around, which is just as in English conversation. People in England, when talking about a thing, go round and round and round; and suggest various qualities; and it’s a way of communicating, which isn’t obvious. Whereas, I’m thinking of say in America, where, because of this big stress in the schools on — what’s the word for it? — being able to express yourself well, clearly, ‘verbal skills’ or whatever…

H.M.W.                Communication Studies?

L.H.        Yeah! And so you have a conversation — I’m thinking of Creeley and various other people I know — where one person says something, and says: ‘Right!’, and so we all agree on this point. Bang! Nailed in there! Next step: so and so or so and so. ‘Right!’ ‘Yes!’ And so there’s an incredibly rigid thing goes on. And then suddenly, after a while — if you’re following someone, you’re very impressed by this, because they seem so self-confident, and it’s very refreshing if you live in a complex, muddled society, to come across this straight simple discourse — but then you suddenly say, ‘Well, but…’. And you find you’ve been totally carried along, and you think: ‘I shouldn’t be here; I don’t agree with that; it’s being absurdly crude!’ Which echoes that lovely quote by E.M. Forster on Gide’s death, in The Long Black Veil, about Book Six.[3] It’s where after Gide died Forster wrote a piece in some magazine, and talked about Gide’s joy in the complexity of life, and the importance of registering this complexity; because that’s what made us human, that’s what the pleasure was.

H.M.W.                How do you combine the art of telling a story, just keeping the audience hanging on to some kind of narrative line, with what you’ve said about trying to register complexities? Is there a tension there?

L.H.        There can be. I’m not sure how much it’s to do with the actual text. I’d love to be a fiction writer, a prose writer, a novelist. And I feel very frustrated that I don’t have that skill. Mind you, it’s always ‘the grass is greener on the other side’; because successful novel writers — think of science fiction writer, Tom Dish, think of my friend Tony Lopez, who had quite a successful career as writing hack novels, and chucked it all up — always wanted to write poetry. And certainly myself, I would love to be able to write novels. I’d love to be able to write something like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, to have written Treasure Island; I mean to write a book that grips you, that you don’t put down, that you just read on and on and on. You’re not reading ‘culture’, you’re not reading ‘literature’; you’re completely absorbed in this thing. Every so often a book like that comes your way, and transcends all self conscious ideas of, ‘I’d better read this, because I must keep up!’ — Absurd! I think pleasure is essential with books. Pleasure must be essential in literature.

I would love to be able to write clear, direct stories; but I can’t. But what I do write is much more like a collage. And I realise, that, especially for someone listening to it, it’s difficult to take in sometimes, even if you are very attentive. Though, it’s encouraging to know: you may read sometimes, and get these rather confused looks from people listening; and if by chance you meet somebody a couple of days later, they say, ‘Right, yes, got it!’ They’ve thought about something you’ve said, which they weren’t clear about; and then it was like a chemical dropped into a substance, that had gradually come to the surface, and hit them in that very indirect way; instead of the direct way of saying, ‘Listen! I’m going to tell you where it’s at!’ (‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’[4]) I can’t do anything about that. I know it’s difficult at times; I know at other times it isn’t difficult. I’m certainly never intentionally obscure; but there are various things that you just cannot put in a straight narrative way, that you have to do by jumping from one thing to the other, and hoping that the sum of these is the story itself.

H.M.W.                You’ve just mentioned Ginsberg. What did you learn from the Beats?

L.H.        I think about 1960 I came across Kerouac and Ginsberg books, and they were an incredible release. Before that I’d read and liked poetry, I’d written bad poetry, bad verse. But you had this idea that anything that could be good must be by somebody that’s dead. Like I was very interested in Tristan Tzara, and started translating his work, and thought, ‘He must be dead!’ And then I found a French Who’s Who, and I found he was alive! Incredible, you know! So I went to see him at once. But it’s sociology really, isn’t it? The Beats, for so many people in England, opened the door; they said: ‘You too can write’. It was like giving you self confidence. But that’s not the real thing to it: it was reading On the Road, reading ‘Howl’, and for the first time in your life picking up a printed book, where people were talking about the world you knew, that you lived in, and were expressing what you felt were your feelings, confused and gauche as they may have been at the time. And so this immense surge of confidence came from this: in your own feelings, in your own worth, and in your own powers to make things. And so you have a whole mass of people like, Jim Burns, Dave Cunliffe, Chris Torrance, and others, in this country, writing these apocalyptic poems, pouring stuff out; and printing their own magazines, and distributing them; and a big thing of an interchange with the U.S. magazines: sending them to one another, going and visiting one another, and so on. And none of these people ever had gone to university. It was very different from the Americans, because in fact nearly all the Beat poets were graduates. Whereas here, certainly then, I was the only person of that whole network — other than Horovitz — who had been to university; and I certainly hid it very much! It was the time of C.N.D. (Jeff Nuttall’s book, Bomb Culture, catches quite a bit of that). It was political, it was a class thing; it was a working class thing: I suppose finally the secondary education which started up in the 1940s with the Labour government bore its fruits. Those people would never before have dreamed that they’d be allowed to write. And of course, in 1960, 61, and 62, and a bit later, not only did you know that if you sent our work to publishers like Fabers, or the literary magazines that were accepted then, they wouldn’t want to know at all; you wouldn’t even think of sending it to them, because you wouldn’t want to be associated with them. It was a completely new thing.

H.M.W.                You said that one of the major things is learning to have confidence in expressing your own feelings, but that later the Beats became rather ‘ranters’, telling people how to live. Do you think one of the important things for you is actually finding a poetry which can respect the individual’s feelings?

L.H.        Yes; and the individual’s intelligence. I mean, one of the other things which was annoying, when you thought more about what happened with the Beats, was, one: the totally phoney premise they established, which was, ‘sincerity = quality’; which isn’t true. (Calvin was sincere, and he was a monster. Hitler was sincere). If you felt it, then it was great literature. This was crazy. At the time it served its purpose to get people going. The other thing: the sad thing I felt about the Beats, after the great ‘opening of doors’, like Bakunin used, you’d raze the ground, then you’d build again. Instead of living in the open at last, which was so exciting, with all the windows open, they immediately grabbed new orthodoxies to replace the old orthodoxies. So you knocked down the buttoned-down American Baptist thing, and you became an ‘Indian’ religious freak, or some other orthodoxy. It was very depressing.

H.M.W.               I don’t know if it directly relates, but somehow I’ve an intuitive feeling it ought to: the fact that a lot of your poetry, perhaps some of the recent stuff especially, is what one might call, in the best sense ‘occasional’ verse — like the post cards with Tony Lopez, and now writing posters; does that fact have behind it a sense of the importance of the ‘commonplace’ in people’s lives? This is what our lives are constructed of, as opposed to some moral principle? This is the texture of our lives?

L.H.        I don’t think it’s that self conscious. I don’t think of my work, of those particular poems as being ‘occasional’. I always associate occasional verse with being poems written for specific occasions: the birth of someone; or, to celebrate a particular event — which I have written, say in Boston-Brighton there’s quite a number of poems like that for example ‘A Visit to Walden Pond’.[5] But those, especially Wish You Were Here had a year or more’s work on that, and the actual texts are not about specific occasions, they’re fictions.

H.M.W.                Yes, they’re fictions. But in that case I’d say the postcards were the ‘occasion’.

L.H.        Yeah, you mean the thing of collaborating?

H.M.W.                Or the thing of having a, what might it be, a woodprint, or a sepia postcard, or something, to which the text is somehow related, even though rather loosely, fictionally.

L.H.        I know there’s a principle. It’s just the way that I work now. It’s as though in one’s career as a writer — I don’t mean it in a pompous way, but you’ve written for so many years, you’ve got so many books under your belt, that there comes a point when you’ve really written out all the material which you’ve based on memory and so on, and feelings (and of course you can continue writing that sort of material, but it becomes rather like faded carbon copies) — it’s as though at that point you must get off and move beyond that into being a maker and at that point you are making fictions, which for me is very exciting. I think Ashbery has this too, whereby he gives you a text which has not obviously got his thumb print at the bottom. You can recognize it’s John Ashbery work but on the other hand, it’s not saying: ‘This is about John Ashbery’. It’s as though he’s giving you this lovely puzzle, which you can read, and turn over, and use, and then you can pass it on to somebody else. And that’s what I’d like to do: to make texts that give people that pleasure, and also deal with subjects that concern me; rather than using poetry as self-expression, which we were talking about earlier: how you begin writing, almost like purely for reasons of self expression, and then move more and more towards being a maker.

H.M.W.                Going with being a maker for people, earlier on you were talking about the ‘listener’, rather than the ‘reader’. Is it actually important to you to come and give poetry readings, as opposed to simply throw the thing out into the air-waves and see what happens, or never know what happens?

L.H.        Not too many readings! But I think readings are very important as the final way to test a work. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right. If it is notation, it is primarily to be spoken; therefore the text must be read aloud to be realized. Not that that can be the only way to approach it. You also want people to go back, in the quiet of their own homes, to read the texts as well. But they are both very important.  The only thing about collaborating, for example the post cards: it’s a lovely way of pushing you into areas where you might not have gone otherwise. You’ve got to pick very carefully with whom you work. I tried collaborations with people that didn’t work. I tried working with Allen Fisher, whom I like very much as a person, but we just didn’t have the same temperament. Whereas Tony and I share a lot. And so, he’d send me a card, and I’d just look at the card, and put it on my desk, and start imagining a story. The story would be my story, but equally it would be sparked off by seeing a scene I would never have otherwise seen. Like the cover of Wish You Were Here, the hotel balcony near Grimsel: suddenly you can imagine all sorts of wonderful things happening on that balcony. So I find that collaborating with people that are of the right temperament is immensely useful for me. And why not?

H.M.W.                It breaks down that whole notion of the artist as the solitary.

L.H.        Oh yes. And of course he isn’t. If an artist can be defined as anything, he’s a thief! You’re continually begging and borrowing and stealing from other people, other texts. The idea of originality is just one of the most absurd ideas; it’s just not true, not true for anybody. I mean, look what food you like; all your favourite dishes are associated with one person who introduced you to them. And music’s the same. I mean my whole musical library is associated with people.

(Tape switched off, conversation continued in desultory fashion).

Lee Harwood Tree Sign

Photo courtesy of Dave Puddy

[1] Lee Harwood & Antony Lopez, Wish You Were Here, Transgravity Press, 1979.

[2] Lee Harwood, The Sinking Colony, Fulcrum Press, 1971.

[3] H M S Little Fox, Oasis Books, 1975, p.17.

[4] Allen Ginsberg, Howl, San Francisco, (City Lights Books), 1956, p.9.

[5] Lee Harwood, Boston-Brighton, Oasis Books, 1977, p.9.


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