Lyrical, humane, amused and precise
A Lee Harwood Obituary by John Harvey.
I’m still in shock after hearing of Lee Harwood’s death. A friend for a good number of years, Lee was a singular and fine poet, one whose work synthesised the early influences of American writers of the New York School, John Ashbery in particular, and the European surrealism of Tristan Tzara, into something that somehow embraced the breadth of the world while maintaining, it seemed to me, something quintessentially British, English even, at its heart.
I first came across Lee’s work in Nottingham in 1975, when I bought a copy of his Fulcrum Press collection, The White Room, and went on to proudly publish two books of his poetry – In the Mists: Mountain Poems and Morning Light – and one book of prose – Dream Quilt: 30 Assorted Stories – with Slow Dancer Press.
I was especially proud when, in 2013, being out of the country himself, Lee asked me to collect on his behalf one of that year’s Cholmondeley Awards, given to poets by the Society of Authors for their body of work and overall contribution to poetry. Of Lee, in the programme, it said the following:
His poetry is lyrical, humane, amused and precise; it is hospitable, but never superior. His active internationalism has had an influence on decades of British Poetry.
One of the last times Lee and I got together was in the autumn of last year, when we were both reading with John Lake’s band at the Ropetackle Arts Centre as part of the Shoreham Wordfest.
The only previous occasions Lee had read with jazz musicians, he told us, was back in New York in the 60s when he was a young poet in the company of some of the classiest bebop players of the day. Be that as it may, he read beautifully, clearly enjoying the manner in which the musicians responded to the particular rhythms of his poems, the band building some beautiful and appropriate architecture around two of his pieces, Brighton. October and Gorgeous – yet another Brighton Poem.
This is the beginning of “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, one of the poems from The White Room, and one that, when I first read it, simply took my breath away …
As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you,
and cities apart, yet a roof grey with slates
or lead, the difference is little
and even you could say as much
through a foxtail of pain even you
And these are the final stanzas from “Sailing Westwards”, one of the poems in Lee’s last collection, The Orchid Boat, published by Enitharmon in 2014.
On the vast beach at Harlech
scattered with tellin shells and razor-shells,
dunes topped with marram grass behind me
and the dark blue grey mountains behind them,
and the flat silk sea spreads out in front of me,
over and far beyond the horizon.
Far beyond the horizon now, indeed.
This poem appeared in Bluer Than This (smith/doorstop, 1998) and, perhaps oddly [I imagine it didn’t tickle the editors’ fancy] failed to find a place in Out of Silence, last year’s New & Selected (smith/doorstop, 2014). Shame, really.