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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Robert Sheppard: IM Tom Raworth: from Thelma

Image result for tom raworthTom Raworth has died, sad news indeed. He was fast, furious and funny, charming and witty, without push and plush. A perfect gent. And I shall miss him. In his memory I'd like to offer a passage from my aborted novel Thelma, that was based on Breton's Nadja  but set in  Liverpool. I think this 'chapter' parallels a passage in Breton where he encounters Robert Desnos. Apart from the existence of Thelma, this all happened, in 2002 or 3. Re-reading it, it strikes me that it has much to say about Tom as a man, his work, his reading style, and his surprising music taste.

                                                        
Tom Raworth was one of the first to see that the myth of the Beats could not be Anglicized. Despite the hopes of the bearded bards of Liverpool performing happenings under the arches of the Everyman. ‘It’s like tossing the quarter bottle of whiskey out of the mini as you drive down the M16. It doesn’t work at all. There’s a whole different way of going about things,’ he said.

            Once again, now, you see Raworth preparing to sleep.

            ‘I have to take drugs I used to take for pleasure!’ he laughs, making light of the demands upon him. The rattle of pills.

            He talks. It is three in the morning at your house near Penny Lane. You’ve shared a post-reading late night listening to CDs. You’ve duetted with Frank Sinatra (and the Basie band). Kept the household awake.

‘She talks. Like an angel talks!’

            You discovered this mutual taste, once you’d exhausted (and become exhausted by) the avant-garde: Dave Douglas, Greg Osby, Time Berne. You did find one album, cluttering through the piles, by his friend, the singular experimentalist Steve Lacy – the duo with Mal Waldron – that he hadn’t yet heard.

You also praised Lacy’s solo on ‘Absence’ (a setting of Tom’s ‘Out of a Sudden’) as the most spectral that you’d heard. A perfect slurring growling display of ‘duende’ for the poem’s occasion. Its rhyming couplets.

At the gig, Tom had explained: ‘There’s a reason for this one being in the form it is. It was written after the death of a friend, the Italian poet and painter Franco Beltrametti, the day after he died. And Steve Lacy wanted to set something to music, and asked for something and so, knowing that the more avant garde people are in one field, the more traditional their taste in other things is.’

            The foregrounding of ‘the alphabet wonder(ing) what it should do’, as language does without its medium.

            As Tom says, with typical modesty, ‘At the back there is always the hope that there are other people ... other minds, who will recognize something that they thought was to one side or not real. I hope that my poems will show them that it is real, that it does exist.’

            The amazing dis-equilibrium of his recent poems. Performed – as that night – without the slightest hesitation and at an astonishing speed. The nearest approximation to a poetry of saying. As the words rush by too fast to grasp. In the fibres of your response. A poetic tingling. Re-reading the poems on the page you still have trouble recounting them objectively. Counters of arguments re-arranged – juggled lines – so that they no longer argue but present the parts of an argument without its mechanism. Or the mechanism without its argument. Choose your metaphor. You can’t describe the poems, or situate the semantics of the exploded syntax in a single completion. They have the purity, the generosity, of a gesture of openness. So often they are empty. However much they say, there is nothing to be said.

            The obliquity that you find in Raworth’s poems you find in the man. As if they’d written him. A living poetics.

Spend some days in Tom’s company. Say, in Cork, at the festival. Sniffing out rough back street pubs with lock-ins. His eyes glisten. The moustache bristles below that passionate nose. Nothing much is said (nothing that you will be able to recall). Though there is a great deal of talking. Barely audible asides. Much humming to himself. Politeness without formality.

You suspect that he’s waiting for something to stir him, something to one side that he will drag even further off-side: a pun, a graffito, a west wind….

            He talks. He sleeps.

NOTE: I have written critically of Tom's work a great deal but here's a relaxed take on his extraordinary 14 liners.

But read 'On Tom Raworth: The Speed of Writing and the Poetics of What is to One Side' here.

And see my 1999 poem for him, posted I.M. here. And a link to a recent poem written I.M., here.