Six notes about Lee Harwood (while reading Penguin Modern Poets 19)

by Michael Peverett

1. The English Channel

Paul Nash, painting of Dymchurch sea-wall

[Image source: from Cathy Lomax's pretty wonderful blog:]

Lee’s poems had about them a remarkable tone. They were ‘quiet’ compared to the work of the Americans I was reading, but they were also surreal. It was a surrealism of everyday things. I often felt that surrealism arrived in Britain as flotsam; objects that floated across the Channel and sat displaced on a beach in southern England. It’s something you can see in the paintings of Paul Nash.

(From Laurie Duggan's in memoriam post about Lee Harwood:

I wonder if Tim Allen (who grew up on the Isle of Portland) would recognize that particular psychogeographical configuration?

Thinking back to my Hastings days, maybe even (in early childhood)  my Eastbourne days, I'd say that I always had a vague sense of it.

A sense confirmed when, much later, I discovered Montale's poem "Eastbourne" (not that Montale was a Surrealist, but...) , and by the Channel-Islander Jeremy Reed's translations of Montale in The Coastguard's House, generously and rightly praised by Michael Hoffman in the LRB;  still surely one of Reed's most stunning achievements.

Maybe it's something about any town that sharply abuts the sea. The sudden, enormous sea-blankness always intrudes a kind of questioning commentary, a kind of provisionality, into the life of the land.

But maybe, too,  it's particularly something unique about the English Channel. Already when I was quite young, the experience here was not just of enormous sea-blankness but of a pressing awareness that, not very far beyond the blankness, though invisible to us, lay a populous, clamorous and totally different world; different languages, different history, different art, different thinking.

Plus it was a fact that continental visitors, like Montale, were a lot more likely to show up in South Coast towns than in, say, Derbyshire.

It always seemed to me quite natural that my own grandmother, an Eastbourne resident long estranged from her husband, should have nourished her imaginative and emotional life with visits to Paris and Austria. She even made me call her by a German name (Mutti). I never really thought of her as English.

Though I couldn't see across the English Channel myself, it was obvious that Mutti could.

[I've been here before.

In an essay I wrote in 2010 about Elizabeth Bletsoe's collection Landscape from a Dream (named after a Paul Nash painting), I felt concerned that taking an interest in Nash's South Coast localities might mean "an unsurrealization of Surrealism". I'm still not sure if it's true or not.]

2. Lee Harwood

Most subsequent poetry, at least the kind of poetry I care for, has been about trying to assess the cost and the damage of those delirious, irresponsible love-poems of the first New York school. Like, the complicities in this glad acceptance of the world. Wanting to share it. Should I share it?

chandeliers tinkling in the silence as the winds batter the gardens
outside             formal lakes shuddering at the sight
of two lone walkers
                                    Of course this exaggerates
small groups of tourists appear and disappear
in an irregular rhythm of flowerbeds

("As Your Eyes Are Blue...")

It's a world that's still recognizably ours, when we are leisured. The lovers wrapped up in their own impressions, which seem to interact with them and them alone; yet also a democratic world in which similar experiences affect all the tourists and tourist couples that stroll through it. The comedy, the high camp, yet the beauty, yet the sense of being absolutely clear-eyed, which asserts a moral power. By making no judgments or claims it maintains an integrity, as if the poem might, though it says nothing definite, have all the political awareness you'd personally wish it to have and a whole lot more that you don't have yourself.

The perfect grace and flexibility of Harwood's lines, his pacing, the layout, the use of spaces instead of punctuation: he can say anything, and it's all poetry. I'm still beguiled.

3. Lee Harwood again

Central Park Zoo, 1967 (photo by Garry Winogrand)

[Image source:]

I've been reading Robert Sheppard's pieces on Lee Harwood's poetry, and as a result have a bit more context for the early poems I'm reading in Penguin Poets 19.

Review of the earlier part of the Collected:
Review of the later part of the Collected:
Three sequences in Morning Light (1998):
Review of The Orchid Boat:
A reflection on the above:
Poem dedicated to Lee Harwood:
A laugh with Lee Harwood:
In Memoriam:

The "Three sequences" piece ends with this, part of a list of features that may be said to characterize the world of Harwood's poetry:

a bit of camp (or the occasional kitsch ‘bad’ line) thrown in to unsettle the certainties of received discriminations in life and in the art

That's something that can be abundantly illustrated from "The Doomed Fleet".

This 'exciting narrative poem' (Harwoodian quotes) begins:

The entire palace was deserted, just as was
the city, and all the villages.... 

Not "the palace" but "the entire palace" (gosh) ... and that conversational but slipshod "just as was"... these are little opening hints of what's to come.

By the start of section 3 we're in full-on helpless-author mode.

Grey waves slapped against the sides of
the iron grey battleships. Seabirds screeched
above the wind; they don't sing.
Even the ships appeared deserted, except
for the occasional dark figures that would
hurry along a deck and then disappear
through a hatch-way as abruptly as when they first

The grand if somewhat hackneyed description is never quite in control of itself. In the first sentence, an ill-advised choice of plurality spoils a clear image; then the seabirds are improbably located "above" the wind; now comes the deliciously wrong but somehow comprehensible "Even"; and finally the clause about the dark figures, which gets itself in a tangle so that, in the end, the figures disappear at the very moment they appear. Even the decision to hyphenate, or not, seems chaotic.

The syntax is trying so hard! - too hard - but it's constantly undone by time and precedence and geography and multiple entities: it's all too much. You begin to understand "The Doomed Fleet" as a writing assignment.

Harwood, like Ashbery ("It was raining in the capital"), saw the possibilities of disastrous writing. Because, isn't all writing disastrous, really?

And a funny thing is, that as I was sitting here and teasing out these various stylistic infelicities, the attention made me focus on the image: the dark figures leapt to their syntactically improper life -

hurry along a deck and then disappear

- leapt, in a way they certainly never would have done if the grammar had been in order.

Though it did occur to me that what I was vividly imagining, and probably what Harwood imagined too, seemed a hell of a lot more like the multiple decks of a well-lit passenger ferry than a  gloomy single-deck battleship.

USS Alabama, in service from 1943

[Image source:]


With David Bowie's death (yesterday) there's some hive-thinking about bisexual artists going on. I'm a bit taken aback by the intensity of people's love. I discover (as it were for the first time) that, passionate 70s music fan as I was,  he was someone I never really followed, and that if he meant a great deal to me it was only for a very short time, when I was 13. I think the only records of his that I ever bought were three successive 45s: "Jean Genie" (backed with Ziggy Stardust),  "Drive-In Saturday" and the reissued "Life on Mars?". Yet I did know the Ziggy and Aladdin albums quite well. I must have long-loaned them from school-friends, Anthony Aloof maybe, or John Vincent Scott. (Thereafter, David Bowie perhaps seemed a too predictable music pigeon-hole for the likes of me: so I gravitated to the harsh obscure (Can, Beefheart, Hammill) and to other people's mainstreams (Beach Boys, Dolly Parton, Al Green).

I don't really know if Lee Harwood should be labelled bisexual or not. Maybe that's part of what bisexuality is all about. But I associate Lee's hypothetical bisexuality with his binary focus, the effect that Sheppard quotes him as calling cavalier vs puritan.

Sheppard again:

An erotic liaison with John Ashbery (whom he had met in Paris in 1965), and a more general literary engagement with the New York poetry scene at its height, engendered some deeply felt love poetry, including one of the finest meditations upon clandestine gayness, erotic obsession and separation, ‘As your eyes are blue’, which Jeremy Reed has described as ‘a love poem as important to its time as Shakespeare’s androgynously sexed sonnets were to his.’ In those days homosexuality was still illegal.

(Reed said this in 2005, but I haven't found out where because Sheppard's The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood is only searchable in snippet view.)

It's tempting  (volley of sexuality-stereotypes coming right up...) to associate the gay side of these poems with the urbane, with art, museums, New York; the het side with Harwood the rock-climber, and the frequently adventurous scenery of his poems, the recurrent three horsemen, etc. Or, as in this case, the iron grey battleships.

But the poems tend to regard such Boy's-Book scenes (the Argentine, the wild tribesmen of the hills, etc) as ridiculous. Even so, it won't leave them alone.

Rupert Bear is a fighter ace.

Harwood takes the voice of Mrs Skewton and liberates it; for him, being "all heart" is a serious proposition.

4. John Ashbery's eyes

.... are indeed blue, but a greyish type of blue.

Lee Harwood's "As Your Eyes Are Blue. . ." and  "For John in the Mountains" are closely related poems, both recalling the same flowery and meadowy trip to the mountains. (I would assume, in France or Switzerland.)

In the latter poem, he writes:

                        a dark snow
darker than your eyes'
dark snow

Ashbery's eye-colour compared to the blueish-grey colour of snow in shadow. To spell it out.

John Ashbery and Lee Harwood, Paris 1965 (photo by Pierre Martory)

[Image source:, where it was reproduced courtesy of Lee Harwood (I've blown up the small JPG, which is why it looks blurred)]


Kenneth Koch's much-quoted 1965 conversation with John Ashbery.

Essay by Andrew Field about the early Ashbery and pragmatism:   (with particular reference to the opening line of Some Trees, "We see us as we truly behave:")

Essay by Bob Archambeau about Ashbery's art world at the end of 1940s:

5. The museum

[Image source (above and below):]

These fragments I have shored against my ruins  

Somehow, modernism was in favour of museums. It was also anguished by them, by catastrophic history and a distasteful present, so the characteristic mode was irony.

By the time of the New York school, history seemed more catastrophic still. The poets begin to see the museum's contents in a different way. The details of the history you are supposed to be interested in became ridiculous. Irony died. A strong feeling of healthy irresponsibility blew through the room. It became apparent that the museum and its spaces and the items on display are crucially about now and here.

                                     whether it's the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as part of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their spaced-out times of arrival;
Whether on the other hand all of it is to be
Seen as no luck.

(from John Ashbery's "Clepsydra", in Rivers and Mountains 1966. The first couple of pages of "Clepsydra", which include the above extract, are online here)

The third poet in Penguin Modern Poets 19, Tom Raworth, perceives the modernity too:

looking at the etruscan statues in the louvre there is a green
       patina on my hands my expression has taken its final
everything becomes modern inside these cases there is
       nothing without touching

children crawl under the glass      things are reflected several

(from "Six Days", in The Relation Ship (1966))

Ashbery's idea of the "spectrum" becomes a "prism" in Lee Harwood's "The 'Utopia'" (Landscapes, 1967).

The table is very old and made of fine mahogany
polished by generations of servants.
And through the windows the summer blue skies
and white clouds spelling a puffy word.
And on the table the books and examples
of embroidery of the wild hill tribesmen
and many large and small objects - all of which
could not help but rouse a curiosity.


At times it is hard to believe
what is before one's eyes -
there is no answer to this except the room itself,
and maybe the white clouds seen though the window.



ISIS destroys triumphal arches in Palmyra

As has often been pointed out, Daesh is philosophically just as western as it is eastern; indeed, the example of Daesh reveals such distinctions as inadequate to account for moves within a globalized world (though, of course, much remains in the stereotypes to be deftly exploited).

Daesh's intention to make a bonfire of both the nation-state and accumulated cultural riches is something that many of us will uncomfortably recognize as our own deep aspirations put into hideous practice.


"embroidery of the wild hill tribesmen".

Khamak and other Afghan embroideries are of course the art and labour of women. But owned and displayed by men, at least until they end up, - as a result of what transaction? - on this so-polished table...


Interview with Lee Harwood by Andy Brown in The Argotist Online - no date is given, but I should think it was around 2008.

Recent short (but helpful) take on Ashbery's "Clepsydra", by John Koethe.

6. Lee Harwood, "Questions of Geography"

"Question of Geography" has a three-part structure. The structure trembles a little, it's alive - "I can't remember... the details obscured..." - but for the purposes of now we'll stick with those three parts. Each describes a landscape experienced by Harwood at some time in his young life: call them "once", and "another time", and "now". This analysis makes the three seem more disentanglable than they really are. Really, the poem's discovery is a continuous argument. Nevertheless, here's the middle bit.

Ridge in the distance       everything the same
as before                  it must be
The moors edged with pine woods
in the south-west province     a repetition
but the cathedral town unchanged
It makes no difference who was there
all inevitably reduced to the question of
geography or memory

The text operates not with particularity but with the suggestion of particularity.  The landscapes are all different, that's the point of them, yet they must, we feel, have a lot in common with each other. (The repeated idea of a ridge-line confirms this.)

In this middle part of the poem the particularity of what is seen becomes momentarily clearer ("moors edged with pine woods"), just when the particularities of time are at their vaguest: we could easily suppose this was a scene being glimpsed in the present, until mention of the third scene dispels that idea. When, then? Unlike the two outer scenes, it isn't connected with a time of year.

Ashbery and Harwood are both very fond of the phrases "a question of" or "a matter of". They use the phrases in a gorgeous myriad of ways. But to generalize, these phrases assert a fixed point (e.g. geography, in this case) but not a proposition, only a preoccupation.

Never more subtly than here, when the postscript "or memory" immediately undercuts the apparent definiteness of the title phrase, and instead seems to shimmer with all of the earlier elements that were not geographic. I'll come back to that.

At the end, the poem gestures at drawing together its threads and making manifest its discovery, at least about how the two remembered landscapes underlie the present scene.

the others seeming somehow irrelevant in the present excitement
but still real like a very sure background
- you paint over the picture and start on
the new one      but all the same it's still there
beneath the fresh plains of colour

That last line resonates with hidden energies. It makes us pause for a long moment.

But the poem is not in fact purely about landscapes. All around its edges, reticently undefined, are other people. "our garden".. "house" ... "months gone by"... "a repetition" ... "It makes no difference who was there". These very faint footfalls, the experience and the thoughts inflected by other people, become amplified after reading other Harwood poems from the same era.

It matters because it changes the subject of the poem. The poem is not only about change of landscapes but about a lifestyle of impermanence, a lifestyle without "marriage" or "family" or "home", but with changing lovers and changing places. If there's even a certain briskness in that "you paint over the picture", then you might wish to call it a poem about ending relationships. Further, it's a poem about viewing the permanent, "the cathedral town unchanged", from the perspective of impermanence: already with a tint of the ridiculous about it, or at best experienced as "the present excitement".  It's one of the quietest, but one of the defining, British poems of the 1960s.


NOTE  "the south-west province".  Harwood uses the expression several times in poems of this era. It momentarily unsettles location by calling up some Waleyan translation of Li Po; maybe it's Harwood's light-touch joke. But there's no real disguise: you don't get cathedrals in Sichuan. In Harwood's poetry, generally, it isn't about reserve (far from it), it's all about reticence. Which makes so much possible in these poems.

That is, if the distinction between "reserve" and "reticence" can really be maintained. That's one of the questions we need to be asking about Harwood today.

Harwood reading the poem (very beautifully, too)

The full text of "Question of Geography" isn't available on-line.

But here's some poems that are:

"Soft White", "The Final Painting", "The 'Utopia'", "The Words"

"Forestry work no. 1", "Love in the organ loft", "The nine death ships", "Boston Notebook: December 1972", "Massachusetts or On visiting Walden Pond, 1st January 1973", "Portraits 1-4", "The destruction of South Station, Boston", "Nineteenth Century Poem", "Boston Spring", "Old Bosham Bird Watch", "Portraits from my life", "London to Brighton"

"Claret label", "A poem for writers", "Bath-time", "Text for two posters by Ian Brown", "O, O, O,... Northern California", "Coat of arms on wall in ancient city", "Hand from an Exeter cloud", "Summer Solstice", "The artful", "Waunfawr and after", "Cwm Uchaf", "On the ledge", "For Paul/ Coming out of winter"

Mark Ford in the Guardian, celebrating the Collected Poems, and quoting "Rain journal: London: June 65"

Lee Harwood (photo by Elsa Dorfman)

[Image source:]

This Intercapillary Space piece assembles various posts from, September 2015 - February 2016. 

Thanks, Michael. Penguin Modern Poets 19 was THE seminal text for me: my introduction, back in the very dimly remembered day, before I even knew what a small press was, to the wild and wonderful world of "other" poetry.
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