Recreational Shooting

As When, Tom Raworth,
edited with an introduction by Miles Champion
(248pp, 14.99, Carcanet)

As When covers the past 50 years, or so, of Tom Raworth's extraordinary writing life. About 25% of the material here may be new to readers - in that those pieces were not included in the 2003 Collected Poems, or they were 'previously only issued as fugitive cards and broadsides' (cover blurb).

Miles Champion's Introduction is useful as a biographical summary: it traces Raworth's schooling, his first jobs (I didn't know that he had worked at the Wellcome Foundation, for instance) and his initial steps into writing and publishing. It details his marriage and his literary friendships, with the likes of Ed Dorn, Asa Beneviste and Ted Greenwald, and his time spent at the Universities of Essex and Northeastern Illinois. There are also historical details about Raworth's transatlantic movements and his early involvement in
Outburst magazine, the Goliard Press and, of course, a summary of Raworth's own publications, including the early Selected, Tottering State (1988); the later Selected, Clean & Well Lit (1987-1995) and the 2003 Collected.

Biography apart, what
is really useful in the Introduction is that it gives the uninitiated reader a way in to reading Raworth's poetry. Despite Champion's claim that these poems are not 'difficult', to anyone but someone familiar with Raworth's poems, this work certainly does present difficulties... how, for example, is one to read these fragmentary lines:

   sotto le nuovole

   wrapped in crisp workshops
   cue ape
   la vucca e traditura
   di lu cori
   moat threatened puppies

   sample massive
   trim my long gene
   'a gesture dear

   not a recipe'

Champion suggests that this mode of poetry 'inhabits the present as fully as art allows' and that 'the literary recognition of the fact that we live necessarily, albeit fractionally, in the past - that light has velocity - is his alone.' 

this fractionality becomes useful in reading lines such as these is given perspective by Raworth's comments on his own processes:

'I write down fragments of language passing through my mind that interest me enough after thought has played with them for me to imagine I might like to read them. What form that documentation takes doesn't interest me as an intention, but only as the most accurate impression of the journey of interest.'

In other words, these poems record Raworth's own processes of impression and thought, freed from the limitations of poetic form.  This has led to, as Champion notes, poetry of 'ever greater compression', in which the 'Boundaries between poem, journal entry and notation of atmospheric buzz are thrillingly dissolved, so that poems become entirely congruent with a tracking of the poetic signal.'

Once the new reader understands this compositional technique (and, hence, way of reading), the poems can be taken on their own terms - don't try to compare them to other poems you know - and then they do, as Champion says, stimulate 'the mind as much as the eye and ear.'

After his
Collected Poems, much has been said, of course, about Raworth's poetry, so I shall limit myself here to a few excerpts from the poems which do not appear in the Collected.  Fragments which jumped out at this reader include the following, which stand alone and do not require a reviewer's insightful elucidation, save to say that what I enjoy here is a stimulating, understated politics and the ability to make me laugh (Raworth's poetry has always done that), as well as to please the ear and eye:

   privatised profits
   socialised losses
   illiquid buckets
   toxic assets

   Jack sprat
   Jill downhill
        ('From Mountains and Gardens')

   not into the etymology of gesture
   watch death in your ear
   reconcile god's teachings
   with recreational shooting

   and defence of self and country
   driving around watering lawns
   time will be vaporised
   now of my three score years and ten
        ('Birthday Poem')

   i shall forge the blade
   of my own substance

   and it may not be a blade
        ('How to Patronise A Poem')

   I am lonely for my replaced cells
   1945, 1952, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1980, 1987

   learn your language
   no direction
is home
        ('Drop In Existence' [whole poem])

   culture is reassurance : art is nervousness

   everywhere i go at night i spoil
   a perfect wash of moon light on the ground
   with lousy lines like this
        ('Continued (Subtitles)')

        Andy Brown 2015