Reading Matters: Lee Harwood

Out with the North-East London Ramblers the other weekend, a pleasant ten-miler that fetched up at Chichester – partly along the edge of the water, partly through fields, and all nicely flat – we broke off for lunch at the village of Bosham, which brought to mind Lee Harwood’s Old Bosham Bird Watch and other stories, an A4 size pamphlet published by Ric and Ann Caddel’s Newcastle-based Pig Press in 1977.

That’s Lee, right, taking a rest from some of his own rambling …

OLD BOSHAM BIRD WATCH

I.

out of nothing comes …

nothing comes out of nothing

cut                  /            switch to

a small room, in a building of small rooms. “Enclosed thus”. Outside there are bare trees groaning and twisting in the wind. A cold long road with houses either side that finally leads down hill to a railway station. The Exit.

II.

Out on the estuary four people in a small dinghy at high tide. Canada geese and oyster catchers around. The pale winter sunlight and cold clear air. Onshore the village church contains the tomb of Canute’s daughter, the black Sussex raven emblazoned on the stone.

Small rooms.

I still have mine – no. 122 out of an edition of 200 – rust-red cover fading now on the back, my inscription on the title page telling me I bought it in April, 1978 for the princely sum of 60p, almost certainly at the much-lamented Compendium bookshop in Camden Town.

Along with Libby Houston and Barry MacSweeney, Harwood was one of the more established, but sadly undervalued writers that Slow Dancer Press was always pleased and proud to support. Dream Quilt, a collection of 30 assorted prose pieces, was published by us in 1985, followed by two collections of poetry, In the Mists: Mountain Poems in 1993 and Morning Light in 1998.

V.

In the closeness that comes with shared actions. From keeping a room clean, keeping clothes clean, cooking a meal to be eaten by the both of us. In that closeness, maybe on the edge of  losing something gaining something. Questions of clarity and recognitions.

VI.

We swing hard a-port then let the current take us, the ebb tide pulling us out towards the Channel. The birds about, the colours of the sky, the waters, all the different plants growing beside the estuary, and the heavy brown ploughed fields behind those banks. Here, more that anywhere else, every thing, all becomes beautiful and exciting – and the fact of being alive at such moments, being filled with this immense beauty, right, Rilke, “ecstasy”, makes the fact of living immeasurably precious.

Those extracts show something of Harwood’s style – cinematic, often moving between precise observation of the natural world and the personal; a use of language that is, on the surface at least, straightforward and direct – pared down yet evocative. And, in that final section, his abiding concern with the luminous pleasure – if we open ourselves to it – of being alive.

Shearsman Books from Exeter, who published Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems in 2004, brought out a fine Selected Poems in 2008, which includes “Old Bosham Bird Watch” and much of Harwood’s best work and is still in print and available.

Reading Matters: Libby Houston

The photograph which accompanied publisher Clive Allison’s recent obituary in the Guardian, showed him sitting at a pub table alongside his business partner Margaret Busby, with, on the table, a copy of one of the first Allison & Busby publications – Libby Houston’s A Stained Glass Raree Show. Houston’s first collection of poems, illustrated by her husband, Mal Dean, it opens with the first poem I ever remember hearing Libby read – “Post-War” – the same poem which begins Cover of Darkness (Selected Poems, 1961-1998), which Slow Dancer Press published in 1999.

Libby is a singular person, a singular poet, who has remained constant to her own muse, her own style, regardless of fashion and scornful of compromise. Short comic pieces mix with longer narratives, often based on ballad and fairy tale, and deeply personal poems which, as the Times Literary Supplement said, “express pain beautifully without sounding hurt.”

In the words of A. S. Byatt, “She likes to contemplate rottenness, rotting and the agents of change and decay, blowflies, maggots and mould, which she describes with a nice precision which remove them to the safe world of wit on one hand, or fairy-tale on the other. She looks at tiny details and large movements of life and time, like all good writers; a poet, a woman, not particularly a Woman Poet.”

Here’s that first poem :

In 1943
my father
dropped bombs on the continent

I remember
my mother
talking about bananas
in 1944

when it rained,
creeping alone to the windowsill,
I stared up the hill,
watching, watching,
watching without a blink
for the Mighty Bananas
to stride through the blitz

they came in paper bags
in neighbours’ hands
when they came
and took their time
over the coming

and still I don’t know
where my father
flying home
took a wrong turning

Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin

Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling,  that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift. The show is on in Oxford until the 12th of the month and then goes on to Tilburg and San Diego. And there’s an excellent new web site devoted to Hodgin and his work – http://www.howardhodgkin.org.uk/