Lifesaving Poems: Harvey Reads, Anthony Wilson Remembers

Anthony Wilson is a poet, lecturer and researcher, on whose blog  the following piece was recently posted. It’s reproduced here with Anthony’s permission.


Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading.

The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The Northand had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.

When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’

His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance

He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.

 Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.

 From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.

 At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

 John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop), 1992.

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 …



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.


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.


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.


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.