Issue 18: Peter Robinson
(Tom Raworth Memorial)
WHEN TOM RAWORTH DIED
When Tom Raworth died I got out my small collection of his books, the rarer ones graciously signed, and looked through all of them, including his massive Collected Poems (2003), rereading some of my favourites—ones such as ‘Magnetic Water’ that we had been lucky enough to receive through the post from across the Atlantic for the second issue of Perfect Bound (Winter 1976). This poem, and much more besides, came our way because Geoff Ward, also studying for a doctorate at Cambridge, was in epistolary contact with the poet in California, as he notes in his heartfelt Guardian obituary. We would feature sections from ‘Writing’ in various issues, and its author might be said to have been the presiding genius of the magazine’s seven-issue lifespan.
Tom later told me that the decision to relocate to Cambridge, England, in 1977, had been encouraged through the interest shown towards his work by the young in that town—as manifested not only by Geoff and Perfect Bound, but by Richard Tabor’s Lobby Press, whose first pamphlet series included Tom’s Sky Tails (1978). Over the next decade, until I left the country in 1989, we would be in touch from time to time. He asked for a poem of mine to go in the vol. 4 no. 5 issue of Ink he edited in 1981, and another appeared in no. 60 of his Infolio series in February 1987. There was also an attempt to place his intriguing ‘Yaddo Journal’ in the magazine Numbers about the same time, but it couldn’t be got past the editorial team.
Then followed my pre-Internet years in Japan and a great gulf in—or extreme slowing down of—connections with the rest of the world. It was only thanks to Nate Dorward in Canada during the late 1990s that opportunities arose to revisit my earlier interest in Tom’s work. The essay I wrote, ‘Tom Raworth and the Pop Art Explosion’, for a May 2003 special issue of The Gig, called removed for further study: the Poetry of Tom Raworth, was later included in Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations (2005)—despite an anonymous reviewer for Oxford University Press recommending that this chapter alone be cut. That piece was a labour of love—concentrating on Tom’s first, beautifully produced collections, read in Sendai, Japan, in mint copies borrowing from the poetry library of my friend Adam Clarke-Williams. Those poems especially I know I can always go back to for sustenance from their emotive, evocative, speeded up re-visioning of Cubist procedures found, I imagine, in the poetry of Pierre Reverdy and Vicente Huidobro.
Tom was kindly disposed towards that essay, and we remained in periodic electronic contact, exchanging messages about the use of his grid-collage on the cover of my Talk About Poetry: Conversations on the Art (2006), a number of exchanges connected with the Cape-Goliard papers at the University of Reading, and arrangements for his visit to Southampton in 2012 for the F. T. Prince celebration, where he read ‘At a Parade’, the subsequently uncollected verses about European politics and militarism, from my copy of Poems (1938)—Prince’s first book, published in the year of Tom’s birth. The last time I met him was in Ship Street, Brighton, outside the venue for the Lee Harwood memorial event in August 2015. He was standing by the door among the smokers and, supplied with glasses of red wine, would hold court in his graciously wry and quiet fashion.
Tom Raworth was among the poets entering mid-life when I was young who—in their different ways—showed how important writing could be as a mode of inner, and outer, resistance. When he died, Aidan Semmens, who had collaborated on Perfect Bound, put out a call for tributes, and I dedicated a poem called ‘On the Electricity’ to his memory because its theme of poets’ survivals in darkened times, and the ‘ironic points of light’ they may emit, struck me as evocative of his work’s contribution—for it is full of such ‘ironic points’. The end-of-year online political-collage greetings cards he would send out to flush away the sadness, madness, and folly of the previous twelve months were always a delight. Oh TOM! thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Peter Robinson is the author of many books and has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize, and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations for some of his poetry and translations. Most recent publications include a novel, September in the Rain (2016), his Collected Poems 1976-2016 (2017), and Approach to Distance (2017), a bilingual selection of his poems about living in Japan. He is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.