Manchester: Carcanet, 2015
review by Jonathan Catherall
A beautiful, crisp volume from Carcanet, Tom Raworth’s As When is in effect a selected shorter poems. Edited by Miles Champion, the selection charts Raworth’s career from The Relation Ship of 1966 through to Structure from Motion of 2015, though without any of the 14-line poems written between 1986 and 1994 and published elsewhere as XIVLiners. Any review should be mindful of Raworth’s admonition in the poem ‘True Confessions (notes)’:
the critics almost invariably concentrate on what should be subliminal – they spread the jam so thin it loses its taste – using the past to hold you in their present
Raworth is very much in favour of jam (as reward, as improv) today: if there is one element that is at stake in all his work, it is that of speed. His is a quicksilver mind, one that announces very early, ‘i made this pact, intelligence/shall not replace intuition’ (‘Wedding Day’), and that revels in brushing aside any tendency to ponder:
now here comes thought thought
is laughing at language language
doesn’t see the joke the joke
wonders why it takes so long
(‘Stag Skull Mounted’)
The passage contains a tellingly anarchic cocktail, in the doubling of ‘thought thought’. This satirises thought’s (language’s) slow stumbling need to re-right and centre itself, whilst recognising the grounding of thought (language) in the spark of connection that leaps across two terms of any kind, in the relentless procession of the syntagmatic chain, in the generation of difference through the second iteration of each term, indeed through the construction of the new term ‘thought thought’, by turns comic and thought-provoking. In much of his best poetry, Raworth, who is known in poetry readings for an avuncular but rapid delivery which obscures the line breaks, accelerates this slippage and multiplication of signifiers, or as he puts it in one title, ‘Rather a Few Mistakes than Fucking Boredom’.
Speed for Raworth is the creation of the other, of difference:
:speed it up till it’s faster than you
or be the other
art springs from differences you want
help me i’m a policeman
(‘Art is the Final Correction’)
The process of acceleration can be of a revolutionary brutality, stemming from ‘differences you want’ but also a ‘want/in feeling’. The policeman of desire is set loose from his ordered moorings, become by comic reversal one of the weak imploring for help. From ‘Stag Skull Mounted’ again:
i am a ping pong ball from face to face
idea to idea and what i do
is a disservice
the doorway the landscape beyond
to withhold knowledge to fashion
this from the jerks of thought and vision
Raworth’s noble if devilishly shocking ‘disservice’ to language operates from within a familiar universe, using day-to-day, accessible language and a sense of voices caught from conversation, media and commerce as well as the dance of his own intellect and intuition, though not with the typically documentary feel of found language poetry, but rather cut and pasted into a new synthesis. The motif of electrical suddenness, and of movement by jerks, fierce turns and jolting, recurs even as it is partly denied in the poem ‘Caller’. Written thirty five or so years later, ‘Caller’ lifts it into a wider, more socially aware context:
arks one musical
fierce turn crucial
you jolt that table
nature corrupt nature
romped bound constituency
is this thought
Here the ‘romped bound’ of play, leaping forward, is aware of wrestling with what holds it back from within and without, its ‘bound constituency’: ‘thought’ embedded in, even as it seeks to float above, ‘calculus’. The embrace of flux in ‘Caller’ means that we too must wrestle with its elusive and at times obscure principle of composition. Its very title invokes both Raworth’s sense of duty to call the world as he sees it, and an anonymously sourced telephonic receptivity, and indeed, Champion’s introduction mentions that whilst running Goliard Press in the mid-60’s, Raworth worked nights and Sundays as a continental telephonist.
Raworth’s work grasps at a near-instantaneity: ‘the shortest distance between two points is to be everywhere’ (‘Continued (Subtitles)’). This is a supercharged vibration channeling the signals of contemporary culture, its delicacy and detritus. Indeed, at one point, Raworth seems to recast Pound in a more democratic vein (though we might note his use of ‘his’):
within everyone is an antenna sensitive to the messages of his time: art is beamed to these antennae. education should tune them: instead they are smothered with phony ‘learning’.
Raworth, with an ear for science and technology, seems to have caught and relayed the message of our time, a culture itself obsessed with speed and change. It’s here that we might wonder more broadly, despite Raworth’s own brilliance, whether acceleration, rather than effecting radical change, anchors the status quo in its hedonistic stream of eventful consumption. Would we persist with the 14 pages of apparently random concatenation in a late poem like ‘Caller’, even for the immediate lilting buzz, if it weren’t for the authority granted it by the name of Raworth? Not to persist would be a shame, because networks of tone, grammar and image do begin to emerge in time, in a collaboration between reader and poet. Contra Raworth in this sense at least, for most readers the best jam (as reward, as improv, as pleasurable hold-up and difficulty) can only be obtained by a measure of care and patience.
Jonathan Catherall has reviewed for The Literateur and The Wolf. He currently gives money away for a living.