The Shearsman Review

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Still Not the Full Story

KC: Lee, reading these new poems I’m struck by the changes in tone from one voice to another within a poem and the movement from one place and time to another, again within the poem. I wonder how you might characterise the matter and manner of these poems.
LH: I think for a long time I've zig-zagged or collaged back and forth between different times and places and voices in a poem, but maybe it's even more noticeable in these "recent" poems. For me staying static in one present just doesn't seem accurate - or isn't usually accurate — in mapping how our minds work or what we care about. This isn't writing according to some theory or programme — it's just how the poems happen for me. In a poem such as 'The Oak Coffer' — it started by my coming across a quote from Tacitus, and my realising how apt it was to recent history, and then the poem flowing on to the fate of "the little people", and so on and moving on to praising "the little people", people like my uncle Alf who had a very hard and limited life and yet had such stoicism and virtue. But the structure of this poem didn't move logically from A to B to C to... The concerns go back years. They were there before Tacitus came into my head, but Tacitus somehow kick-started the assembly of this poem.
     It's like the dust-jacket says — the book's "a weave of stories: some personal, some historical, some real, some imaginary." And most of these stories end up as songs of praise, despite all the oppression that exists in the world, despite the weight of memories and ageing.
KC: Another feature here is family, past and future generations, with its sense of elegy, time passes and questions remain – as with your father’s war experience, an abiding concern. For instance was ‘The Oak Coffer’ waiting there to be written?  The contextual imagery leads into the direct, personal address but it’s more than a personal history isn’t it? ‘Leah Laforgue’ is also about family, as it turns out, but very differently written, it’s not made up as you say?
LH: Yes, the poems are personal, but I hope go beyond the personal, beyond an individual history. In 'The Books' I'm still broken up by the thought of what my father endured in the Second World War, the horrors he saw and experienced in the BEF's retreat to Dunkirk. How he must have lived his life with these memories, but in silence — never talking about it, just getting on with the "daily business" of work and family.(I curse myself too for not realising this when he was alive. I was so stupidly self-absorbed and ignorant.) But there were so many others who experienced such things — the old men you pass in the street or see in the Post Office. So what I'm writing about in this part of the poem isn't just about my father. It's this realisation of other people's lives — especially those of older people - that contain so much that should be respected. Ignorance of this feels like a terrible loss in one's understanding of the world. Nothing should be taken for granted. Look in a stranger's face — who knows what they've done or seen? I don't mean that we haven't a present and future, but we do have a past too. As for the 'Leah Laforgue' piece. Yes, its tone is different. It's a straight-forward telling of the facts, a piece of family history that fascinates me. There was no need for any elaboration or comments . In this case just the facts tell all that's necessary. Maybe a reader could use the piece as a template for examining their own family. Or maybe they could just enjoy this story.
KC:  The changes in voice and time and place, which often turn on a phrase or the relationship between two proximate phrases, seems to me a constant feature in your work. The distance between Constantinople and the curtain lifting in your flat in Brighton is considerable but the poetry brings them together without showing the joins. What’s the choreography of what you call ‘stumbling in and out of history’? Is this also related to what is meant in your phrase, ‘ordering the ordinary’? Though the ordinary would admit quite an extensive vista here?
LH: I guess in a poem like 'A steady light' it's that "meanwhile back at the ranch" trick, things happening at the same time in very different worlds. But it's also savouring the possibility of daydreaming. In such a world the poem comes together almost chemically, like a crystal forming, rather than intentionally. Though afterwards one can see how one's mind, almost unconsciously, has assembled the piece and the connections within it. I could talk you through this poem, but that would take up pages and not be that useful. But just to look at the start — how it grew. I was in a Brighton hospital to have a heart echogram and had to lie still for about half an hour. As I lay there I noticed the blue curtain in the room swaying and then thought of Cavafy, whom I was then rereading, and his life whether in his office or at home. And then I thought of his love of Byzantine history and how it helped him in some way live through his working days, to have that richness at hand. And so on and so on. So a multi-layered poem built up and, for whatever reason, I relish that.
     As for "ordering the ordinary" in 'Palaeontology', it's literally a survival technique — doing the daily jobs can keep at bay all the fears and "questions". A parallel I suppose to my father after the war working his allotment or doing a conscientious job when he returned to teaching mathematics at a secondary school. Maybe, I imagine, a parallel in Cavafy doing his clerking job in Alexandria and getting by, living with certain disappointments, but...
KC: Poems such as ‘The Books’ and ‘A Steady Light’ perhaps exemplify the elision of otherwise disparate material.  For instance in the latter there’s a double movement I think. As you proceed by building up the layers of the poem, here the details about the Byzantine Empire, you also appear to strip it back perhaps to the occasion of its writing. What prompted the ending of the poem?
LH: I've talked enough about "A steady light" in the previous question — how it grew, but as for the ending? the last 5 lines? It speaks for itself, though it has a few obscure references (and why not?). "How true is your heart" — clear enough — and you're going to die. Anubis, the jackal-headed god, the protector of cemeteries, "watches over the weighing of the dead man's heart — the heart in one scale and in the other an ostrich feather, symbol of Ma'at, the goddess of truth. And if the heart is truthful the dead man is led up to Osiris by Anubis and becomes Osiris , god of the dead, of the underworld - that is , of the earth beneath our feet". (see 'The long black veil', book 11, in Collected Poems). And though I don't have much interest in religion I do feel the spirits of the dead, or our memories of them, are all around us and in our heads, our memories, as reminders, as touchstones of what matters. By ‘the dead’ I mean primarily family and friends who’ve gone.  As for the last two lines? Listen to the Chambers Brothers' gospel song 'People get ready'. And maybe, maybe there also is or was an actual train from Alexandria to Jordan?
KC: Here’s a question about readings and giving readings. I’ve heard you read frequently, read with you on several occasions, and we discussed the way you prepare a reading in Not the Full Story. You’ve said to me, no matter how precise the preparation that in the act of reading something else occurs, an unplanned feeling arises. Could we talk about that? I wondered what would be Mr Harwood’s pointers for those who choose to read poetry to others? Or do we scorn such suggestions? What readings by others do you value and recall?
LH: Giving a public reading is a whole other matter than the actual writing. Quite often good poets are  poor readers and vice-versa. For me, when reading, what I always try to keep in mind is that I'm talking to, talking with, people, the individuals in the audience Maybe that's the essence of theatre? But I really dislike the rhetoric of bardic pronouncements.  In the late 1960s, when I was giving readings in the USA, I once read at a junior high school in Chicago. When it came to questions one young girl asked — "In one of your poems you said 'I love you'. Did you mean it?" That essential question really hit me, and felt far more real than a postgraduate asking about non-existent symbolism in my work. Do you mean what you say, whether written or read out loud to others? That is always at the back of my mind when I'm giving a reading; otherwise it becomes some sort of empty routine, a dull repetition of words. No matter how much I've prepared a reading I still get caught out, find myself getting upset at certain passages.
     As for tone of voice in reading — I love the natural music of ordinary speech, and trust it. Think of the recordings of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley when they read. There's that necessary intimacy and immediacy. It really works.   
KC: Lee we ended our previous interview, the book Not the Full Story, with a quotation from Lynn Chadwick to the effect that after 50 years of working as a sculptor he was just learning how to sculpt. What have you been learning in writing The Orchid Boat?  
LH: I've no idea where I'll go in writing — if I do go – after The Orchid Boat. My early work was praised by some critics for its immediacy. There were a lot of poems from being in love or losing love. (I apparently went downhill from the 1970s onwards, they said.) In recent years I've been far more concerned with other people, with the weave of past and present.
     I don't know. I just want to write stories that other people might use or enjoy. Don't we all?
     It's just that I'm much slower now. It takes much longer to assemble a poem I'm happy with. But who knows? Things can suddenly shift, and a clarity and energy return. We shall see. Whatever — the poems have to come from a necessity, not be just a blind repetition or habit.
5 June 2014