Tuesday, September 23, 2008


tottering state selected poems 1963-1987 by tom raworth (Paladin Poetry 1988)ISBN 0-586-08705-2

I came across this one in an Oxfam shop in Kettering on Saturday, retailing for a quid, which is a criminal price to pay for such a great collection, but my principles, it would seem, are more intellectual than actual! I'd not come across Tom Raworth before. A quick check of his biography, though, showed that he belongs, chronologically if by no other token, to that best-of-all generations of British poets born just before or after World War II. Lee Harwood also had a Paladin anthology, which sits on my shelf at home. Chris Torrance I'd corresponded with for a while, but during a house move I lost all his letters and his address. A sin and a shame, as someone said elsewhere. Anselm Hollo, whom Raworth collaborated with on Haiku in 1968, was one of the poets present at Wholly Communion, the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading in the mid-Sixties that this site takes its url from. They were fabulous poets all, and we've not been able to match their achievements yet. (One question: from such a stellar generation of poetical talents, how come Roger McGough was the one who became best known?)

I don't like the language of ordinary or academic criticism, especially when it comes to poetry, because somehow it never captures the essence of what the poet is doing, and in a way, excuses you from having to engage with the piece itself. But if you can find a copy of this book you should engage. Raworth writes beautiful, complex, funny poetry, some of it with haiku-like precision and clarity, some of it seeming like painting that shows its meaning through tones and colours, some of it marvellous linguistic experiments (I don't know!), but all of it, when it's not just making you laugh, coming at you with ideas, with a certain take on the world; it's not just poetry because the poet hadn't written a poem yet that day, as it sometimes is now in the magazines and on the internet with the plethora of new poets advances in communication have brought bubbling to the surface like brown water from a drain. Raworth's take on the world might change from book to book, from poem to poem--he (or we) might not be able to pin down what his take on the world is, precisely (or want to!)--but we know he is thinking, while he's serving up these juicy little slices of his mind for us. And intelligence, or the use of it, is one thing we can never have enough of in art or in life.

After I read the book, by the way, I looked Raworth up on the internet and found him at www.tomraworth.com .Here you can catch up with the work Tom has been doing since 1988 (if you find this book first), or get yourself an overview of his entire (if you'll forgive the critic's word) ouevre. I was going to present you with a publication list, but since it's already available over there, you might as well go there. It'll be the best link you type in all week if you care about poetry and want to read the best of it, past and present (and sometimes "new"--as in "make it new"--doesn't necessarily mean "most recent", eh?)

Afterword Tom tells me that your chances of finding this edition of the book are slim because Rupert Murdoch, that intellectual giant, social philanthropist and supporter of the arts, had all the Paladin poetry books pulped when he took over the company. A crime that puts my stealing of my copy of the book for a quid into perspective. What black karma Murdoch must have brought for himself sanctioning the destruction of all that intelligence, all that refinement, all that creativity, all that beauty. But there is a more recent COLLECTED POEMS you can buy. Go to Tom's site for details.

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