Lee Harwood was one of the leading poets of his generation. Born in Leicester in 1939, he grew up in Chertsey, Surrey. He studied English at Queen Mary College, University of London, and soon became involved in the poetry scene in London. Harwood spent the majority of his life living in Brighton, though he lived for significant periods in the United States and Greece. During that time he worked in a variety of jobs, including as a bookseller, post office worker, and bus conductor. His first volume, title illegible, was published by Bob Cobbing’s Writer’s Forum; he published over 20 volumes of poetry, fiction and translations, including Collected Poems 1964-2004 (Shearsman). His last collection, The Orchid Boat, was published in 2014 by Enitharmon.

Harwood’s work is distinctive for its assimilation of American and French influences—most importantly, that of the New York School of Poets, and the surrealist works of Tristan Tzara—using them to create a poetry unique in 20th century English poetry. His work is without parallel in what August Kleinzahler calls its “eerie directness”, characterised as it is by a Romantic sensitivity to the relations between landscape and the poet’s internal life, and its emphasis on the “spoken language we use”. In this sense, he writes as much in the traditions of John Clare and Wordsworth as the 20th century avant-garde poetics of DADA, the Black Mountain poets and the British Poetry Revival. The flawed nature of language as a mode of communicating meaning was a recurrent concern of Harwood’s work from the beginning, as he explained in the introduction to his Collected Poems: “Language is never perfectly reliable but—obvious enough—it’s all we have to talk to one another.” What Harwood’s work manages to achieve is a form of representation which both communicates through language and acknowledges its limitations simultaneously, as in “Boston Notebook: December 1972”:

to get something clear mapping
how it really is now (embarrassingly so?)
I just want to tell you the truth”

The incomplete nature of the text allows the reader’s own associative imagination to come into play, to complete the meaning of the text. This is characteristic of Harwood’s conception of poetry; his poems do not want to offer answers, to assert or advocate, but rather to ask questions which the reader is encouraged to respond to imaginatively. Despite the fact that such an approach seems to disavow any idea of the poet as an originary authority, many of Harwood’s most beautiful poems emerge out of his own biography. His work is striking for both its historical-consciousness—often using sources as diverse as Borges, Tacitus and the I Ching—and the manner in which he integrates such distant materials with the “daily history” of our inner lives. His celebrated long poem “The Long Black Veil” (1971), for example, while much influenced by the open-field poetics of Charles Olson, is primarily a vivid account of a love affair. Similarly, the early volume, The Man with Blue Eyes, which deals with his relationship with the American poet John Ashbery, manages to be intensely personal while also allowing a substantial amount of interpretive room for the creative reader:

As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you.

Like Ashbery’s own infinitely flexible use of pronouns, Harwood’s use of the word “you” often seems to originate in a specific context or to address an identified individual, but over the course of a poem manages to transcend the details of that context, seeming to offer itself up as a direct address to the reader themselves. It is a trait which demonstrates the tremendous openness and generosity of a body of work unlike any other in 20th century English poetry.

Lee Harwood's recordings were made on July 24th and November 4th 2014 at Pier Productions, Brighton and were produced by Anne Rosenfeld

Poems by Lee Harwood

Gorgeous – yet another Brighton poem - Lee Harwood
for Paul / coming out of winter - Lee Harwood

Books by Lee Harwood