The Observing “i” in Raworth’s poetry and all that jazz.
I knew Tom for about 20 years. Or ten minutes. It’s odd to say knew, instead of know. I’ll say know. He was as open and opaque when I first met him at a reading in DC as when I last saw him at his flat in Hove. Like a pond of fish—an elegant electric-fast consciousness that withdrew if you delved too deep. It was as if he was saying, I’m right here, it’s all right here. What you get is what you see. I was grad-school trained and assumed certain things about poetry discourse. Tom disabused me of some of that. It wasn’t that serious a business, relax. But maybe it wasn’t just a game either. Maybe it was the game.
Tom had his own rules of engagement—but they were not put up to be exclusionary, anything but—everyone could play, if they could keep up. He was just like his poetry, or it was just like him: tragi-comic, sharp-witted, kind-hearted, angry, concerned, flippant, immediate, timeless.
Like jazz, I’d heard of his work, knew it was out there, but I figured I was too late to it to really get into it, it was already someone else’s knowledge, property, whatever. But like jazz it was everywhere and everyone’s. And I had already been listening out for it anyway. You could take it seriously, and/or just enjoy it. It was exotic and common. Witty allusions, quick turns of phrase, percussive, melodic, filled with contemporary jargon. And it was transatlantic, even if it was playing in a London club.
It was first in America that I was told to read his work by friends and strangers, in Iowa, New York, San Francisco, in Ohio. Everywhere, everyone. I met him first in DC, then London, then Boise, then Cambridge, then Cork, other places … the only constant was Tom, with a smile like a suppressed guffaw, bright-eyed and ready! There was something of the Merchant seaman about him, working class tough and ready for an adventure, something of the Ealing Studios rogue, a gentleman’s moustache worn by a chancer, a George Cole character, beloved and subversive.
More than any English poet I know of his generation, Tom’s work has half an ear out to the American tradition that moves from Williams, through Creeley. This was pre-internet, when poems passed across the ocean (if they made it at all) mostly in small mimeographed magazines, some published by Tom, and of course Tom was a traveller and spent years in the USA. And he knew so many of the poets, and they all knew him, in the UK and in the USA. And something of the USA and the UK crossed over to each country in his work.
The last poem he sent to me (maybe his last poem?) was called Previs, film-makers jargon for previsualization, mocking up scenes in advance of the actual production. I had permission to bring it out as a chapbook, but it’s here on his blog.
i was about to speak to me
art was in its shopfront
making artisanal empathy
politicians kept happening upon
events aberrant in real world
posed for drone’s eye view
to motive powers
spoil air for nothing
implants destroy conscience
nothing cares about seasons
fire uneconomical for ants
secretly told by a corpse
space too full for time
at mercy of signs
embedded in frame
bare turtles in cowshed
act only on order of drones
speed acquisition of stealth
seek phones to fulfill wider
persistent surveillance requirements
removed from atom’s clutches
you are invisible
same colour as ground died on
let dead vote my home
panopticon stares back
weather events happen
without emotion splice
follow screams into future
complete sites of ammunition
i is half here a heavier god
Typical of Raworth’s work, the first line signals a game that we sense will unfold along with the poem. The ordinary discourse of I/you is subverted, diverted, inverted by the last word “me.” We expect either a proper noun or a pronoun indicating otherness. Here the discourse is with the self, which either means it is involuted, or that the self is made of disparate parts. The suggestion is perhaps glib, but more obviously self-conscious about identity, and the inwardness of poetic discourse. It’s self-deprecating at the same time as it is deftly suggestive of the opacity of language, and the “over-thereness” of being. We can see it as a flippant twist, or as loaded with meaning. That’s part of the issue with an “i” speaking to a “you.” The “me” of the reader really has the task of registering tone and intention from the signaled clues. Here they are not so much ambiguous as simultaneously supportive of exclusive meanings. That’s Raworth. Take either version as the “right” answer and you miss the point. We tend to imagine that poems want to impart a serious truth, but often they are really about “being” read, and language is alive as long as we keep reading it to find out what is said. We hardly listen to ordinary discourse, because we don’t feel we need to. But here we perk up. We pay attention.
“art” we see has a “shopfront.” That’s the poem, showing its poetic wares. It doesn’t escape the marketplace, it sets out its store. It’s showy, meretricious perhaps: “Look at me!” The “empathy” we rely on when reading a poem is all part of its product appeal. We know how to consume a poem and we are willingly seduced. “Register today” part echoes a 1950s style exhortation to join the happy customers, a knowing wink to the sophisticated reader that we are part of a capitalist exchange even as we read a poem. Register might also be his tone. A run-on reading from the line above suggest the “artisanal empathy register” as a description of his own impulses to show his craft and draw us into the act of consuming his poetry-craft, self-conscious of his own impulses, and his own collaboration with a system of “artistic” exchanges. But it might also be a little more sinister than that. In the next stanza we encounter the drone, and a world where surveillance becomes a central fact of selfhood.
Next we have politicians, a catchall description of the decision makers, happening upon “aberrant events.” What’s striking is the passive construction here. Politicians might be seen as the architects of the so-called aberrancies, and we can all think of a thousand events to fill in the blanks. But they remain immune to accusations, as if they merely discover them. More even than that, it is possible that politicians actually have no idea what they are doing, what they make happen. The terrible events are as big a surprise to them as to us. I’m inclined to see that the register of the previous line might be where the information of aberrant events is recorded, and that politicians are in fact keeping an eye on the deviant actions of us, the poets and poetry readers, everyone. It’s a register we willingly sign up for. Deviations can be statistical blips, but they can also mark out the genetics or personal choices of individuals. Again, we can think of events that have been caused by noticing and responding to deviations of personal traits. Statistics is just one way of normalizing or reducing human identity to numbers, Capitalism again perhaps.
The posing for the drone’s eye view splices the selfie with the West’s latest killing device. There’s a potential for seeing the “selfie” camera as a nod towards the circularity of the first line, where the “i” and the “me” converse; a closed circuit where we become the product of our own consumption. The camera hacks our lives and produces stats for the system, the same system that checks drone images to determine if certain people are “aberrant” targets. We become our image, and it’s life/death if that image doesn’t conform to the necessary standard.
The ants are unceremoniously bombed, humans from a drone’s eye perspective, the result of people becoming statistics. Technology has removed conscience, and as we destroy the air, we ignore seasonal shifts. Like the politicians, we are ignorant to the changes we encur.
The next stanza makes explicit the splice between camera and drone for documenting society. The image of turtles without their carapaces is one of physical and ecological vulnerability, the cowshed is one of rendering animal into product. Our online presence, the shift from being invisible to being visible, i.e. available for discourse, becomes (like the poem?) a digital trace of our existence. For many of us our digital presence is our most vital presence. But what it does is move us from flesh to digital image, where we are coded and recorded (isn’t that what language already did?). Here the poem shifts from a kind of sociological outline of the state of individuality in the West to a personal reaction. The language sputters and founders:
let dead vote my home
panopticon stares back
The dead vote. We’ve had the spectacle in rigged elections in the most prized Democracies. But the link between home and enemy becomes syntactically obscure. Is the poem allowing the dead to vote? Are the dead the enemy? What stares back at the home and the enemy and the vote is the panopticon, dear old Jeremy Bentham’s model institution where a single eye can keep an eye on all the turtles in the cowshed. It’s the Pentagon or GCHQ, and it’s the turtles supplying the information via their cellphones and tax-funded drones. It’s hard to see the posing tourists as that distinct from the drone-viewed ants; the distinction is determined by the eye reading the image. And for the most part the “eye” is a machine, searching “mocapped” images to determine what the target is, what is human, what is shadow.
It’s as chilling an account as Orwell’s, but more true for being simply a reflection of what is essentially happening. But I can’t help noticing Tom’s uncanny truth telling reflecting on his own position. It’s an unrelenting account for one camped as he was, on the brink of dying for so long. His own body had become a battleground of sorts, not the “brave fight” against cancer, but a kind of economic site where he was treated with what was deemed efficacious and/or affordable and moved up lists and down lists depending on numbers. The State can’t help but see us as a bit part. And in the end that’s what we are.
The last line is perhaps the most peculiar:
i is half here a heavier god
There is an echo of the opening line where the “i” is opening a dialogue, is indeed really only code for the opening of a dialogue, implying otherness, hence “half.” But where the line ends up is not easy to unpack. The self in dialogue is “here”, a deictic that might indicate the poem perhaps, the site of selfhood noticed in a selfie or a drone-eyed observation. The self is half here and half there, over where the reader is, or the panopticon. God is perhaps only that which remains always other, constitutional to the self’s being seen. But it’s a possibility that this heavier god, right at the end is really only the “i” projecting itself. It’s a selfie. What this implies is that the poem is itself a technology of self-projection, and that self-projection promotes the idea of god, a selfie-stick transcended to a drone’s height view. And as we have seen, god leads to society and society to war. We are complicit in being. It’s a heavy burden.
I don’t think my reading is “true,” but its one partial response to Tom’s last poem. For one thing, the poem seems to feel that the “system” is rigged against the ants. There is perhaps a hope that by paying attention to our roles we might at least resist our role as mere statistics. Someone is, after all, in charge of the cowsheds. But the fact that we are ourselves obsessed with providing ourselves as an image is central to our vulnerability. One burden for any interested observer today is that the problem is not elsewhere, its observation itself.
Tom’s flash-quick syntax was one way of showing the show. I shall miss his grace and wit, his kindness and humour. I shall miss the man. I shall miss the poems he won’t write too. But then here is his poem, and there’s more reading to do: relax, it’s all right here.
Martin Corless-Smith was born and raised in Worcestershire, England. His latest books are Bitter Green (Fence Books) and a novel, This Fatal Looking Glass (SplitLevel Texts).
Writer, artist, teacher, and publisher Tom Raworth (1938-2017) was born in South London. He attended the University of Essex; in 1970, he earned an MA in the theory and practice of literary translation. As founder of Matrix Press and cofounder of Goliard Press, Raworth was instrumental in bringing an entire tradition of American poetry to English readers. Promoting the work of a number of poets associated with the Black Mountain School, including Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson, Raworth also published the poetry of Elaine Feinstein, Aram Saroyan, Anselm Hollo, and Zoltan Farkas.
Raworth’s own work has also been identified with the Black Mountain School. He has written over 40 collections of poetry, among them The Relation Ship (1969), winner of the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, and more recently Eternal Sections (1993), Tottering State: Selected Poems 1965–1983 (1984), the 500-plus page Collected Poems (2003), Writing: Poems 1980–2003 (2005), and Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems (2010). John Olson has noted that in Raworth’s work “words and lines are highly compressed: one perception immediately and directly slides to a further perception, and these perceptions accrue, multiply, ricochet and expand into a domain of accelerated cognition protean and variable as cumulonimbus, or gouache.”
Raworth’s awards included the Cholmondeley Award, the Philip Whalen Memorial Award, and, in Italy, the Antonio Delfini Prize for Lifetime Achievement. He taught as a visiting lecturer at the University of Texas-Austin, the University of California-San Diego, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa; he also served as poet-in-residence at King’s College, Cambridge University. He lived in Brighton, England.