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'a real though pleasant surprise': On Lee Harwood, John Ashbery, & F.T. Prince

John Ashbery, Lee Harwood, 1965. Photo by Pierre Martory, courtesy of the estate of Lee Harwood.

Over the past few months I’ve been going to the British Library to look at the recently-opened archive of the English poet, Lee Harwood. Harwood, who died last year aged 76, produced one of the most varied and most beautiful oeuvres of any twentieth century English poet. He was also a meticulous self-archivist. His compositions, catalogued in a series of black leather folders, are numbered in sequence from his earliest poems, written while he was an English Literature student at Queen Mary, University of London, to those collected in his final volume, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon, 2014). It is the poetry he produced in the mid-to-late 1960s—fragmented, intimate, surreal, playful, and utterly serious in its desire to communicate—that I return to most frequently. This work, dramatically different in style and approach to much of the most celebrated English poetry of the period, was, he told me in a 2013 interview for PN Review, a product of a particular cultural moment and imaginative network he defined as a “triangle of London, Paris and New York.” During this time Harwood was, among many other things, translating Tristan Tzara, working in the legendary Better Books on Charing Cross Road, and taking regular trips to the U.S. to visit his friends among the New York School of poets, including Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, and Ron Padgett. “Late Poem,” from his 1966 volume The White Room, is a record of the sense of possibility he experienced at the time. The poem’s generous, almost ingenuous mapping of influence, its account of the “excitement” generated by reading poets from all three points of his “triangle,” and final realisation of the fleeting richness of the historical moment, are typical of Harwood’s “eerily direct” (in August Kleinzahler's phrase) work:

Today I got very excited when I read some
poems by Mallarmé and Edwin Denby, and later
in the evening, by F.T. Prince.
I don't get “excited” very often,
but today was an exception;
and the fact I got “excited” was only
increased when I realised two of them – Denby
and Prince – are still alive and are probably
now asleep in their beds in nice apartments.

Ted Berrigan has met Edwin Denby.
I don't know anyone who's met F.T. Prince.
I wish I could meet F.T. Prince;
maybe I will some day, but it will have to be soon
as he must be getting old.

The poem’s wish came true: Harwood did end up meeting F.T. Prince—another marginalised figure in accounts of twentieth century English poetry—after sending him the proofs of The White Room, and a long correspondence ensued, much of which is held in the archive. These letters provide a fascinating insight into both poets' attempts to come to terms with the dazzling, disorientating poetry being produced across the Atlantic at that point in time. (Prince’s own work was, to his own confusion and delight, much prized by many New York School poets, though some doubted whether he actually existed–“F.T. Prince” seeming, to Berrigan at least, a code name for “foot prints” whose originator could not actually be traced.) In 1965, Prince told Harwood that his work was

 very much of the New York school, so far as I know it. You have caught a surface brilliance (perhaps more) from John Ashbery; but I find you are not basically American, and still less pseudo-American. You have an English consistency and even achievement of feeling. When  I say it is English I mean it is what the English can sometimes do, though they almost never do. But I don't think it is American or French, though your poetry belongs to the French-American school.

The vexing question of what, exactly, English, American and French poetry are is one both poets return to repeatedly in this correspondence. Under Prince's tutelage—there is an occasionally instructive tone to his letters—Harwood came to realise that he had been “somewhat dazzled on [his] first New York visit, especially by the busy art world there & the poetic ‘brilliance’ of the poets–the New York school & the lost generation children thereof!” What was required, he realised, was some shift in tone and form away from the “garrulousness” of New York, a shift evident in Landscapes (1967), a volume Harwood sent to Prince with the intent “to maybe show I did take in what you said about my earlier work & the whole ‘slick style’ routine. . .”

This change was, for Harwood, a salutary one. The poems included in Landscapes represent Harwood's first serious engagement with natural environments, which would go on to be a central preoccupation in his later work. For their immediacy, vividness and wildness, they seem to me some of the oddest and most absorbing English pastoral poems since those of John Clare. They are often characterised by a carefully-staged atmosphere of improvisation, evident not least when the poems’ grammar and syntax bypass or simply ignore convention, seemingly in order to get as close as possible to the experience the poet is describing; or, rather, to avoid betraying the messy process of experience by rendering it in smooth form. Clarity in vision or account is not the aim of this unhurried, inquisitive work; rather, it is concerned with the different degrees of focus and attention, of sharpness and blurriness, experienced while passing through a landscape:

Facing the house     the line of hills

across the valley     a river somewhere

hidden from view       the thickets there

I can't remember        the colours

green    a rich brown         as the sun shone

turned to slate grey          at times a soft blue smudge

with dusk or rain clouds             the details obscured

but like a long ridge setting the skyline

Months gone by    the seasons now almost full circle

It was spring and the garden was thick with


Each morning I would go out and . . .

(“Questions of Geography”)

Ashbery, a close friend of both Harwood and Prince and a consistent advocate of their poetries, highlighted the sometimes luminous effects of Harwood’s variable precision when he wrote, in his blurb for The White Room, that the poems have a “pearly, soft-focus quality.” He was also the first to make a tentative link between Harwood and Clare, by lifting and distorting the opening line of Clare’s “I Am” (“I am, yet what I am none cares or knows”) in that same jacket-copy:

 Lee Harwood’s poetry lies open to the reader, like a meadow. It moves slowly toward an    unknown goal, like a river. It is carelessly wise, that is, wise without knowing or caring what wisdom is...

Unfortunately, tantalisingly, the Ashbery / Harwood correspondence at the British Library is locked for ten years; but one piece of Harwood-Ashberyana that is available to view is the manuscript of “Train Poem,” the two poets' only collaboration. The poem was included in The man with blue eyes (published by Angel Hair Books, with starry cover art by Brainard, in 1965), a volume which features many poems about and dedicated to Ashbery. The book opens with “As your eyes are blue,” one of my favourite love poems, which begins with this recognition of emotional and aesthetic “movement” jolting the poet's internal life into magical, mysteriously suspended fragments:

As your eyes are blue
you move me – and the thought of you –
I imitate you.
and cities apart. yet a roof grey with slates
or lead. the difference is little

“Train Poem,” which has never been republished, was written on a train between Paris and Grenoble, where Ashbery was travelling to supervise the production of an edition of Art and Literature. It was composed by passing the page back and forth across a table, each poet having contributed a line or fragment of a line. Like Ashbery’s earlier great train poem, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” it opens by registering flatly and abruptly the objects of its surrounding environment:

Train Poem

dog daisies poppies metal knitting
needles snail eyes backward
and then discord the records-file
prehensile tankers and block
which way the stage perimeter OK
block again greenhill rears upward mutinous
“back!”    So until January
telegraphs twitching north to so and so
and a handkerchief slowly chopping heaves
“ne nous fachons pas” so that the houses
laughing in your eyes nearer the bang
let a forest caress unlace the instant
lovecog – did you really understand what I meant by that?
the farmyards in an uproar of freed peasants’ cough drops ah
       the old dogs at the window
but my love for you outgrew the shed
tools in disorderly heaps and wasps
a beam sagging into twisted visions of nowhere
and at this the small engine appeared from the siding
to inspect the phantoms and slowly disappear

paris-grenoble 11 june 65

Though, according to W.H. Auden, it's only “the corporate personality” who attempts to distinguish which writer wrote which part of a collaboration, I concede that over the past few years I've speculated extensively over which elements of this bewildering, touching, menacing poem were Ashbery's and which Harwood’s. For a while, during the frenzied search for original readings that constituted much of my D.Phil, I thought I’d identified the poem’s methodology: the idea being that each of the poem’s words which could somehow be interpreted as both a noun and a verb—“eyes,” “block,” “rears,” and so on—became a signal point for the handing of the piece of paper across the table; the transformation in grammatical function, and little pivot in the poem’s direction, was the gesture by which the shift in authorial voice was subtly disclosed. Encountering the handwritten manuscript for the first time at the archive, I was, of course, forced to acknowledge exactly how wrong my crackpot reading had been. I'd previously thought of the poem as a transcript of the process of influence as it happened, almost a moment of instruction: one poet training another how to look out of the window, how to write a poem. (I had been convinced, for example, that the very Whitman-esque “lovecog” and subsequent question must have been Ashbery: it turns out that though the lovecog was his, the question was Harwood’s.) What the manuscript actually revealed was how freely and non-programmatically the poets seemed to be imitating and parodying one another, or lampooning the act of collaboration itself, or simply looking out the window at the view. I realise now that there is a language and logic being employed by the two poets which I can’t hear, and try to think of that impasse as a consequence of the fact that, as Ashbery put it in his double-voiced collaboration with himself, “Litany,” “The essence of it is that all love / Is imitative, creative, and that we can't hear it.” On the back of the manuscript page of “Train Poem” is Harwood’s handwritten note: “Both our script–so alike: & this by chance & a real though pleasant surprise.”


Poetry and correspondence reprinted courtesy of John Ashbery and the estate of Lee Harwood.

Originally Published: December 5th, 2016

Oli Hazzard is the author of two books of poems, Between Two Windows (Carcanet, 2012) and Within Habit (Test Centre, 2014). He is a graduate student at the University of Oxford.