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Tom Raworth, 1938–2017

By Harriet Staff

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In a PennSound Daily entry, Michael S. Hennessey relays the saddening news that Tom Raworth died on Wednesday, after a long battle with cancer. Raworth had prepared his friends, admirers, and readers for the prospect in a startling note in late January, setting off a few false alarms, as Charles Bernstein noted in a Facebook post. “The intensity of the vigil is the measure of how much he meant to both those who knew him and those who know him by his work,” he wrote. Val Raworth told Bernstein yesterday that “Tom died this afternoon, peacefully, his family around him. A release from his sufferings.”

“Over the past few weeks since news of his terminal condition broke many in our poetry community have shared what Raworth meant to them,” writes Hennessey, “and so I’ll humbly do the same.” His reflection below:

As a grad student, a decade or so ago, I first saw him read with Anselm Berrigan at an event Bill Corbett had organized at MIT to celebrate the publication of Ted Berrigan’s Collected Poems. I had no idea who this strange man was who stood at the podium — hands splayed on either side of his papers, head bowed in a monastic pose — reading his poems at a breakneck pace without looking up. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and an apt complement to Berrigan’s speedy poems that I knew well, though his own work moved beyond conversational ease into dense, abstract constellations of syntax and sensation that I wasn’t yet ready to fully understand. It was a provocation, but one I wouldn’t fully understand until a few years later when I came to work at PennSound, stumbled across Raworth’s author page, learned that he didn’t always read quite so quickly, and looked more deeply into his body of work. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing students to his poetry and while they too seemed a little intimidated at first, in time they’d relax and follow his lead and it would start to make sense. I also wound up as a PoemTalk panelist with some very august company discussing Raworth’s “Errory,” and managed (I think) not to make too much of a fool of myself.

The aforementioned PoemTalk is here, and you can listen to “Errory” here (you may also refer to the full text). And as Hennessey mentions, there is “quite a treasure trove of materials” on the PennSound Tom Raworth author page. We’d also point you to poems, articles, and audio here at the Poetry Foundation, including Raworth reading “You’ve Ruined My Evening/You’ve Ruined My Life.”

Tom Raworth’s own website provides an in-depth look at the person. It’s difficult not to lose yourself in his collages (Norma Cole wrote a book about them), travel-journaling, photographs, music recs, and even his own “In Memoriam” page, a list that connects to radiant reflections of friends who had passed before him–Steve Lacy, Lucia Berlin, Anselm Hollo, many others. You’ll also see updates regarding Infolio magazine, “a four-page literature and art magazine I did in the 1980s,” as he humbly described it. The full run (40 issues, 1986-’91) was eventually digitized for Danny Snelson’s Jacket2 Reissues project. “Concertedly international,” writes Snelson, “Infolio features 209 contributors from over a dozen countries. This reissue updates Raworth’s own online index to Infolio as an aid to navigate its formidable roster of poets and artists. The revised index can be found here.”

The poet’s EPC page provides links to work by and about Raworth, including an excerpt from the infamous prose work A Serial Biography, the whole of which can be found more recently in the Collected Prose, Earn Your Milk (Salt, 2009).

More recently, Raworth worked with Miles Champion to produce a Selected Poems, As When (Carcanet, 2015), which spans the range of Raworth’s poetry to date of publication, and includes work omitted from his Collected Poems (2003) as well as poems previously only issued as fugitive cards and broadsides, as the release has it. A few of Raworth’s books–he wrote over 40–can also be found at Small Press Distribution. For those writing about Raworth’s work, check out Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth, a special issue of The Gig that brought together new writing (in 2003) on Raworth by 23 poets and critics from both sides of the Atlantic, previously uncollected texts by the poet, and a detailed bibliography of his work.

Born in London in 1938, just before the Second World War, Tom Raworth attended the University of Essex, earning an MA in 1970 in the theory and practice of literary translation. He taught (and maintained friendships) all over the world, and his awards included the Cholmondeley Award, the Philip Whalen Memorial Award, and, in Italy, the Antonio Delfini Prize for Lifetime Achievement. As Ian Dreiblatt wrote at Melville House:

…Raworth is often associated with the British Poetry Revival, a loose grouping of writers who might be called “postmodern,” and who bear comparison with the stateside New American Poetry scenes. In 1965, after teaching himself to set type while working as a phone operator, he co-founded the Goliard Press, which he ran for two years before Jonathan Cape acquired it, sending him back to school. He doesn’t seem to have liked it, but he got a master’s in translation. He likes vegetable soup with lots of pepper and Jamaican hot sauce.

Raworth has spent his career being unapologetically radical in his politics, unapologetically hilarious in his manner, and unapologetically complex in his poetics. He has been a particularly transatlantic writer, living in the US for several years in the seventies, and publishing, with Goliard, Charles Olson’s first writing to appear in the UK. He’s particularly beloved for the spicy collages in his annual Christmas cards, which poets all over the world await gleefully every December.

His poetry is, maybe above all, provocative, upending readers’ expectations about how a text should operate, and inviting a level of interpretive participation that pushes the poet, the text, and the audience toward equality as co-partners in making it. Writers have characterized his work by its “laconic egolessness” (Geoff Ward); its speed, “half-emotional, like someone laughing at his own joke while he is telling it” (Fanny Howe); its “tragedian’s sense of the comic as one of life’s fated inevitabilities” (Lyn Hejinian).

Our own memories of Tom are of a funny, warm, sprightly gentleman who seemed to know just how he wanted to live. We are saddened by the news of his passing, and wish the best for those who loved him.

Photo at top by Allen Ginsberg.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, February 9th, 2017 by Harriet Staff.