It’s taken me a while to get to writing about Tom Raworth’s death, partly because life doesn’t always allow room for the losses which affect us, partly because such things always take me a little time to get right.
I met Tom Raworth in the mid-nineties. He will always feature on the short list of writers I admire who I’ve actually met, and he’s on the even shorter list of those I actually liked. I first saw him read at a poetry reading at UEA, where I was an undergraduate, studying American and English Literature. The reading took place in one of the teaching rooms on the ground floor of the library. After the reading, we all headed to the student bar. I remember it being a bright, warm evening in late summer. We stood outside drinking beer on the concrete pavilion, Tom wearing a white striped jacket and a straw hat. We smoked roll ups together and talked about poetry: about Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, poets who were names to me, but friends to him. The one time he seemed anything less than genial was when he poured scorn on Roger McGough, for doing a voiceover for an advert. During any lull in conversation, he would hum a tune to himself, and flutter his fingers as though playing on a piano. We swapped addresses and a few weeks later, he sent me a proof copy of The Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs, which I still have on my shelf.
The next time, I caught up with him, I was studying in Boulder, Colorado. Tom had travelled out to perform on a short university tour, (‘living the dream,’ as he mentioned in one of his poems). Through him, I was introduced to the community of poets who gathered around Boulder and Denver. One of my abiding memories of that time is being seated at a table with Tom at a party. Thomas Clarke sat down to join us followed by Anselm Hollo. Ed Dorn took another seat, and finally we were joined by Bernadette Mayer, who wheeled an oxygen cylinder along behind her. Thomas Clarke started passing around an Exquisite Corpse, chiding me to add a line. To say that I felt out of my depth is an understatement.
If I get a little too autobiographical at this point, you’ll have to forgive me. This is a blog post, after all, and if you’re not expecting my version of things, then you can’t be a regular visitor to the twenty-first century. Besides, this piece isn’t intended as an obituary; I don’t claim to be able to sum up Tom’s life or career, or claim to know him beyond what I’ve already described. He had an clear influence on me, though, and it went beyond any desire to imitate his style or approach. I had written poetry ever since the age of sixteen or so, but up until meeting Tom, and reading his work, I had a generally bad impression of British poetry. Before university –and even during it, if I’m honest- I did my most of my significant reading during the summers, chewing through American poetry and novels, Beats, Black Mountain, The New York School. There’s something spirited but also limiting when you are, in Alice Notley’s phrase, a culture of one. Your ideas are what define you, but you can allow yourself to think that they are your’s alone. Discovering Tom’s poetry, where the established canonical assumptions of British writing meant nothing, opened my eyes to a stream of work had being going on all the time, without me knowing of it.
I was still writing poetry by my mid-twenties, but, gradually, the well dried up. Probably, it was a question of aptitude and talent, but I’d become disillusioned as well, not only with the rejections (although these certainly played a part), but with poetry in general. (Bill Herbert sums up things well in his blog post on Tom. I had my rejection from Reality Street too). I felt I’d backed myself into a corner, really, and switching track seemed like the best idea. I began focusing my energy on writing a novel. Fiction wouldn’t be the smooth track I was expecting (think, instead, of a junction of dead ends) but I got my novel out in the end. I would write at work during a string of part time, or low-intensity jobs: in libraries, in offices, in an old call centre over the road from a cemetery on the outskirts of Southgate, which had been converted into a ghastly open plan office. I remembered how Tom had written while working in a telephone exchange. I may have changed tracks, but I’d retained some of his method.
As a final point, it seems obvious to mention Tom’s under-representation in the mainstream. (Perhaps, I am writing an obituary, after all…) His work tends to get ignored by anthologies of British poetry, although, it should be pointed out that he excluded himself from at least one anthology that I know of, so perhaps he was happy not being represented. And, unless I’ve missed something, go looking for an obituary in one of the newspapers, too, and you’ll be disappointed. Reading through his work, as I have over the last month or so, and being drawn once again to those zippy Sixties collages which so excited me when I first read them, it made me wonder why work as fast-paced and, well, fun isn’t more widely known. I’m not sure that I should let that worry me, though. Tom was too fast and elusive for that kind of thing: always too far ahead to get caught out by the messy business of being popular. Unless you met him, of course, in which case, well, there was no one like him.