Tom Raworth: ‘Put it together yourself. Fit the pieces. Make me work.’

‘There are degrees of darkness, that’s sure. Unreasonable. Think about it.’ Tom Raworth’s autobiography, A Serial Biography, begins with what seems like an experiment in sensory deprivation. ‘So why is it darker . . . no . . . keep clear . . . why does it seem darker inside the small bed chamber?’ Echoes of Beckett’s Molloy, writing alone in his room? ‘Brighten up the senses to wallow in a good fart. But it would break the silence unless . . . no . . . even they don’t know that much. Jar the nostrils awake. And help the memory.’

The book’s first epigraph, from St. Augustine, patron of autobiographers, includes ‘What I did there by way of writing, such skill as I had therein being placed at thy service . . . my books bear witness, both those disputations, which I had with them that were present with me, and such as I composed by myself alone . . .’
There we have some elements of a characteristic Raworth dynamic: the senses, especially sight and hearing, and the unreliability of their evidence; an examining intelligence; memory; and writing, either ‘original’ or in concert with other minds.
So, what about the poetry? Try this:
a very strange kind of intervention
led to the conclusion
time is also finite
further apart
when you subtract infinity
although this technique is rather dubious
travelling in a certain direction
an isolated system always increases
the matter particles get
from the point of view of trying
thus memory passes
faster than light
too rapidly to join up
disordered arrangements
The primary effect is that of an odd flickering of language as it seems plain sense but then skitters away just as it looks to be getting somewhere, the breaks between the lines of poetry feeling a little like those ellipses in the prose. There seems to be echoes of Einstein on Relativity in there, but at the end the focus isn’t on physics, but on memory and the presentation of material.
But through its layout on the page, this declares itself to be poetry. What help might that offer us in reading?
Try a few touchstone observations. Jakobson, Shklovsky, and the other Russian formalists stressed the uncommunicative nature of literary, and especially poetic, language: a poem isn’t there to convey information like a user-‐manual, but to draw attention to itself, to be on display as artful language.
Ezra Pound teased out and defined phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia as the elaboration, respectively, of visual imagery, sound effects, and word-­play in a poem.
These can be very useful when assessing the merits of conventional poetry, and for negotiating certain practical problems, such as translation. Remembering, for example, that visual imagery is the easiest element to carry over from one language to another, whereas word-­play is the most difficult, helps explain why the Italian Dante has been such an important figure for English poets, while the Russian Pushkin has gone largely ignored.
Bring this toolkit to Raworth’s poetry and see what you get. Visual images seem in pretty short supply in the poem above, and even where one does briefly coalesce elsewhere in his verse, it seems immediately to disperse, long before it might contribute to a clearly observed physical world in the manner of Dante. Effects of sound? Nothing there either; no rhyme, assonance, alliteration, no clogging of the surface of the language so as to delay its passage. And word-­play? Zilch.
Go further: repetition, variation, listing, parallelism. Nothing there either. And, like every one of the other 110 poems in the volume Eternal Sections, it’s fourteen lines long, but displays no other mark of the sonnet.
Far from delaying us and drawing attention to its art, Raworth’s language seems to usher us along like a cop at the scene of a crime or an accident: nothing to see here and certainly nothing to admire, move along please, ladies and gents, disperse.
Occasionally, there’s a flash of wit, often sparked by error, distortion, misunderstanding: ‘general betrayus’ (‘Maltese Named Trouble’) may take a moment to recognize, likewise the flaw in:
some of you older children may see
the floors in my argument mind the edge
(‘Letters from Yaddo’)
The one thing you can quickly gather from all this is that the writing is highly self-­aware, but that rather than occasioning complacent self-­regard, this awareness hunts itself on, ‘finding ways to pull the view past faster’ (There are few people who put on any clothes (starting it), p.27)
‘So how do little children know what’s boring?’ (ibid. p.20). Raworth might have ushered us ‘into a new home contaminated / by brightly coloured ancestors’ but chooses not to. The ancestors make their appearance in the prose, but not the poetry. ‘His grandparents were there in O’Casey’s book. Mr. Moore walking bareheaded in the pouring rain at his wife’s funeral. That’s the least I can do for her he said.’ (A Serial Biography, p.30) Though widely known in the US and elsewhere as an English poet, Raworth has chosen to travel on an Irish passport. End of similarity to just about any other Irish poet since the death of Beckett.
‘Attracted by pathos’? Negative. A native weakness for ’boutgates and ambages’ (‘Baggage Claim’)? Not that either. But ‘sometimes a fragment of language / illuminates a world not consistently round // breathing its air’ (ibid.).
in the order of emergence
the first throat chuckles
change to one syllable
in the focus of activity
also providing
the normal basic cry
a strong element
halfway through the period
separated by brief pauses
sure what they mean
into longer sequences
accompanying heart and respiration
babbling a random selection
of well-­practiced sounds
Having refused to act poetic, having withdrawn, seemingly to allow us clearer access to a world outside, because that world proves disordered, incoherent, this language receives the reader again. But the focus now, for lack of fuller distraction, and because no individual detail offers itself as writerly, obstructing, delaying, is on the relationships between the elements rather than on those elements themselves; the mind, the voice, speeds from detail to detail.
Faster than light. Join the dots.