"But why this fascination? The many returns
to this place? A comfort? Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."
I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Lee Harwood aged 76. I met him at Grasmere in June last year (I asked him to sign my copy of his Selected Poems) and we discovered a shared love of the landscape of North West Wales.
He had the slim wiry build of a climber. He read calmly and clearly, while his eyes seemed to look beyond the here and now. I was fascinated by the dream-like, painterly quality of of his poetry, the simple, unflashy way he described the natural world and the fragmentary form of the poems which could change suddenly from the impersonal or political to the intensely personal.
I went home and began to read the Selected Poems (Shearsman 2008). Their structure is noticeable for "zigzag" or "collage" effects (Lee's words). For example, "Dreams of Armenia", a powerful poem in memory of the Armenians killed in the genocides of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, includes lists of dates intercut with apparently non-sequential lyrics addressed to a lover with "long black hair" and "deep brown eyes". It is only near the end of the poem that the different parts of the poem come together -
"They would do this to you, my love,
And to our son."
Lee Harwood was no stranger to death. "On the Ledge" and "For Paul/Coming out of winter" were written in memory of his friend, Paul Evans, who had a fatal climbing accident when they were climbing together. The poems in memory of his baby daughter are intensely moving -
"dear daughter ghost in my head" ("Pagham Harnour, Spring").
That mid-line gap is used in several poems to great effect. The poet needs a breath, some sort of division, where punctuation or a line break would be too abrupt and would leave a short line too isolated.
There is another side to Lee Harwood's work - playfulness and joy. "Gifts Received: Six Poems for Friends" incorporates a Mexican bus ticket in the text of section 5. He imagines
"The brightly coloured bus
- trinkets jingling, saints swaying
all the music the driver could want"
alongside the humour of the words on the bus ticket "Utopia Real".
"Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem" rejoices in the summer weather, the happiness he shares with people on the beach, the sunset over the sea,
"The air so soft and warm,
like fur brushing my body."
In an interview Lee Harwood said that when he gave a reading "I always try to keep in mind ... that I'm talking to, talking with, people, the individuals in the audience ... I love the natural music of ordinary speech, and trust it." I am sorry that he is no longer here but his poems live on and linger in my mind.