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I first encountered the poetry of Tom Raworth in Michael Horovitz’s Children of Albion: Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain (Penguin 1969) anthology and Penguin Modern Poets 19 (1971) when I was at school. I was struck not only by the various art of the poetry but also by its comic touch. It immediately signalled a playful inventiveness that has been subsequently developed over more than forty years.
Briefly, Raworth was born in south-east London in 1938. He became a mature student at the University of Essex’s Literature Department in 1967. Prior to this, he had a variety of clerical jobs and taught himself to set type and print. Between 1959 and 1964 he produced Outburst magazine and books under the Matrix press imprint. From 1965 he ran the Goliard Press, with Barry Hall, until Jonathan Cape Limited bought it in 1967. He published work by Edward Dorn, Anselm Hollo, Elaine Feinstein, Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and his own first book of poems, The Relation Ship (1966), which won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize in 1969. He also printed books by Louis Zukofsky, Ted Hughes, Dom Moraes and Basil Bunting for other presses. He was thus at the centre of the Renaissance in English Poetry in the Sixties.
At Essex, under the aegis of Donald Davie, Raworth consolidated friendships with Dorn, John Barrell, Ted Berrigan, Creeley and Olson. All of these connections are evident in his Collected Poems (2003) through a rich intertexuality of naming and dedication. After being Poet in Residence at Essex in 1970, he began giving regular reading tours in North America. From 1972 he lived in the US until returning to England in 1977 to be Resident Poet at King’s College, Cambridge, the city in which he still lives. Since then he has made his living from writing books, residencies and reading tours in Europe, Africa and North America. He belongs to that tradition of English poets that are essentially and necessarily internationalist. His graphic work has been shown in France and Italy, and he has collaborated and performed with musicians, painters and other poets around the world. In 1991 he became the first European writer to be invited to teach at the University of Cape Town for thirty years.
Raworth’s early work has a philosophical and comedic eye that produces poignant two-liners such as:
i cannot prove a second ago to my own satisfaction (Collected Poems p. 105)
trust marginal thoughts some like shoes will fit (Collected Poems p. 51)
puff! i’ve put it out with my hand and you all understand (Collected Poems p.108)
Avoiding the Movement’s parochialism, Raworth explores within, rather than through, language. The early poems often compress a number of discourses into a succinct form, marked by the use of fragmented short lines and a multiplicity of word play within free verse forms. The social certainties of post-War Britain lose focus and slide rapidly into a newer, fresher world in this poetry.
now the pink stripes, the books, the clothes you wear in the eaves of houses I ask whose land it is
an orange the size of a melon rolling slowly across the field where I sit at the centre in an upright coffin of five panes of glass
there is no air the sun shines and under me you’ve planted a quick growing cactus
(Collected Poems p. 31)
I want to take a look at the possible sources for Raworth’s comedy: the sudden juxtapositions, comments, asides and disrupted narratives that are infused with comic twists and turns that are a hallmark of his poetry. The connections between Raworth, the New York School, Black Mountain and Pop Art have been examined elsewhere. (See for example Peter Robinson ‘Tom Raworth And The Pop Art Explosion’ in Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations OUP 2005) However, in the 1972 Barry Alpert interview, Raworth tends to underline his independence from such influences. Knowing of course that those movements were built on older ones and that the non-literary can impinge upon poetry as much as the discursive. By taking a different angle we may contribute to a wider contextualisation of his early work.
In Act (1973), a title redolent of meaning and yet self-consciously mocking at the same time, the act of re-writing is signalled from the start in the first section, ‘Nine Poems’ where ‘nine’ is crossed out and ‘mine’ hand written above the typeface. Other interruptions follow and the reader is forced to think differently through omission, unexpected juxtapositions and an unpredictable playfulness.
Raworth’s early work from 1963 to 1980 was surely informed by the gradual liberalisation of post-War Britain, the creation of the welfare state, Imperial decline and the erosion of the ideals of the optimistic Sixties counter-culture. As a child he would have memories of the Second World War and post-War shortages and austerity. As a teenager he would have been part of the first generation of youngsters to have surplus income for pleasurable pursuits. He would have heard the Tory leader, Harold Macmillan, say in 1959 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ when the growth of consumer capitalism was under way. He would also have experienced the tremendous growth in new technology during that and the subsequent period. These events saturate the frames of his poetry. He would know the echoes of ‘winds / of change’ that ‘shift / if that’s / what reality is’. (Collected Poems p.220)
Raworth would have also listened to the radio as a teenager and surely would have encountered Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show (1951-60). The writing procedures employed by Milligan in The Goons and the Q5 television series that contributed new words to the vernacular and so inspired the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) were a development out of BBC radio comedy dating back to It’s That Man Again (ITMA), 1939-49, written by Ted Kavanagh.
Ted Kavanagh’s ITMA played with the sound and meaning of words, employed puns, alliteration and bursts of comic rhyme within unusual narratives. Thus from ITMA No. 28 Fourth Series April 1942:
CECIL Will there be swings and things?
CLAUDE There’ll be coconut shies I surmise.
HANDLEY Yes, and merry-go-rounds, you hounds.
CECIL There’ll be side-shows, Mose –
CLAUDE Aye, and fan-dancers, Francis.
HANDLEY You’ll see many a worse ‘un Sandy Macpherson.
CECIL Then we’ll have a dekko Sir Echo.
CLAUDE We’ll have a penn’orth Sir Kenneth.
HANDLEY Yes, you’ll get a shock Sir Cock – now away you go.
ITMA mercilessly attacked officialdom and officiousness, the Office of Twerps, and the opposing axis powers through the absurdly sinister and creepy voiced Funf character. It was a trend that was continued by Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch’s Much Binding in the Marsh (1944 -54), which subverted and stretched the conventions of radio comedy in what started as a complaint against Royal Air Force (RAF) bureaucracy. The word ‘binding’ being RAF slang for complaining. Like, Kavanagh they were habitués of the Fitzroy Tavern and the BBC pub, the George Inn, at 55 Great Portland Place, where they mixed with other actors, poets, radio producers, musicians and composers. After the Second World War, these pubs and those in between in Fitzrovia and Soho were not only places to socialise but also to find work and develop new literary and comedic ideas. For example, the main instigator and creative force behind Kenneth Horne’s Beyond Our Ken (1958-64) and Round The Horne (1965-68), Marty Feldman, lived in Soho Square in 1949, and was encouraged to write poetry and comedy by Dylan Thomas. Ted Kavanagh and Thomas were also associates and planned to write film scripts together in spring 1951. Feldman followed the bohemian path to Paris where he became immersed in existentialism. He returned to Soho intent on becoming a scriptwriter. Like Milligan, he would later read poems in his television comedy programmes as another layer of absurdist self-revelation. Milligan also presented Muses With Milligan, a poetry and jazz television series in 1964. Feldman and Milligan famously worked together on the award winning Marty Feldman Comedy Machine in 1971 where the visual comedy in sketches such as the Auto Mechanic, the Bomb Squad and Undertaker are clearly existentialist. The absurdist and existential writing of self-educated bohemians such as Milligan and Feldman should be distinguished from the early Sixties satire boom that was largely written by Oxbridge educated public school boys inspired by The Goons. Incidentally, J.H. Prynne features Kenneth Horne in his poem ‘Viva Ken’ (Collected Poems 2005 p.154).
Written by Spike Milligan against the backdrop of the atom bomb, the Cold War and a post-War Britain of shortages and Imperial illusions, The Goons subverted the language of authority, bureaucracy and the military with funny voices, broken and interrupted narratives and a private vocabulary of new words, army slang, grunts, squeals, giggles and a wide range of bizarre sound effects. It was a comedy that employed sound poetry and absurdist humour in quick-fire avalanches of associated word play. This can be read as a comedic equivalent to poetic enjambment and juxtaposition. It is widely read as surrealistic as the scripts are multi-layered where each line is an event often involving more than one intention and meaning and conventional narrative is subverted by elision, the intrusion of extraneous concerns and sidetracks that become dominant.
Both Raworth’s poetry and The Goons employ fast, free form word play.
thanks (Collected Poems p.138)
Marley is dead.
No, I’m not.
Yes you are.
(Goon Show A Christmas Carol 24 December 1959)
It is not just the speed that is similar but it is also the freedom of association and disassociation that enables Raworth and Milligan to explore beyond or disrupt any simple narrative. Both are quickly distracted and move on to the next thing. There is more than a possibility that different voices may be present in each line. They wander off in and around absurdity and use quick-fire humour to mask an anger and disgust at what they observe. The comedy has its roots in protest. They are both surely pushing the bounds of their art form.
In the Goon Show Call Of The West 20 January 1959, the script purports to be a television western on ‘your radio screen’ where the sound effects call for ‘the whole audience [to] scream and run for the exits’. The first narrator unable to read more than ‘The Pling-plang toof noppity nippity noo, plita. Omnivirous, plethora. Platty plong plong to te to ti tue … fnit, poll. Tong, tang ting, putt putt …’ stops and says ‘I say, I can’t read this rubbish I … Ooo!’ and is killed off. His falling in the water receives the riposte from Seagoon, ‘Yes sonny, it’s a tradition among drowning men’, who takes up the narrative. Milligan uses Seagoon in the next line to attack the myth of America as the ‘land of plenty’ and has him hit a bum. The con man Grytpype-Thynne and his downtrodden sidekick Moriarty, who is also heading west and wants to be let of a ‘retired wooden fish-crate’, join him in the next line.
Raworth’s Act (1973) contains poems that could have been written by Milligan’s character, Eccles. Raworth and Milligan’s comedy of disjunction and fast flowing word association are joyful explorations from the constraints of a coherent self. Both excel at blurring the boundaries between one voice and another, one narrative and another, and cut across their own work with drawings and asides as if their work were boundless.
Surgical Names: John
every home has a sharp knife where’s the sharp knife? you had it in the garden
(Collected Poems p.93)
Surgical Names: Frank
heads tails (Collected Poems p.95)
the albatross drawer this is the drawer where we keep the albatrosses
(Collected Poems p.97)
Each line and sound in The Goons has an event that forces the action forward and outwards to an extreme of language use or an irreverent joke or both.
Here’s some more from Call Of The West 20 January 1959:
GRAMS: NIGHT. DISTANT CRICKETS.
DISTANT HOWL OF A PRAIRIE
SEAGOON I say, will those prairie dogs never
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE They’re always howling, no trees
SEAGOON Listeners who recognise that gag
please keep their traps shut …
Well, I’m going to bed …
GRAMS: GREAT SQUEAKING AND
COMPRESSING OF BED
SEAGOON Eighteen-stone, gad I’m a heavy
MORIATY (muffled) Let me outtt …
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE Shh, quiet in that crate.
MORIATY Is it night or day?
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE Fool … that sort of thing is only for
MORIATY Let me out.
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE I’ll let you out, when you’ve made
enough saxophones to sell to the
Raworth is in essence the poetic equivalent of Spike Milligan. Both are easily distracted with continual tangents off any perceived narrative. In both cases rhythms weave in and through a series of narrative selves that are primarily mechanisms of forward movement. This is particularly evident in Raworth’s long thin poems, most notably Ace (1974) and Writing (1982). The poems are a natural development from earlier work, such as Act (1973) and The Mask (1976). Here, as in Olson’s dictum that ‘One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception’, the poems incorporate a wider range of perceptions, from overheard conversations, bits of autobiography, references to new technology and scientific equipment, pop lyrics to more discursive materials and are more fragmentary.
Here are two extracts from the Science section of Writing (1982):
science is as interesting as poetry said the fascist insect preying in the mud carried from place to place by wheel. science stands back while history siesta’d
do you think this is really how it happened mister swindley why Pasteur tried cleaner air how vain our comfy knowledge
not as they say as you say anything for publicity ‘if a sucker don’t want to be capital punished they shouldn’t put the death penalty on him’ (Collected Poems pp. 262-63)
My experience of listening to Ace and Writing and other poems read at Birkbeck College, London in May 2003, was not unlike listening to The Goons. The poems are read in performance as quickly as the eye falls upon the word. Members of the audience laughed at odd times as the sudden jokes and quirky word play of the narratives filtered through. I recall Will Rowe, the presenter, mentioning the half time break and Raworth joking, ‘You can have a break whenever you want’ and members of the audience following the reading with copies of the Collected Poems losing their way and sitting back with wide grins. It was a joyous and celebratory occasion. Raworth is adept, like Milligan in his use of gags, at placing a deft two-liner when the reader / listener may be lagging behind the speedy narrative.
put your money where your eyes are (Collected Poems p. 264)
‘have you a headache?’ ‘no I’m looking out of my right eye’ (Collected Poems p. 301)
Both Raworth and Milligan ultimately register the primacy of the act of writing and employ similar fragmentary approaches involving forms of erasure, omission, unexpected layering and movements off and unprecedented levels of energy.