Filling The Space With Trace:
Tom Raworth’s â€œLetters From Yaddoâ€
Published in The Gig, issues 13-14 (May 2003): 130-44.
–The more formless I try to be, the more objects push themselves into a shape.
–Yes, the wheel turns full circle: but the flaw in the rim touches the ground each time in a different place.
â€œLetters from Yaddo,â€ the first text in Visible Shivers (Oakland: O Books, 1987), was written in April-May 1971 when Tom Raworth was on fellowship at the Yaddo writersâ€™ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The piece was originally to be published by Frontier Press in a book called Cancer, together with the two texts â€œLogbookâ€ and â€œNotebook.â€ But Cancer never materialized, and the appearance of â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ was delayed for some fifteen years. In Visible Shivers, the unpaginated (34-page) text of â€œLettersâ€ is followed by a twenty-five page set of shorter poems and the sonnet sequence â€œSentenced to Death,â€ both from the mid-eighties. Meanwhile the aphoristic â€œNotebookâ€ had appeared in David Levi-Straussâ€™s journal Acts (#5,1985), and Logbook, one of Raworthâ€™s most intricate and carefully structured sequencesâ€”a poetics in the form of a parodic travel narrative–was published in 1976 by Poltroon Press in Berkeley.
Given this publication history, it is not surprising that â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ seems to have fallen through the cracks: it is little known, even among Raworthâ€™s admirers. Perhaps genre has been a stumbling block. The title and standard letter format place â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ in the tradition of such short volumes of correspondence as Charles Olsonâ€™s Letters for Origin. But whereas Olsonâ€™s letters, however wild their typography and syntax, are written to convey particular information, ideas, and desires to their recipient Cid Corman, â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ subordinates conversation with Ed Dorn to the intricate collage structure of what is essentially a poetic text. â€œLettersâ€ incorporates poems and found texts from various decades; it includes letters from Tomâ€™s father and son as well as documentary fragments like the legends on the photographs found in a nest of drawers in the main house at Yaddo (pp. 17-18). The narrative itself, moreover, moves imperceptibly from sober reportage to hyperreal list-making, from expository comment to dream sequence and complex time shift, where visual memory and present sound are interlaced. The text has passages as oblique and â€œdifficultâ€ as those in Writing or Ace, but on the whole, the sequence is surprisingly readableâ€”even suspenseful. As such, it may be a good place to begin to understand Raworthâ€™s highly individual poetic ethos.
I want to begin with the final pages of â€œLetters from Yaddo,â€ which describe, in the third person, Raworthâ€™s own experience of undergoing open-heart surgery, performed to repair the hole in his heart (actually atrial septal defect).  We know from an earlier incident that when, in 1955, at the age of seventeen, the poet tried to enlist in the armed forces, he learned that he had been born with â€œa hole in [his] heartâ€ (21). Indeed, there are oblique references throughout the text to that hole and to the accompanying leakage of the heart valve. In the original Cancer manuscript, â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ had as its epigraph a sentence taken from Edward Crankshawâ€™s much cited â€œInterview with Maoâ€: â€œHe was, he said, just a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella.â€
Cardiac arrhythmia, moreover, plays a role, not only thematically but formally. The dislocation of rhythm is hardly unique to Tom Raworthâ€”indeed it is a staple of experimental poetries today– but in comparison to the rhythmic units of, say, Bruce Andrews or Steve McCaffery, Raworthâ€™s starts and stops connote a curious breathlessness, as in
blur blurÂ Â Â Â Â Â blur blur
whatâ€™s whatâ€™s that that!!Â Â Â Â Â Â Oh oh
crew crew (17)
And even Raworthâ€™s prose sentences are unusually short, as if they need to catch their breath. Here is the open-heart surgery passage:
He is dressed in a white gown and lies on a trolley being wheeled along a corridor. He is drowsy. Outside the operating theatre the trolley stops, and a doctor in green overalls with a green face-mask leans over and looks at him. He feels hands on his right arm, the chill of alcohol, the prick of a needle. A voice tells him to count backwards from 10. At once he feels wide awake, though his eyes are shut, and thinks â€˜this is taking a long time to workâ€™. As he thinks â€˜workâ€™ he opens his eyes. There is an enormous weight on his chest; he is inside an oxygen tent. Eight hours have passed and the operation is over. He runs the thought through again: â€˜this is taking a long time to workâ€™. He can see no break in it. He screams for them to take him out of the oxygen tentâ€”the clear plastic only a few inches from his face seems to be suffocating him. Two days later, when the nurse is out of the room, he forces himself out of bed and over to the table where, in a drawer, is his file. He reads how his heart was stopped, his blood pumped through a machine: how his breastbone was sawn in half, his heart stitched, his chest sewn up. He reads of the pints of blood poured into him, and how, at the end of the operation, after his heart had been re-started, it had stopped again, and how heâ€™d been given massive shots of adrenalin to bring him back to life. Nowhere can he find the key. (34)
These are the perceptions of a seventeen-year old patient, as retold by the survivor of the operation. now twice that age. But the retrospective account, searing as it is, cannot really convey what it was that happened. Here is the textâ€™s concluding paragraph:
I still run that thought through sometimes. Somewhere there must be a flaw in it. Somehow, I must find the weak point and snap it. Itâ€™s too perfect to be human. It tastes of technology. When I wrote â€˜I feel like an androidâ€™ I knew what I was writing. (34)
The â€œthoughtâ€ that Raworth still â€œruns throughâ€ (see line 9 above) is that â€œthis is taking a long time to work.â€ In his memory, this thought has continuity: indeed, it is all he remembers. For the operation itself is a total blank: it is not a part of the poetâ€™s experience. â€œSomewhere,â€ accordingly, there must be a flaw in it.â€ The â€œit,â€ may be the step-by-step account of the operation recorded in his file, on which he bases his own narrative. Or again it may be his memory, which has transformed the whole affair into someone elseâ€™s â€œstory.â€ Or â€œitâ€ may be the process of trying to remember just what happened. In any case, that story â€œtastes of technologyâ€ and can thus only be relayed in the third person. In Rimbaldian terms: not Je pense but On me pense, or Je est un autre. â€œWhen I wrote â€˜I feel like an androidâ€™ I knew what I was writing.â€
The inability to have access to oneâ€™s own experience colors much of Raworthâ€™s poetry. The opening pages of â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ explore this theme from a different angle. The sequence begins matter-of-factly, â€œDear Ed: sorry to have missed you when I called, but I was happy to hear Jenny [Edâ€™s wife] and to learn that you are all o.k. I got here yesterday on the bus from New York: now itâ€™s a bright spring morningâ€ (1). But then the flat diaristic style gives way to a â€œjoke poem,â€ written back home in Colchester, with the punning title â€œSonnet Dazeâ€:
I watch myself grow larger in her eyes
and clutch a yellow feather near its tip
as if to mark with ink that never dries
the yet uncharted voyage of my ship
those two flat images project and form
the looming solid that contains my mind
whilst independently the quill writes â€œwarmâ€
dreaming its tip still in the birdâ€™s behind
since those two stanzas many days have passed
now percy thrower speaks of roses on t.v.
morecambe and wise with full supporting cast
will soon be onâ€”I call for val to see
the fire is red the cat licks down her tail
i close my eyes and read the rest in braille
Englandâ€”the England still feeding on its Elizabethan heritage–Sir Thomas Wyattâ€™s â€œlover, [who] compareth his state to a ship in a perilous storm tossed on the sea,â€ and Sidneyâ€™s Astrophel, who woos his Stella, â€œbiting my trewand penâ€â€” is parodied in the poetâ€™s â€œuncharted voyage,â€ in which the â€œquillâ€ is â€œdreaming its tip still in the birdâ€™s behind.â€ By the third stanza, the Petrarchan tradition has given way to burlesque Romantic nostalgiaâ€”â€œsince those two stanzas many days have passedâ€â€”leaving the poet somewhere in the drab seventies TV world of Percy Throwerâ€™s gardening show and the Morecambe & Wise comedy hour.  The final rhyme â€œtailâ€/â€Brailleâ€ suggests that the only way to tolerate the Percy Throwers of the TV scene is to practice some form of sensory deprivation. So the poet closes his eyes and â€œread[s] the rest in braille,â€ which is to say that he tries to see what happens when we donâ€™t look at the screen but merely hear what is being said. To do this is to defamiliarize the talk of roses by means of a new language game.
Such sensory experimentation is central to Raworthâ€™s aesthetic: on the next page, he recalls an earlier moment when â€œtalking to someoneâ€”or, rather, listening to someone talkâ€ becomes a double exercise, first in â€œmaking mental notes of what was being said to write up laterâ€ and, conversely, in blocking out the talk so as â€œto catch the name of a record that was playing [on the radio] and the voice was drowning it out.â€ In a neat reversal in which background noise trumps individual speech, â€œI scribbled it all down as it was because I realised thatâ€™s what a writer is, and you can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the time.â€ And he adds the proviso that â€œiâ€™m not going to sublimate it by putting it into the mouths of â€˜charactersâ€™ . . . or/and letting them take over. if you canâ€™t give it straight, thereâ€™s no point in being a radioâ€ (p. 2). A few pages later, the poet adds, â€œFighting off â€˜charactersâ€™ is taking time. The words form themselves into speeches and project faces to say them. . . . Treacherous bastards Iâ€™m going to cork you in until you understand youâ€™re PLOT not CHARACTERâ€ (9)
This is an important statement of poetics. â€œCharacter,â€ for this poet, is always a threat because it posits a coherent, identifiable self, interacting with other such selves in a plausible fictional universe. For Raworth, it is fictionality that is the fictionâ€”the notion that one can write a novel that places identifiable characters in particular â€œplots,â€œ that one can create â€œcharacterâ€ out of the bits and pieces of overheard conversation, whether in the â€œrealâ€ world or on the radio. Realism, after all, is just a convention: the realistic narrative depends on a high degree of selectivity. â€œTo give it straight,â€ on the other hand, is to refuse to discriminate between fore and background. Like John Cageâ€™s Roaratorio, Raworthâ€™s is a construct where noise is just as important as the â€œinformationâ€ ostensibly conveyed. Fidelity to the actual texture of experience means sensitivity to the complex interplay of foreground and background, information and noise.
This is by no means to say, as many of Raworthâ€™s critics have complained, that the texts in question are merely non-sensical, that they have no â€œmeaning.â€ On the contrary, â€œyou can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the timeâ€ (2). The word truth crops up again and again. â€œIf itâ€™s done with truth and love,â€ we read in a slightly later letter, â€œand no wish to profit, in any sense, then it will take shape. The final thing I find in any art that moves me is the clear message â€˜there is no competition because I am myself and through that the wholeâ€™â€ (18). Each art work, once made, is uniquely itself. At the same time, the poet can never quite achieve what he wants to: â€œI look at the poems and they make a museum of fragments of truth. And they smell of vanity, like the hunterâ€™s trophies on the wall. . . . I have never reached the true centre, where art is pure politicsâ€ (22-23).
Art at its most uncompromising would be â€œpure politics,â€ the will to change oneâ€™s entire world. But this poet also knows that at the true centreâ€”his true centreâ€”there is that hole in the heart we read about throughout. To â€œgive it straightâ€ like a turned on radio, â€œyou can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the time.â€ It is in this context that we must understand Raworthâ€™s emphasis on minute literal description of his daily routine. Yaddo, the writersâ€™ colony, is a good site for the practice of self-discipline, for there are only so many options. Consider the following passage:
Iâ€™ve trained myself (now thatâ€™s a ridiculous phrase) during the
past week to wake at five to seven. At seven oâ€™clock I start running past the garage, down through the woods and around the lakes. I am back at the house at 7.15. I wash, make my bed, and walk to the garage building for breakfast. Each day I have a glass of orange juice, cornflakes with cold milk, two scrambled eggs and two cups of coffee. Then I leave any letters Iâ€™ve written in the basket by the door and collect any that have arrived. I walk back to the house, read the mail in my bedroom, go down to the kitchen to collect my lunchpail and thermos, then walk to my cabin. There I clean the ashes from the stove, light the first fire with the paper bags yesterdayâ€™s food was wrapped in (plus any scraps from my wastepaper basket) and some kindling from a cardboard carton. I then read my mail again, by which time the kindling has caught and I can put a couple of logs into the stove from the rack in the corner. I usually look out of the window for a while, at the trees and birds and squirrels. I crumple up whatever cake or cookie is in the lunchpail, and throw it out the door. Then I listen to the traffic for a while. I can just see the highway through the trees. After that I sweep the floor and write letters. At four oâ€™clock I take my lunch things back to the kitchen and read in my bedroom until five thirty, when I go down to the kitchen, make a drink, and take it into the library. Dinner is at six thirty. Back to the house at eight. Make some phone calls. Drink some more. Go to bed. At least thatâ€™s the theory. Well, weâ€™re all going to die, thatâ€™s for sure. Like the mouse that hasnâ€™t moved. (p. 20)
On the surface, such passages may look like exercises in self-revelation: hereâ€™s what Iâ€™ve done and what it means to me. But Raworthâ€™s â€œself-centerednessâ€ works the opposite way. â€œIâ€™m going on the vague assumption,â€ he remarks a few pages later, â€œthat if I can completely and correctly describe my self, then that self will wither and blow awayâ€ (30). But of course that cannot happen: the â€œself,â€ dispersed and dislocated as it may be at any one point, reappears at the interstices where actual letters received, overheard conversations, and remembered incidents, collaged together without comment, produce their own â€œnoise.â€ At the same time, as we saw in the story of the open-heart operation, the poetâ€™s own experience cannot be represented. His â€œcharacterâ€ too must be reconceived as â€œplot.â€ Thus, at points of stress, time shifts and prose often gives way to fragmentary lyric, as when contemplation of the inscription on the poetâ€™s yellow pencil– â€œTHINK AND SUGGESTâ€”STATE OF N.J.500â€â€”is juxtaposed to the notebook version of a poem written on April 1, before Tom came to Yaddo:
and almost round
the story of the three verbs
lightÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â timeÂ Â Â Â Â and space
isnâ€™t my coast
I am worn away by your kisses
god i was good
that you remember
After that last asterisk we move into the prose of â€œturning and turning and turning it is really scandalous how we jump up and down on the international date line. I follow the sunâ€”and they call them the backward nationsâ€ (3)
John Barrell has talked of the â€œrefusal of all affect,â€ in Raworthâ€™s poetry (performed orally, as it is by Raworth, at high speed with little change in emphasis)â€”â€œ a refusal which seems to offer the words of the poem as an empty succession of empty signs.â€  But when we remember the narratorâ€™s fear that â€œSomewhere there must be a flaw in it,â€ the fragmentary lines begin to fall into place. The shift from prose to verse, to begin with, represents a refusal, not of affect, but of continuity with the diaristic passage about â€œcharacterâ€ that precedes it. The minimalist couplets invert reader expectation: if something is â€œalmost round,â€ there might be a â€œvery profoundâ€ meaning at stake, but as an afterthought, the second line is absurd. Again, â€œthe story of the three verbs / light time and spaceâ€ has its own â€œflaw,â€ since this could just as well be the story of the three nouns â€œlight,â€ â€œtime,â€ and â€œspace,â€ and in any case, the items are not parallel. â€œTheir coast / isnâ€™t my coastâ€ is an overheard snatch of a larger conversation in which the principals argue about geographic preferences. The following tercet contains a pastiche of popular songâ€”â€œi am worn away by your kissesâ€â€”and plays on various meanings of â€œgoodâ€ and the sonic linking of â€œgoodâ€ and â€œgod.â€ â€œThat song / that you rememberâ€ then modulates into â€œturning and turning and turning,â€ which recalls both Yeatsâ€™s â€œTurning and turning in the widening gyreâ€ (â€œThe Second Comingâ€) and, closer to home, the song â€œTurn Turn, Turn,â€ recorded by the Byrds. Early British rock is a motif throughout: the notebook entry on the preceding page refers to â€œjimi hendrix castles made of sandâ€ as pointing to â€œthe separation of character and life.â€ Raworth now shifts to the Beatlesâ€”â€œI follow the sunâ€â€”and modulates into a droll send-up of the narcissism of British Pop, â€œanother pretentious English group / thinking the audience is a mirrorâ€ (4) . But â€œthat song that you rememberâ€ is also Raworthâ€™s own â€œsong,â€ which begins so tunefully and then makes the linguistic turn by contemplating such ordinary words as â€œthat.â€
By now we can understand how Raworthâ€™s poetic mode works. First, presentation must replace representation (â€œtoo perfect to be humanâ€); the â€œtruthâ€ of experience is always elusive. Hence continuity is always misleading: the present of Yaddo consistently gives way to incidents from the past, poems recorded in earlier notebooks, memories, allusions. Disconnected as these fragments, whether verse or prose, seem to be, they are by no means random or chaotic, for the same metonymic threads come up again and again, whether in the poetâ€™s past or his present, whether in pop song or Elizabethan sonnet. Thus when we come to a passage like â€œit is really scandalous how we jump up and down on the international date line,â€ we realize that the poetâ€™s own movements, memories, and tall tale, as recorded here, present precisely such a â€œjumping up and down,â€ there being, in fact, no way to get off that line and stay fixed in one familiar place.
â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ thus proceeds, not in any sort of linear fashion nor by the creation of â€œcharacter,â€ but by a â€œplotâ€ consisting of telling juxtapositions and displacements. Consider the passage on pp. 6-8 that begins with a Yaddo conversation, evidently over breakfast, with â€œa Korean novelist here named Kim whose eyes are good to look throughâ€:
He was telling how heâ€™d learned English from old movies. Like Shirley Templeâ€™s â€œYou have to ess em eye el ee/ to be aitch ay double-pee whyâ€. Then the first time he left Korea and landed in America he saw a newspaper with enormous headlines saying SHIRLEY TEMPLE DIVORCED and thought â€œOhhhhh . . . these people BLIND!â€ The only problem with the movies was that kissing was never shown, so the plots suddenly jumped.
Here again, the technique is to â€œgive it straightâ€ by refusing to make Kim any sort of â€œcharacterâ€: in using himself â€œin the most truthful way possible,â€ Raworth focuses, not on the individual but on the delicious absurdity and irrelevancy of discourse. â€œThe plot suddenly jumped,â€ as someone else in the room starts to talk about â€œan SDS girl saying, â€˜Communism good/ Capitalism is badâ€™ . . . . and a novelist from the South said â€˜What tahm of deh was it?â€ Oh . . . mahninâ€™ . . . . I thought it it was the ahfternoon she math hev bin hah on some o that marijooahnaâ€ (p. 6). One non-sequitur leads to another, the vapid conversation sending Tom, who had smoked his last joint before breakfast, right back to his cabin, where he writes picture postcards to his children.
From â€œliteraryâ€ conversation at Yaddo to the silence of Tomâ€™s cabin to another â€œliteraryâ€ document: this time a long letter to â€œTommyâ€ from the poetâ€™s father. This letter within a letter is perhaps the centerpieceâ€”or should I say â€œoffcenterpieceâ€? — of the sequence. For in the context, the â€œrealâ€ letter, with its reference to â€œrealâ€ people and incidents, seems more fantastic than the mock-Petrachan â€œSonnet Dazeâ€ or the gnomic â€œvery profound / and almost round.â€ It begins as follows:
Dear Tommy, Wherever you are when you read this, we hope all goes well. We were very pleased to get your letter, and it was kind to send the book so carefully packed (I almost threw away the letter written on the cardboard). We read it with interest (including the laudatory words on the back of the jacket) and hope it will add to your reputation. I shall try to get the Penguin book in May. There seems to have been a poetry explosion, and the resulting poeticised particles are too small for me to handle mentally with any satisfaction. Sometimes I seem to hover on the edge of a meaning to these minutiae of sensibility, but finally it eludes me. Perhaps it is a private world that I am not supposed to enter. A pity, because beauty does not lose by being shared.
And there follows the famous anecdote about Joyceâ€™s reprimand to his aunt upon her failure to respond to the gift of Ulysses.
Raworthâ€™s father is thus nothing if not learned, and the letter contains an almost unbearable mix of affection and alienation, of pride in Tommyâ€™s accomplishments offset by an inability to understand what those accomplishments might be. Father and son obviously see each other only rarely: later in the letter, the father notes that â€œWe scarcely recognised you from the photograph on the back of the book.â€ Tomâ€™s writing, moreover, from the covering letter written on the packing cardboard (which was almost thrown out), to the poems themselves, perceived by the father as so many â€œpoeticised particlesâ€ or â€œminutiae of sensibility,â€ clearly eludes the older manâ€™s grasp.
But this is not the familiar clichÃ© of bourgeois father unable to understand artist son. On the contrary, this father alludes not only to Joyceâ€™s Ulysses but also to Plato and to Plotinus in the Stephen McKenna translation much touted by Yeats, and he intriguingly tells Tom: â€œI must have been thinking about your poems when I went to bed last night, because I dreamed that you had explode Bridgesâ€™ â€˜London Snowâ€™ and I was trying to reconstruct it from the particles.â€ He seems to understand only too well that his sonâ€™s poetry represents some sort of â€œexplosionâ€ of the literary convention represented by Bridgesâ€™s poetry.
In his autobiographical essay for the GaleContemporary Authors series,  Raworth has commented on the pathos of his fatherâ€™s life. A very bookish boy, he was forced, by the accidental death of his own father, a dockworker, to leave school at fourteen and go to work. After various clerkships, Thomas Alfred Raworth became an editorial assistant on the Jesuit magazine The Month, where, as Raworth put it in a letter to me, â€œhis reading was catholic to start and Catholic to finishâ€:
After he died, I found things like the early Criterion appearances of sections of Finnegans Wake bound up…. Stein, the Imagists, all were there… then masses of theology, lives of the Saints. Inside a copy of the Knox translation of the Bible I found a letter to him from Knox thanking him for the list of typographical and other errors in his version he’d detected and listed. He could write equally well with either hand and, to my knowledge, had perfect recall of anything he read. That’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, I have no memory: just a mulch. I still (in storage) have a hand-written anthology of poetry he made for me when I was a child. 
The gap between the two literary worldsâ€”between that of the Catholic Month, with its maudlin late-Victorian locutions (â€œYour mother loves to look after the flowers, and I begin to think they love to see herâ€) and the post-post poetic world of Tom Raworth and Ed Dorn, is obliquely figured in the image, at the close of the letter, of â€œCarlyle [who] used to order a box of long clay pipes from Paisley and smoke a new one every day, putting the old one on the doorstep, before he went to bed, to be taken by who would.â€ Carlyleâ€™s pipes, smoked and discarded on the doorstep, have given way to the joints smoked by young Tom, who also leaves things on the doorstepâ€”stale cake crumbs for the birds and squirrels. Clearly, the literary son owes much to his literary father but the gap between the two is too wide to bridge. â€œI shall type the address in caps,â€ writes Tomâ€™s father, as I donâ€™t know if YADDO is the name of a person or a place or the initials of an organization.â€ And he signs his letter â€œMay God bless and direct you,â€ where â€œdirectâ€ must be the ultimate verb from which the son is prone to recoil.
Between the receipt of this letter and the publication of â€œLetters from Yaddo,â€œ both Mary Raworth nÃ©e Moore and Thomas Alfred Raworth died, she in 1983, he in 1986, when Visible Shivers was already in press. The book is dedicated to their memory. But the text itself makes no commentary on family relationships; rather, the next letter to Ed is conceived by the poet as â€œa cassette of winter 1947 (visual) with a sound track from 1971â€ (10). Actually, the â€œcassetteâ€ may be said to have three tracks: the first is a visual image of a sick child in a freezing room, whose mother and father are trying to comfort him with hot water bottles during a terrible cold spell. Returning to this passage once we have read the concluding account of Raworthâ€™s diagnosis and operation, we can see that even then he was suffering from his congenital defect, although no one seemed to know it. This visual track, in any case, intersects with a second visual one, recording terrifying dreams, whose time and location is not specified, particularly one in which the dreamer has lost all the money in his tin box (but is also the policeman who stole it) and has â€œdropped the key down a drain outside Kingâ€™s Cross Station.â€ And the third or sound track takes place in the present of Yaddo, Tom receiving a letter from his twelve-year-old son that reads in part:
I hope itâ€™s o.k. in America for you. If you see a Hellâ€™s Angel take a photo for me.â€
I have been out with Gaynor and the family to a cafÃ© and the waitress was hopeless; forgot everything. Saw a super funny cowboy film, began like this. Out in the west there are many cowboys. Some are good, some are bad. Some are bad with a bit of good in them, some are good with a bit of bad in them. This story is about some pretty good bad cowboys. See postcard. (p.11)
Ironically, the distance between Tom and this young enthusiast for Hellâ€™s Angels and cowboy flicks may be greater that that between Tom and his father. Accordingly, the world of dream and of memory take over: in the poemâ€™s present, Tom finds himself irrelevantly searching the Yaddo library for a â€œcollected Bridgesâ€ where he might â€œcheck on that â€˜London Snowâ€™ poemâ€ (12). And increasingly, as the â€œplotâ€ of Letters develops and Tom finds himself, especially after Mr. Kimâ€™s departure from Yaddo, â€œAdrift and alone . . . inside my headâ€ (17), the poet increasingly fixates on the world of his adolescence and youth.
This lower middle-class world of the 1950s and early 1960s, with its hectic rhythms, its jazz, drugs, and fashion-consciousness, contrasts sharply with the isolation and singularity of the present, in which the poet sometimes feels so anxious that he goes down to the main house and rummages through the drawers, finding old sepia pictures of â€œSnow-Crowned Popocatapetl and Ixtaccahuatl Guarding Cathedral, Puebla, Mexicoâ€â€ or â€œThe Flower of Venezuelaâ€™s Regular Armyâ€ (17). There is even, appropriately enough, picture depicting the slaughtering of the â€œfatted calfâ€ in the parable of the Prodigal Son. But if Tom is himself a Prodigal Son, the narrative of the fifties is made poignant by its very chronology. It is in 1954, a year before the discovery of the hole in his heart, that Tom and his friends sport narrow trousers and â€œslim-jim ties,â€ play hookey and go into Central London, where they eat huge meals at Lyonâ€™s Corner House and sip Manhattans, Side-Cars, and the other exotic cocktails of the 1950s. There is, as yet, no inkling of the future. The narrative now elides the hospital years and gives a hilarious account of Tomâ€™s job with the Continental and International Telephone exchange in 1964:
. . . I liked the job. Apart from the usual Civil Service shit, and the 200 different varieties of ticket to fill out for calls, you were left pretty much to yourself. I would â€˜accidentallyâ€™ disconnect people whose tone I didnâ€™t like or who were rude to me. Iâ€™d let girls phoning their soldier boyfriends in Germany for three minutes from a call box (over 10/-) talk for perhaps ten, instead of cutting them off. One Christmas I linked the East Berlin operator to the West Berlin operator (there was no direct link then) and left them connected all evening. (23).
Here Tom is already practicing what will be his poetic mode, the accidental â€œconnectâ€ and â€œdisconnectâ€ between overheard utterances that comes together to â€œfill the space with traceâ€ (p. 6). It is a poetic challenge that takes years of discipline. As a five-year-old, writing his first poem n 1943, Tom produced the â€œfollowing little lyric:
o what fun
to be a boy
and have a toy
i teach my soldiers to fight
and my lions to bite
o what fun
to be a boy
and have a toy (25)
This â€œcry from the heart,â€ to use Yeatsâ€™s phrase, is immediately deflated by Uncle Arthurâ€™s charge that young Tom must have copied his poem from somewhere:
â€œCopiedâ€ he said, continuing downstairs, â€œyou must have copied it from somewhere â€“you couldnâ€™t have written it.â€ The valves that blew out in my head then are still dead. I shine the torch around over them but they canâ€™t be repaired. I feel the wall under my hands, the roughness of the stippled distemper. I taste the powder in my mouth as I bite my nails and try to tell him â€œI DID write it!â€ And so I lose my faith in truth. (p. 25)
But the irony is that, in a larger sense, Tomâ€™s â€œo what fun / to be a boyâ€ is in fact â€œcopiedâ€â€”not from a particular poet but from the conventions of lyric mastered by the young at the time and taken as the law. When, on the contrary, the poet defies convention so as to â€œtell it straight,â€ as Tom does in the letter to Ed in which â€œo what funâ€ is embedded, he notes flatly, â€œItâ€™s so grey here. Five days of rain, mist in the mornings. . . . Trucks pass on the highway I can barely make out through the trees, but my chair vibrates.â€ And after recounting the quarrel as to the authenticity of his first poem, the poet sets down these lines (25:
timberÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â truckÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â vibrates
myÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â sÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â pine
is how Iâ€™d write it
now, I suppose.
Here is the aesthetic of reduction and paragrammaticality that animates Raworthâ€™s mature poetry. Indeed, the insistence that â€œI DID write it!â€ is precisely one that Raworth knows the poet must avoid in the move beyond individual ego. In Raworthâ€™s two-line passage, â€œtimberâ€ and truck,â€™ separate in the prose section above, come together phonemically, whereas â€œvibratesâ€ is now transferred from chair to truck. The detachment of â€œsâ€ from â€œspineâ€ gives us a tree to go with timber –â€œpineâ€– but the layout also makes it possible to read the passage as â€œmy trucks pine.â€ Poetry is not the linear â€œI teach my soldiers to fight / and my lions to biteâ€ but language construed as reflexive, multiple.
How this process works, is shown in the short poems reproduced on the next four pages. Here Raworth gives us a string of playful punning poems, culminating in
blurÂ Â Â Â Â Â blurÂ Â Â Â Â Â coming up fast
it overtakes him as they blend into the window
play with marked watches the set
is switched off the images deviateÂ Â Â Â Â Â life
goes on in the albumÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â for the record
our noises are off (p. 29)
If â€œthe set / is switched off,â€ how can â€œthe images that we first see as â€œblur blurâ€ and â€œblend into the window,â€ â€œdeviateâ€? Deviate from what? Well, in the punning â€œfor the record,â€ â€œlife / goes on in the album,â€ even though the â€œnoisesâ€ of the sound track are â€œoff.â€ But the passage also refers to sporting events, probably horse races (â€œblur blur coming up fast,â€) , in which those with â€œmarked watchesâ€ time the players. And there are a number of other ways of construing this dense lyric passage.
Lyric, I remarked earlier, oscillates throughout â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ with the sort of sober flat description of his room that Tom produces for Ed in his next letter.
I never did describe this room, though I gave you the measurements. The floor is wooden, painted grey, as is the skirting board. The walls and ceilings (high, pointed) are white. The door is in the centre of the wall to my right. It is wooden, stained, as are all the window frames. There is a window either side of the door, two windows in the wall opposite me, two in the wall to my left (between which is the stove), and four behind me. I sit at my desk, facing the centre of the room, on a wooden chair. Slightly behind me, to my left, is a tall metal lamp. Beside it are the log-rack and cardboard boxes of kindling. Between the kindling and the stove are a white metal and plastic chair and a bucket filled with ashes. The stove stands in a wooden tray full of sand, and there is a bent brown metal reflecting screen behind it. (pp. 31-32)
What is the point of this obsessive descriptionâ€”description that occurs again, now distanced by the third person pronoun, in the next paragraph which details the poetâ€™s cardiac catheterization, probably performed in 1956 in prepartion for the open-heart surgery? The first step in the search for â€œtruth,â€ Raworth suggests, is the close, patient observation found in the two passages in question. But, as we know from the final page, with its account of the operation itself, â€œSomewhere there must be a flaw in it. Somehow I must find the weak point and snap itâ€ (34). There is always a point when literal description breaks down, and ghosts people the scene â€œAs if all those who have been here have filled the space with traceâ€ (6).
One such ghost, as we have seen, is the poetâ€™s father, whose letter raises interesting questions about the status of realism. The text reproduces the real letter and yet, in the context of the poetâ€™s ruminations throughout, its â€œrealityâ€ often shades into the absurd as when Tomâ€™s father remarks that â€œValarie [Tomâ€™s wife Val], I expect, will be back in Colchester in time to cope with the census form,â€ or â€œYour mother is at present absorbed in Treasure island. She is truly omnivorousâ€ (7). Again, the father, mostly very down-to-earth, is given to pompous flowery locutions like â€œI am no hurry to exchange my lease of life for a freehold in eternity.â€ Even he, then, does not become a â€œcharacter,â€ a consistent, identifiable self. And in keeping with the shifting linguistic registers we find in this letter, the lyric poems refuse to â€œcohereâ€ in normal imagistic or syntactic ways.
The most surprising thing about â€œLetters from Yaddoâ€ is that they really are letters to be mailed and that they were really sent to Ed Dorn. Because â€œwe are the product of peopleâ€™s battles inside our headsâ€ (4), the letter do not serve as conduit from A to B; on the contrary, Edâ€™s chief role in this strange correspondence seems to be as stimulus to the poetâ€™s imagination. However complex the time shifts and the â€œcassettesâ€ where the visual track from one time period is spliced with the verbal track of another, Tomâ€™s assumption is that Ed will understand what he is saying. And so, the letter, one of the most traditional literary forms, becomes, curiously enough, a perfect vehicle for dense and oblique multi-vocal speculation. Even the final tale of the long-ago open-heart operation, never directly witnessed but always on the edge of Tomâ€™s consciousness, can be told. And the addresseeâ€”whether Ed or his double, the readerâ€”is drawn into the poetâ€™s circle by the consistent discrimination of alterity, of difference between one moment or one reaction and another. Yes, the wheel turns full circle: but the flaw in the rim touches the ground each time in a different placeâ€ (22).
 Tom Raworth, email to me, October 25, 2002. Raworth described his heart condition at length in response to a query I sent him, prompted by the fact that my husband Joseph K. Perloff founded the UCLA-Ahmanson Center for Congenital Heart Disease in Adults and has written the key textbooks in the field. It turned out that Raworth was treated in 1955 at the National Heart Hospital in London by Paul Wood, the great clinician in the field, and operated by Sir Russell Brock at the Brompton Infirmary in 1956; my husband may well have seen him in the clinic at the time.
Raworth is evidently the oldest living open-heart surgery survivor, treated in the UK in first round of heart operations conducted there in the fifties. The surgery for atrial septal defect (the most benign and common form of congenital heart disease), which then took eight hours to perform , is now no longer necessary: generally, the defective opening can be closed without subcutaneous incision.
 I owe this and much other incidental information about specifics of English culture in these years to Nate Dorward.
 John Barrell, â€œSubject and Sentence: The Poetry of Tom Raworth,â€ Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 386-409, see p. 393.
 Tom Raworth, Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series, 11 (Detroit: Gale Research Group, 1990),
 See email to me, Oct. 22, 2002. Ellipses are Raworthâ€™s.