Filling The Space With Trace

Filling The Space With Trace:

Tom Raworth’s “Letters From Yaddo”

Marjorie Perloff

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.

“Letters from Yaddo,” 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 writers’ 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 “Logbook” and “Notebook.” But Cancer never materialized, and the appearance of “Letters from Yaddo” was delayed for some fifteen years. In Visible Shivers, the unpaginated (34-page) text of “Letters” is followed by a twenty-five page set of shorter poems and the sonnet sequence “Sentenced to Death,” both from the mid-eighties. Meanwhile the aphoristic “Notebook” had appeared in David Levi-Strauss’s journal Acts (#5,1985), and Logbook, one of Raworth’s most intricate and carefully structured sequences—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 “Letters from Yaddo” seems to have fallen through the cracks: it is little known, even among Raworth’s admirers. Perhaps genre has been a stumbling block. The title and standard letter format place “Letters from Yaddo” in the tradition of such short volumes of correspondence as Charles Olson’s Letters for Origin. But whereas Olson’s letters, however wild their typography and syntax, are written to convey particular information, ideas, and desires to their recipient Cid Corman, “Letters from Yaddo” subordinates conversation with Ed Dorn to the intricate collage structure of what is essentially a poetic text. “Letters” incorporates poems and found texts from various decades; it includes letters from Tom’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 “difficult” as those in Writing or Ace, but on the whole, the sequence is surprisingly readable—even suspenseful. As such, it may be a good place to begin to understand Raworth’s highly individual poetic ethos.

I want to begin with the final pages of “Letters from Yaddo,” which describe, in the third person, Raworth’s own experience of undergoing open-heart surgery, performed to repair the hole in his heart (actually atrial septal defect). [1] 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 “a hole in [his] heart” (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, “Letters from Yaddo” had as its epigraph a sentence taken from Edward Crankshaw’s much cited “Interview with Mao”: “He was, he said, just a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella.”

Cardiac arrhythmia, moreover, plays a role, not only thematically but formally. The dislocation of rhythm is hardly unique to Tom Raworth—indeed it is a staple of experimental poetries today– but in comparison to the rhythmic units of, say, Bruce Andrews or Steve McCaffery, Raworth’s starts and stops connote a curious breathlessness, as in

blur blur      blur blur

what’s what’s that that!!      Oh oh

crew crew (17)

And even Raworth’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 ‘this is taking a long time to work’. As he thinks ‘work’ 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: ‘this is taking a long time to work’. He can see no break in it. He screams for them to take him out of the oxygen tent—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 he’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 text’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. It’s too perfect to be human. It tastes of technology. When I wrote ‘I feel like an android’ I knew what I was writing. (34)

The “thought” that Raworth still “runs through” (see line 9 above) is that “this is taking a long time to work.” 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 poet’s experience. “Somewhere,” accordingly, there must be a flaw in it.” The “it,” 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 else’s “story.” Or “it” may be the process of trying to remember just what happened. In any case, that story “tastes of technology” 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. “When I wrote ‘I feel like an android’ I knew what I was writing.”

The inability to have access to one’s own experience colors much of Raworth’s poetry. The opening pages of “Letters from Yaddo” explore this theme from a different angle. The sequence begins matter-of-factly, “Dear Ed: sorry to have missed you when I called, but I was happy to hear Jenny [Ed’s wife] and to learn that you are all o.k. I got here yesterday on the bus from New York: now it’s a bright spring morning” (1). But then the flat diaristic style gives way to a “joke poem,” written back home in Colchester, with the punning title “Sonnet Daze”:

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 “warm”
dreaming its tip still in the bird’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 on—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

England—the England still feeding on its Elizabethan heritage–Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “lover, [who] compareth his state to a ship in a perilous storm tossed on the sea,” and Sidney’s Astrophel, who woos his Stella, “biting my trewand pen”— is parodied in the poet’s “uncharted voyage,” in which the “quill” is “dreaming its tip still in the bird’s behind.” By the third stanza, the Petrarchan tradition has given way to burlesque Romantic nostalgia—“since those two stanzas many days have passed”—leaving the poet somewhere in the drab seventies TV world of Percy Thrower’s gardening show and the Morecambe & Wise comedy hour. [2] The final rhyme “tail”/”Braille” 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 “read[s] the rest in braille,” which is to say that he tries to see what happens when we don’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 Raworth’s aesthetic: on the next page, he recalls an earlier moment when “talking to someone—or, rather, listening to someone talk” becomes a double exercise, first in “making mental notes of what was being said to write up later” and, conversely, in blocking out the talk so as “to catch the name of a record that was playing [on the radio] and the voice was drowning it out.” In a neat reversal in which background noise trumps individual speech, “I scribbled it all down as it was because I realised that’s what a writer is, and you can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the time.” And he adds the proviso that “i’m not going to sublimate it by putting it into the mouths of ‘characters’ . . . or/and letting them take over. if you can’t give it straight, there’s no point in being a radio” (p. 2). A few pages later, the poet adds, “Fighting off ‘characters’ is taking time. The words form themselves into speeches and project faces to say them. . . . Treacherous bastards I’m going to cork you in until you understand you’re PLOT not CHARACTER” (9)

This is an important statement of poetics. “Character,” 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 fiction—the notion that one can write a novel that places identifiable characters in particular “plots,“ that one can create “character” out of the bits and pieces of overheard conversation, whether in the “real” world or on the radio. Realism, after all, is just a convention: the realistic narrative depends on a high degree of selectivity. “To give it straight,” on the other hand, is to refuse to discriminate between fore and background. Like John Cage’s Roaratorio, Raworth’s is a construct where noise is just as important as the “information” 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 Raworth’s critics have complained, that the texts in question are merely non-sensical, that they have no “meaning.” On the contrary, “you can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the time” (2). The word truth crops up again and again. “If it’s done with truth and love,” we read in a slightly later letter, “and 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 ‘there is no competition because I am myself and through that the whole’” (18). Each art work, once made, is uniquely itself. At the same time, the poet can never quite achieve what he wants to: “I look at the poems and they make a museum of fragments of truth. And they smell of vanity, like the hunter’s trophies on the wall. . . . I have never reached the true centre, where art is pure politics” (22-23).

Art at its most uncompromising would be “pure politics,” the will to change one’s entire world. But this poet also knows that at the true centre—his true centre—there is that hole in the heart we read about throughout. To “give it straight” like a turned on radio, “you can only use yourself in the most truthful way possible at the time.” It is in this context that we must understand Raworth’s emphasis on minute literal description of his daily routine. Yaddo, the writers’ colony, is a good site for the practice of self-discipline, for there are only so many options. Consider the following passage:

I’ve trained myself (now that’s a ridiculous phrase) during the
past week to wake at five to seven. At seven o’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 I’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 yesterday’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 o’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 that’s the theory. Well, we’re all going to die, that’s for sure. Like the mouse that hasn’t moved. (p. 20)

On the surface, such passages may look like exercises in self-revelation: here’s what I’ve done and what it means to me. But Raworth’s “self-centeredness” works the opposite way. “I’m going on the vague assumption,” he remarks a few pages later, “that if I can completely and correctly describe my self, then that self will wither and blow away” (30). But of course that cannot happen: the “self,” 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 “noise.” At the same time, as we saw in the story of the open-heart operation, the poet’s own experience cannot be represented. His “character” too must be reconceived as “plot.” Thus, at points of stress, time shifts and prose often gives way to fragmentary lyric, as when contemplation of the inscription on the poet’s yellow pencil– “THINK AND SUGGEST—STATE OF N.J.500”—is juxtaposed to the notebook version of a poem written on April 1, before Tom came to Yaddo:

very profound
and almost round

the story of the three verbs
light       time      and space

their coast
isn’t my coast


good evening
I am worn away by your kisses
god i was good


that song
that you remember


After that last asterisk we move into the prose of “turning and turning and turning it is really scandalous how we jump up and down on the international date line. I follow the sun—and they call them the backward nations” (3)

John Barrell has talked of the “refusal of all affect,” in Raworth’s poetry (performed orally, as it is by Raworth, at high speed with little change in emphasis)—“ a refusal which seems to offer the words of the poem as an empty succession of empty signs.” [3] But when we remember the narrator’s fear that “Somewhere there must be a flaw in it,” 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 “character” that precedes it. The minimalist couplets invert reader expectation: if something is “almost round,” there might be a “very profound” meaning at stake, but as an afterthought, the second line is absurd. Again, “the story of the three verbs / light time and space” has its own “flaw,” since this could just as well be the story of the three nouns “light,” “time,” and “space,” and in any case, the items are not parallel. “Their coast / isn’t my coast” is an overheard snatch of a larger conversation in which the principals argue about geographic preferences. The following tercet contains a pastiche of popular song—“i am worn away by your kisses”—and plays on various meanings of “good” and the sonic linking of “good” and “god.” “That song / that you remember” then modulates into “turning and turning and turning,” which recalls both Yeats’s “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” (“The Second Coming”) and, closer to home, the song “Turn Turn, Turn,” recorded by the Byrds. Early British rock is a motif throughout: the notebook entry on the preceding page refers to “jimi hendrix castles made of sand” as pointing to “the separation of character and life.” Raworth now shifts to the Beatles—“I follow the sun”—and modulates into a droll send-up of the narcissism of British Pop, “another pretentious English group / thinking the audience is a mirror” (4) . But “that song that you remember” is also Raworth’s own “song,” which begins so tunefully and then makes the linguistic turn by contemplating such ordinary words as “that.”

By now we can understand how Raworth’s poetic mode works. First, presentation must replace representation (“too perfect to be human”); the “truth” 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 poet’s past or his present, whether in pop song or Elizabethan sonnet. Thus when we come to a passage like “it is really scandalous how we jump up and down on the international date line,” we realize that the poet’s own movements, memories, and tall tale, as recorded here, present precisely such a “jumping up and down,” there being, in fact, no way to get off that line and stay fixed in one familiar place.

“Letters from Yaddo” thus proceeds, not in any sort of linear fashion nor by the creation of “character,” but by a “plot” consisting of telling juxtapositions and displacements. Consider the passage on pp. 6-8 that begins with a Yaddo conversation, evidently over breakfast, with “a Korean novelist here named Kim whose eyes are good to look through”:

He was telling how he’d learned English from old movies. Like Shirley Temple’s “You have to ess em eye el ee/ to be aitch ay double-pee why”. Then the first time he left Korea and landed in America he saw a newspaper with enormous headlines saying SHIRLEY TEMPLE DIVORCED and thought “Ohhhhh . . . these people BLIND!” The only problem with the movies was that kissing was never shown, so the plots suddenly jumped.

Here again, the technique is to “give it straight” by refusing to make Kim any sort of “character”: in using himself “in the most truthful way possible,” Raworth focuses, not on the individual but on the delicious absurdity and irrelevancy of discourse. “The plot suddenly jumped,” as someone else in the room starts to talk about “an SDS girl saying, ‘Communism good/ Capitalism is bad’ . . . . and a novelist from the South said ‘What tahm of deh was it?” Oh . . . mahnin’ . . . . I thought it it was the ahfternoon she math hev bin hah on some o that marijooahna” (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 “literary” conversation at Yaddo to the silence of Tom’s cabin to another “literary” document: this time a long letter to “Tommy” from the poet’s father. This letter within a letter is perhaps the centerpiece—or should I say “offcenterpiece”? — of the sequence. For in the context, the “real” letter, with its reference to “real” people and incidents, seems more fantastic than the mock-Petrachan “Sonnet Daze” or the gnomic “very profound / and almost round.” 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 Joyce’s reprimand to his aunt upon her failure to respond to the gift of Ulysses.

Raworth’s father is thus nothing if not learned, and the letter contains an almost unbearable mix of affection and alienation, of pride in Tommy’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 “We scarcely recognised you from the photograph on the back of the book.” Tom’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 “poeticised particles” or “minutiae of sensibility,” clearly eludes the older man’s grasp.

But this is not the familiar cliché of bourgeois father unable to understand artist son. On the contrary, this father alludes not only to Joyce’s Ulysses but also to Plato and to Plotinus in the Stephen McKenna translation much touted by Yeats, and he intriguingly tells Tom: “I must have been thinking about your poems when I went to bed last night, because I dreamed that you had explode Bridges’ ‘London Snow’ and I was trying to reconstruct it from the particles.” He seems to understand only too well that his son’s poetry represents some sort of “explosion” of the literary convention represented by Bridges’s poetry.

In his autobiographical essay for the GaleContemporary Authors series, [4] Raworth has commented on the pathos of his father’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, “his reading was catholic to start and Catholic to finish”:

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. [5]

The gap between the two literary worlds—between that of the Catholic Month, with its maudlin late-Victorian locutions (“Your mother loves to look after the flowers, and I begin to think they love to see her”) 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 “Carlyle [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.” Carlyle’s pipes, smoked and discarded on the doorstep, have given way to the joints smoked by young Tom, who also leaves things on the doorstep—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. “I shall type the address in caps,” writes Tom’s father, as I don’t know if YADDO is the name of a person or a place or the initials of an organization.” And he signs his letter “May God bless and direct you,” where “direct” must be the ultimate verb from which the son is prone to recoil.

Between the receipt of this letter and the publication of “Letters from Yaddo,“ both Mary Raworth née 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 “a cassette of winter 1947 (visual) with a sound track from 1971” (10). Actually, the “cassette” 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 Raworth’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 “dropped the key down a drain outside King’s Cross Station.” 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 it’s o.k. in America for you. If you see a Hell’s Angel take a photo for me.”

I have been out with Gaynor and the family to a café 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 Hell’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 poem’s present, Tom finds himself irrelevantly searching the Yaddo library for a “collected Bridges” where he might “check on that ‘London Snow’ poem” (12). And increasingly, as the “plot” of Letters develops and Tom finds himself, especially after Mr. Kim’s departure from Yaddo, “Adrift and alone . . . inside my head” (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 “Snow-Crowned Popocatapetl and Ixtaccahuatl Guarding Cathedral, Puebla, Mexico”” or “The Flower of Venezuela’s Regular Army” (17). There is even, appropriately enough, picture depicting the slaughtering of the “fatted calf” 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 “slim-jim ties,” play hookey and go into Central London, where they eat huge meals at Lyon’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 Tom’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 ‘accidentally’ disconnect people whose tone I didn’t like or who were rude to me. I’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 “connect” and “disconnect” between overheard utterances that comes together to “fill the space with trace” (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 “following 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 “cry from the heart,” to use Yeats’s phrase, is immediately deflated by Uncle Arthur’s charge that young Tom must have copied his poem from somewhere:

“Copied” he said, continuing downstairs, “you must have copied it from somewhere –you couldn’t have written it.” The valves that blew out in my head then are still dead. I shine the torch around over them but they can’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 “I DID write it!” And so I lose my faith in truth. (p. 25)

But the irony is that, in a larger sense, Tom’s “o what fun / to be a boy” is in fact “copied”—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 “tell it straight,” as Tom does in the letter to Ed in which “o what fun” is embedded, he notes flatly, “It’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.” And after recounting the quarrel as to the authenticity of his first poem, the poet sets down these lines (25:

timber            truck             vibrates

my        s        pine

is how I’d write it

now, I suppose.

Here is the aesthetic of reduction and paragrammaticality that animates Raworth’s mature poetry. Indeed, the insistence that “I DID write it!” is precisely one that Raworth knows the poet must avoid in the move beyond individual ego. In Raworth’s two-line passage, “timber” and truck,’ separate in the prose section above, come together phonemically, whereas “vibrates” is now transferred from chair to truck. The detachment of “s” from “spine” gives us a tree to go with timber –“pine”– but the layout also makes it possible to read the passage as “my trucks pine.” Poetry is not the linear “I teach my soldiers to fight / and my lions to bite” 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

blur      blur      coming up fast
it overtakes him as they blend into the window
play with marked watches the set
is switched off the images deviate      life
goes on in the album                        for the record
our noises are off (p. 29)

If “the set / is switched off,” how can “the images that we first see as “blur blur” and “blend into the window,” “deviate”? Deviate from what? Well, in the punning “for the record,” “life / goes on in the album,” even though the “noises” of the sound track are “off.” But the passage also refers to sporting events, probably horse races (“blur blur coming up fast,”) , in which those with “marked watches” time the players. And there are a number of other ways of construing this dense lyric passage.

Lyric, I remarked earlier, oscillates throughout “Letters from Yaddo” 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 description—description that occurs again, now distanced by the third person pronoun, in the next paragraph which details the poet’s cardiac catheterization, probably performed in 1956 in prepartion for the open-heart surgery? The first step in the search for “truth,” 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, “Somewhere there must be a flaw in it. Somehow I must find the weak point and snap it” (34). There is always a point when literal description breaks down, and ghosts people the scene “As if all those who have been here have filled the space with trace” (6).

One such ghost, as we have seen, is the poet’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 poet’s ruminations throughout, its “reality” often shades into the absurd as when Tom’s father remarks that “Valarie [Tom’s wife Val], I expect, will be back in Colchester in time to cope with the census form,” or “Your mother is at present absorbed in Treasure island. She is truly omnivorous” (7). Again, the father, mostly very down-to-earth, is given to pompous flowery locutions like “I am no hurry to exchange my lease of life for a freehold in eternity.” Even he, then, does not become a “character,” a consistent, identifiable self. And in keeping with the shifting linguistic registers we find in this letter, the lyric poems refuse to “cohere” in normal imagistic or syntactic ways.

The most surprising thing about “Letters from Yaddo” is that they really are letters to be mailed and that they were really sent to Ed Dorn. Because “we are the product of people’s battles inside our heads” (4), the letter do not serve as conduit from A to B; on the contrary, Ed’s chief role in this strange correspondence seems to be as stimulus to the poet’s imagination. However complex the time shifts and the “cassettes” where the visual track from one time period is spliced with the verbal track of another, Tom’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 Tom’s consciousness, can be told. And the addressee—whether Ed or his double, the reader—is drawn into the poet’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 place” (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, “Subject and Sentence: The Poetry of Tom Raworth,” 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 Raworth’s.