|Tom Raworth, Gunnar Harding, Anselm Hollo
The Horse Hospital, London, April 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved
A Summit Of Joyful Old Savages – poets Anselm Hollo, Gunnar Harding, Tom Raworth and Andrei Codrescu
(The Horse Hospital, 18th April 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
‘We can’t sing, that’s why we write!’ Anselm Hollo’s humorous, self-deprecating aside, on behalf of this esteemed quartet of poets, encapsulated the spirit of this unique, intimate and joyful occasion.
Masterminded by poet and publisher Steven (SJ) Fowler, this was a gathering of four of the most significant poets of their generation, who made their initial mark in the early 60s, and continue to exert a profound influence on subsequent generations.
Gunnar Harding, originally an artist and jazz drummer, takes much of the credit for diverting the paths of Swedish and northern European poetry away from their historical preoccupations with nature. Anselm Hollo, Finnish born, resident in the USA after spending a few years in England, was introduced as ‘the greatest translator of the twentieth century’, whereupon he recounted that his fascination with language(s) extended to the challenges of translating from those he didn’t know to those he did! He is also holder of the coveted, subversive United States Anti-Laureate award for 2001.
Tom Raworth, whose recent reading with Thurston Moore at Café Oto had inspired my attendance, was introduced as our ‘greatest living poet’, and Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian exiled in the USA since the 60s, where he is an eminent literary broadcaster and teacher, was cast as an iconoclast and poet primarily involved in ‘recent social realism’.
Jazz is closely bound up with the experiences of all four, going back to the 60s. In the lively conversation and reminiscences which followed their individual readings, Tom Raworth recalled Michael Horowitz’s seminal 60s poetry, jazz and new music venture, New Departures, which spawned some of the most adventurous jazz performances of the time, as well as the eponymous, long-lived poetry journal. Andrei Codrescu commented that, for years, he’d enjoyed reading and performing on tour with jazz musicians, most recently with New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, then caused some light controversy when he claimed that jazz drummers were the musicians he found most difficult to work with, as they always moved things on too quickly and suggested that poets shouldn’t work with them! This prompted a defensive response from Gunnar Harding who’d started out as a jazz drummer himself in Sweden – with New Orleans outfits, as he told me after, which weren’t always the most flexible when it came to incorporating poetry in their performances! Harding also remarked that performing with musicians had made him a much better reader. Raworth added to this, saying that if he wrote something rhyming the musicians always liked it, especially if, like Steve Lacy with whom he’d performed, they were ‘avant-garde’. By the end of the evening Raworth had all but resolved to set up a poetry and jazz drumming event!
It was a moving experience to hear each of this venerable group read for about 20 minutes, bringing subtleties and intonations to their delivery of their own words, as well as irrepressible, often wicked wit.
Harding linked his presence at the Horse Hospital to his experiences as an army cavalryman, the subject of 1962 (K4 in Umeå) – ‘In the winter we dressed up as snow.’ He read from Tidewater, spinning threads of narrative, insight and imagination – ‘where the alphabet ends the universe begins’ … ‘free admission to the shores of forgetfulness’ – crediting Hollo for adding something extra in his translations.
Hollo pulled the listeners back to 1923 with his reading of William Carlos Williams’s exquisite Rose from the collection, Spring and All, which he noted as ‘one of the greatest documents of modernism’. Somewhat wistfully, he mused that ‘being a poet these days is a little like being a harmonica player … even Charles Olson has not been the same since the academics ate him!’ Pygmy Hut turned on ‘an instance of possibly creative mistakes’ where heavy [rain]drops made a ‘plopping sound’ as they ‘hit the poodles. Shouldn’t that be puddles? No … poodles’, a point picked up later by Codrescu, describing ‘mishearing’ as ‘an important poetic technique.’
Hollo dedicated his improbably titled poem, Or, to Hocus the Animals of the Pursuers by Changing their Dream Cassettes (old Thibetan Trick) to Tom Raworth, who recalled their first meeting at Camden Town Hall in January 1961. Raworth’s sharp, intensely pulsed delivery complemented his pithy, dense confections, which, with the economy of a haiku, can pull up short to leave the sense of his ideas ringing in the ears. His views on the present Poet Laureate were undisguised – one poem was so ‘slimy, sentimental’ that he was moved to respond in the only way he knew – a spirited Dadaist deconstruction – to make an anagram of every line. Astride the Palindrome was his bemused and irate reaction to the American Republican’s Palin phenomenon which he had witnessed at first hand in 2008.
Codrescu’s poetry is the vehicle for his wry, acerbic commentary. He is an admirer of Joel Dailey’s neo-mimeo publication, Fell Swoop, which he described as ‘the last remaining outpost of resistance to perfection’, a grass roots bastion against the alienation wrought by technology. He reminded us of the value of poet Ted Berrigan’s dictum, ‘to keep old hat in secret closet’, before his reading of Secrets, which began ‘In the 20th century people used to have secrets’, a chilling indictment of the Facebook generation, driven by its propensities to reveal all – ‘there are too few vices and too much competition, manufacturing secrets is big business now’.
As with the most challenging and rewarding jazz and new music, there is always resistance from the establishment, and Harding, in their conversation, laughingly remembered 12-hour, non-stop readings in protest against publishers not publishing poetry. At which point I came to the conclusion that poetry can be as exciting as music – with each, it has to be in the right hands.