On Raworth's Sonnets

Article excerpt

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s the major project of the British poet Tom Raworth was a series of sonnet sequences, whose main sections have been published as Sentenced to Death (1987), Eternal Sections (1993), and Survival (1994). My intention here is to elaborate some commentary on this project in the form of loosely thematic readings, in which I try to draw out and explore patterns of image and idea that can contribute to my and others' understanding of these poems. If the context were a poetry more obviously discursive or settled than Raworth's this might sound like an unexceptionable project; but such a task might seem both difficult and beside the point in relation to a poetry that destabilizes ideas of unitary meaning, of "content" of a poem's being "about" something. To give a sense of the style of these poems, and the challenges they pose to conventions of interpretation and commentary, I'll quote one sonnet (I am using the word loosely: the poems are 14 lines long, but they are not conventionall y metrical nor do they feature regular rhyme). Here is the opening poem of Eternal Sections:

in black tunics, middle-aged

in the stationery store

every gesture, even

food: to it

thought which breaks

stereotypes which constitute

extenuated to the point

none of the action's promoters

the user experiences

no need of acting

dedicated to commerce

the history of our own

stiffness of manner

no longer aligned

How might one discuss poetry like this, at once so elusive and shifting, yet strangely familiar in its collage of recognizable idioms and situations? The poem's phrases are unpredictably choppy or continuous, and sometimes seem assembled according to shape rather than sense. (Note, for instance, the parallel constructions involving "which' "no/none' "in," and "of"; or the near mirror-image of "every" and "even" in line 3.) Yet the poem does tempt interpretation: its wry allusions to "thought" and "stereotypes" glance self-reflexively at the very acts of thinking and writing, and the last line points to the poems own realignment of once-familiar phrases. But it would seem that any act of "close reading"--of "reading for content"--would either be wilfully synthetic or merely document the trace of private associations (mine) that are both unstable and of doubtful value to another reader. So before moving to some commentary on the poetry, I want to frame that commentary by sketching in some of the concerns about contemporary poetry, and the way one talks about it, that acts of close reading might speak to.

In proportion to the length of Raworth's career and the evident importance of his work to several generations of poets from the UK, North America, and Europe, there has been remarkably little substantial criticism about his poetry: I'd count about half a dozen articles once one discounts brief reviews. I would guess that this critical lack is due to the poetry's elusiveness, and also to Raworth's characteristic unwillingness to frame his work with the trappings of commentary, poetics statements, interviews, and critical appreciations of other writers that give critics some obvious purchase on the work. During the composition of the original version of this paper for a talk, I discussed my project with a number of my correspondents; quite a few admitted that they admired Raworth's work but couldn't really say much about it. I'll quote one:

Raworth wd certainly be worth having a shot at; it's certainly true that for all folks tend to regard him as the bees knees...very few people have much to say about him. & he of course doesn't invite it--is thoroughly resistant in fact. Not that he'd mind folks doing it I think; just that he's not going to spend time saying or writing things to make the task easier. Am caught in the same dilemma myself: I like much of the work (prefer 1 think to hear him read than work with the text) but don't have much to say really. …