There were a lot of memorials on Tom Raworth’s blog in his last months, news of the deaths of friends and acquaintances he’d known forever: Ken Lansdowne and Ted Greenwald, David Meltzer, Ray DiPalma, Bill Berkson. Tom never forgot, kept his companions close. It was hard to read these memorials knowing that Tom was very ill. He’d written a series of obits for The Independent beginning in the mid-nineties, and after he started his blog in 2004 it had that memorializing role, among others: publishing music he remembered or ran across, listing books received from around the world, lampooning current events, previewing poems, doodles and cartoons, relaying news of the birthdays of friends or about his remarkable family. Since he had so many friends, remembering them kept him busy. He was careful not only to remember them when noting their passing but also to offer news about them years after they’d gone, linking to a newly discovered film or photograph, or to an edition or archive. I’ve known few people as conscious of mortality, never fearfully but as a matter of fact. It kept him in the moment, living fast and without needless worry.
One of the obits Tom wrote for The Independent remembers his good friend Franco Beltrametti. It promises that Beltrametti’s writing and graphic art “will last however long words and objects do” and then admits a sadder reality: “his existence as catalyst, connector and correspondent is gone forever.” As I’ve heard from friends in the United States, Britain, and Ireland over the last weeks many of them have said something similar about Tom—we have lost the person whose work and correspondence most made us feel like we were part of something exciting and life-affirming that reached beyond our everyday precincts. Tom had met practically everyone, and in talking with him they were all somehow in the room, familiar spirits of a benevolent sort. The communities of practice and conversation he helped to thread together carried on work and play in sight of universities and other institutions of culture but existed independently of them, and welcomed the curious together with the adept to their festivals. SoundEye in Cork is foremost among these in my experience for sustaining work and interest in what was happening elsewhere regardless of the attention received from would-be arbiters of taste. Thus it seems doubly cruel, as some have suggested—Andrea Brady was the first, I think, in a tweet—that we should lose Tom as Brexit and Trump try to make us small and closed off. Tom was generous and open always, especially with young poets and students. One of the first tweets I saw after receiving news of his death was from Andrew Milam, who was part of a sprint workshop taught by Tom and cris cheek at Miami University in 2001. “A force in poetry has died. He changed my life. This one hurts,” Andrew wrote, and just like that I could see all of us assembled off-campus at the Buzz Coffeeshop in Oxford, Andrew playing for Tom his recording of a slow, reverb-heavy reading of Tom’s poems he’d made in his bathtub, in comic homage to Tom’s speed and precision of delivery.
Tom had no time for posturing or pretension, though the egos of poets amused him. It was a little stupid, really, to worry that your work is neglected, since anonymity is in many ways preferable. The idea that what is of interest or fashionable today has anything to do with what will be of interest later was laughable. He was direct and didn’t hesitate to speak his mind and despite that pissed off few people, so far as I know. He created constantly, as cris cheek remarked on Facebook. When in his last year he couldn’t assemble his collages owing to a decline in the fine motor skills required to arrange fragments of newspaper in tiny squares in a grid he started exploring options for pixel manipulation. Earlier, when it was difficult to get up and down the stairs in an oceanfront apartment in Brighton he started photographing the ocean and activity on the street below. And his photographs are marvelous. Walking is one of their best subjects, its postures and motions arrested. As with the collages that Norma Cole and Ben Watson have written about it’s worth thinking about them beside his poetry, with its interest in representing the temporalities of reading, writing, and embodied thought.
Tom’s approach to the book was influential, and of course he’d begun as a printer-publisher. He delighted in the smallest and most ephemeral of his publications produced by friends, or by young writers. I’m not sure anyone has put together and sustained a publication like his Infolio, a four-page literary and art magazine that appeared on a daily, weekly or biweekly basis from 1986 to 1991. For his larger, more representative, selected volumes he gave over editorial agency to others, to family and close friends and readers, most recently to Miles Champion for Carcanet’s As When. One of the books I treasure most is a self-published series of photographs of pedestrian traffic in Brighton, published in an edition of ten copies, put together as a gift for Matías Serra Bradford, Rob Rusk, and me, presumably because we’d mentioned that his photographs interested us, or there was an earlier shared interest in photography to acknowledge. Its cover image shows a cleaner and a few older women and men standing in a Brighton storefront, their eyes locked on a young woman confidently striding by talking on her cellphone.
I tried to write something about Tom’s work on several occasions, and I think he forgave my assumptions and errors, as he did the criticism of others so long as it wasn’t full of itself or too stiffly academic. Typos or printing errors in his own books bothered him—he was given to correcting them as he signed copies. The correspondence I had with him mostly wasn’t about his writing, however. He’d rather talk about his latest discovery in hot sauces. I remember driving out to Jungle Jim’s, a supermarket in these parts, to see if Suka Pinakurat from the Philippines was stocked there; it’s good on boiled potatoes, Tom said. He liked good gin too. Most of my exchanges with him in the last few years were like that. Once he sent along his son Bruno’s dip recipe with a pdf of a Soviet anti-religious poster he used for the cover of As When; he’s switched titles on the books the Russian soldier is carrying, Lenin and Technology to More and Stuff, as Brighton’s beach becomes the background. Now and then he would volunteer something potentially helpful as I tried to keep up, though his work was ever ahead of its reception and not only in my case. So I learned that the odd phrase “pop hen” in his little book Got On—one of his many great titles—was cut out of Klaus Conrad’s “apophenia,” which describes the human tendency to find patterns in random data, a phenomenon that interested him. Like every poet he was interested in what readers made of his poems (I remember him asking me to photocopy a review he hadn’t seen because “Val likes to see them”) but he didn’t obsess. Once he inscribed a book for me by citing remarks his friend Jeremy Prynne made about it in corresponding with him. In my copy of Writing he’s transformed the “g” in “Writing” with a sketch that makes it a rabbit wearing a bow tie, adding a candle for the rabbit to read by. As Martin Corless-Smith wrote just the other day in his lovely memorial, in reading Tom Raworth’s poems one “gets what one sees.”
Tom was a European, Dorn wrote in Vort, many years ago now. Since then the Irish have been happy to claim him, with his Irish mother, and Americans too for his engagement with our poetries and his years living here and travels from city to city. Of course he’s famously the one English poet in a French rendering of experimental American writing, and he had and has many friends in France too, together with good friends in South Africa, Canada, Mexico and just about everywhere, I guess. I liked to hear his stories about Venice, a city I also love, and where he and Val had a lot of good times with friends who like the rest of us are missing him now. I’ve heard a few people describe his last words on his blog, “Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run,” as a “very English” sign-off. He didn’t always have the same readership in England that he had in other locations, but he had the readers he needed.
It was a joy to meet Tom Raworth whenever and wherever that turned out to be possible, and ever a pleasure to hear from him. These are sorrowful days for his family and for all who knew him. His high spirits, his singular work in several art forms, his attention to detail in that work and in his friendships—we won’t forget.
February 27, 2017