With Tom Raworth’s death, the world of poetry, and of human intelligence in general, has become lesser. I am not alone in thinking him the finest British poet of his lifetime. For over five decades Tom’s work was a blazing light across the often murky path of British poetry. He was a friend to so many, gregarious and kind, in his person as well as his work on the page. He was a mentor to even more, including myself and many of a new generation of contemporary poets, who will see his legacy as a link between a positively historical period of invention and the maelstrom of our present time. Along with his work, he will also pass on a profound inheritance to those who knew him – while being deeply intellectual as a man, as subtle and complex as his poetry, he was utterly unpretentious, humble, admirably without patience for fools and hypocrites, and viewed common human decency as more important than anything else, including poetry.
Tom led an incredible life, publishing over 40 books, with his first The Relation Ship emerging in 1966. He spearheaded the British Poetry Revival with his unforgettable readings as well as his work with Goliard Press, which published Charles Olson’s first collection in the UK, amongst other now greats. He made a collectively vital impression on the new poetry of both Britain and America in the 60s. But this doesn’t really capture it. The prohibition and complacency readily celebrated in so many literary circles on these islands, along with his natural energy and openness to the world sent him into global recognition. He spent many years in the US and lived for a time in Mexico and Spain. He attended festivals to present his work everywhere from China to Macedonia. At a time when few looked beyond the UK, Tom was showing poets that something powerful and unique had emerged from the post-war scene. In fact it is in America that he found his due, not only in his deep friendships with poets like Ed Dorn and Anselm Hollo, but in a readership. I was once at a festival in central America and was asked by the audience which British poet was most important to me. When I replied with Tom’s name, the American poet Forrest Gander, with a smile on his face, shouted out ‘he’s ours.’ By rights, this is not entirely untrue. The feel of Tom’s Irish parentage, his class and his cosmopolitan outlook ebbing into his always inventive poetry left him at times profoundly underappreciated in the UK while celebrated in America. Certainly in the time I knew him, though he would have immediately spurned any haughty honour, it was unbelievable to me that he was not celebrated more in his home nation.
I am quite sure I am one of hundreds of young poets Tom befriended. I first contacted him very early in my writing, with immense naivety, just cold emailing him, to tell him how much his work meant to me. He had no reason to respond, and yet he did, not only with supportive words about my work, which he had clearly sought out and read in response to my clumsy missive, but then with an invitation to spend time with him and his wife Val in Brighton. That began a friendship which profoundly shaped, or certainly confirmed, my approach to being a poet. The last thing Tom really wanted to speak about was poetry, or so it felt. What we talked about was almost everything but. Over dinner, always laughing, amazingly hospitable, talking about crime novels or Game of Thrones, incidentally I was able to hear Tom and Val tell stories of their life, their friends, with poetry the route to these experiences, but not the subject of them. Poetry was a way into friendships, experiences, communities, and this in itself reflected back into the work. Tom’s poems are always alive to reality, in all their pace and fragmentation and mishearing and insight and beauty. I’d leave with long lists of poets to look up, not because Tom had recommended them, but because their names had been casually mentioned next to brief meetings with Octavio Paz in Mexico or William Burroughs in New York. What I really learned then was that there is sometimes a palpable connection between a kind of writing and a way of living, an ethics in poetics. It was a path being shown to me, knowing nothing, understanding so little, and Tom and Val seeing that, were helping me on. What I know now that Tom is gone, that he had passed on to me and so many others a responsibility to be kind, generous, to be communal and supportive, while always being critical and alive to bullshit, and to protect our work from pernicious collective normativity while building friendships around that task.
Hearing of his death, it feels to me now that we have been left to fend for ourselves, just for a moment, precisely when we need poets and people like Tom and all their wisdom. I wouldn’t want to presume, but I would imagine Tom would not have liked what I’ve written about him, finding it mawkish in its compliments. But his poetry, like his person, was not an assurance, or a correction. It was its own thing, shared for the purpose of being read and nothing more, correcting by example, inspiring new ideas and poems. Through its sheer intricacy, its intelligence, delicacy and humour, for my generation, his work has set a standard. So in both his manner and his poems Tom Raworth has left a palpable legacy, even a responsibility. When I asked him once for a blurb for one of my books that no one has really read or will ever read, he responded it was “doing the work that needs to be done.” What greater compliment can be given, in all its restraint? Following his example I should hope to live a long life, full of friends, full of writing, full of people as down to earth, charismatic, intellectually vigilant and warm hearted as Tom Raworth. He was a great poet, following his own path, and will be sorely missed.