January 30, 2017

British poet Tom Raworth is dying


Tom Raworth, indulging in some prop comedy for a reading at UC Berkeley

In a note that sent waves of sadness across international poetry communities, British writer and visual artist Tom Raworth, seventy-eight, has announced that he is dying.

Raworth’s had a tough year, losing friends including major American poets like Ted Greenwald, Ray DiPalma, and David Meltzer, and has been pretty public about his ongoing cancer treatments. Still, many were caught off-guard by a final note posted to his blog last Monday, in which he wrote, “Please suspend any donations. Last Friday after two days of tests, scans, bone-marrow extraction and so on, our Doctor came in the evening to say the cancer had badly metastasized… to bone marrow, liver, right lung, kidney and small bowel. Nothing to be done except palliative care and that I had at most two weeks to live. So that’s it. I can’t see I shall ever get back here.”

The author of more than forty books, Raworth is often associated with the British Poetry Revival, a loose grouping of writers who might be called “postmodern,” and who bear comparison with the stateside New American Poetry scenes. In 1965, after teaching himself to set type while working as a phone operator, he co-founded the Goliard Press, which he ran for two years before Jonathan Cape acquired it, sending him back to school. He doesn’t seem to have liked it, but he got a master’s in translation. Things he does like include vegetable soup with lots of pepper and Jamaican hot sauce.

Raworth has spent his career being unapologetically radical in his politics, unapologetically hilarious in his manner, and unapologetically complex in his poetics. He has been a particularly transatlantic writer, living in the US for several years in the seventies, and publishing, with Goliard, Charles Olson’s first writing to appear in the UK. He’s particularly beloved for the spicy collages in his annual Christmas cards, which poets all over the world await gleefully every December.

His poetry is, maybe above all, provocative, upending readers’ expectations about how a text should operate, and inviting a level of interpretive participation that pushes the poet, the text, and the audience toward equality as co-partners in making it. Writers have characterized his work by its “laconic egolessness” (Geoff Ward); its speed, “half-emotional, like someone laughing at his own joke while he is telling it” (Fanny Howe); its “tragedian’s sense of the comic as one of life’s fated inevitabilities” (Lyn Hejinian).

In his poem “Horse Power,” Raworth writes:

black holes in the metaphor

lost my sense of fun
found it had met death
observed it with pauses
was lonely and attached

all hands on time observe
the symbols     wearing away
a woman singing     new york
thank you distracters

her slowness extends not out but in
she licks her plate
lamps instantly chosen music
death in a pattern by diamond

try to not feel interference
mein mind has nozzink to do
when i think blue
that is all i have to do

Tom Raworth’s energetic and wonderful poetry will be around for a long time, and his sweet and hilarious presence will be missed by fortunate admirers around the world. Much of his writing—including full pdf books and audio and video of readings—can be found at SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center. Fans and friends can get messages to him via his wife of many years, Valaire, at val.raworth [at] gmail. We wish him the greatest peace as he prepares for his journey, and offer gratitude for his marvelous poems and visual art, and his example of a life illuminatingly lived.

As he put it in the final words of his farewell blog post, “Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run.”



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.