Tom Raworth was born in London in 1938. His sixth birthday, he says, he spent making mice of candle wax in an air-raid shelter. After breaking off his schooling in 1954 he managed to get through by means of odd jobs. In 1970 he got an MA after completing his university course in the translation of literary texts which he had begun in 1967. From 1959 to 1967 he published the literary magazine ‘Outburst’. He founded the publishing company ‘Matrix Press’ and, together with Barry Hall, the ‘Goliard Press’. During the seventies he travelled, worked and lived in the USA and Mexico. From 1977 to 1978 he was ‘Poet in Residence’ at King’s College, Cambridge, where he has since been living with his family.
Straight away with the publication of his first volume of lyric poetry Tom Raworth succeeded in achieving a literary breakthrough: ‘The Relation Ship’ (1966) was awarded the ‘Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize’, at that time the highest honour in England for lyric poetry. Since 1966 he has published, besides translations, more than forty volumes of prose and lyric poetry in England, the USA, France and Italy. Raworth’s creativity is, however, not limited to writing: he has worked intensively with musicians, photographers and painters and set up performances together with other poets. Since 1984 there have also been exhibitions of his paintings, illustrations and collages almost every year.
The US-American poet Robert Creely has said of him: “Tom Raworth is that person who in England at the moment is for me really the most interesting. I am fascinated by what he does. He is an extraordinary poet.” Apparently it is the unique mixture of humour, tragedy, lightness, subversiveness and intellect which makes Raworth’s work so extraordinary.
This can be seen in ‘Tottering State’ (2000), the third edition of a selection of poems from the period 1963-1987. The forty-page poem ‘Writing’, for example, which is included in this volume, challenges the reader to combine the two columns into which the poem is divided throughout and which can, therefore, be varied endlessly. The actual poem created by the reader is a different one each time. The reading through changeable associations is at one with the act of ‘Writing’.
The driving force behind Raworth’s lyric poetry is the opposition against any form of artificial convention, even his own. This opposition, however, is neither a pose or a mannerism, but rather that which prevents any stagnation either in language or content: “as in the progress of art the aim is finally/to make rules the next generation can break more cleverly” (from: ‘South America’). With the English concept of “wit” one can best describe how Raworth’s lyric poetry goes about in a subversive and ironic way under-mining language and meaning.
In 2003, on his 65th birthday, his collected poems are due to appear – and yet Tom Raworth has no wish to be a “respectable poet”. He continues to avoid both using rather large publishing companies and also any contact with the established literary scene in England.
© international literature festival berlin