restricted access 12. Filling the Space with Trace: Tom Raworth’s “Letters from Yaddo"
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In 2002 Nate Dorward, the young editor of a little magazine in Toronto called The Gig and an authority on contemporary British poetry, asked me to contribute to the special Tom Raworth issue he was assembling. I’ve always wanted to write more on Raworth, to my mind one of the most exciting but also most difficult of contemporary poets. I had a chance recently to review his Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2003) for the Times Literary Supplement and believed I was beginning to sort things out. For the Dorward collection, I chose a little-known Raworth text, “Letters from Yaddo,” an epistolary memoir (or, more accurately, anti-memoir) that opens up new possibilities for poetic prose. Unlike the “Concrete prose” of Haroldo de Campos or Rosmarie Waldrop, Raworth’s mode here is assemblage, his letters to Ed Dorn being constantly interrupted by “extraneous” material—some of it verse, some of it found text. Dorward turned out to be a most exacting editor. Draft 1 elicited thirty-five pages of e-mail commentary and correction, draft 2 another ten or so. Finally, Dorward felt I got it more or less right. Himself one of Raworth’s best readers, he certainly taught me a great deal about Raworth’s poetics. 12 Filling the Space with Trace Tom Raworth’s “Letters from Yaddo” The more formless I try to be, the more objects push themselves into a shape. Yes, the wheel turns full circle: but the ®aw in the rim touches the ground each time in a different place. Tom Raworth, “Letters from Yaddo” “Letters from Yaddo,” the ¤rst text in Visible Shivers,1 was written in April– May 1971 when Tom Raworth was on fellowship at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The piece was originally to be published by Frontier Press in a book called Cancer, together with the two texts “Logbook ” and “Notebook.” But Cancer never materialized, and the appearance of “Letters from Yaddo” was delayed for some ¤fteen years. In Visible Shivers the unpaginated (34–page) text of “Letters”is followed by a twenty-¤ve-page set of shorter poems and the sonnet sequence “Sentenced to Death,” both from the mid-eighties. Meanwhile, the aphoristic “Notebook” had appeared in David Levi-Strauss’s journal Acts (No. 5, 1985), and Logbook, one of Raworth ’s most intricate and carefully structured sequences—a poetics in the form of a parodic travel narrative—was published in 1976 by Poltroon Press in Berkeley. Giventhispublicationhistory, it is not surprising that “Letters from Yaddo” seems to have fallen through the cracks: it is little known, even among Raworth ’s admirers. Perhaps genre has been a stumbling block. The title and standard letter format place “Letters from Yaddo” in the tradition of such short volumes of correspondence as Charles Olson’s Letters for Origin. But whereas Olson’s letters, however wild their typography and syntax, are written to convey particular information, ideas, and desires to their recipient, Cid Corman, “Letters from Yaddo” subordinates conversation with Ed Dorn to the intricate collage structure of what is essentially a poetic text. “Letters” incorporates poems and found texts from various decades; it includes letters from Tom’s father and son as well as documentary fragments like the legends on the photographs found in a nest of drawers in the main house at Yaddo (Visible Shivers 17–18). The narrative itself, moreover, moves imperceptibly from sober reportage to hyperreal list making, from expository comment to dream sequence and complex time shift, where visual memory and present sound are interlaced. The text has passages as oblique and “dif¤cult”as those in the long poetic sequences Writing or Ace, but on the whole, “Letters from Yaddo” is surprisingly readable—even suspenseful. As such, it may be a good place to begin to understand Raworth’s highly individual poetic ethos. I want to begin with the ¤nal pages of “Letters from Yaddo,” which describe , in the third person, Raworth’s own experience of undergoing openheart surgery, performed to repair the hole in his heart (actually atrial septal defect).2 We know from an earlier incident that when, in 1955, at the age of seventeen the poet tried to enlist in the armed forces, he learned that he had been born with “a hole in [his] heart” (Visible Shivers 21). Indeed, there are oblique references throughout the text to that hole and to the accompanying leakage of the heart valve. In the original Cancer manuscript, “Letters from Yaddo” had as...


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