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Contemporary Literature 47.2 (2006) 170-206

Carry on, England:
Tom Raworth's "West Wind," Intuition, and Neo-Avant-Garde Poetics
Brian M. Reed
University of Washington

Introducing "West Wind"

While studying at Essex University, Tom Raworth published several volumes of experimental verse, among them The Big Green Day (1968), Lion Lion (1970), and Moving (1971). His poetry of these years, Peter Middleton asserts, represents "the purest product of sixties culture that appeared in Britain" (14). It features a "good-natured and articulate incomprehensibility" redolent of the era's counterculture, which sincerely if naively tended to presume that "a revolution capable of overthrowing the capitalist state was imminent" (14–15). 1

Times change, as do authors. After completing his M.A., Raworth lived abroad until 1977. He returned to England to take the position of visiting poet-in-residence at King's College, Cambridge. In his absence, United Kingdom politics had taken a turn toward the dire. James Callaghan's Labour government was engaged in a slow, painful process of self-destruction. A bitter series of strikes and disputes in late 1978—the infamous "Winter of Discontent"—was followed by a vote of no confidence in March 1979. In May, in the [End Page 170] largest reversal of power since 1945, the Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, won a 45-seat majority in Parliament. The new government set about privatizing state-owned industries; reducing public expenditure on education, health care, and housing; and implementing legal restrictions on unions.

Initially, Thatcher's policies were quite unpopular. Unemployment doubled. Inflation reached 20 percent. Thatcher would likely have lost the general election in 1983 if not for the Falkland Islands War. The fervent British nationalism provoked by Argentina's 1982 invasion of the South Atlantic colonial outpost guaranteed Thatcher an electoral landslide. 2 She increased her parliamentary majority to 144 seats, and with renewed vigor pursued what Robert Sheppard calls a "state-directed withering away of the state" of a sort never envisioned by Karl Marx ("Whose Lives" 193).

During 1982–83, Raworth wrote the long poem "West Wind," which speaks out vigorously against the zeitgeist:

we are pieces of percentages
. . . . . .
for credit
is as far
as machines
can trust
what you own
and what you'll earn

(Collected Poems 361)

Raworth's depiction of the prime minister is particularly harsh. Perhaps recollecting Neville Chamberlain's umbrella, he unflatteringly refers to her by the name of another accessory, her "handbag" ("a handbag / strutting between uniforms / such slow false tears" [360]; "the poor / said handbag / are lucky to be alive / breathing my air / contributing nothing / to profit" [372]). He denounces as deluded the widespread support for her efforts to "restore / our [End Page 171] former glory"; her economic policies, after all, will necessarily reduce the majority of her enthusiastic followers to "a global servant class / too poor / to see the crown jewels" (374).

Raworth's political commentary made "West Wind" "a kind of anthem of resistance" in the mid-1980s and won him many admirers among younger poets (Sheppard, "Whose Lives" 199). "West Wind," though, does not resemble the better known, more aggressively vernacular protest poetry found in Linton Kwesi Johnson's Inglan Is a Bitch (1980) and Tony Harrison's v. (1985). Its grammar is often unparsable. Punctuation, other than a few question and quotation marks, is spotty to nonexistent. The verses are interrupted by curious doodle-drawings. There is no clear sequence of events, no consistent speaking voice, and no sustained cumulative argument. One could say that Raworth persists in the "articulate incomprehensibility" characteristic of his sixties verse, albeit shorn of its prepossessing, genial whimsy (Middleton 15).

So much has happened since Margaret Thatcher's 1983 reelection—the Poll Tax, the Treaty on European Union, the fall of John Major, the rise of New Labour, the death of Princess Diana, two wars in Iraq—that Raworth's outrage can seem quaintly dated. There are, however, important disciplinary reasons for this glance backward. Until recently, a handful of renowned figures—among them Philip Larkin...


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