Poem of the Week: ‘Fits’ by Tom Raworth

Harry McNamara 21 January 2019
Image Credit: Gloria Graham via Wikimedia Commons

hole in the book

my tablet nestles in


The title of Raworth’s quick poem subscribes to a long tradition of poets concerned with the technology of their art form. T. S. Eliot articulates the processes of poetic construction in ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’: ‘when the words are finally arranged in the right way […] he may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable.’ ‘Fits’, read as a verb, expresses the inexplicable arrangement of words into something right in the simplest terms. That words may fit in their place is a plain, mechanical representation of Raworth’s project.

There is a more sinister alternative: a bodily fit. A fit is a temporary perversion of the body, a collapse of anatomical poise into a disturbing burst of movement. Perhaps the poetic project is disturbing in this way, an unnatural forced fitting of words together to express a feeling that is not syntactical. Eliot’s point of creative conclusion was ‘something very near annihilation’, and Raworth provides this destruction too; the poetic process is physical. Eliot in the same essay described the state of the poet ‘haunted by a demon, a demon against which he feels powerless […] and the words, the poem he makes, are a kind of exorcism of this demon.’ So Eliot too is wary of a darker procedure the poet undertakes. Note ‘the poem he makes’, not writes, keeping his theory technical, a creative product that is firmly material, disregarding the abstract, for a manual form, the product of physical exhaustion.

Beyond sinister suggestions, Raworth is playful. The brevity at first attempts to refuse pauses, it renders the conventions of punctuation redundant, unnecessary. Raworth read his work publicly regularly, and would deliver the poems with unconstrained urgency and speed. David Kauffman reports that when Raworth ‘gives his live readings, he runs roughshod over the line breaks, thus making it impossible for the reader to rest with what she has just heard.’ He appears to be trying to break something, to damage his forms, so that they are defined by their roughness. In tension with this though is the homophone behind ‘hole’ ringing out to share the completeness that the first reading of the title offers. That completeness is in antithetical tension with a deformed, holey book (and the definite article paired with book may invite a thought of another holy book).

The holes in the book appear influenced by the anxiety of creative inadequacy, which most of Geoffrey Hill’s work fusses over too. Hill’s work is helpfully read alongside Raworth; though the former poet is more difficult, more esoteric, their anxieties align at moments, with a mutually illuminating result. In the second of Hill’s ‘Three Baroque Meditations’, the project is depressive and difficult: ‘Flesh of abnegation: the poem / Moves grudgingly to its extreme form’. Hill draws from the language of poetry’s technology (‘refrain’, ‘form’, and ‘His sacramental mouth / That justified my flesh / And moved well among women / In nuances and imperatives.’ [my italics]) The poem ‘Moves grudgingly’, it has that industrial energy of sluggish movement that still works, that fits at last into the sinisterly destructive ‘extreme form’, and moves us the reader too. It does not care to move us though, it is begrudged, with mere apathy for the response of us its readers.

The second line of ‘Fits’, ‘my tablet nestles in’, provides another sign for the depressive anxiety of creative inadequacy: the tablet is a medicinal response to these holes, to these fits of illness. But Raworth then offers ‘nestles’ as the verb, a unique point of poetic warmth in a poem that otherwise reserves itself to the cold and the plain. If in the system of language a verb is the source of motion, in Raworth’s poem his verb succeeds in providing the poem its poetic energy.

For a poet concerned so much with playing with form, the references to materiality in ‘Fits’ extend from poetic technology to the material of the text too. It is a poem about ‘the hole in the book’, which, in this reading, flits ‘tablet’ now to the ancient material, a more permanent resource onto which the poet inscribes his truths. The fear of a holey book, a disfigured book, forces the poet to search for enduring stone. Materiality and form nod together at the archaic name for divisions of poetry: fits. We have the technology of the poetic project again.

The poem is left finally unformed, deformed. Raworth defies convention by ending the poem on a preposition: another hole and a final incompleteness. Perhaps that preposition, ‘in’, invites us to start reading the poem again, locking the reader into a broken cycle that does not move anywhere, because the machine is broken.