Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems

Literary history shows that much of the enduring poetry of any age is written by people too busy, modest or otherwise engaged to compete with the self-publicists who pass as the poets of the day. Some eventually emerge into eminence, but others remain obscure, to be discovered by a later era.

Fortunately, Tom Raworth - as the author's note to his latest collection puts it - is "not yet dead, but living in Brighton". And, after four decades of evading eminence in his native country, his achievement may finally be catching up with him.

One of the finest poetry chapbooks of 2009 was Raworth's There Are Few People Who Put on Any Clothes (starring it) - a manuscript from 1972. Windmills in Flames continues the restoration work, reprinting items missing from his Collected Poems (2003), as well as recent pieces from small presses and magazines.

Raworth was writing some of his best poetry in the early 1970s, but he was also losing it along the way. In 1975, his long poem "Ace" was largely put out of print by a freak flood in a printer's basement. Now it appears that the 1972 pamphlet Pleasant Butter also melted into thin air. Here it returns: a run of forceful, quizzical lyrics leading to an ars poetica, "How to Patronise a Poem", which ends with a characteristic leap from the frying pan: "i have tasted fire/ goodbye, pleasant butter".

Raworth's verse often reflects on the conditions of its existence, most pointedly in the one-line "University Days" - "this poem has been removed for further study". Poetry that doesn't make prose sense is sometimes mistaken for writing that requires additional tuition fees. But Raworth, who left school at 16 "out of boredom", has always been an artist of the immediate impression, the word that can be heard first and thought about afterwards.

Reprinting these early poems is the ideal way to introduce the accelerated aesthetic of the later work. Raworth's restless style catches sparks from the 20th century's surrealist and imagist revolutions. But it is not a crank-handled avant-garde museum piece. The desire to versify thought has been the cause of poetic innovation in English ever since Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. Admittedly, some of the new pieces in Windmills in Flames are too brief or occasional to convey more than the twinkling of an idea (Raworth has always enjoyed the squib). The best poems, however, pinpoint the fleeting nature of thought now.

To read these poems is to "[follow] catseyes of description/through darkness". The central sequence, "Caller", flickers with verse fragments, rapidly switching thoughts on and off: "grilled details flashing/fatally pursued/across glass". It is a poem of the digital age, where image is instantly translated into information, and vice versa: "when part be assembled/pos­sible camera completes".

But Raworth does not abstract the reality of the past ten years. "Reading paper money/in a furnace" is a pretty good title for the latest instalment of late capitalism. And "Listen Up" - a phoney piece of pro-war doggerel - may be the finest bad verse of its age: "tiny states without the power/to have a radio in the shower/ should fall in line". Readers who complain that modern poets can no longer rhyme will particularly enjoy the final pairing here of "Mecca" and "pecker".

Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems
Tom Raworth
Carcanet, 92pp, £9.95

Jeremy Noel-Tod teaches at the University of East Anglia