john harvey | blue monk

29 02 2008
Allen Ginsberg and Thelonious Monk
Poetry Dispatch No. 212 | February 28, 2008


Continuing with the jazz theme, begun yesterday with Dave Etter…there is so much more to say and write.(More too on Etter, coming in the near future.) Consequently, I will re-visit this jazz-poetry theme more often in Poetry Dispatch.

What can I say about today’s poet, John Harvey? Not much. I know him not all. But for this book. This is yet another instance (destruction of a myth) … concerning the matter of “judging a book by its cover.”

I remember walking into a Chicago bookstore one night about 5 years ago…drifting into the poetry section, seeing the title “BLUER THAN THIS” on the spine, pulling the book off the shelf on the strength of that title alone…being totally knocked out by the cover painting, the color of blue, not to mention the quote from the New York Times: “He sings the blues for people too bruised to carry the song themselves.” (Jesus, another poet!).

You know how it is when a book just calls you? “You’re going to buy because it feel right , take me home with you, love me, even though you know zilch about me.”

And, of course, the book is right. Love at first sight. A true ‘find.’ Wouldn’t part with it for the world.

If that wasn’t enough for a sure sale right there that night the blue book lured me by its cover alone, I had to open it and read/hear poem after poem that sounded as good as any night in any Chicago jazz joint…though the poet hailed from over there, across the pond.

Enough…check this number he does on Monk…and more. Norbert Blei


Blue Monk by John Harvey

For all the world as if he has just walked in off the street, a gas company official, a removal man, something humdrum; when he sits at the piano it is as any man, unconcerned, might sit at a bench in the park, ease the weight from his feet, so palpable, the relief with which he sinks, broad, into the quilted leather of the seat; his topcoat, which he makes no attempt to undo, strains tight across his back, one or two stitches at the shoulder have snapped; squat on his head Monk is wearing a black and white checkered hat.

And now a scattering of applause has started haphazardly around the hall; it is an age before he edges back his cuffs and stretches out his hands.

Driving through Camberwell
the rain slides black across the windscreen
and as we pass the lights for the third time
you push a cassette into place,
the click and hiss of tape and then it’s him.
Rhythm-a-ning. Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass,
Art Taylor at the drums. New York City, February, 1959.
A hundred years ago.

The critics at this time damn him with scant regard, another black jazzman touring Europe, parading his few tricks for a handful of krona and a pocketful of praise. But tonight, in Rotterdam or Oslo, Gothenburg – where doesn’t matter – this is different. Monk is on. Audience forgotten, that oversize right foot pounds down at an awkward angle; this is not the night to watch a legend running through what legends do, respectfully, and so the crowd cranes forward, reaching for the fire that flares so unexpectedly, so close to the end of this life.

Inside his overcoat, under his chequered hat, Monk is lost and doesn’t care if he’s never found. Doesn’t give a good Goddamn. His fingers stab at single notes, crush chords; roll with the tide then tighten down. His hands seek and find warm spaces lost between the keys, laughter strung across the dark like lights of fishermen spaced out along the beach, phosphorescence on the sea, like Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Gold, the glow of radio stations long into the night.

I carry my wine across the room to where you sit
and we stare out across this London square, these Londonstreets.
I hear draw up outside the cab to take me home.
What if, on that precipice of kitchen, all those years ago,
instead of rinsing those last dishes at the sink,
I’d taken both your hands in mine and said
I would go with you, no matter where, no matter what?

Monk gets up from the piano as casually as he sat down, troubled by the memory of a promise he once made and now can neither remember nor forget. In the small hotel room with a view over the air ducts and the kitchens, a bottle of brandy stands half-drunk beside the bed.

I can never again watch your dress fall to the floor or rest my breast against your breast, my mouth pressed to yours to stop it with a kiss.

C minor, F 7th, B flat -nothing can be bluer than this.


cov_bluer.jpegfrom BLUER THAN THIS Smith/Doorstop Books, England, 1998


Born Storytellers & Sensuous Language
Jane Holland

John Harvey, in his latest collection, Bluer Than This, (also) relies on narrative for many of his poems, but stylistically he is on another planet. The tone is sensuous and assured, but somehow always vulnerable, jerking you back from the story to the person behind it, in a way that ultimately reminds you of a world outside the poem without robbing the poem of its integrity: ‘His shirt so white that to turn and look / at it would be to be blinded by the moon’ (‘Couples’). I have an on-going line-break argument with Harvey—here, I would have preferred ‘at it’ on the previous line—but again, this is a question of risk-taking and how bold choices force an examination of language and its patterns onto the reader, which can only be good. It’s not simply about variety for its own sake. It’s about finding the right ‘sound’ for the poem, rather than being fatally pedestrian and so failing to see how a poem can take off if given enough space to do so. Harvey is unafraid of making radically different choices from line to line:

Though dead,
my father is still dying,
oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain

Harvey plays with form in a delightful way, never satisfied with the way he’s successfully ‘made’ a poem before, but always looking for new ways of ‘making’ them. I’m using the word ‘make’ deliberately, of course. Too much emphasis is currently put on the poet as ‘writer’ rather than ‘maker’. Harvey takes his work more seriously and does not simply let the words flow in the name of inspiration. The result is a collection which positively drips with unexpected shapes; the shape a poem makes on the page forming part of the whole experience of reading it. Harvey moves quite comfortably from prose poetry to free verse to the suggestion of a subtle rhyme scheme without once appearing to strain after form. A mildly laconic American influence suits Harvey perfectly. There are none of the wild gestures of youth in a line like this from ‘Blue Settee’, with its leanings towards the metaphysical: ‘This kiss starts high at the nape of the neck / and makes a new map of the world’. With Bluer Than This, John Harvey has contributed something admirable, and soothingly readable, to the chaotic and ever-shifting map of the poetry world.



The editor at Slow Dancer is John Harvey, who is himself a fine poet. His second collection, Bluer Than This, (Smith/Doorstep Books), contains pieces about jazz, (Chet Baker, Lester Young), painting (Edward Hopper, Howard Hodgkin), and love; there is a tenderness here that many British poets do not risk, a keen eye for the details of family life, for the signs and gestures we live by, and for the moments of insight and realisation we keep to ourselves:

and when your eyes widen and, uncertain
whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead, your hand,
I will slip into it those remedies I have long carried:
the knowledge that, nurtured, passion flowers
in the darkest place

(‘The U.S. Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.’)


What is perhaps most striking in Bluer Than This is Harvey’s extraordinary empathy. His insights into the minds and hearts of others, whether they be family and friends, or figures from the world of painting or music, are consistently sharp and clear, yet this poet is always aware of the limits, and the possible limits, of our knowledge: as much as he wants to understand and penetrate the mystery of the other, he never forgets that it is this very mystery that makes all communication miraculous. Bluer Than This is published by Smith/Doorstop Books.

ANDY BROWN reviews BLUER THAN THIS ,Orbis, Winter 1998


In an excellent collection of poems strongly influenced by contemporary jazz and painting, John Harvey presents his tenderly understated poems exploring intimate and family relationships. The jazz is covered by poems on Thelonious Monk— ending with the poignant “C minor, F 7th, B flat / nothing can be bluer than this.”— Charlie Parker and others, with a short poem about Chet Baker who “…knows this is one of those / rare days when he can truly fly.” The painting poems deal with Bonnard, Vuillard, Edward Hopper, Corot and Howard Hodgkin. In an astute comment lan McMillan has noted that Harvey’s work has a ‘genuinely transatlantic feel.’ McMillan is right: the jazz, the art, the thrilling conversational tenderness of poems like “Seven Year Ache” on Frank O’Hara:

…O’Hara at fifty,
knocked over by an errant jeep on the beach; his mother
frail from hospital and drying out,
tumbling yellow roses into his grave. Such waste!
Each day that’s lived is lived in hope and in regret.
We die each day and not from love but lack of it…

Such great moments resurface throughout this book and its stories of love known and love lost build up to make this a deeply moving collection. Whether Harvey gets us there in a poem about young Americans wrecked on drink, then dead in a car wreck; or “the duality of grief and joy, relief / and guilt ·” of the couples in the poems about Hopper paintings, Harvey does it inimitably. As he notes in “North Coast”: “What is never shared, cannot be lost.” The fact that Harvey seems to have shared so much in his life and poems only intensifies the impact of the losses. That he achieves this in a poetry that is neither wistful nor sentimental, rather tender and epiphanic, singles him out as a uniquely readable poet of great integrity.

JIM BURNS reviews BLUER THAN THIS ,Ambit No 156, Spring 1999


There’s an engaging rolling feeling to the best of John Harvey’s poems, as if each one had started with an idea, memory, or observation, and then gathered momentum and expanded as it moved down the page:

Now the rain is falling
and the petals that have already fallen
pink and white, float up around us as we walk,
your smile suggesting how close you are to forgetting
the lover who so recently left you,
and so we continue, ducking into a corner pub
and there, facing you, I catch myself drawn to you
and I can tell we are both wondering
about this dwindling distance between us,
how perilously a kiss would close that space.

The autobiographical content is typical, as is the directness, and the everyday language. The poems sound like someone talking, which is to their credit, and the voice that comes through is consistent. A somewhat melancholy tone is often apparent as relationships come to an end, the poet looks back on lost loves, and sadness nudges at the narrative. Harvey’s interest in jazz reflects this tendency, with poems about musicians like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Chet Baker, who all declined as the years passed and died in sad circumstances. In one poem, “Blue Monk”, he neatly blends a jazz performance with memories of an old flame in a way that highlights the last line — “nothing can be bluer than this”.

Harvey does write about other things besides jazz and love affairs, and there are good reflections on childhood, family life, visits to America, and art. Corot, Edward Hopper, Vuillard, and Howard Hodgkin, all get a look in. And what comes through at all times is the sheer readability of the poems. I freely admit to sharing Harvey’s liking for jazz, films, and American poetry, but it isn’t just this that makes me admire his work. The poems just pull you in and carry you along with their relaxed but effective approach. They are like good stories:

Once, we stayed here, out of season,
arcades and the Magpie Café closed,
clouds massed like bulkheads in the northern sky
and around the municipal bandstand
only the melismatic cry of gulls.
Close by our feet, winter lay coiled like rope.
At night hope hung across the water like a child.
What is never shared cannot be lost.

It’s like the opening of a good film and it makes me want to know what comes next.

Paul Donnelly reviews BLUER THAN THIS , Tears in The Fence, Summer 1999


Intimacy is one word I often associate with the poetry of John Harvey. The reader is invited to witness love with its attendant failures and successes, family and friends, both dead and living and the commonplace details that make a life. I’m not sure where fact and fiction blur at times. I’m not sure it matters either.
Look at ‘Slow’ with its twin dedication to Lee Harwood and Paul Evans.The poem gently connects the strands of their lives with Harvey’s and the presence of another, unnamed, character, a lost lover maybe.These meetings and memories, reconstructions of the past, merge with a present and compare scales of loss. Small, intimate glimpses that also show life continuing, as it must. This is also evident in ‘By The Numbers,’ a kind of diary of a day’s events with digressions and remembrances:

Art Pepper’s keening saxophone —
Leicester it was I saw him, eighty one or two…

He brings together music, food, writers he loves, family and friends:

How many friends
are living, how many have died.

Ray Carver rubs shoulders with Jimmy Stewart and the ‘girls I was in love with’. It’s a poem which celebrates in the face of mortality and vows to keep going because there are things to do. It isn’t just the past and present that matters but tomorrow and

all the days that come after —
infinite and uncountable.

I like the way the poem discloses a life and its links with so many others, the details that mesh so seamlessly and the openness — a word often used about Lee Harwood — that pulls you in. Of course, you can’t read John Harvey without coming across some of his preoccupations with music and painting. He celebrates Roland Kirk, Chet Baker and Charlie Parker, not for the first time. These, or versions of the poems, have featured in previous collections and on the cassette with jazz quartet Second Nature, Ghosts Of A Chance. Here he is also revisiting Lester Young in ‘Sometimes I’m Happy,’ a sort of synopsis of parts of his life and death. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Young. It’s a sometimes tender and Iyrical portrait shot through with the harshness of his life. The presentation of his brilliant, flawed character is moving and honest. Paintings are present in the shape of Edward Hopper and Howard Hodgkin, both very different artists. Harvey makes use of the suggestive narrative possibilities of Hopper and responds to the light and intense colour of Hodgkin’s ‘After Corot.’ Both offer different aspects of the poet’s style and are equally compelling. I started off with intimacy as a keyword in Harvey’s work and I’d suggest that you read ‘Safeway,’ a poem that could make shopping worth it. In case you haven’t guessed I like this collection. There is more to it than I’ve mentioned. See for yourself.

BLUER THAN THIS is available in bookshops in both the UK and US. It is distributed in the UK by Signature Book Representation Ltd, (2 Little Peter St, Knott Mill, Manchester, tel 0161 834 8767/fax 0161 834 8656) and in the USA by Du Four Editions (PO Box 7, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, 19425 – 0007, tel (00 1) 610 458 5005, fax (001) 610 458 7103).


John Harvey with Second Nature, Derby Jazz Festival 2007. Photo: Garry Corbett

John Harvey was born in London in 1938 and, after living in Nottingham for a good number of years, has now returned to north London to live. After studying at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, and at Hatfield Polytechnic, he took his Masters Degree in American Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he taught Film and Literature as a part-time lecturer between 1980 and 1986.

After teaching English and Drama in secondary schools for twelve years, stopping in 1975, Harvey has lived primarily by his writing. For years he was a regular tutor on residential writing courses run by the Arvon Foundation, and in 1995 he was on the teaching faculty of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Fiction Workshop in Northern California. He has recently decided to do no further teaching, either in workshop or formal situations, but does continue to enjoy giving readings and talking about his work.

Initially a writer of paperbackfiction – both for adults and teenagers – John Harvey has over 90 published books to his credit. Now principally known as a writer of crime fiction, principally the Charlie Resnick novels, he continues to work on scripts for television and radio, where he has specialised in adapting the work of himself and others – his radio dramatisation of Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” gained the Silver award in the radio drama section of the 1999 Sony Radio Awards, he has also adapted novels or short stories by Arnold Bennett, A.S. Byatt, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips.

As a poet, his work has appeared in a large number of magazines and pamphlets, and “Ghosts of a Chance”, a selected poems, was published by Smith Doorstop Press (Huddersfield, England) in 1992. In 1995, he made a recording of the same title, reading his poems with the accompaniment of the Second Nature jazz group, one of two bands with which he performs whenever he gets the chance. A new collection, “Bluer Than This”, was published by Smith Doorstop in Autumn 1998 and reprinted in Autumn1999.

He ran Slow Dancer Press from 1977 to 1999, editing Slow Dancer magazine until 1993, and continuing since then to publish the work of both new poets and established writers such as Lee Harwood, Libby Houston and Barry MacSweeney. He was the first to publish a collection of Sharon Olds’ work in England,and, in 1998, follow edthis up by publishing Lucille Clifton for the first time in Britain in1998. From 1998, Slow Dancer Press published fiction as well as poetry, concentrating on crime fiction, short stories and writing concerned with jazz and blues.

He has two grown-up children, twins, Tom & Leanne Harvey, born to a marriage which ended in divorce in the mid-seventies; in 1998, 10th August to be precise, a third child, Molly Ernestine Boiling, was born in London, where he and Molly’s mother, Sarah, were then living. After living in Cornwall for a year from the summer of 2003, John, Sarah & Molly moved to Nottingham in 2004.