Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’ | Alistair NoonPosted: January 22, 2017
The Anglophone tradition doesn’t have a lot of time for shortness. Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (quoth Polonius in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) or, say, Ezra Pound’s early Modernist quasi-haiku –
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough –
and subsequent periodic haiku mountains, the Anglophone poet has tended to like their poem to be a solid steak and kidney pie rather than a sliver of carrot with half a bay leaf on it. While Dryden and co picked up on the Horatian Ode, there was less take-up of forms such as those of Martial’s epigrams, still less the accidental minimalism of what’s left of Sappho. The quatrains of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat translation seem to have been much read but little emulated.
As in so many things, Emily Dickinson is the exception here: all those hundreds of quatrains foreshadow the early to mid-20th century’s interest in shorter forms. There was a strong minimalist streak to Imagism and Objectivism, and in their different ways, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff made a career (largely) of smallness. Basil Bunting’s self-admonitions of parsimony of line resulted in some minimalist work as well. There’s also the concrete tradition, with Ian Hamiliton Finlay’s ‘Windflower’ perhaps taking things as far as they can go in this direction. Not to forget Baldrick’s impression of WW1 artillery in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.
At a recent reading in Berlin, US psychedelic poet Will Alexander pointed out that, for him at least, it doesn’t matter what length of form you’re working with as a poet, minimal or epic, the whole of life and the universe has to go into it (especially the universe). Debatable perhaps, but it does point up the paradox of the short form: precisely the apparent easiness of the form, the few words it needs, constitutes its enormous difficulty (this applies, of course, to lyric poetry in general, but it’s even more pronounced with short forms). Every single word draws attention to itself, to all its aspects and associations, in a way that just isn’t the case in much bigger forms. On a bad day it’s throwaway, on a good day it’s something you’ll keep forever. It requires hardcore editing skills, or total genius inspiration.
Given the relative marginality of the various short forms in English-language poetry – I mean in terms of prominence, not of the practitioners’ achievements – it’s not surprising that poets interested in writing this length often look elsewhere for their models. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands sequence of urban tankas. And at least two strongly translocal poets writing now have absorbed other traditions to pare things down; George Messo (whose 2006 book Entrances I reviewed here), and now Philip Rowland, long-term Tokyo resident and editor of the superbly produced and excellently named NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, which evidences the wealth of the minimalist tradition, resolutely international and, perhaps for that reason, little engaged with in Brexitland for example. There is nothing throwaway about what he writes.
Bear with me, I’ll get to the book in a sec. I have a pet cod-theory on how poetry styles can be categorized according to the number of readings/hearings they implicitly demand of the reader/hearer. Slam poetry (on a bad day, which is, unfortunately, most days) can and must work with only one run-through. Typical UK ‘mainstream’ poetry requires two reads: on the first you don’t quite get it, but don’t worry because by the end of the second read all has been revealed. More or less explicitly Modernist-derived poetry varies quite considerably in its expectations: some offers total initial resistance, but persistence can pay off. To my mind, the more interesting strands tend to give something up straight away whilst just as much, if not more, can be discovered upon subsequent reads, ideally indefinitely and infinitely (this is what W.S. Graham did on a good day, of which there were many, and that is why he was possibly the greatest Anglophone poet of the 20th century – bam!). The pseudo-stuff, such as that which has absorbed J.H. Prynne’s surface style without the discursive substance when it’s there, gives nothing up straight away. This isn’t necessarily a disqualification, though it is banking on the reader having some other reason to not go and load the dishwasher. But subsequent reads reveal nothing more because there is nothing more.
Philip Rowland’s poems run totally counter to all this. The first reading yields a pretty rapid and apparently complete perception and meaning. Because of the brevity, a second read can follow this quickly and painlessly, offering up at least the prospect of a quite different or additional reading:
in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not
With the poet’s geographical location in mind, it’s easy to see the haiku tradition behind him:
Prelude in C –
deep in the piano lid.
I’m not aware, though, of another contemporary poet who shows so clearly what can be done in English in the spirit of haiku. The poetry demonstrates how syllable-counting is secondary to, and a distraction from, the haiku aesthetic: those 17 syllables of the classical Japanese haiku contain less semantic information than 17 syllables of English (unless those 17 syllables happen to be pronounced by [insert name of minister/apparatchik you particularly despise]). The key thing is the haiku’s lightness and immediacy – less superdense white dwarf, more returning comet:
listening for the sound
of our listening.
Those three poems form the book’s ‘Prelude’. The music continues: prospective parenthood, existence, our relationship with the dead, public transport, and the experience of the translocal:
still evening –
at home –
in a foreign land
going out of my way
to step in old snow
I have another pet cod-theory whereby lines get more semantically difficult to manage the shorter they are. This is because there are fewer words to do the sense work, assuming that a line visually and aurally draws attention to itself as a unit of sense. The corollary of this is that lines get more rhythmically difficult to manage the longer they are, as there’s always a threat they’ll break in half. This is why we don’t have too many septameters and octometers, and explains the success of the iambic pentameter, the compromise candidate of the English tradition: enough words to get enough sense, but not so many syllables as to become unwieldy.
There’s an odd way, though, in which all that reverses when you get down to the one-word line, which Rowland and others successfully use (the Maine poet Peter Kilgore was expert at this). The vertical replaces the horizontal as the main axis, and the sense that would normally be spread through a line is now spread through the whole poem, though with an invitation to dwell on each word and its possibilities:
Time for my final pet cod-theory: it’s not a bad idea for a poet to gradually formulate, over time, a few principles that describe and drive their practice to date, in other words, to have a sense of what they’ve been doing. They can then purposively try out forms that deliberately run against this and see where it gets them. In Philip Rowland’s case, there are some discursive pieces, longer texts, as well as poems whose initial reading offers more resistance, though never battening down all hatches. There are short prose pieces, visuals and founds, permutations, puns, word dissections, a moving recollection of a loved one’s death, syntactic puzzles –
small hours the squares of night none fits
Most things are short here, but nothing brief. Never mono-layered, each page to be paused over and returned to, a linger rather than a slog. These 80 pages have a lot of white space and every bit of it is (no pun intended) justified. Time breaks into small sections to be allowed to melt rather than be chewed –
in the time it takes the temple bell
Simple words with a life behind them. Another poetry is possible. Something other than other –
getting or not getting the last word
Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other is published by Isobar Press (Tokyo/London). Click here for further details of the book. Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here. A new pamphlet, Quad, will appear from Longbarrow Press in spring 2017. His full-length collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Surveyors’ Riddles, a collaboration with Giles Goodland, is published by Sidekick Books.