Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’ | Alistair Noon

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.

windflower

‘Windflower’ (1976) by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley. Photograph by Chris Wevers.

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.

scan-where-rungs-were

‘where rungs were’, Philip Rowland (Noon Press, 2007)

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 –
winter sky
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:

inhabiting repetition
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:

winter
afternoon

sun
striping

one
skyscraper

hiding
another

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.

Advertisements

17 Comments on “Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’ | Alistair Noon”

  1. Matthew Clegg says:

    Alistair,

    I enjoyed this a lot: thanks.

    I often find my faith wavering when reading much of what you call the ‘pseudo-stuff’. The sort that makes you ask: is this genius, or is this gibberish? As a reader, what if I’m merely bashing my soft brains against an impermeable chrome surface of abstract language?

    But then, why do I have so much invested in an expectation that something – even just a glimpse – should be gifted by the poem, not acquired by the grafting reading or, as you say, slogged through?

    Is the grail, then, getting the right balance of gift and difficulty? And I guess poets can feel differently entitled as to how much difficulty they should impose on the reader – and what kind.

    Off the subject, perhaps, but I’d love to read more on what you mean by ‘translocal’.I read this phrase cropping up, in different contexts, but does everyone mean the same thing, by it?

    M

  2. Alistair says:

    Matt, thanks for your thoughts. No doubt different people do mean different things by translocal, though in my reading around the subject so far I’ve never seen any really radical discrepancies in how it’s used. It might look like it’s used differently because it’s been picked up in quite a few fields, and no doubt I give it a poetry spin.

    But I’d surmise that “modernism” is probably used in more different ways than “translocality”, even just in poetry (I recently had a good conversation with a poet-friend about Modernism where it took us half an hour to realize we actually had quite different understandings of the term). I’d probably still stick to the definitions of translocality I gave, such as they are, in my two efforts on the subject, originally published / delivered elsewhere but kindly republished by Brian on the Longbarrow site, “Translocal Underground” and its update “The Idea of Translocality on Krymská”.

    Re: the grail, sure, I agree, and I think this is one reason to bang on, as I and others tend to, about late W.S. Graham, which does indeed get the balance of gift and difficulty superbly right (not to ignore the early stuff though, as Peter Riley has usefully pointed out).

    • Matthew Clegg says:

      Re. ‘translocal’: I’m sure ‘modernism’ has also been used MORE than ‘translocal’ – being in use longer. I wasn’t trying to pick fault: just wanted to offer you an opportunity to offer the link Brian has posted.

  3. peter boughton says:

    I like the mention of Reznikoff – I find the poems in ‘Testimony’ fascinating, not least because, at least on the surface, he appears to do so little to the source material- there’s very little figurative language – so even if it gives The Cantos a run for its money in terms of size, it’s minimal in the sense of the lightness of touch. However, I have to say that I increasingly find brief forms problematic in contemporary poetry – or at least a current that seems to run hand in hand with the vogue for mindfulness. I’ve nothing against mindfulness as a meditative practice, nor the situating of the poetic voice in a state of contemplation – but I do baulk at the deluge of pocket epiphanies that characterises much haiku / tanka writing.There are lots of goldfish with permanent looks of surprise on their mouths out there, and they’re all going round in circles in the same tasteful Habitat bowl. Matt and Brian are obviously doing different things with the form, not least in the way they’re explicitly or implicitly using ir for social / political critique, and the narrative context they place it in – they’re engaging with the world, not just gawping.

    • Alistair says:

      Many thanks for your comment Peter. I think Reznikoff is a hugely useful poet to read, I wouldn’t want all my poetry to be like it, but nobody teaches transparency/clarity better than he does to my mind.

      That’s a useful caveat you add to how the haiku aesthetic has been received in the West, and it’s interesting that you use the term “epiphany” to describe a certain kind of (prevalent) haiku. You’ll no doubt know that epiphany is a term that’s often used to criticize UK “mainstream” poetry in general, where the last line typically expresses some kind of triumphant wondrousness at the world etc. So it might be that the epiphany-based haiku is actually a result of the haiku tradition being expressed through the filter of UK “mainstream” poetics, rather than being something specific to haiku, should this be what you were driving at. Completely agree: let’s do more than just gawp.

  4. matt says:

    Peter / Alistair,

    I find that phrase ‘pocket epiphany’ really useful, and the notion of tasteful and triumphant wonder. It IS something worth being wary of, I agree. I remember the pleasure I experienced when I first read Isa’s haiku in translation. They are sad, ecstatic, wry, bawdy, funny- there’s even a kind of toilet humour. They are personal, social, philosophical. In short, there is variety! Perhaps a sort of constraining decorum is always a pitfall with ‘mainstream’ poetics’; and a potential vice is the sense that epiphany should solve or resolve things in stillness. I fear that decorum gets in the way of responding to the ‘things being various’ quality of life, and its quality of always being on the move. Isa can give you a haiku about the gift of cherry blossom in a world of sorrows – but also a haiku about the futility of chasing flies out of your house! The world he presents demands our engagement, our compassion, our humour, and sometimes, even our lack of comprehension.

  5. peter boughton says:

    Both good points – I thought Peter Reading’s Li Po was Peter Reading, until I read Li Po. On the subject of avant garderie – I tend like ‘high-contrast’ writing – by this I mean stuff that counterpoints its difficulties with more accessible, grounded moments. There are passages in the Pisan Cantos that are just jaw-droppingly beautiful, or blunt as a rusty spoon – I can almost forgive Pound his flashy erudition (and the other stuff.) One of favourite reads last year was R.F. Langley’s Complete Poems – even if 2 out of every 3 of them leave me utterly stumped. As for Prynne – I get flashes of the Pound thing with him, though he’s so difficult that I can’t help thinking that the bits that I like are meant parodically. These are all variations of High Modernism I guess – though there is another strain inspired by Cobbing, MacSweeney, The Beats and the like. I’m less enamoured of this than I was when I was younger – largely because its followers seem to have a ready bag of language tricks that loudly signify ‘counterculture’ (unpunctuated noun phrases, palimpsests, montage, cut ups etc) – except the tricks are so old they project an odd form of conservatism, and I wonder if the very idea of ‘counterculture’ has been rendered impotent by successive years of Thatcherism. Have either of you read Joseph Massey? I think he’s an interesting example because he uses short forms obviously inspired by Eastern Poetics / William Carlos Williams, and nominally at least, he shares a concern with post-industrial landscapes with you. And I can’t stand his writing!

  6. Jim Kacian says:

    A fine and sensitive review, Brian, and thanks for that, but in response to your statement “I’m not aware, though, of another contemporary poet who shows so clearly what can be done in English in the spirit of haiku” you simply must try harder. Philip is quite versed not only in haiku but haiku context, especially in what he likes to call the “haikuesque” which means just what you might think: those (usually) short poems that are not haiku but have been invaded by its spirit or techniques and have conversations with it. And he has been instrumental in helping to bring these two allied but not necessary parallel worlds together, in his own work, yes, but also as an editor of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton, 2013). And there you will find dozens of other poets who have taken up this challenge — some more normative, to be sure, but many who are exploring similar mindspace, in a variety of styles and content areas. If you like Philip’s work, you are bound to find many another in those pages, and so glean a broader idea of what haiku has become in the hands of talented poets who have sought brevity as a chief characteristic of their work. [Full disclosure: I served as editor-in-chief for that volume.]

  7. Matthew Clegg says:

    Perhaps slightly off the thread here, it interests me how haiku and the haikuesque has this capacity to inspire so much argument – directly or indirectly – as to what the ‘correct’ spirit is to approach the form. Is there comparable argument as to the correct spirit spirit to approach the sonnet? Are writers more accustomed to being less precious about the latter? [Alistair, I know you’re pro-variety.]

    I find those marriages between ‘not necessarily parallel worlds’ very rewarding: and it seems perfectly natural, to me, that an English writer should marry English and Japanese aesthetics when growing their own haiku. Of course, as a reader of haiku, discovering its sheer variety is a never ending pleasure. The form might be small, but the spirit is large – even if you never get past Basho!

    The haikuesque qualities in Northern Irish poetry are worth mentioning too, offering diverse pleasures. Some might consider Mahon and Longley ‘mainstream’, but their haikuesque poems sound different tones to my ear.

    Thanks for recommending Haiku in English, Jim.

  8. Thanks again, Alistair, for your review— much appreciated. A thought that came to mind in connection with some of the comments above is that with really short poems, context becomes especially important: their placement among others, to form larger, more meaningful (meaningfully resonant or ‘resistant’) clusters or longer poems. This is what I tend to do in my own work; likewise, in NOON (the journal of the short poem that I edit), the poems in each issue are arranged as a sequence, so that each poem can become part of something larger, something somewhat other.

    I’m fond of Oppen’s notion of the ‘discrete series’.

  9. Alistair – and others interested in the shortest of poems – you’d no doubt be interested in the work of John Martone whom Jerome Rothenberg has proclaimed “our greatest living miniaturist”. A place to start: http://jacket2.org/commentary/john-martone-suite-poems-molecular-lament

    You may also be interested in Philip Rowland’s own excellent essay on haiku and short poetry (if you’ve not already encountered it): http://www.modernhaiku.org/essays/RowlandFromHaikuToShortPoem.html

  10. […] that they point something as a way forward, into more uncertain territory, for Noon as a poet. A recent review of Philip Rowland’s haiku-like short poems is interesting in this […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s