The Edge of Necessary, John Goodby and Lyndon Davies (eds.), Aquifer Books, Oct 2019, ISBN 978-1-9998367-1-9, £13.00
NOON: An Anthology of Short Poems, Philip Rowland (ed.), Isobar Press, May 2019, ISBN 978-4-907359-26-3, £14.70
It’s been a while since I had an anthology to review, and then two come along together, and two whose contents and approaches illustrate the range that anthologies can encompass. John Goodby and Lyndon Davies’ The Edge of Necessary: Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966-2018 does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, allowing for wide definitions of ‘Welsh’ and ‘innovative’. The 46 featured poets include those born and resident in Wales, those born in Wales but living elsewhere, those born elsewhere but now or at some time resident in Wales, and one or two who apparently qualify on the granny rule.
The range of what is covered under the rubric ‘innovative’ is also broad, reaching from the Eliot-influenced South Wales Echo of Gerard Casey through concrete and sound poetry to the adaptions of classical Welsh forms and metres of Rhea Seren Phillips. Casey’s work also draws on two of the three crucial early figures of Anglo-Welsh Modernism, David Jones and Dylan Thomas, the third being Lynette Roberts. Interestingly, apart from Casey, Thomas does not seem to be a strong direct influence on the poets in this anthology, and neither does Roberts. And Jones appears to have percolated primarily by way of Chris Torrance.
In fact, there is a case for considering that Torrance is a key figure in this book, and, by extension, in the development of innovative Anglo-Welsh poetry of the last half century. For one thing, many of the other poets included were or are his friends, students and/or collaborators and, in the case of Iain Sinclair, the publisher of much of his early work. More significantly, there’s a strong argument in support of the notion that by virtue of his status as an outsider, Torrance was able to claim Welsh landscape and myth and, to an extent, the Bardic tradition for Anglo-Welsh poetry in a way that simply disregarded the more mainstream writing that dominated it in the 1960s, poetry which, in the words of the editors’ introduction, ‘was a pale, Welsh-tinged imitation of the English equivalent’. Torrance’s work since 1969 has been a long engagement with the fact of living in Wales as an actual, mythic and poetic landscape and as such has opened up possibilities for other Anglo-Welsh writers. Along with others here, he helped to create, to quote John James, ‘faults through which an exile voice can sing’.
Another key figure, both as presence and example, is Peter Finch, poet, publisher, editor, bookseller, performer and general force of nature, whose practice and championing of sound and visual poetry was and is highly influential beyond the borders of the Principality. One of his poems featured here, ‘Hawksmoor’ is a kind of dialogue with Sinclair’s London poems written after he moved to the city from Wales. It’s a pity that none of this early Sinclair is included to make the conversation more explicit.
The introduction also notes ‘that Welsh poets had contributed as much as any others in these islands to the British Poetry Revival’. It’s an assertion that is amply supported by the presence of Torrance, Finch, Sinclair, James, Philip Jenkins, Paul Evans, Tilla Brading, Paul Griffiths, Ralph Hawkins, Phil Maillard and Wendy Mulford. Indeed, the syntactical playfulness of the selections from Mulford’s The ABC of Writing is among the great pleasures of this book:
outside the house is not inside the house and people live inside the house
they do not live outside the house which makes outside the house a very
much nicer place to be
For many readers, a good deal of interest will lie in the work of the younger poets who follow after the Revival figures, poets like Rhys Trimble, Nerys Williams and Elisabeth Bletsoe, poets whose engagement with ‘the matter of Wales’ is both modern and timeless and who serve to make this anthology centrally necessary for anyone with an interest in what’s really been happening in British poetry over the last half century. Equally interesting is the discovery of two real outsiders, the British-born, Canadian-reared Welsh resident Peter Meilleur (Childe Roland), whose work draws on the concrete tradition but is primarily focused on the relationship between language(s) and reality and the Welsh-born French poet Heather Dohollau, whose work again engages with Jones, but also with Thomas. Sadly, Meilleur died not long after publication, but one can only hope that the interest generated by Goodby and Davies may lead to a greater level of interest in his work.
It is, I suppose, traditional when reviewing this kind of ‘survey’ anthology to lament the absences. I can only think of two possible candidates’ John Freeman, who is referred to in passing as a publisher but whose Objectivist influenced work is not mentioned and, more recently, Jeremy Over. But these are very minor quibbles. This is a fascinating survey of a relatively overlooked body of poetry, and should serve to reconfigure the map of the Welsh, and, indeed, British literary landscape.
Philip Rowland’s Noon is a very different kind of anthology, with all the poems being drawn from the 13 issues of his NOON: journal of the short poem from 2004 to 2017. Indeed, the introduction tells us that the book is ‘a retrospective special issue’ of the journal, constructed, as the regular issues were, to form a coherent whole, and not just a selection of the best poems to have been included.
As such, it’s an extremely effective piece of work. Rowland’s rough definition of ‘short’ is no longer than 14 lines, with some exceptions for poems with very short lines, though it’s a restriction that is less relevant to the numerous short prose-poems included, but has the benefit of not limiting the book to a haiku-like absolute brevity, although there are a number of haiku, or haiku-like poems included. The range here is great, and includes a good deal of work that might be considered visual or concrete as well as the more expected imagistic lyric. The tiny poems gathered here are remarkably spacious, and the general tenor is captured in the last line of the last poem, ‘Everything Has Two Endings’ by Jane Hirshfield
As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.
The work in Noon is poetry tending towards the ideal condition of silence, which is a kind of music, and the visual element, not only within but in the space around each poem, is key to eliciting the quality of attention required from the reader when a poem places so much weight on so few words. Rowland and Isobar are to be congratulated for allowing each poem its page to breathe in, even in so short a poem as this by Richard Kostelanetz
There are a number of very familiar names in the list of contributors, poets as diverse as Sheila E. Murphy and Thomas A. Clark, Rosmarie Waldrop and Bob Arnold:
To live by a woods river
Forever is to finally
& to remember
but again, part of the pleasure is in encountering poets, like Kostelanetz, whose work I had not previously known, poets like Emily Carr:
dandelion to the
its cry into the
of heaven the
Lord, a billboard
says, is my
shepherd [I shall
after R. Armantrout
Noon is a book to go back to, to dip in, to quietly relish. Meanwhile, the journal forges ahead, adding increments to the silence.