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Out of the ordinary

by David Burleigh

SELECTED POEMS 1976-2001, by Peter Robinson. Manchester, Britain: Carcanet, 2003, 139 pp., £8.95 (paper).
NO VISION WILL TELL: 100 Selected Poems 1992-2002, by Scott Watson. Sendai, Japan: Bookgirl Press, 2002, 123 pp., 1,500 yen (paper). Both of the poets reviewed here, one British and the other American, live and teach in Sendai.

Peter Robinson, from England, is a professor at Tohoku University as well as an anthologist and critic. His poetry is tentative, reflective and analytic. In keeping with the tradition of such scholar-poets, he offers gentle and thoughtful explorations, rather than verbal pyrotechnics. His is a poetry that relishes silence, and expects the reader to listen closely.

Scott Watson, the American, is a somewhat different writer. Also teaching in a university, he actively organizes poetry readings and events in the northern city that both he and Robinson inhabit. Watson’s book comes from a press that he operates himself. His poetry impresses the reader with its urgency, and is intensely concerned with moral questions, and with living in the here and now. Where Robinson ponders, Watson is more insistent.

If, as Socrates asserted, the unreflected life is not worth living, then both these poets are doing full duty as witnesses and thinkers. Robinson is chatty and informal (“Anywhere You Like” and “About Time Too” are recent titles), whereas Watson, like his Beat forebears, is experimental and more clearly has a message. Both books divide into six sections, Watson’s covering a decade, and Robinson’s a quarter-century, of the respective poet’s work.

Though the Japanese surroundings in which the poets live naturally intrude into their writing, neither evokes them in exotic terms. Rather, Japan is contingent to a life that is deeply rooted in the other country that the poet comes from (as well as, in Robinson’s case, with Italy through family connections).

The poets’ approaches can be examined more closely by considering their treatment of a stray modern image that coincidentally appears in both selections: Pegging out shirts on my first floor balcony, I happen to notice a white, wire coat hanger dangling from one low branch of the tree . . . writes Robinson at the beginning of a poem called, obviously, “Coat Hanger.” In the next verse he muses Perhaps it’s a homage to Jasper Johns for six months here in the Korean War . . . before conceding in verse three, that “Well, yes, I suppose it could be mine.” He considers how things get blown about and end up in unexpected places, and how natural growth may absorb the alien arrival, then concludes: and so much else that could depend a coat hanger among the leaves.

In a poem called “Out of the Ordinary,” Watson begins with a generalization about the modern world: the idea being promoted is nothing no one be disorderly or left unattended . . .

Then he discovers nearby a clothes hanger empty dangling from a shrub in breeze

A couple of more random images of urban life follow as he looks around, before he finds the natural one that he wants to celebrate: by god! here’s a tree! (does it know its own name?) —

Where Robinson uses the coat hanger, as it were, as a peg for his reflections, to express a kind of hesitant gratitude, Watson employs it as a piece of evidence in drawing a conclusion, albeit with a certain appreciation.

It is curious that Watson, while raising concern about too much order and control, presses the point so firmly, whereas Robinson, by being less insistent, is able to range more freely round the accidental image.

Neither poem is one of the best in the collection of which it is part, but in each case it is a dependable guide to the poet’s preoccupations. Much, of course, depends on how the individual poet approaches the subject of his work, and presents it to the reader.