John Matthias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes

Up until about four months ago I had never heard of John Matthias, then I bought issue 1 of the Cambridge Literary Review (CLR) which contains a poem called ‘Cafe des Westens’ which intrigued me because it drops more names than Geoffrey Hill and because it is gloriously manic in a fairly controlled kind of way. It also contains many lines that I wish I’d written (the ultimate Bebrowed test of quality).

I therefore filed Matthias in the ‘must read some more’ section of my brain and went on with trying to make sense of Prynne and Sutherland. I then sold the business in which I own a half share and therefore found myself unemployed and with some spare cash. I decided to have a bit of a rest from all things Prynne and ordered two Matthias tomes from Salt.

Matthias’ latest volume is ‘Kedging’ which was published in 2007 and contains a long poem called ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestoes’ which features a diverse cast including, amongst many others, Naussicca, Noah, Homer, Robinson Crusoe, Babe Ruth, Tristan Tzara and Malevich. Matthias takes enormous delight in poking fun at lists and list making and the poem is a tremendous example of the witty polemic ( a genre that we seem to have lost).

It’s fair to say that Matthias is against computers, especially the internet, what he sees as the easy relativism of post-modernism and has not yet got his brain around the current debate on gender politics. Description of Naussica’s underwear and references to ‘barely legal’ as well as a bit of a rant about a female student who complained about a colleague’s use of the term ‘pussy footing’ would suggest that misogyny isn’t yet dead in the North American academy but this should not detract from Matthias’s erudition and skill in building a coherent argument.

I’ve always been fascinated by the list business, by our futile attempts to make sense of the world by means of organisation and naming. Matthias points out that a manifesto is usually a list of principles or ideas which attempts (and fails) to impose order on things. The best recent maker of lists was Michel Foucault who had built his reputation on an extended critique of the list business. The other interesting thing about the manifesto is that it often tries to disguise itself as something else. In the last section of the poem, Matthias seems to draw a parallel between manifestoes and elegiac poems and goes on to point out that both “are cognizant and they can glow / They’re coeternal and they rise to an occasion / Although they tell no stories of their lives, their little trumpets blow”.

I find this to be heady stuff, I particularly like the final phrase although, being a stubborn materialist, I’d question the choice of ‘coeternal’ but can’t currently think of a better one. The ‘little trumpets’ image is magnificent, the kind of phrase that burns into the brain and stays there, which is precisely what I need poetry to do.

With regard to elegiac poetry, I’m quite familiar with Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Hill’s remarkable elegy for Gillian Rose and acknowledge that there are ‘list aspects’ to both and I can see how Hill’s work in memorialising the dead can be seen as a manifesto for how we should live our lives.

For this poem, Matthias uses three epigraphs, the first is from AS Byatt- “People often leave no record of the most passionate moments of their lives. They leave laundry lists and manifestoes.” The third is a list from ‘Robinson Crusoe’ but the second is a quote from Tristan Tzara – “I’m writing a manifesto and I don’t want anything, I say however certain things and I am on principle against manifestoes, as I am also against principles”. I’d like to think that Matthias uses the Tzara quote to illustrate the list paradox in that we can all claim to be unfettered by the principle of organisation but are still bound to make sense of things in an organised way, each of us allowing our little trumpets to blow.

5 responses to “John Matthias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes

  1. John Matthias

    Interesting. I’m not really anti-technological, actually, but the full story goes on in other books — especially Working Progress (Salt) and Trigons (just out from Shearsman). There’s a critical book that might interest you edited by Robert Archambeau, who has also just published another on five of us who were at Stanford together in the 60s. Also, Carcanet has also just published Five American Poets; same group. If you’d like to chat, drop me an email at

    John M

    • John,

      I’m pleased that you find my response interesting and thanks for the clarification on technology. As well as reading ‘Kedging’, I’m currently looking at the ‘New Selected’ published by Salt in 2004 and I’ll look at the other two after that.
      I was aware of the Archambeau tome before I bought the two books but I tend to prefer to read stuff for myself first before finding out what others have to say. I will read it later primarily because Archambeau is one of the few critics that has interesting and useful things to say.
      I will drop you an e-mail shortly.


  2. I like your description of Matthias as one who “drops more names than Geoffrey Hill … is gloriously manic in a fairly controlled kind of way,” which seems exactly right.

    I’m not sure about the technophobia, though — you might want to check out “Working Progress, Working Title,” also from Salt, which treats electronic music positively. It drops more names that Geoffrey Hill, too.

    There’s about 100 pages on Matthias — a survey of the career — in my new book “Laureates and Heretics.” I imagine some library somewhere in England’s got a copy, if you’re interested in reading up on JM.

  3. Robert,

    Thanks for this, as you can see the man himself has already put me right on technology. As I said in the piece, I’m very much a Matthias virgin but I find that I’ve made this almost instant connection with his work. I love the almost shameless name-dropping especially when it’s done with such confidence and skill. I’m also impressed by his ability to make serious points with wit and style.
    I will read all your stuff on Matthias later but for the moment I’m keen on reading and enjoying the poems.


  4. Joe Francis Doerr

    When you’ve read and enjoyed for yourself John Matthias’ many wonderful poems, and after you’ve had the pleasure of reading through the excellent tome edited by Robert Archambeau, look for an additional collection of essays edited by yours truly on the poetry of JM: ‘The Salt Companion to John Matthias,’ which will be published later this year. Though the essays by the many contributors are all brilliant in their own right, you may particularly enjoy contributions by Archambeau himself, Gerald Bruns, Mark Scroggins, and Keith Tuma all of which continue the exploration of Matthias’ onomastic poetics in work he has published since 1997. With Bruns and Scroggins dealing specifically with “Laundry Lists and Manifestoes,” I’m certain you’ll find much to hold your interest.



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