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.