John Matthias and cultural geography

A short while ago I wrote a piece on poetry and map-making which was both ill-conceived and poorly expressed.  I’ve now had the opportunity to think this through some more and will attempt a second stab.

The first premise is that space is constructed by us as individuals and that the spaces that we create in our heads are far more important than the physical dimensions/aspects of a physical space that actually exists.

The second premise is that poetry is particularly good at creating the idea of a particular place, that verse can best express how it is (or was) to be in a particular location.

The third premise is that our cultural background is tied in with how we put space together in our heads and that this is intricately linked with our sense of time.

Some of John Matthias’ work is a prime example of the above. I don’t normally pay much attention to blurbs on the back of books but I think Guy Davenport gets it about right when he says- “Objective and clear, his poetry is a splendid fusion of engaging subjects and masterful technique. He has refined the narrative and speculative poem, giving it a lyric integrity of great strength and beauty.” I’d also like to add that Matthias is the best ‘poet of place’ that we currently have. The ‘A Gathering of Ways’ collection contains poems about East Anglia, the American Midwest and a remarkable long poem about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

“She maps Iraq” is a brilliant, eloquent poem about the nature of political power and gender relations and the making of space whilst the ‘Trigons’ collection takes us from 1939 to the present and includes the Greek Isles, London, Paris, Moscow and California.

I’ll try and give an example of why this stuff is important, when we think of London during the Blitz, we think of London in flames, of many thousands dead, of the physical destruction of the East End but Matthias writes of a series of concerts given during the Blitz by Myra Hess in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery and does so in such a moving and evocative way that my cognitive map of that time and place has changed.

His ‘East Anglian Diptych’ has had a similar effect- in the past I’ve always thought of East Anglia a rather damp backwater but reading this has made me aware not only of the vibrancy of the place but also how that particular place has been created and re-created through time. The inclusion of Edward Thomas and John Constable also add to the cultural component in space creation. I’ve said before that Matthias is a very intelligent and skilled poet, he is able to do difficult things whilst making them seem easy and I wish I had this gift.

So, poets make place and some poets do this with a great deal of care. John Milton went to enormous lengths to ensure that the spatial relationship between heaven, hell and earth was feasible. Dante creates specific geographies for each of his various levels whilst Spenser’s spaces in the Faerie Queen are a weird (but considered) blend of the real and the imaginary.

My own current attempts to write something reasonable about the Saville Inquiry are currently floundering on the space issue. The place itself is contested because it has two names (Derry and Londonderry) and the places where trauma occurred during that Sunday afternoon continue to be constructed in equally different ways both culturally and politically (with a large religious dimension thrown in) and I know that I should reflect this but can’t yet do it with ease.

One final thought, Matthias’ description of gendarmes using their clubs like swords has changed irrevocably my mental image of the barricades from 1830 onwards- is this what the strength of poetry (in a few lines) can do?

4 responses to “John Matthias and cultural geography

  1. Not to disagree exactly, but to say this is highly personal. I do not, myself, find “that poetry is particularly good at creating the idea of a particular place, that verse can best express how it is (or was) to be in a particular location.” For example, I find the London of Blow-Up or Patrick Keiller; or Iain Sinclair (in prose), or Anthony Powell*, or even Thomas Pynchon, more vivid than poetic places. And even to the extent that poems convey place, for me, they don’t resemble maps (which generally claim to be complete representations of two dimensions of some segment of the world, eliding or (literally) adumbrating the third). Your paragraph on writing about the Troubles could be read showing that mapping is difficult because it’s so important, or because it’s a poor fit.

    * I’ve been mocked by poets for admiring Powell — hope I don’t lose face here by citing him.

    • I think it’s horses for courses but I think that poetry (because of its inherent resonance) does place in a way that I can ‘relate to’. Thinking about London, I’m currently reading something by Sean Bonney that contains one or two startling images and has more ‘meaning’ for me than the collected Sinclair. I think movies can be very powerful on place but in a different way and Pynchon is in a category all of his own. I’ve never read any Powell so your face is still intact.
      The problem with the Saville thing is solely due to my inability to say the key things that I feel must be said but I may stop worrying about the place dimension.

  2. John Matthias notes in an article: ‘Who was Cousin Alice?’ [Chicago Review, 54: Spring, 2009, pp.83-103] begins, ‘I’ve been trying for some time to remember all the rooms in my grandfather’s house’, that he settles on Olson as the right model ( for telling Cousin Alice’s tale [p.97] because ‘he dealt so well with coastal geography and history’…in Maximus.

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