Tag Archives: john matthias

Annotation, illustration and the movies

(We’ve now completed the notes to Section 4 of “Islands, Inlands”)

One of the main reasons for producing an online full text version of Trigons is the problem of the dead link. The Trigons sequence contains urls pointing to pages that expand on what’s in the text. There’s a link to a youtube clip of Myra Hess playing the Appassionata and there’s another to a page which explains how the signals in the brain can be ‘made’ into music. Both the links that appear in the Shearsman print edition are now dead so we thought that producing an online version would mean that the links could be updated as and when they passed away.

This is not something that’s an optional add on, the poem is quite insistent on the Hess clip:

but reach for something distant in confusion take a look
yourself at youtube.com/watch?v=UNlyxn2Y4 E
before you read
another word..................

In addition to these two, there are others which expand on the text and need to be maintained / updated. Having now completed the first four sections of the first Trigons poem, another element becomes apparent. One of the central events of “Islands Inlands” is the kidnap of General Kriepe on Crete by a band of Cretan partisans led by Patrick Leigh Fermor which I’ve written about before re the dangers of imposing my reading on top of John’s intention. In researching this a bit more I’ve come across a Greek television documentary where the kidnappers and their captive are reunited and Kriepe and Leigh Fermor are interviewed about this adventure. Fortunately there is a version on youtube that’s been dubbed into English so I’ve been able to link to that. I’m also in two minds about linking to “Ill met by Moonlight”, the film version based on W Stanley Moss’ book about the kidnap. At the moment I’m deciding against inclusion because it doesn’t seem to add much to “Trigons”.

I’ve found that, once you start thinking in terms of “material” rather than what’s in print you become immersed in a completely new set of possibilities, from the use of images and how they can relate to the notes and to the poem, the use of audio files for the music that’s written about in the text through to whether to flag up sources that are skewed by bias but nevertheless give a decent account of the event that the work alludes to. Another dimension that I haven’t got my brain around yet is how best to reference place names that might be obscure- I’ve linked Mt. Ida on Crete to the Google map but I can also provide images s well as geographical and geological data. I’m also very fortunate to be working with the maker of this poem and therefore I have this amalgamation of what he wants as the poet and what I want as the reader.

Whilst writing this, Zachary Bos forwarded me a quote from one G Hill on difficulty which seems pertinent to the glozing business:

I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

This is all very well but I do think there’s a difference between simplification and providing context. I’m also a little suspicious of Hill’s justifications because they change so often (“life’s difficult” “wouldn’t want to insult the intelligence of my readers”) and none of them manage to justify some of his more extreme obscurities (Bradwardine). If I thought that either John or I were trying to provide a “Trigons Lite” then I wouldn’t have started but John’s work is usually packed with real people and real places which provides plenty of scope for providing a ‘neutral’ context.

In his response to an earlier post, John quoted William Empson:

There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd bit of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; such a point may be explained in a note without trouble to anybody; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note.

One of the advantages of the interweb is that you can present information at a number of levels that enable readers to “drill down” as far as they want. Of course we choose when the bottom is reached, the current debate is about to revolve “Mr S Thalassinos” which John feels requires a short note but I’ve now found a quote which ties this fictive character to Giorgos Katsimbalis who is already mentioned in the notes which is useful to me as a reader but may be too much for the poem in terms of providing a disproportionate amount of detail.

I’ve also been trying out a number of “experiments in reading” and it now strikes me that perhaps I should make more use of links in these too. This seems especially important in the case of David Jones’ “The Anathemata” for which Jones provided his own notes as well as a number of images to accompany the text. As I’ve said before, Jones omits to gloss some of the trickier bits and some of the notes require notes of their own. I was continuing with this particular experiment earlier this week and, in order to preserve the sense of immediacy, simply referred to looking on the “interweb” to find more about some of the proper nouns. Half of me thinks that this is okay, that it’s not intended to be a gloss and that people (who want to) should be able to find the same information quite quickly whilst the other half thinks that a link expanding further on the “it’s Ossa on Pellion now” line might be useful.

As John Dillon remarked in a recent response, illustrations and comments alongside poems in manuscript form were reasonably common during the medieval period- as I’m writing I’m resisting the temptation to link to Bodleian MS Douce 104 which carries illustration to the ‘c’ text of “The VisionPiers the Plowman” – and many poets have used photography to accompany their work- Paul Muldoon’s “Plan B” springs to mind. This isn’t to say that poetry on the web should be reduced to a comic book but that it might help, for example to include in the notes an image of the kidnapped general as he is escorted across the island. It might also help to make use of google maps for Smyrna and Leros as well as Ida. I’m sure that there’s a balance to be reached in these things but I don’t think just relying on text is going to be sufficient in the very near future. For example, Trigons has many musical and musicological references which can be augmented with the relevant audio files, the issue for the glozer is whether or not these should be embedded in the page or accessed via a link in the text. I’m of the view that the latter should suffice provided that the “title” tag makes it very clear on rollover what the link leads to.

The other issue that keeps cropping up is the reliability of external sites. We’ve decided not to rely on Wikipedia articles unless we can verify the content but there are some wonderful resources now on some of the more esoteric subjects, there’s a Leigh Fermor blog that is obviously a labour of love but contains invaluable info and resources that we’ve made use of, there’s also an English language site devoted to Karaghiosis, a form of puppet theatre that we’ve obtained a pertinent quote from even though I haven’t been able to verify it.

Annotated Trigons update and further experiments in reading

For those that aren’t regulars, I’m currently collaborating with John Matthias on producing an on-line and annotated full text version of Trigons, his magnificent sequence which was published in 2010. Progress continues to be made, we now have the third section of “Islands, Inlands” (the first poem in the sequence) in a usable state together with notes to John’s headnote for the sequence as a whole. I like to think that I’m a bit clearer on the amount of information to provide and to try and rely on what I’m thinking of as primary sources (diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews etc) to expand on a theme because secondary sources dealing with Greece since 1945, for example, all seem to have a very sharp ideological axe to grind. There’s also issues of self control, I’m now of the view that the whole world should know more about Michael Ayrton and his “The Testament of Daedalus”. I could therefore write a few thousand enthusiastic words on this remarkable man but I’ve recognised that this would be serving my needs rather than those of the reader. So, Ayrton gets about the same as Miller, Seferis and Durrell.

I think I also need to say what a privilege it is to work with someone as generous and thoughtful as John on this marvellous piece of work.

Given the attention tht this project seems to be getting, I’ve had several long thoughts about arduity and have decided to cull a few of the sections (those relating to theory and lit crit etc etc) and to concentrate on poems and poets whilst retaining pages on ambiguity, meaning and allusion. The site is also in desperate need of a Big Polish in that it currently has two page formats based on completely different style sheets and I need to tweak some of my prose. In the mood for spring cleaning, I’ve now added disqus comment boxes at the bottom of the Matthias pages and will now carry this across the rest of the site. I’ve avoided the comments issue on arduity primarily because it’s technically beyond me and I’m too stubborn to use a wysiwyg editor but now I think it would be a Good Thing to have feedback at the foot of each page.

I’ve also recognised that arduity gets more traffic than this blog (4022 user sessions v 822 so far this month) and this means that the material that I think might have some value to others might be best “parked” on arduity. There are probably a number of reasons for this imbalance- people use blogs in different ways to sites with more visible navigation, the wordpress metatags aren’t very good even and this means arduity invariably beats berowed in search engine results.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m going to write about poems and poets on arduity and use this to think out loud about poetry in a less specific way. The first development will be extended “experiments in reading” being placed on arduity so that they are more visible to google and the rest. Which brings me to a thought following on from John Dillon a fortnight ago about the relationship between the gloss and the text and in what way can a gloss be said to be part of the poem. I think I’m beginning to sort out an answer to that but the interweb gives us another dimension in that we now have comments on the gloss that the reader can chose to integrate into his or her reading.
I’ll try and give an example, the experiements in reading are an attempt to inject a greater sense of immediacy into my readings with a view to encouraging a wider readership and to get some feedback/help with regard to the tricky stuff.

By way of illustration, a week ago I posted an experiment re the first few pages of “The Anathemata” which drew this comment:

I just have a quick point about the opening prayer. The prayer is the Quam Oblationem. According to some theologians, it is an epiklesis whereby the celebrant prays that God will send down the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the body and blood. One of the theologians who ascribed to that reading and who sees it as the actual beginning of the Consecration is Maurice de la Taille. In that sense, then, The Ana’s opening prayer acts as DJ’s invocation of the muse ( and quite a number of other things).

I’m of the view that this belongs in the body of my text as well at the bottom of the page because it enhances understanding and provides context that I don’t have. So, I will be asking permission to do incorporate this into the text in a way that acknowledges the source but is nevertheless part of the work.

This isn’t a clarion call for the “open” gloss whereby everybody can contribute what ever they want but it certainly does give another dimension that we should think about. The other dimesnion is where the speculation about meaning becomes part of the gloss. I’ve now written 2 x 1,000 word experiments on Keston Sutherland’s “The Odes” and there’s been a couple of enhanced speculations with regard to the depilated Janine:

Since we’re speculating … a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.

I responded by suggesting that Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982” was more likely. Here’s the response:

<

Damn, I like yours better, and have another book to read to boot. How can something be “hereafter congenital” for said textual/sexual Janine, assuming all her kidding is prophylactically voided? I’m tempted to go ‘full Prynne’ and trace congenital back to its conquest of of ‘congenial.’ Now that’s what over-reading would look like.

I’m of the view that this exchange should occur just after I first mention the prospect of “tackling” Janine. Then yesterday something else was thrown into the mix:

You’ve got me thinking about ‘congenitally depilated’. The word ‘congenitally’ contains the word ‘genitally’, so this could partially resolve to ‘genitally depilated’. Genitals and the word and the word do crop up elsewhere in the poem. This would certainly fit with the porn star reading. That still leaves ‘congenitally’. In line with the poem’s larger (troubling? important? brave?) preoccupation with childhood sexuality, I read ‘congenitally’ as collapsing the state of nature at birth into the infantilising and fashionable aversion to pubic hair among adults (not just porn stars), but here the aversion is inverted and to depilation and it’s that that’s defective. This is somewhat troubling, or at least challenging. I would justify the apparent awkwardness/senselessness of ‘hearafter’ as picking up on this temporal confusion. It also strikes me that if ‘congenitally’ can become ‘con genitally’, maybe ‘hereafter’ can be taken as ‘here after’, but I don’t know how much that helps. If it’s congenital it’s congenital from birth but in a different, artificial way, “always already” congenital in adulthood?

I think reading both of the above, it is important that when people have put some thought into things and expressed those thoughts with such clarity that they should be given a more prominent/noticeable place in the gloss.

There’s also a more precise reading:

‘aboriginal mucus’ thought of as an original inhabitant; impeccable darkness as opposed to the mere absence of light.

My unscrewed head is like a bulb in the palm of my hand. Certain kinds of ‘truths burn out and fly away’ for as long as it’s not connected to a Ground⏚

Ground is where the ‘stack of basements’ are
elevated; inundated in impeccable darkness.

My freezer has a freezer light. It’s behind a ‘grainy
blank’. Blank is another word for a cover or a plate.
I wonder what it would be like if all the world were like the contents of my freezer and only ever seen under that light. A ‘prophylactic void…’?

The etymology of Janine is the same as it is for John, John, but to take the etymological truth of Janine as gospel would be like removing the hair at birth. Are burnt out truths like hairs pulled out of your head one at a time?

I think you are onto something John. Probably something to do with the intersection between carrying secrets and burning out.

Which I need to find a place for. Of course, this wholesale lifting needs to be agreed with the writer before I move it but I do think that it’s a dimension that’s woth pursuing.

The annotated Trigons: an update.

Given the interest in this project, I thought I’d provide a weekly (ish) summary of progress made. The first section of “Islands, inlands” has now been completed and we’ve agreed a working template for the navigation which might prove to last at least another few weeks.

I think we’re still exploring what can be done with the interweb and the possibilities beyond print. I think we both started with a concern not to either ‘explain’ nor to provide too much context. This has been ameliorated by realising the obvious – users don’t have to follow links if they don’t want to and therefore can control the extent of the context that they may need. I wouldn’t need to know about Miller or Durrell, for example, but would need some background on Seferis.

Of course, as well as writers, there’s the foreign names and words, the first section has “Karaghiosis” who is the main character of Greek shadow puppet theatre. I’ve provided a brief explanation, one relevant quote and am about to link to the most relevant and comprehensive site that I can find but I need JM to point me towards the relevant passage about raising the dead in “Prospero’s Cell”.

This also throws up the question of whose poem this is. I haven’t yet worked this out but I’ve come across material that seems to be a direct source but isn’t. There’s an interview with Seferis where he describes meeting Durrell and Miller and then goes on to recount Miller’s generosity in giving him his diary- the first draft of what was to be published as “The Colossus of Massouri” which is one of the poem’s main source text. This anecdote has no bearing on “Islands, inlands” and readers don’t need it to gain full understanding of the poem. I’m however of the view that it’s a lovely story and indiciative of the spirit of bohemian solidarity in thirties Europe that Seferis describes. So, the quote about the diary goes in on account of loveliness and the solidarity remark will only be gleaned by those that can be bothered to follow the link and read the interview in full. I think this underlines the ownership issue in a collaboration- I’ve put this in and John has approved its inclusion but it wasn’t in his head when he wrote the poem. I’ve also quoted Seferis on 20th century Hellenism because I think I’d like readers to draw the line that John alludes to when he says that:

The Old War in question is, of course, WW II, though it is not accidental that the first poem in the sequence deals with a Greek setting in that conflict:

I’ve decided that it would be inappropriate to overtly ‘develop’ that remark but am attempting to do this by stealth- as with the Kreipe kidnap problem discussed last week- providing quotes re Miller and Greece as a “continuous process” and linking to Seferis on the Colonels’ Junta:

Everyone has been taught and knows by now that in the case of dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy awaits, inevitably, in the end. The drama of this ending torments us, consciously or unconsciously — as in the immemorial choruses of Aeschylus. The longer the anomaly remains, the more the evil grows.

In terms of the interweb, the possibilities for adding breadth and depth are enormous especially as the quality of content is improving. Of course there are still the recurring anxieties about bias but I’ve been struck by the absence of balance in some of the well-established bastions: the Wikipedia article on Durrell seems much more judicious than the almost hagiographic DNB entry.

We now come to the link colour problem. Many, many years ago when I started building content pages on welfare benefits, there was an accepted way to ‘do’ links that everybody followed. This is no longer the case and I hve gone through a number of phases in either going with the flow towards greater variation or in maintaining blind adherence to the original on the grounds that It Still Works. The current arduity style sheet, for example is the product of extensive dithering undertaken last year on another project and is obviously in need of further dither. I may be wrong but I’d like not to disrupt the ‘flow’ of the line with too great a contrast in colour from black to blue to red and I’m thinking of getting rid of the roll-over, colour swap device that seemed cool when the Guardian did it but clearly isn’t. I did think of just using the underline to indicate a link and thus retain the consistency in colour but this would then confuse those parts of the text that are underlined in print with the links. So, before we go any further I think I need to have an extended play with the light blues and reds.

Then there’s the even thornier issue of link density, the first section is 16 lines and there are 9 links which is probably excessive but I’d rather put more rather than less in at this stage. I haven’t linked “the pornographer” but have relied on JM’s note which links to a fuller profile of Miller. I’ve done it this way because I reckon most readers will connect Miller to Paris and pornography (I did) and have been more direct on the Smyrna Consul because I originally thought that this may refer to Durrell. I thought about explaining that “The Tempest” refers to the play but instead hoped that most readers would gather this for themselves, I’ve used the Durrell profile to attribute this suggestion to him.

As a reader, I know I’ll interrupt my reading to check out words and names that aren’t familiar and this nealy always entails the interweb which can be both distracting and (sometimes) wrong. I’m therefore trying to provide anchored links to brief definitions at the bottom of the page which then link to more relevnt detail.

In terms of navigation, we now have a Trigons home page which gives a brief introduction and overview but I think I’m now of the view that we might need a separate home page for each of the poems- these could be built around John’s original notes. This might take to some time to agree- I’m finding that information architecture is quite difficult to do when the other person isn’t in the same room and there’s the fact that there are other components in the sequence.

On a personal note, John keeps on gently pushing me towards writers that I would otherwise ignore. This process started three years ago with David Jones and has now moved on to Seferis and Michael Ayrton whose “The Testament of Daedalus” I have now acquired and is awaiting some attention- the Collected Seferis is on it’s way. There’s also a bit of a debate under way as to how much detail we should give on Erik Lindegren…

John Matthias, annotation and collaboration

First of all, the three volumes of John Matthias’ Collected Poems have now been published by Shearsman and must be read by all those of us who value intelligent and exhilarating verse. What isn’t in these three volumes is the remarkable ‘Trigons‘ which John nevertheless regards as part of his collected work.

I’ve been writing about John’s work here and on arduity for the last three years primarily because he makes the technically difficult look effortless and because he provokes thoughts in quite a startling way. The great Guy Davenport said that John is “one of the best poets in the USA” and nobody with any sense could disagree with that.

John and I have corresponded over the last three years and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude both for his support and for introducing me to the magnificent work of David Jones.

We’ve been talking about ‘Trigons’ for the last year or so and about the complex business of annotation. John has provided a set of notes on Trigons for a poetics seminar earlier this year and we’ve now agreed to collaborate on expanding these into an annotated on-line edition of the poem.

The purpose of this blog is to think aloud about what annotation/glozing might be about. I’m reasonably particular about what I feel that I need in that I’d rather references were over rather than under explained but I don’t need notes that state the bleeding obvious and ignore some of the obscurities that I need help with. I’m also aware that increased familiarity with the text leads to a proportionally increasing impatience with the notes. Having acknowledged this I then assumed that this particular poem would be relatively straightforward given the plethora of real people and events and that the only real difficulties would be the use of musicology and neuroscience.

I now have to report that I was wrong. I’ve only started on the first section of the first poem in the sequence and have hit a number of complications. The first relates to familiarity. The first part of Trigons I relates to Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller on Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor on Corfu. Now, I assumed that most readers would be reasonably familiar with Miller and Durrell but might need some help with Leigh Fermor. My focus group tells me that this may not be the case: Miller gets confused with Arthur; Durrell gets confused with Gerald and nobody has even heard of Leigh Fermor. I’m prepared to accept that this particular focus group isn’t packed with poetry fans but they all read fiction, are intelligent yet only one can name works by Miller and Durrell- both of whom are best known as novelists.

What I didn’t know until I read John’s notes was that Durrell had written ‘Prospero’s’ Cell’, an account of his time on Corfu, and that Miller wrote ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, an account of his time as a guest of Durrell’s. Delving a bit deeper I’ve come across a Paris Review interview with Miller where he says he considers ‘The Colossus’ to be his finest work because “the Colossus was written from some other level of my being. What I like about it is that it’s a joyous book, it expresses joy, it gives joy”. Needless to say I’ve now started to read this and have placed a pdf of it on arduity for download. In ‘Prospero’s Cell’ Durrell suggests that Corfu may have been the setting for ‘The Tempest’ – I can’t find a copy of this on the web but the advantage of working with the poet is that I can always ask him for the exact reference if we think it’s needed.

I’ve also acknowledged to myself that I don’t like Durrell as either a writer or as a man and that I need to keep this prejudice out of the note whilst tempering my enthusiasm for all things Miller.

The next problem is a little more difficult to resolve. In 1943 Leigh Fermor led a group of English and Cretan resistance fighters to kidnap the German General Kriepe, an event that John refers to in some detail. Now there are three views about this adventure:

  1. that it was a heroic act in the brave campaign against the German occupiers;
  2. that it was a foolish act that achieved nothing except the death of civilian victims of the ensuing German reprisals;
  3. that it had nothing to do with the Germans but was a less than subtle attempt to ensure that the reprisals were inflicted on villages controlled by the communists.

Although I wasn’t aware of the Kriepe kidnapping, I did know about the murky role of the British in both the Greek resistance and the postwar Greek civil war. I also knew that the Greek left have been particularly vituperative about this ever since. The poem goes on to make mention of the Colonel’s coup (1967-74) and the torture of dissidents that took place on an epic scale during those years. I therefore made the assumption that some reference was being made to the essentially tragic nature of Greek politics since 1945. This isn’t actually the case – which leads to this dilemma- how much of the above do you provide and how much do you leave out? The temptation is not to comment on anything other than the facts and link to a more detailed account but each of these accounts unsurprisingly takes one of the above lines and trashes the other two. I think we’ve agreed that I’m going to provide a factual note that mentions the three main theories but only observes that the SOE decided to ditch the communist resistance in the months prior to the kidnap. I think we’re both happy to leave any over-reading (resistance – civil war – coup -Euro fiasco – rise of the extreme right (again)) to the attentive reader.

With regard to collaboration, our current modus operandi seems to work because we’re both enjoying the process and I think it helps that we’re both exploring what can and can’t be done with the internet re glozing. I’m also incredibly grateful that I have the poet to keep my wilder fantasies in check.

This is the incomplete first part of our efforts, it’s very much in draft form but I’d be immensely grateful for feedback as things progress.

Pennsound’s Matthias page has the man himself reading from Trigons and other works.

Jerimee Bloemeke and the effective poetic list

After writing about David Jones and list-making yesterday I came across ‘L&M 1: The Gemstone Ruby System’ by the above and was impressed by its obsessive and unpoetic cleverness and this got me to thinking about why I like the list poem and what makes such a poem work.

Then, in response to the Jones piece, Vance Maverick drew my attention to ‘America, a history in verse’ by Edward Sanders and I looked at the first few pages of volume 6 which contains one of the worst poetic lists that I have ever read.

Before we go any further I need to throw in a kind of disclaimer because I’m going to (amongst other things) write about my own poetry making. I’m going to do this because I understand the rationale for the list poems that I make and because I feel that they ‘do’ what I want them to. I’m not writing about them in order to draw attention to my practice, I put them on this blog because I like them and because I can. I’m also going to write about a list poem that has me as its subject, this was written by my daughter and I use this because it’s a good poem and because it shows that list poems can be quite lyrical and tender. I need to stress that I’m not comparing either of these with any of the others that are included primarily because different lists are about different things.

So, this will look at lists by John Matthias, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Goldsmith, Jerimee Bloemeke with a glance at the fiction of John Updike and Roberto Bolano.

This was going to be called ‘the tragedy of the list’ but that seemed too lit crit, however I want to start with a couple of lines from the current master of the list, John Matthias:

............They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all colaterals and cogs,
Codes and Codices for Mdme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestos which proclaim their faith in algorythms of an
Unknown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives, their little trumpets blow.

This is the second time I’ve quoted these closing lines from ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’ and I do this because they show great technical skill and because the point that is made is an important one. We all use lists to impose some order on our lives and the environment in which we exist, the business of science is essentially about creating sophisticated lists from raw data (simple lists). The sadness / tragedy of the list is that it will never be adequate to its task and thus contains within it an elegy to itself. I think my personal interest in or obsession with lists is that the Rortian relativist in me views them as essentially and fascinatingly fictive. as increasingly obsessive attempts to paper over the cracks of our collective neuroses.

Because Matthias understands lists and (this is important) is a very accomplished poet, he can do brilliant poetic lists. This stanza is from the ‘Autumn’ section of ‘Four Seasons of Vladimir Dukelsky’:

Diaghilev soon died and Gershwin soon after. Dukelsky grabbed at
Balanchine, the movies. Emigre composers headed for LA as
Wall Street crashed and Sunset Boulevard survived. Prokofiev heckled him
From Moscow about maids who become prostitutes to feed their mums.
His mother ate. He wrote his songs: April in Paris on a tuneless upright
In the back of West Side Tony's bistro; Words Without Music for
The Ziegfield Follies 1936. Duke would dig Dukelsky from the rubble
Of Depression. Dancers kicked their can-cans on the silver screen.

This may not feel like a list but it is structured around a succession of proper names (ie a list) and these names are all connected to Dukelsky (aka Vernon Duke) and are built into an evocative chronology of a specific cultural event- the arrival of European musical talent in Hollywood. There’s also the ‘d’ alliteration of the last two lines. Because Matthias is both telling a story and making a point the reader tends to miss just how listful this is and the fact that the succession of names gives added impetus to the story.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ is one of the major works of the last century and is in part based on the historical records of Gloucester, the fishing town that is the subject of the sequence. ‘Maximus’ contains many lists but this is one of the most striking:

14 MEN STAGE HEAD WINTER 1624/5

they required

7 hundredweight biscuit bread £ 5. 5. 0.
@15/ per hundred
7 hhds of beer or sider 53/4 the tun 20. 0. 0.
2/3 hhd beef 3. 7. 2.
6 whole sides of bacon 3. 3. 0.
6 bush. pease 1.10. 0.
2/3 firkin butter 1. 0. 0.
2/3 cwt. cheese 2. 0.
1 pecke mustard seed 6. 0.
1 barrel vinegar 10. 0.
15 lbs candles 1. 0. 0.
3 pecks oatmeal 9. 0.
2/3 hhd/ aqua vitae 3. 0. 0.
2 copper kettles 3. 0. 0.
1 brasse crock 1. 0. 0.

The list contains many more costed items and the total expenditure is then used to compare the different costs of a ‘mere’ station and a plantation.

In the poem Oslon is clear to clarify that the list is ‘calculated’ from the original but it is also clear that it is a straightforward piece of appropriation with little or no embellishment.

I’ll ignore the various points that ‘Maximus’ makes about the doing of history and instead look at the effect on the reader. Olson believed that if you wanted to know something about a subject then you should immerse yourself completely in it- something he achieved to good effect when writing his brilliant study of ‘Moby Dick’ – and this, together with the other chronologies and genealogies is his attempt to thoroughly involve the reader in Gloucester’s story. There’s also something about placing the past undiluted and complete into the present which is an echo of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ thesis which underpins the sequence as a whole.

Ferlinghetti’s ‘Big Fat Hairy Vision of Evil’ is a lengthy multiple definition, these lines are taken from section 1:

Evil is death warmed over
Evil is live spelled backward
Evil is lamb burning bright
Evil is love fried upon a spit
and turned in on itself
Evil is sty in eye of universe
hung upon a coughing horse
that follows me at night
wearing blinders
Evil is green gloves inside out
next to a double martini
on a cocktail table

This is at the opposite end of the listful spectrum, it is lyrical, poetic and goes on to develop something about the poet’s relationship with evil. I first read Ferlinghetti when I was fourteen and remain of the view that he’s the most skilled of the Beats- although I don’t think there’s a lot of technique in the above which is more about having an idea and seeing it through.

We now come to Kenneth Golsmith’s ‘Traffic’ which is a transcript of unadulterated and sequential traffic reports every ten minutes from a New York radio station. It’s a poem because Goldsmith says it’s a poem and it’s classed as conceptual because the idea is supposed to be more important (worthy) than the material. I’m in a minority here because I’m fascinated by the text and less impressed by the idea because the text is about how short bursts of language can be used to communicate useful knowledge about a complex and changing environment.

It can be argued that my interest in this comes from an interest in urban space rather than poetry but isn’t this compression of knowledge into short bits of language an element of what poetry does best?

We now come to the intensely personal, My daughter (Kayt) made this a few years ago and I use it here to demonstrate that list affinity may be genetic and how this device/conceit can be used to produce something intensely personal and affectionate.

Then there is the list in fiction (as opposed to the fictional list. I need here to confess that I can’t see the point of John Updike and part of this disdain comes from the first Rabbit novel where a list of objects in a shop window is used to evoke both mood and place but is done so heavy handedly that the reader just notices the device and can’t get to the desired effect. Bolano’s ‘2066’ has a mesmerising description of murder upon murder committed against women in Northern Mexico which is both unbearable and compelling because it is presented factually with nouns and verbs rather than the usual surfeit of describing words.

As for me, I’ve got a strong interest in the poem as data and am also of the view that poetry is currently far too poetic for its own good. In the last six months I’ve made poems consisting of the stats for this blog, of the labels and captions used for maps and plans at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and images of 25 or so set lists from the recent Gillian Welch tour in chronological order. All of these are lists, all of these are appropriated from elsewhere and they all ‘do’ what I want them to which is to throw up questions about data, evidence, veracity and the authentic and the place of these in our cultural landscape. It is really important to me that these shouldn’t contain any of the usual poetic conceits (the enjambment in the label poem is taken from the labels themselves) and that they should primarily be lists.

What’s really good about the Bloemeke list is the repetition of ‘purchase’, the flat level of detail without digression and the absolute absence of adornment. It is archival, documentary, hypnotic a poem that is entirely of itself and an entirely fitting (heartbreaking) elegy for these dismal times.

David Jones and the art of history

This is my weak Xmas attempt at a clever title. David Jones, better known as an artist and designer than as a poet, who wrote a long poem about a range of historical events and who also made a poetic record of his experiences in the trenches in 1916. He also has some things to say in ‘The Anathemata’ about signs, symbols and images together with the role of the poet in speaking some kind of truth to power.

I remain of the view that both of Jones’ long poems are amongst the very best of the 20th century and this is for two reasons- his ability to do new and startling things with language and form and the humanity of his work. Eliot, in his introduction to ‘In Parenthesis’ places Jones alongside Joyce rather than Pound or himself but I don’t think that this is useful because it misses the unique quality of the work and what it sets out to achieve.

I think I need a brief digression here about the nature of my interest in history. I’m a lifelong reader of history and I like to think that I’m reasonably discerning in that I try to avoid anything that’s overly simplistic or intellectually weak. I started off by wanting to read the stories and then by using those stories to ‘explain’ the present. I think I’m now at the stage where I want history to show me aspects of how things have functioned in the past in terms of processes and how people thought about those processes. For most periods I have a preference for primary sources but I do read some historians because I like the way that they think- Bayly, Walsham and Wickham are historians that I read and re-read because of their perspective and the fact that they write eminently readable prose.

Jones is doing different types of history (used here in the broadest sense)- ‘In Parenthesis’ deals with a specific process that occurred during the first world war and this is set out in his preface-

“This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The second roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the West Front. From then onward things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing domestic life of small contingents of men, within whose structure Roland could find and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, end elbow room for idiosyncrasy that connected with a less exacting past.”

These are the opening sentences from the preface and here Jones starts by stating his credential as witness before going on to outline his theme. In terms of the narrative, this concerns a group of soldiers who move up to the Front and take part in the Somme offensive in July 1916. The poem ends in the carnage in Mametz Wood on July 11th which is transposed by the visitation of the Queen of the Woods who attends to the dead and the dying.

The poem is utterly compelling and gives a clear impression of how Jones experienced this period and of the camaraderie and fears of those men around him.. Most of the poem is in prose but I’ve chosen a piece of verse to try and demonstrate the very high quality of the work-

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
fails; needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers - you
simply can't take any more in.
And the surface of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with 'A'
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine guns perforate to powder
white-
white creature of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance
you have not the capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden
to negotiate the slope and rifles all out of balance, clumsied
with long auxiliary steel
seem five times the regulation weight-
it bitches the aim as well,
and we ourselves as those small
cherubs who trail awkwardly the weapons of the God in
Fine Art works.

I have no idea what it was like for both my grandfathers to rise out of those trenches in the face of sustained machine gun fire but I now have a very clear idea of what it was like for David Jones and for that I’m very grateful. The Somme offensive is one of those defining events in the national psyche remembered both for its wholesale carnage and for the mindset that led to it but Jones succeeds in presenting his own perspective on the process of mechanisation which he saw as heightening the barbarity on both sides.

So, the poet as witness to major event, as one who saw, felt and was part of things and felt the need to mark this particular point in with his own voice and in his own distinctive way.

Both poems have extended footnotes which are useful in providing additional context and the first edition of ‘In Parenthesis’ (and John Matthias’ ‘Introduction to David Jones’) contained Jones’ sketch map of the part of the front that he describes. This is unaccountably missing from the current Faber edition which was published last year.

‘The Anathemata’ was described by Auden as the greatest long poem long poem written in the twentieth century and I would certainly go along with this. Auden also remarked that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t fully understand it- I’ve been reading it for a mere eighteen months and feel that I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

It is a historical poem in that it describes different periods in the past and pays particular attention to what Jones’ describes as the signs or symbols of those times. Jones converted to Catholicism in 1921 which informs much of ‘The Anathemata’- especially the Catholic liturgy and what it may signify or represent. The other key fact is that Jones was born in Kent but his father was Welsh and the poem contains lots of Welsh history, legend and phrases- it’s reasonable to assert that Jones on part Welshness is vastly superior to Geoffrey Hill on the same subject.

I have recently quoted from Jones’ Preface to this poem where he speaks of the role of the poet with regard to those in power but here I want to quote him on signs and the passing of time-

“The times are late and get later, not by decades but by years and months. The tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data outmoded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of works and almost insuperable difficulties to the making of certain kinds of works; as when, for one reason or another, the making of those works has been spread over a number of years. The reason is not far to seek. The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase. These and kindred problems have presented themselves to me with a particular clarity and increasing acuteness. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.”

I’m neither Welsh nor Catholic and I wasn’t born in 1895 but I still feel/know that the signs contained in ‘The Anathemata’ continue to resonate with a pronounces ‘now-ness’ that we would all do well to take greater notice of. I’d like to finish by quoting from ‘The Lady of the Pool’ which primarily deals with London, this is part of the speech of the water maids-

                              If we furnish to the part
maybe we'll play it as St Aristotle would 'a' said.
Our shift must drape so -no, a trifle off, but not indecorous!
No helm? no matter,
we've mantling! From over the chapman-booths of level
Southwark does the stiffing breeze that freshes our Thames
play out our tresses - how this Maudlin gilt streamers
a tangled order
and sweet Loy!
how it do become us.

The reference to Southwark is glossed as “cf. ‘Some of the war-host held booths in level Southwark’ The Heimskringla, Section VIII, the Saga of Olaf the Saint”. Both ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘In Parenthesis’ are available in lots of places on the web at £18.00 each.

Poetry as History

The title is a deliberate inversion of the Geoffrey Hill poem published in ‘King Log’ in 1968. In that collection there is a sequence entitled ‘Funeral Music’ and at the back of the collection Hill has placed a short ‘essay’ on the sequence and the Wars of the Roses. There’s also a similar note at the end of ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy which gives a clear account of Peguy’s life and death.

I’ll get on to what Hill says shortly but the purpose of this is to consider the doing of history as a function of poetry. There are two or three ways to think about this:

  • poems that are about or are set in the historical past;
  • poems that comment on or are about contemporary public rather than personal issues which then serve as part of the historical ‘record’;
  • poems that consciously bear witness and/or memorialise those who have died.

About now I need to declare an interest, in that I am keen on history and enjoy reading serious history which is written by grown up historians. In the UK at the moment we have a number of exceptionally gifted historians who are a joy to read and this is what I do when I’m not reading poetry. I say this to make it clear that I have a bias but I hope what follows will that many of our more accomplished poets do the historical past in a way that adds to the record rather than simply embellish it.

The brilliant David Jones wrote about his personal past in the Battle of the Somme in ‘In Parenthesis’ and provided accounts of different periods in ‘The Anathemata’. In his preface to ‘The Anathemata’, Jones provides a succinct reading of the relationship between poetry and history:

I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product.

I think this is entirely sensible in that language itself is caught up and mired in the clutter and detritus of the past and it can be argued that this is why language can never be neutral and is always compromised. With this in mind, I’m going to look at how modernist poets have explored their relationship with the past.

Charles Olson and ‘Maximus’

Olson’s relationship with the past works on several levels. To start with ‘Maximus’ has the town of Glocester at its centre and Olson tells the story of the town from when it was first settled to the second half of the twentieth century. In order to tell this story, Olson makes extensive use of archival records and some of these are reproduced verbatim. He also interweaves myth and mythical figures into the sequence whilst having running argument about the best way to do history, taking the side of Herodotus instead of the less fanciful Thucydides. Olson was greatly influenced by A N Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ which (amongst many other things) questions our current thinking about the relationship between the present and the past, an interrogation undertaken with great skill in ‘Maximus’.

I want to give two examples, the first is the second half of ‘Letter 23’:

What we have here - and literally in my own front yard, as I said to Merk,
asking what delving, into "fisherman's field" recent historians......
not telling him it was a poem I was interested in, aware I'd scare him
off, muthologos has lost much ground since Pindar

The oldish man sd: "Poesy
steals away men's judgement
by her muthoi"(taking this crack
as Homer's sweet-versing)

"and a blind heart
is most men's portions." Plato

allowed this divisive
thought to stand, agreeing

that muthos
is false. Logos
isn't - was facts. Thus
Thucydides.

I would be an historian as Herodotus was, looking
for oneself for the evidence of
what is said: Altham says
Winslow
Was at Cape Ann in April,
1624

What we have in these fields in these scraps among these fishermen,
and the Plymouth men, is more than the fight of one colony with
another, it is the whole engagement against (1) mercantilism
(cf. the Westcountrymen and Sir Edward Coke against the crown,
in Commons, these same years - against Gorges); and (2) against
nascent capitalism except as it says the individual adventurer
and the worker on share - against all sliding statism, ownership
getting in to, the community as, Chamber of Commerce, or theocracy;
or City Manager

I think this shows how focused Olson was on ‘doing’ what we think of as the historical path in a new and challenging way. I am of the view that ‘Maximus’ is one of the towering acheivements of the twentieth century for all kinds of reasons but mostly because it manages to do justice to enormously complex subjects in a deceptively straightforward manner so that the reader does not appreciate at the time just how much is going on. Here we’ve got the suitablity/reliability of poetry as a means of doing history, the reasons why the doing of history might have taken a particular course and Olson’s preference for ‘the evidence of / what is said” before a detailed example of how this might be applied to Gloucester together with the working out of one aspect of the Whitehead thesis.

Before we get on to the next Olson example, it may be worthwhile to consider what poets hope to achieve by giving voice to their relationship with the past. Is the making of such a poem akin to the creation of a monument? Is it a signature or a trace amongst many of the same thing? Are we meant to be educated or informed, is there a didactic purpose behind the new configuration of the past? Or might it simply be the need to tell a story and to have that story be heard as story? I think what I’m trying to identify is what poetry adds to the past and now I’ll have a look at the role of the archive in Maximus. This is from one of the later poems in the sequence from July 1968:

Only
one such possible person so named at sd date wld
be her son Henry's mother - and therefore
Margaret Cannock herself. John Josselyn's
Sister-in law & hostess Black Point 1671
[just before the Indian attack, 1676, after which
no further record* of Henry, or of Margaret his
wife until

*not true. He died, Pemaquid, 1683.

this strange message out either
Upper Cheery or of Gee Avenue itself, that

The references to and quotes from the local archive recur throughout the sequence which was written over twenty years and indicates that Olson was prepared to demonstrate and put into practice his view about how history should be done. As someone who has spent many happy hours with the archive, I am fascinated by Olson’s use/appropriation of primary sources and his confidence in spelling out his practice throughout Maximus.

I’m sure that many people would argue that Olson was an anachronism and that his archival verse hasn’t actually led anywhere. This may be so but there are other important poets who have done the past as a way of ‘informing’ the present.

John Matthias

I could write for a very long time about Matthias because he is one of the five most accomplished poets currently at work with the English language. He does several things very, very well but I ammost attracted to his work that focuses on aspects of the past because he manages to modify and intensify our historical consciousness. I’ll try and explain this a bit further- we all have some notion of various periods in the past and for the English terms like ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Enlightenment’ conjure up a specific group of images and thoughts about what things might have been like during the time that those phrases refer to.

I’ve written before about ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’, ‘Kedging in Time’ and the ‘Trigons’ sequence but now I’d like to use them try and demonstrate the ways in which my sense of certain terms have gained greater depth. I like to think of ‘Laundry Lists’ as an extended riff on the sadness of the list throughout history. This is the third poem in the sequence;

We have the record of the stranger's deeds, his wily ways,
His journey home when washed and dressed and
celebrated at the court of Alcinous. We have the history of
Abram's offspring after Babel. But Shem and Ham and Japheth,
Gomer, Jadai, Gavan, Tuval, Meshech, Tiras, Riphath,
Togarmah and many others on the J & P lists might as well be
Coat and tie and shirt and trousers on the one Nausicaa left at home
That floats up on a foreign shore right now.
Of Nausicaa little else is known (though more has been
surmised.) She went on with her wash.
Zeus and Yahweh went on to become Suprematists
(The empty squares of cities not, as Kasimir Malevich
Was to say, mere empty squares.)

Here we have Homer, the Old Testament and post revolutionary Russia lightly woven together so have cause to think again about these three reference points. The poem does many things but in particular but it takes a number of these points and ‘re-works’ them in surprising ways to the point where my way of thinking about them has changed which is odd because my thoughts about and notions of the past are fairly fixed.

The same effect is achieved with ‘Kedging’ which is presented as a tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but is also a very astute take on what could be called our national consciousness in the early part of the last century. Briefly the terms that I’ve had to modify are ‘Casement’, ‘Scapa Flow’, ‘music hall’ ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘John Buchan’ as well as ‘code breaking’ (which is one of the most durable myths that we like to tell ourselves.) All of these are presented with great skill and intelligence with a refreshingly different scrutiny. It’s also a poem that seems to be burying itself deeper into my head.

‘Trigons’ is a longer and perhaps more ambitious sequence about cognition and perception but featuring specific times and places during the last century, Corfu in the late thirties and during WWII, London during the Blitz, Berlin, Moscow, Paris in 68, California all of which offer us a mostly musical / literary take on the century but also use aspects of each location to say something deeper about place and the passing of time.

Incidentally, here’s a chapter from the ‘Salt Companion to John Matthias’ which is a very perceptive analysis of the role of music in the work. It’s good to see that Matthias is beginning to get the attention that his work deserves.

Geoffrey Hill

Hill does history oddly, the most obvious candidates for poems as history would be ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’. The first of these is written in the voice of Offa and is partly set in early medieval Mercia but also flits in and out of the present. It is brilliant, one of the most important poems since 1945 but I’m not entirely sure that Hill is doing history here, it seems more likely that he’s doing key aspects of the nation and the inherently violent structuring of power.

‘Charles Peguy’ is described as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat'” and this is much more directly historical but only in the sense of providing context. This is the opening of the ninth poem in the sequence:

There is an ancient landscape of green branches-
true temperament de droite, you have your wish-
crosshatching twigs and light, goldfinches
among the peppery lilac, the small fish

pencilled into the stream. Ah, such a land
the Ile de France once was. Virelai and horn
wind through the meadows, the dawn masses sound
fresh triumphs for our Saviour crowned with scorn.

Hill would argue that he isn’t attempting to do history but he is still a historical poet by which I think I mean that particular elements of the past are almost soaked into all of the poetry. Hill’s academic expertise lies in 16th and 17th century England and there are recurring personalities and events referred to in almost every publication- the first and second world wars, the fate of the Jews during WWII, religious martyrs (especially Robert Southwell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There is a didactic feel to some of this but the history that Hill does is about providing context to what he has to say rather than adjusting our view of the past. ‘The Triumph of Love’ which is as brilliant as the Offa sequence is about our moral and spiritual recovery after the two world wars (hence the title) but it is much more about the nature of our moral landscape than about those terrible events.

I’m not sure that I’ve got very far with this other than to demonstrate the nature of some of the attachments that poets have to the “mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product”. In the near future I’ll give some thought to the role of poet as a maker of the historical record with specific reference to Jones, Spenser, Milton and Marvell.

John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ and ‘Trigons’

In May I wrote about using poetry as some kind of therapy, now that I’m beginning to get some respite from the bipolars I’d like to expand a bit more on the above two poems which are both important contributions to the late modernist vein and need to be read more widely. Incidentally, Salt has just published its Companion to Matthias which has an impressive range of contributors and only costs 12 quid.

As a reader and occasional writer of poetry I always try and work out whether I could write something similar. For example, if I spent the next five years in a dark room practising really hard I reckon I could produce something that read like a pale imitation of ‘Stress Position’ ‘Streak Willing’ or ‘Comus’ This may be misplaced vanity on my part but I do know that I will never have Matthias’ skill and technical ability. This has been confirmed by my recent re-reading, I know what Mathias oes but I don’t know how he does it. The poems are deceptively conversational but succeed in making very complex points almost by stealth. As I said, the other day, the recent sporadic bouts of depression have caused me to be intimidated by some poetry and to view the rest as either too mannered or pretentious. This wasn’t the case with Matthias, in fact the above two poems enabled me to keep faith with poetry an to see the point of my own interest in it.

I wrote about ‘Trigons’ at some length last year but now realise that I din’t come close to doing it justice. ‘Kedging is equally remarkable in a very different way.  The former is ‘about’ collective and individual cognition whereas ‘Kedging’ braids together different cultural and historical elements from the early 20th century. This might sound very abstract and boring but it isn’t, both are also written within the ‘scope’ of David Jones and attempt to develop his notion of the function and purpose of poetry.

The other thing that’s important to mention is the fact that Matthias is incapable of writing a bad line or using a naff image. I take some pride at being able to spot the clunky and the weak at some distance yet I am thus far unable to identify a single inept line.

I’d like to deal with ‘Kedging in Time’ first. This is ostensibly an affectionate tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but also manages to construct something solid out of a wide range of historical elements and characters. The main period covered is the first twenty years of the last century, taking in the Dardanelles campaign, the Easter Rising and subsequent Irish Civil War, the perpetual national neurosis about Germany and German intentions, the scuppering of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow and the exile of the Russian Imperial family to Ekaterinberg. The characters that are braided into the poem range from Churchill and Tsar Nicholas to Hannay and Mr Memory from ‘The Thirty Nine Steps”.

The following is a longish extract (with apologies for the formatting- WordPress doesn’t do long lines) but I do want to try and show how Matthias crafts an important part of our cultural landscape:

 

Trafalgar Lodge establishes
another atmosphere in days when wildest fictions are more probable
than facts.
No one shouts there around the tennis lawns or in
the smoking room among those gentlemen the spies. Them roundels
on the fuselgae is us.
The fact is Hannay's Buchan worked in codes
for Captain Hall. The "Blinker"- man of penetrating heavy
hooded eyes- while Buchan's Hannay found himself employed by
Alfred Hitchcock in the run-up to another war. Just ask
Mr Memory whose paratactic act will be the death of him
at the Palladium: When was Crippen hanged? What's the measurements
of Miss Mae West? When was General Gordon at Khartoum?
Who swam Hellespont? What's a monoalphabetic cipher what's
sunk off the Ulster coast where's the veldcraft chap who o'er
the hill and moory dale pursues Arimaspian in Schicksalskampf? What's
the perepeteia of the anagnorists? What's the number of steps?

David Jones in his important but much overlooked introduction to ‘The Anathemata’ says: “When rulers seek to impose a new order on any such group belonging to one or other of those more primitive culture-phases, it is necessary for those rulers to take into account the influence of as recalling something loved and as embodying an ethos inimical to the imposition of that new order.” He goes on to quote St John Chrysostom defining anathemata as “things…laid up from other things”. When I was a child, the Thirty Nine Steps was part of my cultural background as was the death of Gordon at Khartoum, the appalling waste of the Dardanelles campaign and the execution of the Russian imperial family whereas Erskine Childers was just a name although memory acts were still part of variety shows.
When I first encountered Matthias, I expressed the view that he drops more names per line than Geoffrey Hill and I stand by that view but now I’ve come to appreciate that this ‘braiding’ of figures is in part to recall things that are inimical to our current rulers. Throughout ‘Kedging’ there’s also this sense of things been laid up from other things.
I’m not suggesting that the above is absolutely perfect, ‘the perepeteia of the anagnorists’ is alittle too clever for my liking but the play on Hannay and Buchan is excellent as is “those gentlemen the spies”. The other point is that this is really complex stuff and yet Matthias makes it sound really straightforward until you start to think about what you’ve read.
The blurb on the back of ‘Trigons’ quotes Mark Scroggins who describes it as exploring Matthias’ “usual historical and literary obsessions, this time revolving much around the Second World War” which is neither accurate nor helpful although the blurb concludes by pointing out that “both music and neurology play a highly significant role”. Whilst music is certainly central, there is more focus on the way in which we perceive it rather than on neurology per se. The following is taken from the ‘Aruski Rehab’ which is set in Moscow during the Cold War:

pitched at 440 cycles every second and
an amplitude of 60 decibels you see
the credits on the screen the rolling titles pitched at
523 cycles amplitude of 90 decibels the view from the Pereyaslavi
and the frozen lake pitched at 622 cycles amplitude of 120 decibels
a flash of lightening and the Teuton cavalry advancing
like a Panzer unit on the ice 880 cylces amplitude of 180 decibels
the ice breaks and Comrade Stalin with a perforation of
your eardrums and a sunblast on your retinas transmutes the cycle
into cyclotron amplitude to grim necessity
black and white to work and war the minor keys to minor's fees
and Tatiana's exite to a steppe flower swallowed by
a Tuvan watching movies in the Urals in the moment you write down
the name they wanted an the psuedonym as well.

As can be seen, this is complex stuff but it’s also expressed in the most relaxed and unintense terms- unlike the vast majority of experimental or innovative verse. The repetition of amplitude/decibels complements the difficult things being said rather than adding a further level of complexity. It’s also worth pointing out that the entire sequence ends with Matthias meeting another John Matthias who creates music from brain activity which serves to bring the disparate strands and places together in a satisfying (but provisional) whole. Again there are bits that don’t work, I don’t think the California sequence should have been included because it seems markedly weaker than the rest but it’s still head and shoulders above most of what passes for contemporay verse.

The Cambridge problem

Whilst this current session of the bipolars was pretty bad, I spent some less than useful time ruminating about what I was doing with this blog and with arduity. As well as the usual depressive stuff (feelings of foolishness, of self-castigating ineptitude and inadequacy etc etc) I had some cause to think about the notions of capture and compromise which aren’t so easy to dismiss now that I’m on the road to recovery. I’m thinking of this as ‘the Cambridge problem’ because it pertains to those poets who have published in the Cambridge Literary Review rather than whatever the ‘Cambridge School’ may refer to.
‘Capture’ is a term used in the business of regulation whereby the regulators become so immersed in the businesses that they regulate that they lose more than a degree of objectivity. I’ve spent many a happy hour pointing out to team members that they may have been compromised in this way- the reaction is always one of righteous indignation and at least two weeks worth of sulking.
This blog started as a way of writing down what I was thinking about and as a place to put my own poetry. I then realised that other people were reading this stuff and (to my delight) some of them wanted to argue with me. Initially I was mostly writing about Geoffrey Hill and found that the process of having to write something vaguely coherent helped with my understanding of the work and enhanced the pleasure that I got from it. I then moved on to Prynne, having dismissed him in the first blog post as being willfully obscure. I think I did this because reading Hill had given me a taste for ‘difficult’ stuff.
Writing running reports on my progress or otherwise with Prynne was useful for me and seems popular with others which remain s gratifying but still isn’t the main point of doing this.
During last year I was contacted by John Matthias and Keston Sutherland which was gratifying but also quite odd in that I hadn’t expected poets to take any kind of interest in what I was writing about their stuff. Both John and Keston have since both been incredibly generous with their time and I’m particularly grateful to John for pointing me towards the brilliance of David Jones. I’ve also written about Neil Pattison who has responded very constructively to a number of posts over the past eighteen months. I’ve also been in correspondence with Timothy Thornton since the beginning of this year and have recently been contacted by Simon Jarvis with regard to the publication of ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and the recent reading at the Sussex festival.
All of the above (except for Neil) have had work published in the CLR. Neil’s ‘Preferences’ was published by Barque Press which is run by Keston and Andrea Brady and also publishes Prynne’s work and Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’.
When I was first contacted by Keston, there was a bit of an exchange about the ‘capture’ issue and I somewhat arrogantly decided that I wouldn’t be compromised and that I wouldn’t hesitate to be critical of stuff that I didn’t like.
Now, all of the above have since published stuff that’s really very good indeed, I don’t have any kind of a problem with this but there is something nagging deep within about the forementioned capture problem. I’m currently reconciling myself with the fact that I bring a non-Cambridge perspective (whatever that might be) and that there are aspects of this stuff that I actively dislike. I’m also of the view that, with very few exceptions, the so-called mainstream is awash with the dismally mediocre. I also have a policy of not writing about members of this coterie that I don’t like (there are several of these) because I don’t enjoy writing negative stuff. I have written one dismissive piece on Sean Bonney that only served to fuel my prejudices.
Writing this, I also become aware of the danger of taking myself far too seriously. I am someone who enjoys writing about things that I like and I shouldn’t really be too bothered about any of these extraneous issues that may only be self-generated. There is, on the other hand, part of me that takes some pleasure in pointing out the pomposity inherent in some of this work.
I also reconcile myself with the fact that I also write about Hill and Jones and Celan and Marvell and should perhaps spend more time in the 17th century (where I probably belong). This would be much easier if these Cambridge types would stop producing such startlingly (a Prynne word) good stuff….

Poetry as therapy

I’m currently undergoing one of those periods of clinical depression that are wearily familiar to those of us who are of the bipolar persuasion. This isn’t quite as traumatic as the last few- I’m not in hospital but I’m not pleased. I’d forgotten the effect on loved ones and how much this thing hurts.
The default mode for me is to withdraw and to read. In the past I’ve read Pepys’ diaries as a way of keeping the bad thoughts away and this has worked because there’s a lot in the diaries and I can distract myself by the sheer oddness of the past contained in those pages. So, given that I’m not suicidal and I am able to function at some level, I decided to try reading poetry to see if any verse might have a similar effect. I’m not looking for a ‘lift’ in mood but I am looking for something that will occupy and involve me in a way that keeps some of the demons at bay.
I’ve just bought ‘Clavics’, the latest Hill offering and whilst it’s very odd, it isn’t really big enough to provide an enormous distraction. It also suffers from not being very good and this isn’t helpful. I then tried poets writing about poets and discovered that Hill is more absorbing than Prynne. This is a surprise because I think ‘Field Notes’ is a lot more insightful than any of Hill’s essays yet Hill seems to write in a way that is more involving. I also find that Prynne is more frequently wrong than Hill even though the latter is incredibly opinionated and crabby. Neither however managed to occupy me for longer than a couple of hours and I do need something for the next six weeks.
I’m steering clear of Celan (for fairly obvious reasons) but have found bits of David Jones to be sufficiently absorbing and not at all annoying and I’m re-reading John Matthias’ ‘Trigons’ which is oddly soothing. With Jones I’m alternating between ‘The Sleeping Lord’ fragments and ‘The Anathemata’ which in some ways complement each other and I’ve found it useful to read the words through before thinking about the notes, I know that ‘The Anathemata’ has this fearsome reputation for difficulty but on this reading I’m more impressed by the use of ‘ordinary’ language and the integrity of the poet’s ‘voice’. It’s not particularly soothing but it does manage to hold my attention and keep the demons at some distance. I’m also working my way to a connection between the ‘Middle Sea and Lear Sea’ section and Michael Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ but I’ll need to be more motivated and alert before I can check this out.
‘Trigons’ is being read closely for the third time and more treasures are being unearthed. I’ve said before that I think that Matthias is one of our most accomplished poets and ‘Trigons’ shows off his skills and predilections in full flow. I’ve also said before that Matthias is adept at making the difficult look easy, he shares with Olson the ability to communicate complex ideas under the cloak of conversational ease. On this occasion I’m beginning to work out how this is achieved rather than chasing up the references- Matthias is a shameless dropper of names – and this is proving absorbing.
In the search for occupation (I don’t need to be instructed and I’m past the stage of being entertained) I’ve come across Heidegger’s ‘Off the Beaten Track’ collection which Prynne claims to have read with “ardency” at about the same time that Celan was beginning to pay a similar kind of attention.
There is an essay entitled ‘Why Poets?’ that I couldn’t resist and I am finding it more involving than most of Heidegger’s later output- I’ve had to re-read the first ten pages several times thus far without progressing to the end. There’s a typically oblique refutation of the mysticism charge –

If we enter upon this course, it brings thinlung and poetry together in a dialogue engaged with the history of being. Researchers in literary history will inevitably see the dialogue as an unscholarly violation of what they take to be the facts. Philosophers will see it as a baffled descent into mysticism [ein Abweg der Ratlosigkeit in die Schwamerez]. However, destiny pursues its course untroubled by all that.

Which once would have made me quite cross but now just brings a smile. Then there’s this masterpiece of nonsense, the sort of thing that gives continental philosophy its reputation for affectation-

The being of beings is the will. The will is the selfmustering
gathering of each ens to itself. All beings are, as beings, in the will.
They are as things willed. Do not misunderstand: beings are not primarily and only as things willed; rather they are, so long as they are, themselves in the mode of willing. Only as things willed are they what wills in the will, each in its own way.

In my current state unpacking this is quite helpful, it may also be completely futile but at least it’s occupying me in a way that doesn’t get distracted or despondent.
Others that I’ve tried and given up on include Browning’s ‘Sordello’, anything by John Ashbery, Keston Sutherland and Ezra Pound all of which had been occupying me prior to this bout kicking in.
I am going to look at Charles Olson in the next few days but I’m not optimistic.
I’ve also tried ‘Infinite Jest’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ and got through the first two hundred pages of the first before giving up but only the first twenty of the second. With ‘Infinite Jest’ I keep waiting for the point where I suddenly realise what all those people who I respect have been raving about becomes clear. This is my fourth attempt and that point has not yet been reached.
So, David Jones and John Matthias are now placed alongside Pepys in times of crisis. Any other suggestions will be gratefully received. I’ll also get to the end of ‘Why Poets?’ Eventually.