Tag Archives: kedging

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.

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.