Tag Archives: laundry lists and manifestoes

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:

But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:

           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown 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.

And this is Sutherland:

The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.


One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.


I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?

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:


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.

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

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

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:

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’ 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.