The Book of Matthew by Matthew Welton, and Other Matters

Posted: May 19, 2012 in Parameters
Tags: , , , ,

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‘London sundays’

Snatches of summer in afternoon parks

are probably now as good as it gets.

Meeting beneath the clock that never works

then sloping off homewards as the sun sets

……………………………………………………………………………………………

like boredom, wears on like a bad winter,

and which spreads through rooms like sunlight and dust.

 

First of all we are alerted by the tenses used here: it is ongoing event: we have the memory and its commentary; we have an easy use of language that is part colloquialism, part advertising parody (as good as it gets), (smells as good as coffee). We also have the reference to Benzedrine usage: maybe what we are to read here is ‘street’ i.e. a current demotic that indicates no-nonsense concerns, concrete imagery, and sometimes ornate language.

So, Love is… and what he gives us is nothing like the glorified magazine experience, but something a bit more down to earth, something, as he says not crazy, but something more comfortable without losing its magical ability: and which spreads through rooms….

The rhyme scheme is particularly interesting, rhyming ababcdcd; but all a’s and c’s are consonantal rhymes, whereas b’s and d’s are assonantal. This gives a good flow to the piece, the rhythm not held to pause and pivot on any particular word or sound. The last stanza’s c-rhyme, ‘rumour-winter’ just about links on the r.  As an English writer, compared with a Scots’ writer’s pronunciation, Welton’s ‘r’ is light; the feeling of euphony is increased by this suggestion of rhyme. Rhythmically both rhyming words click together nicely, their ‘feminine’ endings suggestive of similar degrees of certain moods.

We get the regular rhyme scheme, the regular rhythm, and a de rigueur yet non-insistent iambic pentameter.

We must also note the lower case of sundays in the title. Already this alerts us to a something not strictly regular. The lowercase opens up the week to allow in expansiveness.

– Poetry’s ‘street cred’ is a tricky affair: in Simon Armitage it is mostly in the truncated rhythms; in Paul Farley more choice of subject matter. Glyn Maxwell’s ‘street’ has elements in common, like any contemporary writer hoping to make the scene, with music styles: there are the methedrine-tight rhythms and micro-beats of his middle period. He sets up semantic expectations, what used to be called ‘subverting the cliché’, and then twists further.

“The two things I am most concerned with in my writing are…” writes Welton, “: making music out of the sounds of words, and exploring the meeting-points of tradition and experiment.”

When we come to the long ‘Book of Matthew’ poem itself, things get rather complicated. It is a series of variations on a basic structure; thirty-nine variations in fact, of six ‘classes’, divided unequally into ‘sections’, and into ‘divisions’ within sections.

Class one: Abstract relations

Section 1: Existence

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on the smell

of nutskins mixed with whisky

mixed with lemons or rain,

and carries through

the grasses where the flowers

in the sun redden a little

……………………………………

…………………………..

 

becomes:

Section two: Relation

The wind around the orange-tree

brings on a smell

of caramel and kedgeree

or rubber or gum,

and carries through

the orchards where the flowers

in the sun gladden a little

…………………………….

…………………………….

 

: the language, parts of speech, producing stranger and stranger modes and sensual descriptions as the sections play out.

2

I am reminded by this enterprise of Inger Christensen’s Watersteps, which takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

One other common element to these two enterprises, besides strict mathematical gaming; a likeness for a continental weather setting, American, and/or greater-European; is a great value put upon sound, a euphonious quality to the poems.

Christensen has often been connected with the French Oulipo group. Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound.

And as I have demonstrated, both use a similar Oulipo approach. So, what do we have to positively connect Welton with Oulipo? We have this:

Dec 2008

‘A poetry event reflecting on the beauty and usefulness of mathematics, featuring Paul Fornel, French poet and member of the Oulipo Movement dedicated to the creation of Mathematical Poetry, Ross Sutherland, a specialist in computer-generated poetry, and Matthew Welton, whose poetry is admired for its structure and form.’

Ross Sutherland, member of Aisle 16, has recorded for Radio 1 a remarkable feat of a poem which uses only words consisting of the ‘o’ vowel, throughout the piece. If this reminds you of the George Perec novel, A Void (English title: and do not miss the pun), which in French completely avoids using the letter ’e’ in all words, then you’re on the right track. This usage also has particular meaning within the novel.

Oulipo is all about constraint:

Oulipo, the “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle” or “Workshop for Potential Literature,” was co-founded in Paris the early 1960’s by mathematician and writer Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Oulipian writers impose constraints that must be satisfied to complete a text, constraints ranging across all levels of composition, from elements of plot or structure down to rules regarding letters. Oulipo thus pushes a structuralist conception of language to a level of mathematical precision; technique becomes technical when language itself becomes a field of investigation, a  complex system made up of a finite number of components. The informing idea behind this work is that constraints engender creativity: textual constraints challenge and thereby free the imagination of the writer, and force a linguistic system and/or literary genre out of its habitual mode of functioning…

One of the many listed Oulipo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story.

You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved.

Oulipo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One Oulipo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Other successful texts include:

Queneau’s Cent Mille Millard de Poemes, a sonnet where there are 10 possible choices for each of the 14 lines, thus comprising 1014 potential poems….

Another possible equivalent experiment to ‘The Book of Matthew’ is Douglas Hofstadter’s book, La Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997), which takes us through multiple translations of a single sixteenth century French poem, with greatly diverse results. How Oulipo is Hofstadter?

Another experiment in constraint used by Oulipo members is that of…

 

‘the S+7 method, where each substantive or noun in a given text, such as a poem, is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary.’

We enter the field of hermeneutics here, I think; and code-making.

Welton has said in interview:

As a reader and a writer I am always looking for stuff I haven’t come across before….

And, more importantly:

I’m far less interested in a prescriptive idea of teaching how to write – teaching dialogue or genre or form. I’m more interested that they come to terms with the relationship between their working processes and themselves.”

 

From this I think it is safe to assume we will not find Welton a paid-up member of Oulipo either.

So, how Oulipo is Glyn Maxwell, with his constraint in avoiding the regular placing of the main verb and definite article, in the poems of Out of the Rain, (1994)? We may also consider Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches (1993) where the constraint is one of time: the time it takes for a match to burn down is the time it takes to read the poem.

I think we have established now that many writers dabble with Oulipo techniques sometimes without knowing, and without becoming bona fide members.

Welton’s own playfulness brings in a deliberately skewed take-off of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market:

Vodka she likes. Whisky also. And plums. And limes

And lemon-peel. Fried fruit. Dry beans. Deep soup. Warm

                                                                                        cream.

                        from ‘This is Delicious to Say’.

 

There are also distinct echoes of Wallace Stevens.

The gorgeousness of colour and sensual delight has a Modernist painterly feel; there is a Patrick Caulfield quality: almost like reading a John Stammers book cover. Having mentioned Stammers, let it be said both writers share a similar aesthetic of fine rhetorical flow, and where rhythmic, euphonic values, seem to take priority.

Overall this book has a disorienting effect, its sets up phrases, descriptions, and delivers something else; something slidey, shiny, scintillating.

3

As we work through the ‘Book of Matthew’ piece, we get finer and finer distinctions of smells, or of smell-possibilities. This emphasis on smell, as well as the clear colour palette, adds up to the bright modernist painterly feel previously mentioned.

But do we? Is it not rather a purely textual piece: the smell distinctions as listings; the possibilities of smells as multiplying phonemes? Does this account for the giddiness we feel on reading the book as a whole? A rootlessness of meaning. The significance is intact in the tight structure; this gives us a sense of equivalents that are more textual than semantic.

What does the ‘Book of Matthew’ tell us about our lives, our world, our here-and-now? Need it tell us anything? All meaning is implicit in the act of using language, of evaluating appearance; in the phenomenology of our lives in the world.

Does it earn our trust? Do we go with it as a true record? What are its underlying discoveries/apprehensions? Trust, true-record, underlying discoveries: at what point did the commentator think these became relevant, a way in? The answer is, Afterwards, after reading. There is the poem, and there is the afterwards: there is the anticipation when approaching the poem, and there is the buzzing traffic of the mind afterwards.

For some writers, Ron Silliman perhaps, it is maybe their intention to meld anticipation, and the traffic, into the moment of the poem so there is only the poem: see Silliman’s Alphabet.

Maxwell in Time’s Fool (2002), has gone on to attempting the verse-novel (another nod to Browning perhaps?), and Sugar Mile (2005), a narrative for voices.

Christensen’s Butterfly Valley: Requiem  (2003): a series of fifteen conventional sonnets front further wonderful experiments in form.

And Welton?

… I will be publishing a new book with Landfill.

His recent book is We Need Coffee But, with Carcanet.

He has also published a number of chapbooks.

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