Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Simon Turner - Numerology: On Matthew Welton

I have been reading and enjoying Matthew Welton’s poems for some years.

His new collection, The Number Poems, has been gestating for quite a while now, but it’s been well worth the wait, as it’s an unmitigated delight.

Let me rephrase that: The Number Poems, like Welton’s previous collections, has taken some considerable time to produce.  But, like its predecessors, it’s an unmeliorated pleasure.

What is it, you might ask, I enjoy most about Welton’s poetry?  First and foremost, I admire Welton’s adventurous approach to form.  As the title of his latest collection, his third, will attest, much of that formal adventurousness derives from a near-mathematical approach to the sonic and iterative potentialities of language.

That sentence is, I feel, a trifle dense, and may need some unpacking, so let me rephrase myself.  Welton’s a poet who’s interested, chiefly, in the sonic iterations of language, as expressed through demi-mathematical formulae and structures.  Which is to say, and as expounded in an interview Welton gave recently to Prac Crit, that words for Welton are not primarily welded to their meanings, to the concepts and objects which they nominally denote, but rather to the sonic and architectural possibilities opened up when language is divorced radically from semantics as it’s been traditionally conceived.  Welton: “I’m not really interested in subject matter, I’m interested in form and the question of what we call poetry.”  Although we’d do well not to take any poet, living or dead, at their word on any subject – they’re notoriously slippery creatures who’ll say anything if it’s likely to engender a long-running twitterspat or a decent pull-quote in a glossy Sunday supplement article about the next generation of dead-eyed, floppy haired neophyte poets – Welton’s refusal to allow for meaning to be considered the primary fount of his writing is as good a place as any to begin a discussion of his work, at least in part because it feels like such a ground-breaking proposition in the current literary climate.

Let me, by way of explanation, provide an illustration of precisely what I mean.  Over the years, I have written poetry reviews for a number of publications, both in print and online: small magazines all.  “Big whoop!” I imagine the literary commentariat muttering into their over-priced skinny lattes, blowing little fountains of incandescent rage-froth across their IKEA countertops, and no doubt they’re right to scoff, as it’s not a particularly noteworthy achievement, by any measurable standards.  But what is noteworthy is that, for one of the publications for which I’ve previously written reviews, editorial policy explicitly favoured ‘content’ over ‘form’ as a point of discussion for the poetry collections under consideration.  I’ve not named the publication in question, partly because I don’t want to single them out – I’m not interested in finger-pointing or snark – but also because I don’t think their editorial stance is all that idiosyncratic: all that differentiated them was that they were honest and open in their editorial preferences.  We’re invited, across the board, to read poetry primarily in terms of content, and the critical reception of poetry, it’s worth remembering, doesn’t differ all that much to the reception of other art forms in this respect: movies, for example, can all too readily be reduced to ‘plot’, novels to ‘story’, the whole unruly field of non-fiction to raw information, untroubled by questions of style and structure.  This is in spite of the fact that it’s precisely poetry’s attention to the formal properties inhering in language (sound, rhythm, repetition, symmetry, structure) which, broadly speaking, differentiates it from prose, its more functional, flat-footed, plain Jane cousin.  How else to explain the inclusion of poetry collections in Robert McCrum’s ongoing Guardian series on the best books of non-fiction, an editorial decision which can surely only favour those poets whose work might ‘unproblematically’ be read either in terms of autobiographical veracity, political engagement, or identity-based authenticity? 

But I fear I may have lost my grip somewhat on the topic at hand, as though it were a slippery bar of soap that had toppled into a sink full of murky grey water.  Then again, Welton’s work is rather slippery and unstable and protean in character: that’s partly its function, and indicative of the readerly joy it provides.  For all of the high falutin’ language I’ve deployed in trying to describe Welton’s procedures and processes hitherto, the simple fact of the matter is that this work is fun, which is not a word one normally associates with the experimental tradition in contemporary poetry.  For those who are interested – and I accept that, numerically speaking, we’re staring down the barrel of cosmic insignificance here – I have written about Welton’s work a few times before, at greatest length in a Tiggerishly overenthusiastic essay on Anglophone Oulipians in the Penned in the Margins critical anthology Stress Fractures, which appeared in the comparative halcyon days of 2010.  In this essay, I made some pretty wild (and subsequently unsubstantiated) claims about the inexorable rise of post-Oulipian poetic formalism on the British and American ‘scenes’ – this was, remember, well prior to the conceptualist explosion and attendant backlash, so I can at least fall back on ignorance as an explanation, if not an exculpation, of my folly – but in the midst of the grandiose vatic pronouncements I insisted on making about the Future of Poetry, I did manage to make one or two salient points that I think I can still stand by.  Firstly, I argued that the critical and aesthetic valorisation, in the wake of Modernism, of a radically individuated style – the Poundian, the Eliotic, the Hemingwayesque – as one of the primary markers of poetic value, had a concomitantly detrimental impact upon the currency of classical (read: ‘conservative’) conceptions of form.  Secondly, and of more pertinence here, I made a case for Oulipian-inspired poets – Welton amongst them – as aesthetic bridge-builders, ameliorative ambassadors, if you will, between the continually opposed camps of ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ poetics.  Welton’s visible influences are indicative of this tendency, drawing as he does with equal enthusiasm from the twin wells of, on the one hand, experimental poetics and composition; and, on the other, a more popular strain of nonsense verse and children’s rhymes.  The Book of Matthew, Welton’s debut, included a number of poems which had a lot of fun with the arbitrary narrative possibilities opened up by rhyme (‘The funderment of wonderment’ and ‘He wore a lot of corduroy and he talked a lot of crap’ – best title ever, by the way – are probably the most perfect examples of this strain in Welton’s writing); whilst ‘We needed coffee but…’,[1] his second, contains a number of poems that might be read with equal value either through the lens of the experimental tradition, or that of pre-literary sonic play, such as ‘Four-letter words’, ‘If I had a yammer’ and ‘I must say that at first it was difficult work’.  Harry Mathews: “The projects I then undertook were ferociously hard: a three-part composition based on anagrams of our two names [Mathews and Oskar Pastior] distributed according to 3 x 24 permutations; a sestina consisting entirely of anagrams of its six end-words. [...]  During those long hours, I have no doubt that, to an unobtrusive observer, my face would have manifested the oblivious intentness of a six-year-old girl playing hopscotch.”[2]  No poet currently writing, I think, sounds as good as Welton – his ear for rhythm and sonic texture’s so good because, in some regards, the poems begin and end with these points of composition, with meaning relegated to a decidedly secondary role – but, given the nature of his procedures, no poet’s simultaneously so quotable and unquotable: quotable because every sentence is a tightly constructed minuet of dancing fricatives and plosives and labials in perfect arrangement (“A yellow yaffle snaffles up / a pile of apple waffles and, I’d like to think, / takes comfort from my distant uninsistent thoughts”); unquotable because these individual gems are entirely dependent for their resonance upon their position within the wider, cathedral-like structures that Welton employs.  Which is perhaps simply a very roundabout way of saying I insist you invest in a copy of The Number Poems all of your very own, as it’s best to ingest his work en masse, avoiding interruptions from unwarranted guests, perhaps hiding the volume later in an antique travelling chest, the lonesome physical revenant of your maiden aunt’s bequest.

[1] Full title, for those people for whom, these things matter: We needed coffee but we’d got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we retuned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind. 
Actually, scratch my previous assertion: this is the best title ever.  
[2] from ‘In Quest of the Oulipo’, in The Case of the Perservering Maltese: Collected Essays (Dalkey Archive, 2003): 89

1 comment:

AJ Bailey said...

I have been counting and considering this review's sentences for some minutes.