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.


6 responses to “John Matthias, annotation and collaboration

  1. You will never solve this dilemma, and will always get it wrong. That is, you will tell some readers what they already know and you won’t tell other readers what they need to know. So I would just put in the notes you think are necessary for an (not *the*) intelligent reading of the poem. I salute your efforts!

  2. John Matthias

    Entering into this experiment with John Armstrong, I go back to David Jones as the master self-annotator, but one who knew that in some ways it was a gesture of defeat. For some reason, I was also glancing at an old William Empson Collected. Although not as comprehensive an annotator as Jones, he went pretty far. He also shared some basic premises with Jones: “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” I think that’s a pretty good practical guide. But Empson also says, and it’s worth keeping in mind, “Notes are annoying when they are attempts to woo admiration for the poem or the poet, but that I hope I can avoid.” I hope we can as well.

    • Coincidentally I’ve spent some of today looking at Jones’ notes to ‘Rite and Fore-Time’ and they occasionally fall short of my expectations. This afternoon a definition of ‘thwart-board’ have been useful although this would have meant me missing out on the tangled etymology of ‘thwart’. He also spends too much time providing quotes for things that we probably don’t need that much help with. The other thought that strikes me is whether or note poet’s notes to their own work should be seen as an integral part of the poem, don’t think you can have either ‘In Parenthesis’ or ‘The Anathemata’ without the notes to lean on and to argue with but then again I don’t think you can have ‘In Parenthesis’ without the map.
      It is always going to be a gesture of defeat but there’s always the hope that some parts of the white flag might be useful.

      • This I think is a really smart point, particularly the question of the relationship between the notes and the poem. Notes to a poem (or other texts as well) can function in many different ways, whether explanatory or contextualizing or intertextualizing or they can be a source of obfuscation, a framing device, or an outlet for poetic play. They need not even bow to the “poem” proper–if we think, for example, of certain manuscripts, the glosses written on the edges of the manuscripts are now considered poems in their own right. I’d be very interested, John, to know more about how you see the notes relating to Trigons? I wonder, if we constitute the poem or text by what sticks with the reader, if a note which includes an image or a video shifts the readers attention from the “text itself” to elsewhere. All of this, as everyone knows, becomes much more interesting in the digital world where the endless mutability of the screen allows for new types of notes. So far the project seems to have stuck fairly close to explanation, but do you see the project developing the genre of annotations and annotating? I wonder if this kind of collaboration could yield a poetry of notes. Anyway, congratulations on the project, it’s way cool.

      • Thank you, the poem / notes thing isn’t that smart because JM put a couple of links as notes into the text of Trigons, my favourite is:

        "space to recombine and broadcast oh just look it up
        it's all pretty complicated"

        This note is part of the text so it is integral to it, even though the link no longer works. I’m a major fan of “Trigons” but I think it is enhanced by John’s commentary. For example, he refers to the use of ‘drafts’ and ‘old wars’ in his notes to the first section without explaining their importance. I’m of the view that this ‘flagging’ is just as much a part of the poem as the above link because it is what John has chosen to write about the poem’s ambition rather than an explanation. As I said in this post I’ve found that I need to write notes to John’s notes but I don’t consider the identification of Leigh Fermor, for example, to be part of the poem because his identity is already in the poem. I’m finding that there’s a lot of fun to be had with the toys tht the digitl world has to offer. John’s introductory definition of Trigon contains a tongue in cheek reference to a German fusion band of that name and I haven’t been able to resist linking (in a new window) to a video of said band in full flight.

        On reflection, and without discussion with our poet, I like to think that one of the Seferis quotes that I’ve could/should be viewed as part of the poem, it’s certainly now a part of the poem that’s in my head.

        In terms of distraction, I’m trying to limit this with the ‘-blank’ html gizmo which opens up the page in a new window so the reader can flick between the text and the note and/or leave the note ‘open’ for future reference. I’m placing John’s note at the bottom of the poem where this is relevant and other briefish definitions/identifications as anchored links at the bottom of the page. All of this may change as we go along but I think we’re going to provide something reasonably useful when we’re done.

  3. Having just now read John Matthias’s reply to his view of this project, and mindful of John’s efforts as a self-annotator over the course of his collections, I welcome his reflection, in particular his assessment of the premises shared between David Jones and William Empson. In annotating my own work, I have gone largely on instinct. But the bearings for that instinct, I now see from the passage cited by John, correspond roughly to its apologia. It seems worthwhile here to amplify one of Empson’s themes, by adding that the poet or novelist, if he or she has been on a job that crosses plot boundaries in the graveyard, the midden, or the dump, in the manner of Hamlet’s plucky burrower–“Mole, work’st thou in the earth so fast?”–then he or she is precisely the person (a sapper, a kern or tunneler beneath the earthworks) who is bent on effecting, sous la table, an ad hoc “general field of knowledge” precisely where the general mayhem above ground has rendered action local, defensive, and beyond the ken of the General Staff. Wyndham Lewis observed, “The artist is primitive–like a fish.” The artist also swims in schools, using that primitive fellowship organ, the lateral line, to veer with the crowd. None the less, when the artist is off autopilot and on a buccaneer solo cruise, what gets noticed and absorbed is not merely fishy. The log notes make good reading to navigators. Their rationale comes not from Bowditch, but the nose that knows.

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