Tag Archives: kedging in time

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’ ‘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. ┬áThe 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.