Surely one of the most important poets of his generation being expert craftsman, innovator and wordsmith it was with warm welcome that I picked up Matthew Welton’s second collection with the super long title 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 returned 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. The collection continues Welton’s pursuit for the ‘correct’ use of the word and its antithesis in finding countless ‘correct’ meanings. More regularly than in his first collection, the rich and poetic The Book of Matthew, he uses systems poetry as method and vehicle to discuss imagery and choice.
We needed coffee opens with the sequence Virtual Airport; a melancholy prose poem in 21 sections that highlights a connection in the emotions of the sterility of the airport experience with the essential, biological lonely truth of never being ‘connected’ in a relationship whether the relationship be bad or not. It’s a beautiful lullaby also; exploring the different lights and colours, both artificial and natural. But the sequence is in essence about various emotional states of numbness people find themselves in without knowing why. This isn’t to say depression. It’s like Satre says in Nausea: ‘Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. A peculiar moment in the afternoon. Today it is intolerable.’ Part of section 3 reads: ‘The light from the windows is like a kind of weariness’ and it continues ‘the blurry coloured signboards show nothing that makes much sense.’ This movement from simile to metaphor convinces us of the overall description. We can see the same method applied throughout the work of Wallace Stevens. And the similarities don’t stop there. Consider paragraph one in section 11: ‘The chairs are the colour of blue chocolate-papers. The departures boards is unreadable. The ceilings are low’. Metaphor moves into statement.
In paragraph two of the same section of Virtual Airport Welton writes: ‘The light is like a kind of lengthy explanation – the light is like two thoughts occurring at once.’ We can see this similarity in Stevens’ Metaphors of Magnifico reproduced here in full:
Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.
This is old song
That will not declare itself . . .Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Twenty men crossing a bridge
Into a village.
That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning . . .
The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.
The first white wall of the village . . .
The fruit-trees . . .
Both Welton and Stevens highlight the impossibility of capturing the truth with the indecision of the two statements but at the same time also suggest that both statements are valid perceptions – the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus versus the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations in the sense that things are what they are (Tractatus) only we don’t know what they are and describe them in infinite ways (PI). Yet there is this sense for all of us that what we feel and what we think can be represented ‘photographically’ in words. ‘The light is a colour like still lemonade.’ Another example of a falsehood. Still lemonade is the same colour as lemon cordial or did I mean lemon barley. There is a synaesthetic mix going on here, like a drugs cocktail or when thoughts get too complicated and you need to do a diagram; what Welton also describes here is the texture, smell and taste of the still lemonade (even the sound, by the fact it doesn’t fizz).
Another great influence in Virtual Airport is Frank Kuppner. In section 14: ‘The feeling of sourness you get in the gut…’ is ‘probably something that is better not to talk about.’ This uncertainty is found throughout Kuppner’s hilarious collections A Bad Day for The Sung Dynasty and The Second Greatest Moments in Chinese History. What is all Welton’s is the creamy and, in this collection, the occasional crunchy words. There is such a consistency that you cannot believe a word is out of place in Virtual Airport or indeed in most of the other poems in the collection.
A similar poem to Virtual Airport is South Korea and Japan 2002. Both poems were collaborations with the painter Clare Bleakley who was commissioned to make the cover for The Book of Matthew. In this sequence a rigid system, one section for each match played during the 2002 World Cup, subtitled by date, stadium and country, another melancholy experience is had which on the flipside also is an experience of joy in the absurdity and wonder of life: ‘there’s this senile feeling of aimlessness to the clouds set out in the sky.’ As I write this I feel I should rewrite the book (copy it out) as it’s hard to rank one image above another, especially as words and formulas are repeated in different sections with slight modifications (at the Museum of Spontaneous Art, at the Museum of Liquid Art, at the Museum of Mathematical Art, at the Museum of Ontological Art) – where exactly are we? It all gets hazy like the feeling Sartre has at 3 o’clock.
Elsewhere in the collection…Four Letter Words (in its first incarnation this was a collaboration with composer Larry Goves) is composed only in four letter words (liberties are taken with elision – you’d, etc.). It seems to be a poem about ‘the writer’ trapped in some way. This could be taken as being trapped inside or outside writing or by a personal experience. It has six sections each titled by four letter words. German numbers are used here and give the piece added bohemian blues (eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf and a coda). In ‘eins’, to make yourself feel well: ‘Grab yourself some blue-bean soup’ – wonderful. And in ‘zwei’: ‘Grab yourself some fish head stew.’
The culmination of this claustrophia, bordering on agoraphobia, results in the ranting and raving of ‘vier’ – portmanteaus and anagrams of taboo four letter words. It’s surprising how many there are. Think about it. ‘funf’ sees the ‘writer’ coming out of the depression: ‘Pull your door ajar’ but remains pessimistic: ‘Fill your guts with good, weak wine.’ The ‘coda’ is a drunken man’s liberation and has the rhythms of the ‘U’, Ubu section of Christian Bok’s Eunoia: ‘Mish-mosh mash; much more such:- / Fish-mash hash-mush dish-rash.’
Other parts of We needed coffee are Poems Retrieved, which is a section of ‘odds and ends’ – poems not written in sequence. Six Poems by Themselves are concrete poems; just lines, no words or letters which look like sonnets (they’re 12 lines long) and re-iterate Welton’s process of filling boxes with precision.
The whole collection comes to a grand finale in Dr Suss. The first thing you notice as you read the 13 section poem is that each sentence (it is written in prose) appears the same apart from a proper noun. After a quick glance you can tell the proper nouns are in alphabetical order:
‘In her trainers and jeans she looks like a narrow-faced Alistair Burnet. In her trainers and jeans she looks like a sad-faced Albert Einstein. In her trainers and jeans she looks like a wary-faced Albertus Magnus.’
After a little further inspection you can see that the adjective is changed in each sentence. As we go through the whole of Dr Suss we can see that a word class and proper noun are, with one section’s exception, always changed. Roving through the poem we discover some other things too; these proper nouns seem to be in categories and they are. I won’t spoil your fun and tell you all the categories but breaking the system is one part of the poems appeal as is the deployment of switches within the word classes. Each of the 13 sections has what seemingly appears to be an arbitrary amount of sentences. Section one has 19, section 2 has 43, section 3 has 27 and so on. There are also 13 categories (if you do a good back-classification). Each of these categories has a certain number of famous people in them which exactly matches the number of sentences in the various sections. So that there are 8 planets in the collection and section 5 has 8 sentences and there are 14 footballers and 14 sentences in section 7. Other categories are much more problematic. For example let’s take the footballers category. Chris Waddle appears in section two. I doubt anyone would classify Chris Waddle as anything but a footballer (he worked in a sausage factory before turning pro). Another category is saints and another is philosophers, so figures such as Thomas More are difficult to classify. Another example is Sid James who ‘stands up from the hospital bed, says something quiet, and walks outside. Is Sid James actor or a comedian? These original categories are then muddled up by being moved into alphabetical order – a kind of huge Sergeant Pepper’s album cover.
There are too many connections between the characters of the poem for me to mention here and ones that you will find yourself and be personal to you, which means real engagement with the poem. In section one an ‘oily-faced Bob Hope’ is followed by a ‘fish-faced Bob Monkhouse’. Not only do these two men seem to look like each other, are comedians and share the same first name, Bob Monkhouse used to write jokes for Bob Hope.
Once you’ve learned the rule there are many exceptions. Geoff Hurst and Gian Paolo Cima both say as they are ‘Getting into the car on the south side of Main Street’; ‘it’s just a lot of modern treacle’. This breaks the adjectival switch rule. Whereas according to Googie Withers who is also ‘Getting into the car on the south side of Main Street’ that ‘it’s just a lot of thick treacle.’
At some point you notice that the alphabetisation by first name is really a big con. For example Wittgenstein is in the ‘W’ section and not the ‘L’. Other characters to opt out of the original rule are O. Ardiles, mme du Barry, Captain Cook and Columbus. Louis IX is in wrong order numerically but right alphabetically if you treat IX as letters. Are the Henrys of France or England? And of the 13 categories none is poets.
But this isn’t some sort of crossword puzzle to be solved. Apart from the jokes the malleable system allows Welton again to create a mood which creeps under the surface almost unnoticed: again a fuzziness between realism and plasticity. It suddenly dawns on us that there are ‘ordinary people’ in this poem. Who is the ‘she’ of the first section who stands there in jeans and trainers morphing? Is the person looking at her or remembering her? And who is having the row in section 11, is there a narrative running through the sections?:
‘I don’t know why you have to bring St Benedict into it; I mean, I don’t know why you have to bring in St Benedict into it.’
A funny thing happens with the saints (who are alphabetised as ‘S’) since due to their sainthood they mostly fall within alphabetical order. This means that they are the main ones being rowed about throughout section 10 – an argument over religion? The saints also spill over into section 11 so that those saints from ‘O’ onwards are in the romance landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich: ‘Evening at the lakeside, St Peter emerging from the mushrooming woods. Evening at the lakeside, St Peter emerging from the leafless woods.’ These mushrooming and leafless woods and others adjectival switches within the section runs the collection full circle back to the melancholy of Virtual Airport.
It’s this trick of Matthew Welton’s to convince you that he’s chosen the right word but then to tell us that there are other possibilities. These kind of strategies run through his oeuvre and most exquisitely through, what is surely his masterpiece to date, Dr Suss.