‘To be stung by the sun’s bees and have it not matter.’
– John Ashbery
Do poems just tell us what’s up, what matters in life? This poem is explicitly about what matters, but it also implicitly shows us how the things that matter are related to their physical matter, their phonic and graphic make-up: the unique tricks of a syntax, every pivotal unit of punctuation. Welton’s poem suggests that significant matters of life – the way light and seasons move – are fundamentally material occurrences: day ‘assembles’; houses ‘draw…backward’. Even ‘the voices round the café table’ are matter we can’t see. The function of the voices, to perform speech that is listened to, and so perceived psychologically, is put to one side in favour of their material sound, which is heard, and so perceived physiologically – to use a distinction between listening and hearing made by Roland Barthes. Each bit of the world of this poem is a formal occurrence – that is, the distinctive spatial and aural organisation of matter – and often a reflection or reiteration or repetition of another: the voices move ‘like sea birds or low winds’; the two phenomena could be said to rhyme.
The word ‘matter’ is a bit like ‘form’. Both work as noun and verb. Both can be quite unhelpful in thinking about exactly what matters, or forms, in poems, and how. Form often comes with matter in tow; matter might be what form holds, what provides the limits of the form. Adam Phillips writes that form is ‘a word none of the arts can do without but none of the arts can quite describe’, and we could say the same of matter. Matter also feels close to materiality, though the relation between the two words is a bit confusing: ‘material’ (borrowed from Latin) is ‘that which constitutes the matter or origin of something. Contrasted with “formality”’, which is ‘the distinctive property by which a thing is defined’ (OED). The verb ‘matter’ (borrowed from French) relates both to ‘physical matter or substance’ and ‘to material content’, clouding the distinction between form and content. Like the word ‘form’, ‘matter’ can be used to mean both the abstract substance or root and the material properties at hand. ‘Van der Kerkhoff’ seems to enact a working definition of these words – it explicates how matters of life become formal matters, and vice versa.
The poem’s great trick is that it is not one poem. It is in fact two poems, or it is four poems, or it is one poem repeated four times, or it is simply one section of the sequence which is the book. (Welton has said: ‘I think of [the collection] as one 39-page poem, and sometimes as six poems which range between three and ten pages, and sometimes as thirty-nine individual poems’. 1) There is a second poem called ‘Van der Kerkhoff’, repeated five pages later, which is almost identical, different only inasmuch as ‘the crazed, credential sun’ has become the ‘the crazed credential, sun’. The Van der Kerkhoffs are (former) Dutch football player twins. Two poems each entitled ‘De Boer’ appear, separately, later in the collection, which are almost identical to these two. The De Boers are also (former) Dutch football player twins. The alteration in these poems – or should I say, what matters most to these two – is that ‘the crazed[,] credential[,] sun’ of Van Der Kerkhoff becomes ‘the still, uncertain air’ in the De Boer of page 24, and ‘the still-uncertain air’ in the De Boer of page 32.
The poems are like collectible footballs cards, differentiated by the fine details in their credentials (height/weight/international experience etc). And the fine differences of these poems are in a sense ‘about’ what they do. Whether ‘credential’ is adjective or noun is decided by the ‘crazed credential’ that is the comma – crazed, in one sense, because it is so minute and pedantic, and crazed in another sense because it has a ripple-effect on the poem and the way its content is formed. Where the sun is ‘the crazed credential, sun’ and not only a ‘credential sun’, the definite article is emphasised so that ‘the sun’ is a, if not the, major credential of this poem. Similarly, ‘the still, uncertain air’ is more relaxed than ‘the still-uncertain air’, which complicates with a whole other sense of time and ongoingness (how long has it been uncertain for?). The comma is a moment of stillness; the hyphen compounds and makes frenetic. Taken together, the poems also bring into conjunction – they rhyme – ‘the crazed[,] credential[,] sun’ and ‘the still[,/-]uncertain air’ as interrelated matter(s). Welton’s poetic matter is never smugly or ceremoniously arrived at; it is interested in the way that technique speaks, over things deemed to be worth saying.
One effect of this doubling and looping is to refute the poem’s artificially staged ‘crux’ – ‘in the unendingness of God / where is it man begins?’ – because origin and primary intention are immaterial if the material at hand is still forming. And it is forming rather than formal in a traditionally ‘received’ sense because it doesn’t stop, the book is continuous and looping. It is inherently congenial: it brings words unendingly into agreement, to be both ‘kind of’ like each other, and to kindly invite you in on the process. It repeats itself; it suggests that poetry is repetition, and vice versa. Form does not simply reflect content, form is content, and this is a notion on which ‘Van der Kerkhoff’ works particularly hard.
Veronica Forrest-Thomson deplored the ‘[c]ontemporary […] critics’ disposition to make poetry above all a statement about the external world’, relegating the analysis of form as secondary to ‘extended meaning’. For her far more crucial was to ‘stress the importance of artifice’ in order ‘to make us question the ways in which we make sense of things’, a point she and Welton seem to agree on. 2 ‘Van der Kerkhoff’ is deceptive because it starts off by looking like a straightforward poem ‘about’ the external world, but as the syntax of this single sentence exactingly continues the artifice asserts itself. Those worldly external matters become, for a time, immaterial, and our attentions are placed on the material at hand, on words as fruitful obstacles. The smudge of sound that forms the ‘smudge of orange’ is a palpable and undeniable play, but even to isolate it in this way is to flatten its ‘lift and fall’ in the context of its interaction with the poem as a whole. One might even hear it reflected, picked up assonantly, in the line below it:
… and a smudge of orange light
plays slowly through the window
The line also suggests that it is the window playing it ‘through’ – a window is organized matter you see light through, but its texture and shape influences, even controls, that seeing. The poem works artifice not into discrete units of effect (separate bits of matter) but an overarching and continuous movement: each word ‘falls towards’ or rather, falls in the same direction as, the narrative line, or general feeling, which is ‘about’ drift and mergence and unendingness. Or, rather, the feeling of drift and mergence and unendingness comes from the ‘feel’ of conjunctions like ‘smudge of orange’. That distinction is meant to be blurry, I think.
When Eliot writes of being ‘… left still with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter’, the words are objects whose matter must be seen through, in line with transubstantiation. But the word ‘matter’ suggests multiple meanings. Later in the Quartets, ‘When here and now cease to matter’, the matter (the affair or concern) is also the physical manifestation of ‘here and now’ that ceases to be. Welton takes the same point and works it antithetically, wilfully tolerating that wrestle with the feel of words – and I can imagine a Weltonian word-game that plays with that mouthful of lulling syllables, ‘intolerable wrestle’. Welton’s poetry also has a far more ambivalent handling of the matter of God in relation to worldly matter. The title poem, ‘The Book of Matthew’, presents 38 variations on the same poem, with no explicit interest in God’s grandeur, although it does evoke Coleridge’s ‘intellectual breeze’ as it moves and moves through kinds of light, bugs and trees. Jesus appears in the modern day in ‘Get loose and let some’ from ‘We needed coffee but…’, and is no longer ‘convinced / by what he’s saying’. Instead he plays the harmonica, producing an interminable aural matter which displaces him from ‘where he’s at and leaves him tired and tense and bored’ – formless, perhaps.
W.S. Graham, an influence Welton has cited, asks
What are Communication’s
Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling
Each other alive about each other
[‘What is the language using us for?’]
The matter of ‘telling each other alive’ is a principal concern for Graham. A key implication here is that he wants the telling itself to be ‘alive’, attuned to accidences and variations and ‘crazed credential(s)’ which emerge in the process.
Welton’s poem prompts us to ask what matters in poems, and how matter is made. Do poets just repeat themselves, or each other? Are the things we say defined by the form or the content? Should we have content before we write? Is content a thing to be ‘had’ at all?
Welton writes of his practice,
I guess the thing I do when I’m making a poem is to simply limit my use of language in such a way that it sounds as if I’m actually saying something – as if there was something I wanted to say – and that the only way I could say it happened to require me to use all these words that happen to rhyme with each other or to use alliteration or to have the same rhythms. 3
I hear ‘as if I’m actually saying something’ to mean not just that Welton may be actually saying something (possibly) profound, but that he’s saying something straightforwardly coherent. ‘Actually’ means an occurrence in reality, a fact: Welton’s words are selectively organized to make an event which, by virtue of the poem’s straightforward coherence, is a revelation. (This may be what gave one reviewer of The Book of Matthew the ‘feeling that that every single word was in exactly the right place’.) The modulation of the phrase into ‘as if there was something I wanted to say’ implies that the will to say something is formed in the process of the poem’s saying, where the matter of speech materializes. The fact that the poem ‘sounds as if I’m actually saying something’ also doesn’t necessarily mean it is saying anything. It might parody that act of ‘saying’ something about the external world, pre-empting the critic who goes looking for that paraphraseable content that could be said in any other way and so not is unique to the poem. Welton’s poems seem to both say and show by example that form(ing) and saying are one, and that they cannot be spoken of in separate terms. And because each poem performs that act of saying and forming so actively and strangely, the ‘content’ cannot be repeated in any other kind of writing (an irony given Welton’s many repetitions). Paraphrase, says Robert Sheppard, ‘is the amnesia of form’.
Returning to ‘Van der Kerkhoff’, the ‘need’ in ‘the need to know’ – isolated by the preceding enjambment – is itself shown to be continually made. What matters most is that it ‘falls towards’, not necessarily that it arrives. We might recall the Cheshire cat: ‘it doesn’t matter which way you go’. For Welton, as for the nonsense poetry tradition, the destination is, in a sense, immaterial. Far better that you are lost and trip fortuitously on some crazed credential. David Herd, in his excellent review of these poems, sees Welton’s language as ‘a series of accidents out which a kind of accuracy can arise’. ‘Kind of’ is the inherently Weltonian part of that sentence, as is the front rhyme of ‘accidents’ and ‘accuracy’, as though Welton’s way of dealing with matter were contagious. Perhaps everything – even a critic’s reading, or a poem’s critical reading of itself – can be organized to look ‘kind of’ like something else, but also ‘kind of’ not, and the slippage between those poles is the productive part. Drawing likenesses together, setting things at odds, offering new unending sets of variations. These things kind of matter a lot.
It matters how some afternoons late into spring
the voices round the café tables lift and fall
like sea birds or low winds, and a smudge of orange light
plays slowly through the window; and it matters how
the houses along the yellow ocean, drifting out
of darkness as the day assembles over the hills,
seem, kind of, to draw quietly backward from the beach;
and, also, in the months between the summers, with
the weather in the zeros and the starch-colour cloud
absorbing into the evening sky, it matters how
the conversation in the kitchen falls towards
the need to know – in the unendingness of God
where is it man begins? – and what else matters is
the crazed, credential sun; the insects around the trees;
the chance of rain; the shadows in the short, chalky grass.
First published in The Book of Matthew (Carcanet, 2003). Reproduced with permission of the author and publisher.