John Matthias Critical Essays

Matthias, John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Matthias, John 1941–

Matthias is an American poet, critic, and editor. With the publication of his second collection of poetry, Turns, Matthias was heralded by many critics as the next of our poets to reach major status. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Matthias can be cryptic, mannered, sometimes exasperating, footling or just flat, occasionally incomprehensible; but if he is prone to abuse his talent, the talent itself is finally an impressive one. It is not his ostensible themes that present difficulty. Ranging from friends and family, through American politics, and attempts to relate himself to an English cultural heritage, to a searching engagement with abstruse questions of aesthetics, metaphysics, historical consciousness, Matthias's subject-matter shows an admirably enterprising range and seriousness. One problem for the reader is, however, that it is when he is at his most accessible that Matthias tends to be wooden and perfunctory: in his 'protest' poems, or some rather rambling epistles to friends…. (p. 55)

Not that Matthias can't be deft and pointed. 'A Painter' is a delightful and telling evocation….

[While] retaining an air of knowing what he is up to, Matthias is often much more cryptic, elliptical, extravagantly mannered in form and idiom. The results can be silly, as in 'New York Power Crisis':

     Do not use electric lights
     Do not use electric chairs
       Demand is over 7,000,000 kilowatts
     The new conductor broke his long baton
     The hopeless tenor coughed up blood in his beard

That's the poem, folks. But Matthias is not only a poet very conscious of literature and culture in the sense that his poems bristle with names, references, allusions to the notable dead; he is obsessed with the textures, resonances, historical evolution and associations of words…. What's certainly true is that Matthias's fascination with language and the historical stimulates him to exceptionally daring enterprises involving technical experimentation and ventures into arcane reaches of aesthetic and other conceptual thinking, which can prove as fruitful, and in a strikingly original way, as they may at first seem extravagant. What are we to make of this opening to his long title-poem, 'Turns: Towards a Provisional Aesthetic and a Discipline'?—

    The scolemayster levande was the toun
    and sary of hit semed everuch one.
    The smal quyt cart that covert was and hors …
    to ferien his godes. To ferien his godes
    quere he was boun.
    The onelych thyng of combraunce (combraunce)
    was the symphonye
    (saf a pakke of bokes)
    that he had boghte the yere
    quen he bithoght
    that he wolde lerne to play.
    But the zele woned (zele woned).
    He neuer couthe ani scylle.

I'd read Jude the Obscure recently enough to cotton on to this—Matthias's poem doesn't let on for some pages that it is the opening of Hardy's novel being transmuted, or 'turned', into Middle English. But why?… From this starting-point Matthias's conundrum of a poem ramifies into speculation about aesthetics, 'transmutations' of all kinds, 'turns' of meaning and history; modulating in form into the prose of a prosaic modern world half-way through; at times merely 'contrived', fiddling with quibbles, seemingly whimsical; yet over-all contriving to stimulate, by no means pointlessly perverse. By its close the 'scolemayster' figure emerges as a symbol for all the 'unproletarianised obscure', not required to produce commodities for the markets of a commercialized age, travelling with his 'pakke of bokes', an 'intermediary' in capitalist society: '… the shape of his life is determined by the nature of society: the nature of his art seeks to determine the shape of society by administering to its nature.' He retains his 'Hermetic privilege'—to practise arcane arts such as those so cherishingly exemplified in this extraordinary poem itself, and belonging to all times. Beginning as the subject of a perverse-seeming linguistic exercise, he 'turns' through the poem into a rich and vital symbol for the artist himself. (p. 56)

Andrew Waterman, in PN Review (© copyright PN Review), Vol. 4, No. 4, 1976.

The importance of Turns … lies in the fact that not only is it the first British collection from this major poet, but it was mostly written or given birth to there, while the poet was staying here.

To class a poet as major, when he has yet to apparently prove his merit (can only two books justify this?) in numerous publications, needs expansion. If one applies the criteria of not only human appeal but also intellectuality and a wide field of poetic vision and emotion, regardless of language, then Matthias is a major poet. He is a writer of range and immense versatility of style, language and poetic intention. He writes in epic vistas, though not necessarily in epic quantities or style.

His work is experimental, but only in that it seeks to elucidate meaning or plumb new intellectual deeps—he is not a gimmick-seeker or a mere charlatan (they are in ample abound these days [in English language poetry])—by his usage and juxtaposition of languages within the European tradition, and with much mediaeval English married to contemporary American English.

[Turns] cuts across nations and history, cultures and time with all the quick movement of the best of surreal poetry—yet it is not surreal per se. Matthias is one of the most important of very few efficient poets of his generation (under 40) on either side of the Atlantic, writing in English. His book is a revelation in the real meaning of the word. It is essential to any reader who cares for and believes in the power of poetry and its continued evolution. (p. 6)

Martin Booth, in Tribune, January 30, 1976.

[In Turns Mr Matthias exhibits a] controlled yet flexible style: for example in the skilful counterpointing of the "monographs on/Mahler" and "the still & deadly music of the I.R.A."; of the intended victims, "diplomats on holiday in/Devon" and the actual victim, "lap of an astonished secretary/dreaming of her lover". The last phrase shows irony finely controlled by pathos. Elsewhere there is a memorable curt summary of America's riot squads: "The other guys are faster and they draw."

What a brief quotation cannot show is this poet's ability to bring together and give order to a wide range of experience…. [Turns] moves fluently through American violence, reminiscences of friendship, a heart check-up, his father's death, the poet's need for an ordered background, and finally England. Mr Matthais [is able] "to make things fit together that don't but should". Turns encompasses the order of art and the painful or grace-giving accidents of life; seriousness and wit; America's present, Russia's Stalinist yesterday, England's distant past; experiment and tradition.

Mr Matthias is eclectic, polyglot, often abstruse. Some of his titles are irritating ("Double Derivation, Association, and Cliché: from The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster"), and some of the poems are obscure, quirky exercises, partly redeemed by his splendid ear for the music of words. But excessive virtuosity is forgivable in our stark poetic scene, and I admire very much the way life—his own and other people's—presses into his poems. He has something to say and a way of saying it. Turns is an exciting, richly promising collection. (p. 697)

D. M. Thomas, The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 11, 1976.

[Turns] is full of the ways in which the poet and the reader will get on with one another, and with the poems. Common and uncommon, "vulgar" and hermetic, the poems derive from a "word hoard" guarded and sometimes squandered by the poet. Double meanings, double derivations, and double sonnets mark the poet who is digging down and half oriented when the book ends—the position and yet not the position from which the entire book is written. Recovery is the object and subject of the poems, the kind of excavation we encounter in the work of the British poet Geoffrey Hill. We go back to earlier centuries, to other languages, to arts and works other than poetry, to figures and countries as various as we could ever dream. (p. 181)

Turns repeatedly gives the impression of having caught before us on the page a word, a phrase, a line, maybe a poem—an "architecture of sounds" against "disintegrating space." Lest we mistake the text for the gloss, or the artifact for its context of significance, Matthias sees to it that we note periphery and center, stopping place and road. (p. 182)

The book is carefully divided into three parts, and the third ends with a poem written from a new home (in England) and under a new aesthetic and discipline ("provisional") which finds a language for lyric and elegy. Matthias is able to write a poem for a man (painter) he "never really knew" because the widowed wife has the details (the text and context of love) the poet needs. That concluding poem—"Epilogue from a New Home: For Toby Barkan"—joins poems like "For John, After His Visit: Suffolk, Fall" and "Clarifications for Robert Jacoby …" as major art. These establish Matthias as a poet who understands Ezra Pound, W. C. Williams, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan as poets who view the poem as a field visual and aural, natural and crafted through which the poet moves. Although the second poem I mention is full of thrusts at Robert Lowell's poems in Life Studies, the parts that succeed best and which make the poem significant are those where the poet gives up parody for finding a style that is his own. Sometimes, Matthias is able to come upon what he needs by means of one of those famous accidents or mistakes in literature the critic would never want changed:

      Like? in a way?
           the flaw in the printer's eye
      (the typesetter's, the proof-
           reader's) that produced and then
      Let stand that famous line
           in Thomas Nash's poem about the plague,
      "Brightness falls from the air",
           when what he wrote was, thinking
      Of old age and death, "Brightness
           falls from the hair."

From history, philosophy, literature, and other disciplines, the poet learns how words can be "execution" and "penance." And how society and the poet as one level always are at odds. Particularly attracted to the medieval period, Matthias keeps before him a death's head to remind himself of the way that flesh and words eventually go. Whatever "turns" the poet can make may not be "enough," but they are "maneuvers" he can at least make. When they are made as brilliantly as they sometimes are here, I see the kind of "survivor" Matthias wants himself and his art to be. (pp. 182-83)

Arthur Oberg, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1977, University of Utah), Spring, 1977.