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Alan Baker

“The Number Poems” by Matthew Welton, pub. Carcanet Press. 96 pages. £9.98

This is Matthew Welton's third full collection, and it continues his project of using Oulipean constraints to generate poems which are objects created out of words, freed from the conscious will of the writer and confounding the expectations generally brought to readings of lyric poetry. These are the opening lines of the sequence "Construction with Stencil":

Exactly as I'm saying it, the sunset comes
and, with it, something analgesic mists my mind.

These lines could appear in any number of "mainstream" poems, that is, poems in lyric form, using first-person narration to objectify the external world, furnish observations on it and often to draw conclusions in the form of a secular epiphany. But on turning the page we encounter the same lines:

Exactly what I'm saying is: the sunset comes,
and, in it, something anaesthetic mutes my mind.

Of course, they're not the same, but similar. Each poem in the sequence starts with a variation on these lines. In fact, it goes further, as each line is a variation on the same line in the other five poems in the sequence. This has at least two effects; first it disorients the reader, and make them question the objectivity of the verse and its relation to the external world; it somehow weakens the link between the poem and what it purports to be describing and turns the poem into a self-sufficient verbal object. Second, the repetition over a longer sequence, lulls the reader into a state in which they're involved in an experience which is purely linguistic (these two things are, of course, related).

Welton has cited numerous influences, from Gertrude Stein to Raymond Roussel. But, to this reader, the two most important ones are Wallace Stevens and Raymond Queneau. Stevens was using repetition as early as his first collection, “Harmonium” in 1923; his poem “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”, seems to be a foundational text for Matthew Welton’s poetry. The founder of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau, was trained in mathematics and used mathematical formula to structure his texts. From Welton's notes to the book, we learn that

"'Construction with Stencil' is among the poems which, to some degree, are put together using translational symmetry.' In 'Melodies for the Meanwhile' it is rotational symmetry which is used."

Translational symmetry “results from moving a figure a certain distance in a certain direction also called translating (moving) by a vector (length and direction)." (1)  This is exactly what you do when using a stencil to paint a repeating pattern on a wall. The poem's title is self-referential; it describes the technique used to write the poem. The formal construction, the lack of specific reference to places, time or society, all mean that Welton’s work is highly aestheticised; we don't look to this poetry for political comment, satire or any kind of "views" on society, although one could argue that its social critique is implied by its foregrounding of aesthetic value, of "art for art's sake" in a world where everything is expected to have utility or a monetary value. Like Ashbery, and his forerunner Wallace Stevens,  Welton writes philosophical poetry, or rather, again like those two poets, he plays with philosophical language while his poems embody the concepts his words are playing with. The sequence "Construction on six Principles" discusses what is real:

The pan of pilchards steaming on the stove is real.
The milk jug's real. The phone is real. My gut-ache's real.
The midges at the edges of my mind are real.

The repetition and artificial aspects of the poem remind us that these things, far from being real, are elements in a constructed text, and this witty poem keeps us hovering between believing what is said and knowing it's just a text. Similarly, the sequence, "Melodies for the Meanwhile", which uses the same repetitive method, ends each stanza with:

...when we speak, it's as if we're unsure we'll be heard

The effect of this is to create an atmosphere of existential uncertainty, and the continuation of this text over thirty-five pages induces an almost trance-like state in which, as readers, we're unsure of what we're reading; just as the poem's narrator is unsure they'll be heard. So the poem embodies the statement about its own uncertainty.

There were times, re-reading this collection, when I thought the repetition went too far; I didn't want to read repeated phrases, with minor variations over many pages. But perhaps the risk of boredom is part of the point; the poems tend to keep the reader at the surface, and they frustrate the habitual need for "interesting" subject matter in favour of focusing on the words themselves. And despite this quibble, I can say that most of the time, the poems in this book gave me pure pleasure; they’re full of playfulness, wit and verbal music, and the repetition and variation have a hypnotic effect.

Welton’s first book was a fresh and interesting addition to current poetry, but his second, seemed to not follow up this promise in a convincing way, despite having moments of considerable skill and accomplishment. This third book however is a more substantial achievement, maybe because the poet gave himself up fully to the formal, number-generated method of construction. What Welton does which seems to be quite original, is to take the language of the subjective lyric mode and put it into mathematically-generated texts in a way that has "made it new"; there's considerable pleasure to be gained from this, and it's something that is not usually found in what is usually called “innovative” writing.

 

 

  1. Center for the Computation and Visualization of Geometric Structures, University of Minnesota (http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/)

 

 

 
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2017