Streams and Nodes: on ‘Chinese Lanterns’ | Matthew Clegg

Start it Up (Karl Hurst)

Start it Up (by Karl Hurst)

In The Modern Poetic Sequence, M.L. Rosenthall and Sally M Gall identify the sequence as being the form most able to go ‘many-sidedly into who and where we are subjectively’. In their view, the sequence springs from the same pressures on sensibility that provoked poetic experiments with shorter forms – a response to possibilities of language opened up by the pressures of cultural and psychological crisis. ‘More successfully than individual short lyrics, however, [the sequence] fulfils the need for encompassment of disparate and powerfully opposed tonalities and energies…’

I’ve read this book as a way of developing my understanding of the possible structural dynamics of the poetic sequence. My sense of the text is that it has illuminated the great 20th Century modernist sequences more than it has those that follow – especially those falling under the wide umbrella of post-modernism. Published in 1983, it’s unable to address the oeuvre of a poet like Peter Reading – whose practice seems to absorb techniques learned from both traditions, whilst not fitting neatly into either. For me, Reading is a benchmark poet, offering a trinity of classical line, modernist juxtaposition and a post-modern flair for ventriloquism and pastiche. His intertextual sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie are part of the inspiration for ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in my collection West North East. The other chief influence has been the Ezra Pound of ‘Cathay’, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, and the Chinese cantos. It strikes me that both Reading and Pound developed a finer range of tones through their versions of classical Chinese verse.

I view ‘Chinese Lanterns’ as a post-crisis sequence. Though it aims to encompass disparate and opposed tones and energies, it does so in a playful way. Nevertheless, I’ve taken great care arranging modulations of tone and voice. Similar principles to those applied in ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections) were explored. A difficulty was that of mapping and visualisation. How could I hold all the tonal streams and nodes of such a large sequence in my head at once? One solution was the construction of various tables. I’d map a potential order using a table, and then construct a makeshift pamphlet that would help me assess the sequence as a reading experience.

The first and last poems of the sequence always seemed clear to me: ‘Li Po’s Note to Self’ introduces the main speaker and the concept of the sequence; ‘Marcel Theroux stops me…’ provides an exit and a form of Afterword. I felt convinced that the two walking poems, ‘Moving with Thought’ and ‘A Trance-Walk with Musõ Soseki’ (each a sequence within the larger sequence), should be situated fairly centrally. They combine the calm of trance with physical movement, and hence provide a stable hub or axis.

Through reading and re-reading mock-ups, it also occurred to me that some groupings worked well together, whilst others didn’t. The Hillsborough street poems feel more substantial when read consecutively, whilst the verse-letters offer tangents that need to be dispersed more equably throughout the sequence – mimicking, perhaps, the intermittent correspondence in an individual life.

Care was taken in managing the various disparities. None should be allowed to congeal and clot the flow. Scatty jumps and juxtapositions maintain variation. Displacement must be balanced with readjustment: readjustment challenged by new displacements. The sequence must fidget between drunken intoxication and clear-eyed sobriety; between Taoist and Confucian; between the local and the exotic.

Serious and pastiche reference to various other sages and poets (Tu Fu, Rumi, Socrates, Wallace Stevens, Issa and Musõ Soseki) develops the sequence’s intertextual dimension: its reference to other eras and cultures, hopefully layering and deepening the sequence’s imaginative and self-critical scope. Li Po is displaced in time, as well as space. The ordering has been constructed to reflect a strengthening of confidence in this mode, ‘Honeysuckle Blooming in the Wildwood Air’ and ‘Li Po’s Letter to Rumi’ being more demanding of the reader’s credulity than the observational poems that open the sequence. Having said all this, I still feel an impulse to throw the whole thing down the stairs and let chance surprise me into seeing new possibilities. Were the sequence a slide show, I’d programme subtle and random variations into each loop – something not afforded by the spine binding of a book.

Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press.  Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies).  Clegg discusses tone, idiom and displacement in ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in his recent interview with Elaine Aldred; click here to read the full interview. Audio recordings of Peter Reading’s collected works, including the sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie, are now available to hear on the Lannan Foundation site: click here for the full index.

Listen to Matthew Clegg reading an extract from ‘Chinese Lanterns’ below:

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